Grand Theft Auto DNA, part 2: the art of sandbox gaming

Editor's Note: In part 1 of Grand Theft Auto DNA, we explored how vehicles and driving physics evolved over the GTA series. Today, we discuss the role of sandbox environments like Liberty City and San Andreas.
Playing a Grand Theft Auto game is a lot like observing an ant farm. The AI-controlled citizens of Rockstar North's worlds drive around, obey traffic laws or blow red lights, loiter on the sidewalk to panhandle and gab with friends, and throw fisticuffs after getting into a fender bender at the intersection of Columbus and Jade. I've spent hours in each GTA sandbox just driving around, marveling at how alive each world feels. When I get tired of people watching, I lift the nearest set of wheels and stir the ants into a tizzy. I make things happen. "I'm fairly certain we didn't make ANY progress on the main story line that entire night," Shacker atom519 said, recalling his first time playing 2001's Grand Theft Auto 3 with a group of friends. "Instead [we] just explored the city in awe while laughing our asses off as we punched random pedestrians for looking at us the wrong way. I vividly remember hearing the phrase 'Wait, you can actually do that?' multiple times from people watching us play." GTA 3 set the bar for open-world games. That skyscraper off in the distance? You can drive there, climb to the roof, and snipe pedestrians until the boys in blue show up. That hooker working her corner? Pick her up, recharge your health using her oh-so-soothing services, then back over her when she gets out and reclaim your cash. If mowing down pedestrians gnaws at your conscience, you can put in an honest day's work shuttling ants around the city in taxi cabs or steal a black and white and chase down perps.

Players can take a break from rampaging across GTA's virtual cities and watch AI inhabitants go about their routines.

Rockstar's open-world juggernaut permitted players to tackle missions in their own way, too. "There's a mission where you have to kill a mob boss, and it was seriously kicking my ass," explained Shacker and former staff writer Jason Bergman. "So I trailed the guy and learned his pattern. He would get picked up by a limo and taken back to his house. I jacked a semitruck and parked it in front of his house, so the limo couldn't get in there. Then when it stopped, I came screaming down the street in another car, running over his bodyguards when they got out, one after the other. Then I just got out and shot the bastard." Shacker MamiyaOtaru took a different tack to stage the same hit. "I blocked the entrance with a fire truck and lobbed grenades over it until everything blew up. Then I took off on foot down the cliff and along the beach, heart pounding. Awesome stuff." In 2008, Rockstar North ushered its flagship series into HD with the release of Grand Theft Auto 4. Sporting breathtaking graphics, physics-powered characters and vehicles, and sharper AI, GTA 4's ant farm felt more like a living, breathing, real world than any GTA setting before it. That realism, so strong you could practically taste the hot dogs you buy from carts on the street, came with a downside.

In San Andreas, riding bicycles was more than just a method of transportation.

Antics like pedaling bicycles fast enough to outrace trains and raiding a military facility to lay your hands on a jetpack no longer fit in with Rockstar's focus on crafting a more mature, lifelike world. Instead, you threw darts, took dates to cabaret shows and out to eat, and went bowling. Other riveting activities included strip clubs and channel surfing on the TV. Odd jobs like stealing specific cars, assassinating NPCs, and vehicle missions returned, but most of them were variants on, or imports of, side missions we've been playing for 12 years. GTA 4 has a pretty face, but comparing its shallow pool of jaunts and junkets to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the benchmark for sandbox fun in the GTA universe, is like saying you prefer your local park to Disney World. Every action I performed in San Andreas offered incentive to continue performing that function. Sprinting from the cops increased my ability to run greater distances without having to stop and catch my breath. Operating different vehicle types improved my handling of vehicles of that type. Buying properties, a carryover from 2002's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, generated a limitless income stream, keeping me flush with cash. Activities in GTA 4 exist just for the sake of making the sandbox feel full. Winning at bowling or darts offers no reward. Hanging with friends and courting the ladies grants access to perks like guns at discounted rates, car bombs, and helicopter rides, but entertaining NPCs so I can retain access to their perks feels more like a chore than a fun time. Rockstar excised the RPG-like stat upgrades from San Andreas, so there was no way to customize my character other than changing my clothes, a purely aesthetic alteration. In short, Rockstar North chose to preserve its sophisticated world simulator and storyline at the expense of the player's ability to influence her character and the game world.

The logo in the bowling alley was the highlight of GTA 4's bowling minigame.

On September 17, Rockstar North will deliver Grand Theft Auto 5. Last December, Game Informer's cover story revealed that the game world is bigger than San Andreas, GTA 4's Liberty City, and Red Dead Redemption's Wild West combined, with plenty of wiggle room left over. The magazine also divulged details on the rides Rockstar built for its larger-than-ever playground: golf courses, a fully modeled ocean floor for players to explore, new vehicles like ATVs and mountain bikes, bank heists where players can switch perform different roles like sniper and getaway pilot by switching between the three main characters, and hobbies unique to one character or another. That all sounds great on paper, but it's not enough for side attractions to simply exist. Even though Rockstar will once again prevent players from making changes that would dilute the personalities Rockstar's writers defined for GTA 5's leading men, the developer can still incentivize activities to make them feel worthwhile. Organize golf tournaments with increasingly large pots to encourage us to improve our game on the green, reward us for recovering valuable treasures and spotting exotic creatures under the sea, and escalate bank heists so players go from knocking off local credit unions to bringing down the virtual ant farm's biggest bank, with each job requiring more finesse and offering a larger payday.

GTA 5 promises the largest open world in the series to date.

Jacking cars and raising hell is the bedrock of any GTA game; no one's arguing that. Watching the world burn in GTA 4 was fun despite the dearth of other distractions. I don't mind the emphasis on realism, either. As much as I loved GTA: San Andreas, the game started showing its age a long time ago. The spirit of the game's design, however, is immortal, and remains unchallenged in the GTA series. Call on that spirit. Improve on it. Otherwise, the novelty of running around GTA 5's super-sized ant farm will wear off quicker than I would like. "I think there is a definite ratio of realism to fun that leaned too hard toward realism in [GTA IV]," said Shacker Rauol Duke. "You kill 50 people on the drive from your place to some girl's apartment, kill 20 more on the way to the bowling alley, and then you have to play a s--t minigame. All the TV shows and radio stuff is great, but I want more stuff [to do] over having a Google Maps-accurate build of some city."