As the curtain comes down on this generation of consoles it is only fitting that it is uber-developer/publisher, Rockstar Games, who provides them with one of their final performances.
Grand Theft Auto V, by all accounts, is going to be a swan-song of blockbuster proportions; showing us that even after eight years the current generation of consoles can still deliver a jaw-dropping experience.
We’ve all seen the videos, examined the screenshots and consumed the information that Rockstar have been drip-feeding us for months; but what exactly should we expect next week, when we finally get hold of Grand Theft Auto V? Will the game be everything that we are expecting or are we heading for disappointment?
For over ten years Rockstar Games have been providing gamers with top class video games. In order to anticipate what we should expect from GTA V, I’ve been taking a look back at Rockstar’s venerable back-catalogue for clues.
Whilst not the most prolific publisher, there’s no question that Rockstar’s contribution to the current generation of consoles has been significant. Every year or so they release a game that, if anything, is guaranteed to be an event; sure there’s been the odd misfire, but regardless, Rockstar’s games always bring something unique to the table, something fresh and different.
Back in 1997, Grand Theft Auto, the brainchild of Scottish developer DMA Design- who would eventually become Rockstar North, was peerless. With video game publishers usually doing their best to duck away from tabloid anti-gaming flack, DMA Designs instead hired PR guru Max Clifford to work the likes of British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail into a fire and brimstone-fuelled GTA-hating frenzy.
As they say: no news is bad news, and a new gaming franchise, the top-down shooter Grand Theft Auto was born in a storm of controversy. Playing that first GTA game now, it’s pretty awful; with clumsy controls and iffy vehicle handling. The soundtrack though, still raises a titter; a prelude to Rockstar North’s now trademark rapier wit. The original GTA, which was released on PSOne and PC, spawned a sequel and a couple of add-ons set in 1960s London.
With the PS2 came 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, dragging the formally top-down 2D affair into the third-dimension. I remember that it wasn’t a game that I showed much early interest in. But, as the release date approached, I thought it looked good enough to take a punt on.
GTAIII blew me away.
With 9/11 fresh in everybody’s mind, and as society tightened itself into the apologetic, politically correct knot that we now have contend with on a daily basis, there I was dragging a turban-wearing cab driver out of his taxi before clubbing him to death with a baseball bat. Naughty, for sure, but it was just so cathartic at a time of choking restraint.
GTAIII gave players an unprecedented open-world city-wide sandbox to play in. I spent hours just getting myself into police chases, hooning along those streets and mowing down anyone that got in the way. The game provided me with the ultimate escapist fantasy.
Rockstar followed up GTA III with the 80s inspired Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Taking its cues from the old Miami Vice TV show, ViceCity re-imagined the Floridian city as a neon pastiche of sockless feet in slip-on shoes and pastel suits with rolled-up sleeves. Vice City also gave us helicopters and motorbikes for the first time in the 3D version of series.
After ViceCity, Rockstar introduced players to its warped version of California in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This time Rockstar took their inspiration from by 1990s “gangsta” films like NewJackCity and Dangerous Minds.
To this day, San Andreas is still the most geographically impressive GTA game. Encompassing the three major cities of Los Santos, Las Venturas and San Fierro (LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco), as well as all the smaller settlements in the regional area, it was massive.
With San Andreas Rockstar threw the lot at us; players could ride motorbikes, BASE jump from mountains and fly planes ranging from single props to VTOL jet fighters. There was even a jet pack. It was a phenomenal feat. The game’s epic scale showed us that Rockstar could think big and actually deliver on it.
Bully was originally a twilight release on the PS2 that got overhauled and re-released on the Xbox 360. Whilst not quite the schoolboy version of GTA I’d hoped for, Bully displayed some of the same cheeky humour as Rockstar’s flagship franchise. Instead of dealing with criminal goings on, the game charted the arrival and integration of a teenaged delinquent into the daily life at Bulworth Academy, the school from hell.
The game wasn’t a bad effort, but I didn’t really get into it. The mission structure felt too rigid and the game seem to punish me too much when all I wanted to do was mess about in a school-yard sandbox. Bully is probably my least favourite Rockstar game. The studio behind the game, Rockstar Vancouver, would go on to do a much better job with their Max Payne 3.
