Back in 1997, Scottish-based developers DMA Design (best known at that point for the enormously successful Lemmings series of puzzle games) released a game called Grand Theft Auto, which likely would have not attracted more than minor attention until The Daily Mail (Britain's dominant right-wing semi-tabloid) posted a hysterical article on the game's corrupting influences on children, as per usual ignoring the game's '18' rating.
The game saw the player taking on the role of a criminal who could drive any vehicle in a large city (there were three cities included in the game, named Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, based on New York, Miami and San Francisco respectively) and carried out criminal missions for various bosses. At key points in the story the player would have to skip town to another city and begin all over again. The game was played through a top-down, overhead interface and was noted for its freedom, with the player able to pursue missions, do some random jobs about town or just drive around if they felt like it.
Grand Theft Auto went on to become a decent success, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies on PC and the original PlayStation. It also spawned an expansion, GTA: London 1969 and a sequel, GTA2, released in 1999 to a somewhat muted reaction. GTA2 took the action into a slightly more cyberpunk-esque futuristic world where the player had to appease various gangs and factions. The moving away from the 'real' world towards an SF one seems to have led to a lack of player interest, so DMA (then in the process of being absorbed into Rockstar Games) decided not to pursue that approach in the future.
An obvious move for the franchise was into full 3D, and with the arrival of more powerful PlayStation 2 console and a new generation of PCs equipped with more capable 3D rendering cards, this was now pursued for the third game in the series. Grand Theft Auto III arrived in October 2001 to surprisingly little pre-release hype. Whilst the first two games had sold satisfactorily, it was still a somewhat lesser-known franchise, especially in the USA, and it was also made under a tight budget with a limited marketing spend. However, reviews were almost uniformly ecstatic and sales soon picked up quite radically. Sony saw an upsurge in interest in the PS2 following GTA3's release and quickly signed Rockstar to an exclusivity contract so future games in the series would be exclusives for an extended period on the platform.
Playing Grand Theft Auto 3 (***½) in 2001 (or 2002 for PC gamers) was a major revelation. A whole city was laid out in full 3D, with dozens of missions scattered across numerous locations, with your (deliberately) silent, unnamed protagonist hired to work for different factions, sometimes getting in over his head in the process. The move to 3D made navigating the city much easier (the limited perspective in GTA 1 and 2 often had you running people over or crashing into other cars simply because you couldn't react in time to slow down) and was simply more immersive, helped by the addition of an in-game radio featuring several different stations (including the now-legendary talk radio station hosted by the hilariously cynical Lazlow). The PC version cunningly allowed you to port in your own MP3s so you could cruise the city listening to your own tunes. Graphically, the game was functional rather than attractive and looked rather flat compared to the graphically gorgeous Mafia which came out in late 2002 (although, as a linear mission-based game compared to GTA3's free-roaming action, Mafia wasn't quite in the same genre despite superficial similarities). Whilst definitely not the first 'sandbox' game, it was the game that popularised the genre.
Replaying the game now (or last year, to be accurate) it's surprising how much about it still works. The playing area is actually quite small compared to its sequels, but Rockstar made great use of the limited space to fill every nook and cranny with interesting locations. The game's length, much more akin to that of an RPG than other racing/action games, was also most satisfying. The dark sense of humour and the great voice acting (from the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Madsen and several Sopranos castmembers) still hold up very well, as do the great radio stations, with Lawlow's talk show still arguably being the best of its kind in the series. The story is solid, despite some narrative issues introduced by your character's Gordon Freeman-esque silence (which doesn't make much sense, since in Half-Life you never see Freeman so it helps keep immersion by not having him speak, whilst in GTA3 you see your character on-screen 100% of the time, so his lack of dialogue just makes him look like a mute), although the 'main' storyline introduced in the intro cut scene goes walkabout for the central two-thirds of the game as you get involved in other gang wars until it abruptly returns at the end.
The biggest problem with GTA3 remains the shoddy PC conversion for the game, which features an extraordinarily annoying bug where running down slopes can result in your character being hurled hundreds of feet through the air, which is usually fatal, although some careful use of side-stepping and jumping can alleviate this problem.
With the game a massive success, it was decided to put the sequel through a crash-release programme, with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City scheduled for release only one year after the original. Even at this time, the idea of a one-year development period for a game was highly unusual, and led to fears that the game might be rushed. However, Vice City turned out to be a much bigger, much more polished and considerably more compelling gaming experience than the original. Graphically it looked great, with new lighting systems giving the game a much-needed Caribbean atmosphere. New vehicles, including motorbikes and helicopters, were also added. The soundtrack budget was radically enhanced, allowing the licensing of real music tracks from the era in question (GTA3 was set in 2001, but Vice City is set in 1986), and there were improvements to the game's customizability and sense of freedom, allowing your character to change his clothes, for example. The game also had a much more impressive storyline, and your character was given a name (Tommy Vercetti) and a voice (played by Ray Liotta).
