When you think of video games, it's hard to imagine a series as influential as Grand Theft Auto. From its humble roots on PC to its explosion onto the console scene in the early 2000s, GTA has defined what it means to be an open-world game for the past twenty years. Even though the last GTA game was released four years ago, its player base is still thriving, ensuring that the game is kept alive through mods and memes. People the world over are still enjoying the fantastic game, which helps kill time until the long-awaited announcement of GTA VI.
And speaking of killing, there hasn't been a game property to date that has made losing one's inhibitions a more fun or consequence-free experience. GTA loves to do whatever it wants, and nasty words, free-range violence, and wholesale slaughter are just part and parcel of the magic of this series. It's what everyone loves about it, and developer Rockstar has never been shy on delivering from day one.
But while we could speculate about when GTA VI is going to happen or where it might take place, it's much more fascinating to look at just how far the series has come in its lifespan. So today, we're showing you fifteen screenshots from the GTA universe that encompass where it's been, what it was, and how it got to the heights it's reached today.
Also, quick spoiler warning for anyone who hasn't played these: I'm probably going to be discussing some things that could be considered spoilers, even though the most recent game I'm going to be talking about is four years old.
15 Grand Theft Auto: The Early Years
While it's a game not many folks remember, the original Grand Theft Auto is a game that set the stage for all of the GTAs to come, giving us three locations we've all come to know and love: Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas. However, there's a world of difference between what we know and love today. Instead of a fully open-world, the player was given large (for the time) sandbox-ish levels across the three cities.
The story unfolded in the form of missions you'd pick up via phone booths. There was a 'score' for everything you did, a testament to the period it was released in. It also counted as money for weapons, paint shops, etc., so buying things would end up counting against your high score when tallied at the end of the level. You would still end up attracting police attention with your actions, which was measured in the far more hilarious fashion of yammering cop heads.
From the outset, GTA gave no effs with its material. And as time went on, it would find ways to give even less.
14 GTA 2: More Of The Same, But With An Unforgettable Opening
Grand Theft Auto 2 gave players more of the same but increased the graphical fidelity (and for some reason moved the setting to a place called Anywhere City, an ambiguous location that resembled Liberty City, but wasn't). This time around, players controlled Claude Speed, a man with no morals who killed whenever it was opportune for him, and who looked suspiciously like the character we'd be controlling in the next game. However, Rockstar has firmly insisted that this is not the case, while also having fun with their similarities. GTA III's protagonist is named Claude, and his last name may or may not be speed. But since GTA2's setting is so ambiguous, Claude Speed's persona ended up dying in Limbo with Anywhere City.
Before we move on to the game everyone remembers, the entire reason GTA2 got an entry in this article is because of the live-action intro to this game. It probably looked amazing in 1999, but now it just looks like a hilarious D-list remake of COPS. It's incredibly cheesy by today's standards, especially in the scene above, where real-life Claude Speed is seen tripping balls on what can only be described as contraband Twizzlers.
13 Grand Theft Auto III: The Game Changer
It was probably in the cards all along, but whoever decided to take Grand Theft Auto from a top-down Smash TV clone to a third-person action-adventure game made the most important video game innovation of the 2000s. This took GTA from campy little cult curiosity to a full-on power fantasy that everyone could sink their teeth into with Grand Theft Auto III.
Now you were a full-on resident of Liberty City, immersed in the grimy, gritty details of the city as its residents lived their lives around your chaotic missions (which they probably didn't survive). The story was cheesy and the gangsters stereotypical like always, but this time fully voice-acted cutscenes and rough expressions brought a sense of humanity that the game couldn't deliver previously. It was unlike anything we'd ever seen at the time, and we got lost in that world for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. It all came with one little caveat, though...
12 GTA III: The New Bane Of Parents Everywhere
Not only was GTA III rife with f-bombs, s-bombs, and car bombs, but it also had a bunch of sex in it. While there were health packs and stuff scattered around Liberty City, for a bit of your money, you could find yourself a really nice young lady of the night in the city's seedier neighborhoods and drive off to somewhere quiet.
There, you'd both sit in the car while it rocked back and forth for some reason. As it rocked, your health would go up. Then the hooker would get out of the car, and just like anyone else in the game, when you killed them, they'd drop money. So it made sense to get it back, even if it was some grizzly shiz.
However, that was the line for most parents back in the day. Let our kid kill as much stuff as they want, but to even suggest sex? Perish the thought and clutch the pearls! GTA III was the go-to lightning rod for controversy and derogatory statements about video games, and while some raised good points, most were just looking for a scapegoat. And for the next two decades, Rockstar would be happy to oblige.
11 GTA Goes Full-On '80s With Vice City
When you make the world's most realistic crime simulator, how do you top that? By mining nostalgia, of course. And Rockstar did just that with their equivalent of I Love the 80s: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Here, the featureless sandbox from the original game was transformed into a full-on Miami clone complete with hair metal, no socks with pastel suits, giant cell phones, and tons and tons of cocaine.