The main thing of note when looking at Bully in the context of the upcoming GTA V is that it supports the notion that Rockstar is open to remastering games for release on newer hardware.I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see GTAV on the PS4 and Xbox One in the near future.
With both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 established, the gaming world was chomping at the bit for a new version of Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar, who like to do things their way, instead released a table tennis game. Promoted as having the same level of graphics that GTA IV would eventually have, Rockstar’sTable Tennis was part budget sports game and part tech demo.
Considering the rudimentary nature of the sport- two people batting a ping pong ball at each other- Rockstar’s table tennis game contained a surprising, almost ironic, amount of depth and attention to detail; right down to the players sweating during play.
Table Tennis is one of the more throwaway Rockstar games. But it does serve to illustrate their ability to take what could easily be a shitty mini-game and make it into something a lot more full-bodied than it deserves to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the golf and tennis games playable in GTAV had the same depth of play as EA’s PGA Tour and Sega’s Virtua Tennis games.
The game that Grand Theft Auto V is most likely to be judged against is, of course, its 2008 predecessor Grand Theft Auto IV. Rather than create a brand new setting for G TA IV, Rockstar took us back to Grand Theft Auto III’s, LibertyCity. Although, compared to GTAIII, the city was the same place in name only. Rather than just a loose interpretation, as it was previously, the Liberty City of GTAIV was a cheeky, very thinly veiled New York City, reproduced with the sort of meticulous detail that would have been impossible on the PS2.
Whilst there was no doubt in my mind that GTA IVwas a fantastic piece of videogame programming, the previous game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, available on the PS2 and original Xbox, was huge in comparison. San Andreas was a massive regional affair, encompassing the cities of Los Santos, Las Venturas and San Fierro (LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco). With only one city, albeit nicely rendered, GTA IV did seem, geographically speaking, a bit of a step backwards.
The main storyline in GTA IV follows Eastern-European immigrant Niko Bellic as he adjusts to life in America. He quickly discovers that the county isn’t quite the land of milk and honey that his hapless cousin, Roman, told him it would be. Roman’s stupidity continuously lands Niko in hot water as he navigates his way through Liberty City’s criminal underworld on what is essentially a quest for revenge.
Rockstar didn’t stop with Niko’s story, releasing the single-player expansion The Lost and the Damned. The expansion shifted the game’s focus to the machinations of The Lost, an outlaw motorcycle club, with players taking control of Johnny Klebitz- the club’s vice-president. Reflecting the grungy subject matter, the visuals are presented with a muted colour palette and an aggressive film grain filter.
For the second expansion, The Ballad of Gay Tony, Rockstar gave us yet another protagonist, Luis Lopez, bodyguard and associate of the titular nightclub owner, Gay Tony. Contrasting Niko’s impoverished immigrant and Johnny’s gangland depravity, Luis lives on the flipside of Liberty City. The Ballard of Gay Tony shows us a Liberty City that’s all about fast cars, snappy suits, champagne and night-clubbing.
Niko, Johnny and Luis’s tales, cement Liberty City, itself, as the star of GTAIV. The three very different narratives overlap into a single overarching story about a troubled diamond heist and how that one event affects the lives of the city’s denizens.
GTA IV is a game that I continue to return to, but on the PC rather than on my Xbox 360. Whilst the PC version is notoriously un-optimised, the game is so long in the tooth that I now have no problems in cranking the settings to the max to enjoy the misadventures of Niko and friends in all their glory.
With a PC version of GTA V highly likely, but not for a while, I’m going to have to sample Rockstar’s latest effort on an Xbox 360, at a visual fidelity somewhat lower than I’m used compared to a gaming spec PC with an NVidia GTX680.
So, in the interest of science, I recently Slipped GTA IV back in the Xbox 360. The first thing that I though was “ugh, what’s up with these graphics?”
In the console version of the game the graphics have a blurriness to them that either looks like a painterly visual style or a blurry depth of field effect. On the PC, the blur can be switched off giving the game’s graphics a crisp look.
