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Making crime pay

Video game developer Rockstar's latest instalment in the 'Grand Theft Auto' series has gamers all revved up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

Three letters are synonymous with all that's right and wrong in the video game world: GTA. Once a simple, low-budget crime game, the Grand Theft Auto series has evolved into a cultural phenomenon that transcends the medium. The fifth entry, GTA V, is one of the most anticipated games of all time and will hit store shelves on September 17.

Analysts are predicting record-breaking sales, US senators have already called for it to be banned in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, pre-orders were pulled because of the hype, and through it all, obsessive gamers, fans and even some who've never touched a controller have been eagerly awaiting its release.

What we're trying to do here is bring the gameplay towards a more cinematic direction
Rockstar Executive 

The storm surrounding GTA V is not surprising, though. Since its humble beginning as a 2-D top-down game, in which a small, low-resolution character goes on a crime spree in a simply drawn city, the series has been praised by gamers while being excoriated by politicians. Bans in less lenient countries have been common and conservative groups have had a field day with the fact that it rewards players for engaging in irresponsible sex and violence.

But the series survived - even possibly thrived on - the backlash, and everything only became louder when the third entry arrived in 2002. A literal game-changer, Grand Theft Auto III took the basic formula and amped it up into a massively complex world. It was the stuff gaming dreams were made of: players were set loose in a fully interactive 3-D city and left completely to their own devices.

Players could follow the missions, earn cash by committing crimes and build up an immoral empire. They could become psychopathic, kill innocent bystanders and see how long they'd last before being gunned down by the cops in a blaze of glory.

Or the truly adventurous could forget the madness, abide by the laws and go bowling with their virtual girlfriend.

Race stolen cars, sleep with prostitutes, chat with people on the street - the world was yours. The game revolutionised the industry and the genre it created was given an equally fitting name: open-world. Now, more than a decade later, comes GTA V - and while the series hasn't changed much on a purely aesthetic level, its influential developer, Rockstar Games, is planning a similar industry coup in other ways.

"Our goal for GTA V was to create the ultimate open-world game," says a Rockstar executive, who remained anonymous in line with company policy. "We've been making them a long time now, stretching all the way back to GTA III - we've taken all that experience, all that know-how, all that energy and poured it into this, which we believe is the biggest and best thing we've ever done."

Whether it's the best is yet to be seen, but it's certainly the biggest. GTA V is five times larger than anything the company has ever produced, with the land, skies and even underwater settings of the game's fictional Los Angeles location accessible to players from the get-go. Only time will tell, but it may be the most expansive open-world game ever made - but that's not necessarily a good thing.

The cliché "it's not the size, it's how you use it" seems appropriate here, because while the series has been universally praised by the fanatical gaming press ( GTA IV remains the highest-rated game on rating-aggregation site Metacritic), many players have routinely criticised Rockstar for issues that have rarely been resolved.

But things are apparently different this time around. "A lot of the criticism has been addressed, and not in a passive way, but actively," says the executive. "The first challenge of creating a world of this size was making sure that wherever the player goes, there was something to do and something to interact with."

Having the player stranded in the desert dozens of kilometres from the nearest car doesn't seem all that enticing this time around, so instead of just one character, the player controls three individuals and can switch between each at any time.

"These are three professional criminals with lives, jobs and activities operating independently on the same time zone," says the executive. "The three-character dynamic is the best way to explore the huge map and was designed so that things don't feel repetitive, giving you the ability to switch to another person at any point. And each time you change, you're guaranteed to start at some point of interest."

In earlier GTA entries, players often felt as if they were either taking part in timed car chases or being sent on frustrating assassination assignments. Here, missions have been amped up into large-scale set-pieces that balance each of the three characters' abilities and require careful planning on the player's part.

"A genuine heist mission involves not just the three characters, but has you build up an entire team as well: getaway drivers, computer hackers, anyone you need to complete the job," he says. "What we're trying to do here is bring the gameplay towards a more cinematic direction. Films definitely influence us and generally, if you look at our games, we tend to take these little pockets of cinema."

Occasional missions are based on actual movie scenes (so far, only the gunfight from Michael Mann's Heat has been revealed) and it's also the first GTA to include soundtrack-like background music throughout.