Vice City (****½) was heavily influenced by Miami Vice and Scarface, with your character following a different track from the original game where you were a dude just trying to get by. In Vice City you are building a criminal empire, acquiring allies, buying property, developing businesses (legitimate and otherwise) and working your way up the criminal ladder in a bid to become the city's kingpin. The game's morality was also considerably darker. Whilst in GTA3 you could play the game any way you wanted, as you didn't really have a character, in Vice City Vercetti is a mass-murdering lunatic with some missions requiring you to blaze a trail through hordes of innocent passers-by or carry out direct attacks on the police and army. It's one of the few computer games where you are actually playing a villain (with the caveat that your in-game enemies are often far worse than you are), and certainly one of the few where your villainy goes unpunished. Needless to say, the game also attracted vast swathes of attention from the more censor-happy parts of the media, and also needless to say, it went on to sell many millions of copies. Even the PC conversion was flawlessly good.
The third and final game in the GTA3 'trilogy' is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released in late 2004. Whilst still using the same engine as the two earlier games (albeit by now radically upgraded), it was a massive step up in scale and size. The game was set in San Andreas State, a California-esque location comprising three cities, named Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas respectively, each of which is about the size of Liberty City in GTA3. In addition, a vast swathe of surrounding countryside around the three cities is featured, including eleven smaller towns, isolated farms, desert areas and so on. The game is utterly vast, taking considerable time to drive across at full speed on the freeways. The size of the game allows, for the first time, jet aircraft to also be flown as a rapid way of getting about the huge map. The setting is 1991 and the game derives a lot of its inspiration and flavour from the tensions in early 1990s Los Angeles, including the Rodney King riots.
The game follows the standard GTA template of carrying out missions for various factions mixed in with the freedom to just do your own thing, but it attracted a lot of attention at the time for being the first major computer game (well, probably not the first ever, but certainly the first triple-A title of its calibre) to feature a black protagonist. CJ is a much more decent figure than Vercetti from the previous game, and is generally presented as a decent guy (who is virulently anti-drugs, for example) caught up with a bad crowd. Whilst a positive step, it is also rather confusing if you decide to play the character as a nutter who spends his free time dropping bombs over a freeway bridge, for example, only to go off and do a mission which involves CJ having to avoid civilian casualties or lamenting the senseless killing of the gang wars.
San Andreas is vast and also very long, significantly longer than its two predecessors, although the number of optional side-quests feels a little lacking in comparison. Replacing this is a 'gang war' dynamic, where your gang controls an area of Los Santos and you can expand it (by attacking other gangs) or have to rush to defend a neighbourhood from attack by a rival gang. This is a neat idea, but eventually goes on for too long at the end of the game and is rather repetitive.
San Andreas (****) is a compelling, fascinating and vast game, but it's also somewhat unfocused, with a new RPG element meaning you frequently have to put missions on hold so you can rush down the gym to bulk up, which is a bit weird and makes playing the game occasionally feel a little bit too much like doing hard work. The game also gets rather silly. By the end of the game you control an airfield (complete with your own Lear jet, which mysteriously reappears on the airfield if you crash it somewhere), a music label, a mansion, dozens of smaller properties (including an RC model shop!), a garage and a casino, and you also have dozens of powerful allies (including some in the government). You even have your own jetpack! However, for some reason you then have to go and fight off the depredations of a corrupt cop (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson) and fight lots of irritating little battles to expand your gang's territory, which feels a bit small-time by this point in the story. The game's great fun, but its division between keepin' it real on the streets and its sheer wackiness is somewhat jarring.
The GTA3 'trilogy' of games - whilst mostly stand-alone titles, they take place in the same fictionalised America and some characters recur in more than one title - were pretty ground-breaking when they first appeared, their mix of sandbox action and linear storytelling was pretty compelling and their borrowings from other genres, most notably RPGs, and taking the concepts to the wider audience was a good idea. They are fun games which, it is true, allow you to sometimes do some pretty disturbing things, but their imposition of penalties and consequences for those actions is also well-handled (although the way you can magic away your wanted status by getting a respray is rather silly). Most notably, the writing in all three is pretty good and the characters memorable. And they are funny as hell.
A series of companion games for the PlayStation Portable were also released (along with somewhat unsatisfactory PS2 conversions), namely Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories (a San Andreas Stories was apparently nixed due to the impossibility of recreating the game's size on the PSP). More noticeably, Grand Theft Auto IV was released for the X-Box 360, PS3 and PC in 2008 and became the fastest-selling game of all time, until it was superseded by last week's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The franchise doesn't look like it's going anywhere soon, and it'll be interesting to see where the next major title takes it (whispers keep saying outside of America to Japan or Europe, but I wouldn't rule out a whole new American city or a remixed Vice City either).