Before I turn my attention to the next generation of gaming, there’s just two more games that I want to talk about. I apologize for the last minute addition. But looking back, these titles are so iconic, that there’s no way I could move on the next era without taking a moment to revisit them. The games I’m talking about are Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2. These days, Grand Theft Auto is a series that needs no introduction. The GTA games are arguably some of the most popular console games from the last twenty years. But despite their popularity on both the Xbox and Playstation, the series actually got it start on the PC with GTA and GTA2. These are the two games I’m going to discuss today.
If you’re a fan of the GTA series, you’re most likely familiar with the more modern 3D games. If so, it may come as a surprise to learn that the first two games in the series were actually presented in a top-down 2D perspective. However, aside from this difference, later games in the series actually share a lot in common with both GTA and GTA2. But, I think that’s a discussion better left for another time. For the sake of this post, I’d rather focus on the original games themselves.
The first Grand Theft Auto game was released for the PC in 1998. In the game, you play the role of a petty criminal who does jobs for various crime syndicates. When the game starts, you are on foot, but acquiring a vehicle is as simple as walking up to the nearest motorist and tossing them out of their car. Once you have a set of wheels, you then navigate to a set of pay phones at a nearby park. From these phones, you will receive jobs to carry out. Jobs can be as simple as stealing a particular type of vehicle or as dangerous as murdering a rival gang member. Even though these tasks are very goal-oriented, as they player, you pretty much have free reign to do whatever they like. You are free to explore the city and you can do so as casually or as recklessly as you wish. Nearly any action you do in the game earns a certain number of points; smashing into to other cars, running over pedestrians, or completing criminal tasks – everything adds to your score. Once you’ve earned a certain number of points, the level is completed and you move on to the next stage. But being a criminal is not without its hazards. If you break too many laws, you’ll catch the attention of the police. It’s even possible to find yourself on the hitlist of a rival gang… and they WILL shoot you on sight. Which reminds me, when playing GTA, you have a set number of lives, losing all of your lives will reset the progress of the current level.
Grand Theft Auto takes place in the following fictional cities: Liberty City (based on New York City), Vice City (based on Miami), and San Andreas (based on San Francisco).
There are two expansion packs to the original game. These are Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 and Grand Theft Auto: London 1961. The first expansion was sold in retail stores, but the second pack was available as a free download. For the most part, these expansions look and play just like the main game, but with a 1960’s UK look and feel.
The second title in the series, Grand Theft Auto 2, is very similar to the original game but with a number of quality of life improvements (more on this later). In this entry, you play the character of Claude as he pulls jobs and heists for a number of various gangs in the fictional location of Anywhere City.
Before jumping into the gameplay specifics, I want to take a moment to talk how best to enjoy these games today. Like so many classic PC titles, getting these older games to run on modern systems can be a bit of a challenge. To start with, it is worth mentioning that both Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2 are available for download, free of charge from Rockstar Games. But for most modern computers, getting these official versions to run properly requires quite a bit of work. Thankfully, there are some easy solutions. In the case of GTA 1, I recommend something called the “Grand Theft Auto: Max Pack” (google it). This release compiles the first game with both of its expansions into one complete package that is optimized for play on modern PCs. Just keep in mind that this compilation is fan-made and does not come with any official support.
In the case of GTA2, the version distributed by Rockstar Games requires a little less tinkering in order to work. For this title, most players will only need to seek out one of the many “widescreen fixes” that are available on the internet.
Finally, It is also worth mentioning that GTA, GTA London ’69, and GTA2 were also ported to the Sony Playstation. But, at least here in the US, they’ve never been distributed digitally on PSN. It should also be noted that these versions are graphically inferior to the PC releases. Plus, GTA London only includes the ’69 expansion (not the ’61 pack).
In many ways, Grand Theft Auto was a pretty revolutionary title for its time. But, if I’m being honest, both GTA 1 & 2 are very dated games that haven’t aged well. Heck, even in their day they featured some pretty dated graphics. But it wasn’t the technology that made these games so popular. It was the gameplay. The free and open nature of these games was a pretty big draw. But more than that, I think it was the content found in the games that really kept gamers coming back for more. Which brings me to my next point…
To say these games are made for mature audiences in an understatement. A good portion of the gameplay revolves around committing criminal acts. Be it stealing cars, killing gangsters, or mowing over innocent pedestrians, the only way to win was to throw your ethics to the wind. In this game, you are the bad guy – plain and simple. On top of that, these games contain dialogue that, quite frankly, probably couldn’t be published in today’s political climate. There had never been anything like it before.