The main story was a mix of Miami Vice and Scarface. Thanks to the success of the previous game, the voice talent ended up ramping in quality with people like Ray Liotta voicing your character, Tommy Vercetti. Because it wasn't enough like Miami Vice already, your second-in-command, Lance Vance, was voiced by Philip Michael Thomas, a.k.a. the second banana to Don Johnson in Miami Vice. With a few important updates to the existing GTA III engine, Vice City was a more than worthy successor to the game that made history.
10 Motorcycles, Marital Aids, And Motley Crue
And when I mention updates, there were quite a few that made Vice City more than just a re-skin of GTA III. The addition of motorcycles had players getting their crotch rocket on and smashing into unsuspecting cars, sending them hurtling through the air.
In terms of story, GTA III was dark and cheesy and satirical. With Vice City, though, Rockstar really amped up the comedic edge to the games. You promoted the rise of a certain porn star, you played out a much happier ending of Scarface, and all sorts of things. However, one of the most memorable experiences was driving around that lovable band of drunken idiots, Love Fist, as we sped around town in a remake of the movie Speed. This time around though, you're carting around a bunch of sexually ambiguous and promiscuous drunken Scottish man-babies.
9 GTA San Andreas: THROWBACK!
In the next go-round of the 3D universe, we went forward about ten years and about 2,500 miles across the country to the rough-and-tumble city of LA, erm, I mean, San Andreas. Players took control of Carl Johnson, a former gangbanger-turned-straight-turned-gangbanger again so Rockstar could have a game. His mother was killed in a gang hit gone wrong, and in his quest for vengeance ends up elevating him to the top of the very world he struggled so hard to escape.
In a really interesting note of continuity between the series, CJ ends up in a relationship with Catalina, the main antagonist of GTA III. She breaks up with him in a rather dramatic way, but it is then revealed that she's been cheating on him with Claude, the main guy from GTA III. In characteristic fashion, he says nothing and then you race with him. I'd call it an Easter egg, but you kinda can't miss it.
8 GTA San Andreas: Today Was A Good Day
While Vice City toyed with it, San Andreas introduced a full range of character customization options. Tommy Vercetti could don a number of different outfits for a bunch of different purposes, but CJ could pick and choose between headgear, shirts, jackets, pants, and shoes. In addition, he could also gain and lose weight, exercise to increase melee damage and run speed (also getting super-ripped in the process), get a variety of different haircuts, and get himself tatted up in any one of San Andreas's fine tattoo parlors. It would be a precedent-setting moment for the game, as things would only get more complex from there.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the infamous "Hot Coffee" controversy happened with this game as well. It was originally planned by Rockstar to include a sex simulator in the game, but never went through with it, probably because the mass of polygons that were supposed to be bumping uglies looked less "sexy" and more "terrifying to one's very core." They ended up not taking the minigame out of the game's code, however, and somebody dug it up, resulting in loads more free publicity for Rockstar.
While San Andreas really added a bunch of personal customization, other features added in San Andreas included the ability to travel on a bicycle, airplane, and most ridiculous of all, the jetpack. It also included a ton of aircraft and boats, several of which had their own weapons and could mow innocent civilians down from a distance. Oh, you could board, hijack, and derail a train in this one as well. Good times!
7 Grand Theft Auto Stories: GTA Goes Portable, Then Back To Consoles
Oh, the heady days when PlayStation thought it could step to Nintendo's portable game. To be honest, they might have done it if they had tried a little harder, but it just wasn't meant to be. In its struggle against the big N, Sony locked down a couple of exclusive GTA titles that basically used the GTA III engine and made a couple of new characters for the player to mess around with in an all-too-familiar setting at this point.
The games were Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, which put you in the shoes of characters tangentially related to their counterparts in GTA III and Vice City. LCS had you playing Toni Cipriani as a young gangster, in a very Godfather-eqsue rise to power. VCS had you playing Vic Vance, brother to Lance Vance and a bit more of a stand-up guy than he was. Both games did so well on the PSP that Rockstar decided to release them on a console that people actually cared about, so they both eventually saw releases on PS2, PS3, the PlayStation Network, and most recently for iOS and Android.
6 Grand Theft Auto IV: Nihilism And Bowling
In the jump from SD to HD, from DVD to Blu-Ray, and most importantly, from PS2/Xbox to PS3/Xbox 360, Rockstar decided to start from square one with its new generation of GTA games. Grand Theft Auto IV had no main characters from any of the old generation's games, instead bringing us back into a more visually striking and fleshed out version of modern-day Liberty City.
The visuals were crisper, the dialogue was actually lip-synched with a decent amount of accuracy, and for the first time, the game's facial expressions seemed to just get past the other side of the uncanny valley, being able to portray actual nuance and unspoken gestures.
The biggest juxtaposition we see in this GTA IV is how the dark, mob-style story clashed with just about all of the oddball things the game constantly reminded you that it could do through your silly-ass cousin, Roman. Niko, the game's protagonist, could mow down dozens of cops in a mission like Three Leaf Clover (widely regarded to be the game's best moment and the reason that heists were added in GTA V) then just go bowling with his chubby Borat-clone cousin. Ya know, no big deal.
