Grand Theft Auto DNA, part 1: driving evolved

Editor's Note: In part 1 of our Grand Theft Auto DNA, we dissect the driving system in GTA 3, Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA 4 to understand how driving evolved over the course of those series, and how it should work in the upcoming GTA 5.
In August 2001, Sony's PlayStation 2 celebrated its first birthday with little fanfare. More a glorified DVD player than a hot-ticket game machine, the PS2 lacked a system seller, industry jargon for a game so popular that gamers plunked down hundreds of dollars on a console just to experience that one game. Two months later in October, Rockstar North filled the void with Grand Theft Auto 3, an open-world romp where players could hijack cars, splatter pedestrians, treat traffic jams like impromptu destruction derbies, and wage crime sprees. GTA 3 wrapped its freeform gameplay in a story about gangs and betrayal, but Rockstar knew what gamers really craved. From the moment the introductory cut scene ended, GTA 3 handed players the keys to every automobile in sight and got out of the way. "I remember playing the first Driver game and wishing I could just get out and run around," recalled Shacker soggybagel. "GTA 3 literally blew my mind. It totally sold me on the PS2 and I recall spending hours playing with friends. We'd switch off by basically going on crazy crime sprees and then once we died we'd hand the controller to the next person."

Some vehicles in GTA 3, such as the police cruiser, opened up additional missions.

Released in 2002, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City added new types of luxury cars that fit right in with the golden sunsets and coastal routes tracing the open sea of a faux Miami. The most popular addition, however, was the motorcycle. Unavailable in GTA 3, motorcycles came in a mix of types from scooters the players could apprehend from pizza delivery boys to the high-end PCJ 600 that streaked down highways like purring bullets. Rockstar crammed over 200 vehicles in 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and with good reason. Featuring not one, not two, but three cities connected by fully traversable countryside, San Andreas let players roam the massive sandbox in monster trucks, low-riders, new public service rides like the street sweeper, bicycles that the player could pedal fast enough to outrace trains, golf karts, stunt planes, airliners, and the jetpack, achievable only after raiding a military lab. Rockstar also added mechanic shops where players could pimp their rides with faster engines, sleeker bodies, and nitrous fuel that shot vehicles forward faster than a speeding bullet. But numbers aren't really important here. What matters is the role vehicles play in a Grand Theft Auto game, and to pull the camera back even further, the role of travel methods in the increasingly large sandboxes crafted by developers like Sucker Punch, Avalanche Studios, and of course, Rockstar Games. Open-world games are getting bigger, and will continue to increase exponentially because real estate is perhaps the biggest, boldest bullet point in the open-world genre. Bigger cities! Wide-open country! Skies to swim! Oceans to cruise! Go anywhere, do anything, take in more virtual sunsets than you've seen in real life! But if traveling across all those virtual miles isn't fun, there is no game. The game is broken.

Vice City and San Andreas added more vehicles including planes and motorcycles.

Would you play inFamous if Cole McGrath couldn't grind on power lines, levitate using lightning, and climb buildings faster than a speeding Spider-Man? Would you bother maxing out your wanted level and seeing how long you could last in a GTA game before the five-oh, feds, and Uncle Sam struck you down? I wouldn't. Less than five minutes after stepping into GTA 3's sandbox for the first time, I had carjacked a sweet ride, mowed down dozens of pedestrians, and cranked my wanted level up to three out of five stars. That's all I did for months because driving in the PS2-era GTAs was good, not-so-clean fun. I could feel the difference between a fire truck and a convertible, but most vehicles accelerated at a feather touch and turned on a dime. That's what I wanted. Driving in GTA is about having fun, not out-simulating Gran Turismo. Grand Theft Auto 4 marked a high-definition overhaul for the series and a greater emphasis on realism when it launched for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2008. Harnessing the power of the Euphoria engine, Rockstar reimagined Liberty City and imbued it with realistic physics, animation, and artificial intelligence. Fueled by Euphoria, vehicles in GTA 4 handled quite differently. The glossy and aerodynamic Infernus sports car felt snappy while industrial rides like delivery trucks turned like an ocean liner. Every car required precision and care regardless of size. The days of flying through turns doing well over 90 were gone.

GTA 4 looked more realistic than ever, but many players didn't care for the weighty, more realistic driving physics.

My gut reaction to GTA 4's weightier driving was not a positive one. Frustrated, I found a populated sidewalk and thinned it out, cranking my wanted level up to three stars in no time. And that's when driving clicked. Rocketing down the highway with cops on my tail only to tap the handbrake, pull a 180, and leave police cruisers flailing in my rearview demanded my attention and spot-on timing. Failing to juggle speed and precise control ended with the boys in blue catching up and tossing me in the slammer or smashing into a barricade and shooting through my windshield like a stone from a sling. But the high I felt during each chase trumped any high-speed thrills from the GTA games of the last-gen console era, even if I was the one who ended up as road kill. Shacker DM7 felt the same way, but noted that Euphoria tempted him to approach the game in a manner likely as foreign to most GTA players as it was to me. "I tried to obey all the traffic laws, stopping at lights, not going fast, really tried to play it straight. Then one mission had me running from the cops and during the chase I jumped the curb and hit a fat biker dude and he flew over my hood and over the car. I felt a little bad that I did that." Driving in GTA 4 remains a polarizing issue. Either players adapted to it, as I did, or they missed the more accessible handling of the PS2 era of GTA. How, then, should Rockstar handle driving in the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 5? Dan Houser, VP of creative over at Rockstar North admitted to Game Informer that cars felt "big and boatlike in GTA 4." The crack team of developers over in Scotland put GTA 4's physics under the knife, and judging by the recent character trailers, vehicles handle equally well in gang-banging, police-chasing mayhem and mild-mannered traffic.

The days of jetpacks are behind us, but that doesn't mean vehicles in GTA 5 can't balance fun and physics.

Of course, those trailers were heavily scripted. To please new fans and entertain gamers who still cling to their favorite PS2 Grand Theft Autos, Rockstar needs to walk the line between Gran Turismo and Project Gotham Racing. Add just enough weight to make every tap of the brakes and tug of the wheel count, while making driving as easy to pick up as it was in the old days.
In part 2 of Grand Theft Auto DNA tomorrow, we discuss the role sandbox environments play in GTA games, and why the city is as big a player as Tommy Vercetti or Niko Belic.