I talked a bit about GTA 1&2‘s graphics above, and yes, while the games sport a retro look, they actually boasted some pretty cutting-edge technology under the hood. Both GTA and GTA2 included support for accelerated graphics. In the case of GTA 1, I’m not really sure that really this made a big difference. To me, the game looks and plays pretty much the same regardless if GLIDE is enabled or not. That being said, the 3D effects are much more noticeable in GTA2, even if they lagged behind other games of the era.
Even though these games featured a dated look and feel, they spotlight one concept that was a bit ahead of its time; CD quality audio. The music in these games are arguably their most memorable feature. The soundtrack is presented in the form of various radio stations that players can listen to when driving around. The first game spotlighted a number of songs composed by the game’s developers. But by the time GTA2 was released, the radio stations had evolved to include tracks by real artists, colorful DJs, and even silly advertisements.
Another area where both games accel is online multiplayer. Online games were not unheard of at the time GTA 1 & 2 were released, but it wasn’t exactly common either. For me, the multiplayer aspect was probably my favorite part of these games back in the day. For GTA1, there were two modes of play “Cannon Ball” (race mode), and Deathmatch. GTA2’s multiplayer was more of a free-for-all deathmatch. Multiplayer was only possible between friends using either a LAN or a private TCP/IP connection. But in the case of GTA2, there was a popular third-party program called GTA2 Game Hunter that served as a makeshift lobby allowing players to find other GTA players to play with. Technically, this program still exists and even receives occasional updates. But any time I’ve fired it up there’s never been any active games.
When looked at on their own, both GTA and GTA2 were pretty solid games for their day and age. But they were certainly not without their faults. My biggest complaint was with the control scheme. Playing games like these using a keyboard just doesn’t feel intuitive at all. Yes, there’s built in support for gamepads, but even that feels a bit clunky. I played both games back when they first came out, albeit very casually. They were entertaining, sure. But they never really captured my attention for any length of time. Today, I still find it pretty hard to recommend them to anyone but the most hardcore retro fans.
Version Reviewed: PC
Difficulty: Hard – Make no mistake, these two games are quite challenging. In the case of GTA1, progress is only saved at the end of each level, and the missions that you will undertake are no walk in the park. With this in mind, there’s really no such thing as a casual play session. GTA2 is a little more forgiving. You can save your progress in this game, but in my opinion, GTA2 is even harder than the first, so it really ends up being a wash in the end.
Story: There’s very little in terms of an actual plot. In a nutshell, you play as a petty criminal. But as you continue to complete jobs you do get a little more insight into the lore behind the scenes. In fact, while the game itself might be a bit light in terms of actual storyline. There’s actually a massive amount of background to uncover as the games unfold. To me, this helps make the world of GTA quite fascinating even if it seems pretty shallow on the surface.
Originality: Driving games were certainly nothing new. But no one had ever made a driving game like GTA. By flipping the script and making the player into the bad guy, it really changed the whole dynamic.
Soundtrack: Excellent CD quality audio. Both GTA games feature an excellent selection of music spanning a number of genres. Tunes aside, even the sound effects in these games are extremely well done.
Fun: For me, most of the entertainment in these games from the over-the-top aspect of the gameplay. Slamming into cars, running from the police, and target pedestrians is a riot, but it does seem to get old fast. Plus, some of the missions are pretty repetitive.
Graphics: Neither of these games have much going for them in terms of visuals. This is especially true for the first GTA title. But on the same token, neither game looks terrible either. It’s just “meh”. The live action intro movie to GTA2 was a pretty big deal at the time and still pretty entertaining to watch today.
Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games feature a very rudimentary tank-style control scheme. Essentially, the arrow keys control the direction you are facing, while other buttons on the keyboard move you either forward or backward. It’s just not a good set up for a game that’s so action-focused. Even playing on a controller feels a bit cumbersome. Yes, it is possible to get used to the controls, but in the end it’s just not very intuitive.
Downloadable Content: Yes – A free downloadable mission pack for owners of GTA London.
Mature Content: Violence, Language, Sexual dialogue.
Value: These days both games are available from Rockstar Games free of charge. So, with this in mind, there’s absolutely nothing to lose. If you’re curious, go give these games a shot.
Overall score (1-100): 70 – Even at their prime, I was never as impressed with these first two GTA games as some gamers were. Yes, I see the appeal. And yes, there was nothing like them at the time. But from a gameplay standpoint, there was a lot left to be desired. That being said, these games were also very influential. In that light, they do deserve a lot of praise. But they still far from perfect.
Original System: PC, PS
Available today on: PC – (Updated as of Spring 2022)
Best Experience: PC – (Updated as of Spring 2022)
Other Reviews In This Series:
Liberty City Stories – Vice City Stories – Chinatown Wars
Grand Theft Auto Trilogy – The Definitive Edition