It didn’t take long for me to adjust to the console version’s graphics. Whilst the blurry visuals are probably as a result of the technical limitations at the time, they are kind of cool; offering a pretty cinematic deep of field effect.
GTA IV is packed with detail and, with development on the game starting early on in the consoles’ life cycle it is hardly surprising that the developers faced some technical hurdles. Despite this, the game allowed players to run, drive and fly over a huge expanse without a single loading screen.
Rockstar have now had over eight years of programming experience with current-gen hardware, more than enough time to optimize their code. I expect GTA V to get a lot more out of Microsoft and Sony’s now aging consoles.
Red Dead Redemption, the 2010 open-world western follow-up to GTAIV and was, in itself, a next-gen sequel to their PS2/Xbox game, Red Dead Revolver. Whilst Revolver was OK at best; the amazing Redemption was smothered in Rockstar’s award-winning blockbuster special sauce.
Taking a cue from the Grand Theft Auto games, players were transported back to an open world depicting the last days of the Wild West and into the shoes of former outlaw, John Marston. Forced by federal agents to track down his old criminal buddies, Marsden comes across as a man out of time- watching as the world that he understood morphs into the more civilized, and yet just as brutal, 20th Century.
The plains of the western Border States and the dusty trails south of the San Luis River were a lot sparser than the urban jungle of Liberty City. Even so, Red Dead Redemption’s draw distance was an amazing improvement on GTA IV, with the visible landscape reaching right out into the distance.
Both the character and environmental models in Red Dead Redemption were much more detailed than in GTA IV. With the improved lighting, some of the sun-bleached scenes looked almost photo-real. With only two short years between the two games, Red Dead Redemption’s graphical fidelity was noticeably better.
In the same style as GTA IV’s The Lost and the Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony, Red Dead Redemption got its own single-player expansion in the rather off the wall Undead Nightmare. Rather than allow us to experience a bit more of the authentic Western setting, Rockstar subjected their game to a zombie apocalypse with our hero, John Marsden, lost in the middle of it. Whilst I enjoyed the supernatural expansion, I felt it was a misuse of the game’s amazing western setting.
Rockstar really embraced the concept of premium DLC with Red Dead Redemption. As well as the Undead Nightmare expansion, players had to pony up cash for extra multiplayer maps, characters and, most interestingly, co-op missions.
The game’s co-operative missions allowed groups of friends to engage in plot driven mini-episodes in keeping with the campaign games Western setting. These missions ranged from rafting along the river, taking out bandits on the way, to an assault on a gold mine full of ne‘er–do–wells.
Red Dead Redemption cemented Rockstar as the masters of the open-world sand-box game; in creating a living, breathing version of the Wild West. The game’s graphical superiority over GTA IV and the excellent co-op mission both bode well for GTA V and GTA Online- which apparently has 500+ co-op missions.
Rockstar’s 1940’s crime thriller, L.A. Noire, was a troubled production whose dirty laundry was very publically aired. Former employees of the game’s Australian development studio, Team Bondi, came forward with stories of poor working conditions and issues with getting credited for their work. L.A. Noire, whilst in no way a failure, could be deemed a blot on Rockstar’s otherwise unblemished copybook.
My first impressions of the game inspired me to wax lyrical about the excellent production values, great story and astounding facial performance capture. But, the more I played L.A. Noire, the more disengaged with it I became.
Despite the slick production values and plot, which was told as a series of pulp-styled episodes, I found that after extended play L.A. Noirestarted to grate. The hunting for clues at the crime scenes and questioning of suspects got very repetitive. Even the action sequences, which you’d think would inject a bit of excitement, seemed to be very scripted affairs. Also, if I failed an action sequence a few times the game gave me the option to skip it, reducing any gameplay challenge to zero.
The game’s leading man, Detective Cole Phelps, as a character was completely unlikable; actually coming across as a bit of an arsehole. Not the sort of person that you could empathise with at all.