It's an interesting, if not highly original idea - last year's unexpected hit, the Hong Kong-set Sleeping Dogs, was the first open-world game to borrow from cinema, with much of it based on our city's famed gangster flicks. And it's obvious Rockstar has taken another major cue from that game: taking fighting, shooting and driving mechanics from their own dedicated releases to beef up GTA V's gameplay.

"We talk about open-worlds and how we build them up," says the executive. "But Max Payne 3 was a top-class shooter, so we drew that into this. Midnight Club: Los Angeles was a top-class racing game, and where the car handling was an issue in the last GTA, now they drive like a proper racing game."

That also extends to the game's graphical abilities - it's no coincidence that, as with the hugely successful GTA: San Andreas on the PS2, GTA V is being released at the tail-end of this generation's consoles, allowing its producers to push the graphics as far as possible - a last hurrah if you will, before the next-generation consoles are released later this year.

"For anyone that's seen the graphics, they wouldn't expect it's from this generation - we've got the benefit of eight years on the life cycle to show how to do it. And through the small details, whether it be the shooting mechanics, the water effects or the scenery, it's pushing the PS3 and Xbox 360 to the max."

However, this poses a problem for hardcore gamers. With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One scheduled to be launched in November, some will question the value of investing in a soon-to-be outdated game. So enter GTA Online, the much-anticipated multiplayer game packaged free with each copy of GTA V and available to play on October 1, two weeks after the initial release.

Rockstar says the online game isn't simply the multiplayer mode of GTA V - it's a different product developed on a completely separate cycle. Players create and customise their own unique characters and, while such multiplayer standards as online races are available, they'll play only a minor part in what the developer hopes to be an immersive, 16-player online experience.

"We really can't stress how separate these two entities are. In GTA V, you play in a narrative that we at Rockstar have created," says the executive. "In GTA Online, there's no hard and fast rule - you're in an online sandbox where you create the narrative and you tell the story. It will be a constantly evolving world and there are always going to be new features added. That's the most exciting element about it."

Details are still sketchy about GTA Online, but as a whole, the dual package of both games has all but silenced those who question the series' significance in our rapidly changing gaming world. Because while sales charts are usually dominated by first-person shooter and sports games, Rockstar is certain gamers still want their dose of open-world entertainment.

"Video games are getting more consolidated and more Hollywood - instead of lots of good ones, you get certain sequels every year," says the executive. "That's why video game companies are dying out and we're lucky we have a series like GTA. There's still an audience for Grand Theft Auto."

While there have been a number of spin-offs in the series, here are the main GTA releases that have led up to Grand Theft Auto V.

Grand Theft Auto (1997)

Grand Theft Auto II (1999)

Extremely controversial on their initial release, the first two GTAs now seem tame in retrospect. The bird's-eye, 2-D view is dated, but the gameplay is basically the same: fight your way to the top of the mob world through any means possible.

Availability: free PC downloads at rockstargames.com

Grand Theft Auto III (2001)

The game that launched a thousand rip-offs, GTA III was a dream come true for many players: an entire 3-D open-world to explore as a rising mobster in a fictionalised New York. The mission structure is still one of the best in the series.

Availability: PC, Mac, PS2, PSN, Xbox, Android and iOS

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Vice City is an add-on that moved the action to Miami, with actor Ray Liotta voicing the lead. The graphics and gameplay were the same, but with a much-improved map, '80s radio songs and motorcycles.

Availability: PC, Mac, PS2, PSN, Xbox, Android and iOS

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

San Andreas did a lot of things right and a few wrong. The massive Los Angeles map, hip hop tunes and impressive missions improved the winning formula but at times it felt more role-playing than open-world, with gamers expected to constantly improve characters through such activities as going to the gym.

Availability: PC, Mac, PS2, PSN, Xbox, Android and iOS

Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

Rockstar's first foray into third-generation gaming was largely a success, moving things back to New York with astounding graphics and entertaining gameplay. But there were also major drawbacks: missions stuck to a follow-chase-kill formula and compulsory tasks made the game frustrating.

Availability: PC, PS3 and Xbox 360

Pavan Shamdasani

thereview@scmp.com

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