It’s a safe bet that most fans of Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas did not start with the original Grand Theft Auto. Maybe for good reason; its graphics were primitive and its production was unrefined, but GTA’s release was surrounded by no less controversy than GTA3’s.
The starkest difference between old and new is the graphics. GTA has grainy 2D sprites on a partially 3D city, simple vehicles and few fancy explosions or blood effects.
Gunfire is represented by flying bluish dots, and it never takes more than one shot to kill anybody, player included, unless he is wearing body armor; even then, a quick burst from a machine gun is lethal. The video game tradition of “lives” is carried over into GTA.
The camera can be positively sickening; when on foot or moving slowly it zooms close, and when flying down a highway it moves out and allows more of the surroundings to be seen. It’s interesting, but jerking in and out at every slight variation in speed is stomach-turning.
Cars are crude and basic, though the variety of vehicles available for theft is impressive. Standard cars, vans, jeeps, police cruisers, and the infamous school bus can all be stolen and driven until they explode from damage. Unfortunately, the player is more or less left to guess how long their car can survive before it explodes; no fire effects are included to give the gamer fair warning.
The sounds are decent for their time. Various vulgarities are shouted by pedestrians and drivers, and the radio station for each type of car was noted with much enjoyment in reviews for the game — stealing a pickup truck will bombard the player country music.
Where the original and the sequels find some common ground is the crime-laden gameplay and brazen disrespect for human life. The protagonist in GTA is a common gangster who does jobs for various “employers,” much like in GTA3, and missions range from simple pick-up-drop-off affairs to multi-part jobs that can involve a good deal of theft and killing.
Once the player has committed a number of offenses, or one murder, police officers are dispatched after him, measured by a Wanted meter at the top of the screen. At four, road blocks are set up with machine gun-wielding officers, and damaged cars can quickly be destroyed traveling through a blocked road. Going to a paint shop removes the Wanted rating, but with no mini-map or other clues to find the well-hidden shops, they are much less useful than in GTA3.
Unfortunately, whether 5 or 500 people have been crushed or shot to death, the police will not use anything more than roadblocks; SWAT, FBI and military forces were introduced in GTA2 and have remained ever since.
After accumulating a set number of points, the player progresses to an entirely new big city, with new gangs and vehicles. Given the size of the three cities, the decision in later sequels to keep gameplay within one city was a wise one. As soon as the player starts to know his way around one city in Grand Theft Auto, he must move on to the next one.
Of course, one of the pioneering aspects of GTA was its freedom. The gamer is free to ignore missions and steal cars, kill civilians, or just wander around and explore the huge city.
To promote its newer titles, Rockstar Games has released GTA and GTA2 as freeware for computer users, so experiencing the classic Grand Theft Auto can be done for no cost whatsoever.
While much of the first Grand Theft Auto game was rough, unrefined and in need of improvement, later sequels successfully distilled the game’s essence and turned it into the world famous series it is today.