As technically amazing as the facial performance capture looked, it was still hugging the slopes of uncanny valley. It was a bit optimistic of Team Bondi to believe that their technology could properly recreate the subtleties of human facial expression. I found it next to impossible to “read” the characters faces, as the game expected me to, during interrogations. The only time I could was when the character was being lip-bitingly over-acted (the guilty lip biting did, on occasion, actually happen).
The blame for most of L.A. Noire’s issues rests with the now defunct Team Bondi. However it is still a Rockstar game, and so they can’t really wash their hands of the game’s problems. Although L.A. Noire is still a capable effort, and one that most publishers would be proud to promote, as a Rockstar game I found it a disappointment. Regardless, as a learning experience I’d imagine that L.A. Noire taught Rockstar plenty; that even if you are at the top of your game, you need to keep your eye on the ball.
Traveling through Rockstar’s game catalogue it is interesting to see the how much the visuals improve with each title. If we want an insight into the likely graphical prowess that Rockstar have likely injected into Grand Theft Auto V, then we should look no further than their latest game, last year’s Max Payne 3.
The game continues the story of washed-up former NYPD detective, Max Payne, now working as a private security contractor in Brazil’s San Paulo. As possibly the unluckiest former cop around, Max‘s supposably easy job, looking after a load of party-going heirs and heiresses, turns to shit when his charges are kidnapped. This sends Max on a violent-fuelled journey to rock bottom and back again.
Max Payne’s hard-boiled cop series has always been a looker, right back to the franchises days with Remedy at the helm. Max Payne 3, Max’s only outing on the so-called seventh generation of consoles, not only provided a huge graphical advancement from the awesome-looking Red Dead Redemption, but also packaged it up with an inspired, and sometimes disorientating, art-direction.
The game’s motion captured character animations really show how far Rockstar has come since GTA IV. Gone are wooden-looking hand animated performances. Everyone in the game, from Max himself to the bar-room extras move with incredible fluidity.
Whilst I thought the game’s story wasn’t on par with either of its successors or the Grand Theft Auto series, I still found Max Payne 3 a blast to play. It remains one of the classiest and most polished shooters that I’ve played.
Following Red Dead Redemption’s lead, in order to properly experience Max Payne 3, players had to dip their hands in their pockets for either the game’s season pass or buy the individual DLC packs individually. Expect a similar scenario with Grand Theft Auto Online.
Apart from the odd blip, with each release Rockstar has managed to hit the ball right out of the park. Based on their past form I’d be an idiot if I said that Grand Theft Auto V was going to be anything less than stunning. This is Rockstar’s premiere franchise, their entire reputation hangs on this one game, there’s no way that they would let themselves drop the ball.
As evidenced from Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 we should expect a huge graphical advance away from the blurry backgrounds of GTAIV. But don’t be surprised to experience the old ‘slowdown’ when things get busy, as I would wager that the game was developed with a next-gen port in mind.
Expect the game to be packed with content. Rockstar’s Table Tennis proves that the devs can make an engaging sports game. I can see players spending a fair amount of time engrossed in GTAV’s golf and tennis mini-games.
I’d imagine, looking at GTA:San Andreas, that the limited scope of GTAIV’s Liberty City was more down to the early days of developing for the current-generation of consoles, rather than a design decision. Those technological barriers have now been broken, as shown by the likes of the vast world of Red Dead Redemption.
Don’t expect the overall cost of the game to stop at cover price. Rockstar are no longer shy of commercialising their DLC. Again, if Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne are anything to go by there will be a continuous flow of premium multiplayer map packs as well as one or two additional single-player campaigns.
Even the problems with L.A. Noire, a troubled but technically adept game, would have served to keep Rockstar on its toes, to stop it becoming complacent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the issues surrounding the game injected a bit of humility into the company.
Grand Theft Auto V is going to be one of the gaming events of the year. We should expect the trademark GTA cheeky humour, the controversy and the delight of being able to navigate our way across a huge open-world leading a trail of destruction in our wake.
With only days to go, I’d recommend that gamers take a look in their collection and dust off any Rockstar games they’ve not played in a while. Not only will you be pleasantly surprised with how they still hold up, but you are also likely to experience a few of the gaming features that you’ll find in Grand Theft Auto V next week.
Roll on the 17thSeptember!
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