The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.
Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…
It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.
There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.
Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.
But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.
My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.
As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…
There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.
That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.
Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.
PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.