However, immersion-breaking that might be, the storyline resolved itself in a way that didn't end well for Niko no matter how you played it, a very strong statement on the whole "crime is cool" motif the series made its name on.
5 GTA IV Stories: The Ballad Of Gay Tony And The Other One
Did you know —without googling it— that Grand Theft Auto IV had two different DLCs? I didn't. The first one, Lost and the Damned, revolved around a very Sons of Anarchy-type situation with protagonist Johnny Klebitz, a prestigious member of Liberty City's chapter of The Lost Motorcycle Club. Things go crazy, then blow up, and it all ends in a bit of a sad way.
However, all I knew about was The Ballad of Gay Tony, a story about Luis Lopez but more importantly, his friend, boss, and benefactor "Gay" Tony Prince. Tony's made a name for himself as a successful nightclub owner and has brought Luis up with him, teaching him the ropes and becoming his best friend at the same time. While there's really nothing fascinating about Luis, the side characters in Gay Tony, Bulgarin, and the absolutely ridiculous Yusuf Amir come to the rescue and entertain around him, kind of like how it worked in GTA III.
The whole crazy story ends in a standoff with Luis jumping out of a fireball that used to be a plane and parachuting safely back down to earth, giving us a grand sweeping vista of Liberty City as the game closes. It was a great way to end the first installment of the HD universe with a literal bang.
4 Forget It, GTA. It's Chinatown.
While Rockstar could have been fine with bringing us three different, engaging, and fun experiences in one segment of the console market, it decided that just wasn't enough. In 2009, they released Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS, then eventually for the withering PSP.
Players took the role of Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss, who is betrayed by those closest to him and ends up working his way through the underbelly of Liberty City's Asian crime world to figure out who did him wrong.
It reinvigorated the style of top-down action adventure that GTA started with, giving the game a more comic-book style feel, with thick black outlines on people and cutscenes comprised of portraits of characters and dialogue boxes.
The top-down view here is also fully rotatable, giving players a full range of views to try and not die when the lock-on feature targets a nearby taxi instead of the automatic-weapon-wielding psychopath out to turn you into Swiss cheese.
3 Grand Theft Auto V: Rockstar Changes The Genre It Invented
Gamers knew that GTA V would bring the series back to San Andreas, but when the game dropped, it was clear that was only in name alone. San Andreas ended up being retconned into an entire state, the game itself taking place in Los Santos, the LA parallel that San Andreas was supposed to be back on the PS2.
Players took control of one of three different protagonists, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin, each with their own place in society, their own backstory, and their own motivations. Michael is a "reformed" bank robber by way of an FIB (read: FBI) plea bargain who finds himself itching for some action. Trevor is Michael's best friend who happens to be a free-range psychopath with no moral compass or inhibitions whatsoever. Franklin is a young inner-city repo agent who never actually gets his hands dirty until he happens to cross paths with Michael.
The story ended up being one of the most defining things of the game, as the intertwining of the different characters' fates unfolded around the player. Not to be outdone by the plot, the game itself made some remarkable changes to how it was played, such as...
2 GTA V Gives Us First-Person EVERYTHING
In addition to another graphical overhaul, giving players yet another leap forward in interactivity was the option to play the game mostly in first-person mode. It wasn't a major design shift, either, since the player could switch between the two at will. It was all just a way to immerse yourself in the game even more.
The game also provided a big boost in customization, giving players back the ability to change facial features, tattoos, and the like, as well as bringing along better physics and control methods for vehicles, which ended up having loads more options. From fighter jets to attack helicopters, to dump trucks and sports cars, if you could throw someone out of it, you could drive it, baby. And even though it may not have had everything in it, Rockstar made one vital move that allowed every single gamer's dream to come true.
1 GTA V is Moddable, Internet Is The Internet, Hilarity Ensues
They embraced the modding scene. As the lines between console and PC blurred more and more, the PC release of GTA V made perfect sense. Luckily, the game was embraced by the modding community. These creative minds set about making even higher-resolution graphics packs, the unavoidable nude mods, and even made more content for the game, from mission packs all the way up to putting a whole damn island on the map for you to explore.
It is very important to note that the multiplayer aspect of GTA V, known separately as GTA Online, has strictly forbidden mods in the interest of fairness, but they're totally fine with you dinking around with your single-player game.
As the community is collectively holding its breath for any word of Grand Theft Auto VI, the content that the game's community produces for both beauty and the lols will keep people coming back and playing the game they love for years to come.
Side note, you guys - that's a Rick and Morty mod I've got featured there. How frickin' cool is that?
And there you have it, fifteen shots taking us on one hell of a trip down memory lane. Grand Theft Auto may not be the most respected game franchise to date, but it damn sure is one of the most innovative, most imitated, and most anticipated series of games ever created. It's wonderful to see how far it's come, and exciting to think of where it will take us next.