Grand Theft Auto DNA, part 1: driving evolved

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.

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.
Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    May 1, 2013 9:00 AM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Grand Theft Auto DNA, part 1: driving evolved.

    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.

    • DM7 legacy 10 years legacy 20 years
      May 1, 2013 9:09 AM

      That poor fat biker guy, I'll always remember him. :(

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      May 1, 2013 9:18 AM

      I appreciate that pieces of shit handle like pieces of shit, and the expensive cars handle better. I still find I end up doing 180s when making the most minor of turns in moderate vehicles.

      More than anything, GTA4 pisses me off due to Open World Syndrome. I've become spoiled by more recent games' use of checkpoints, and while I appreciate that hilarity often ensues when you're in an open world, it's pretty infuriating to have to start over at the very beginning of the mission, including having to go and travel back to the mission start again.

      I hope GTA5 introduces checkpoints, even in a limited form. The most painful is anything to do with racing. Going along and doing fairly well, just to have some Open World Random Bullshit occur which flips your car or something, mess up the whole thing is maddening.

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        May 1, 2013 9:31 AM

        Yeah, I can get behind a checkpoint system, especially for long missions broken into multiple segments. Nothing worse than dying at the end of a long mission only to return to square 1.

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        May 1, 2013 9:41 AM

        Did you play the DLC for GTAIV? They massively improved the checkpoint system in Gay Tony, making it unnecessary to completely redo the mission. If you failed, they would restart you at the last leg of the mission as opposed to the very start.

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          May 1, 2013 11:04 AM

          No, I assumed they are tied to the main story which I never completed. And up to now, assumed they suffered the same annoyances as the main game. Even stock GTA4 does have alternate dialog when restarting, but I was so angry at the wasted time that I did not appreciate it.

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            May 1, 2013 11:29 AM

            You should pick them up cheap on steam sale, absolutely worth playing through.

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        May 1, 2013 9:42 AM

        did you play the additions? because the additions had checkpoints. also different conversational audio when going from a to b, so you didnt hear the same thing over and over.

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      May 1, 2013 9:43 AM

      As long as the PC version has the same controls as IV we're good.

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        May 1, 2013 10:11 AM

        I used the 360 controller. The KB+M works well, then?

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          May 1, 2013 11:05 AM

          It's servicable, but still more comfortable with a gamepad, especially for driving. You don't really gain much of an advantage with the mouse aiming like you do in most shooters.

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          May 1, 2013 12:21 PM

          I used KB+M on foot and when driving/shooting. I used the controller to fly and when I'm racing.

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            May 1, 2013 12:33 PM

            ...and that's the way it was meant to be played!

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      May 1, 2013 11:06 AM

      I'm worried that I won't like the driving controls for GTAV, because it was about perfect in IV. :/

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        May 1, 2013 11:33 AM

        ^^ This! I had the same initial WTF reaction to GTAIV driving physics when I started it, but within an hour or 2 I absolutely LOVED it and really hope that GTA 5 stays as close to 4 as possible!

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        May 1, 2013 12:15 PM

        Yep easily the most entertaining part of the game.

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      May 1, 2013 4:14 PM


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        May 1, 2013 5:02 PM

        New old writer. I wrote for Shack from 05 through 07. Now I pop up every so often as a freelancer.

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      May 2, 2013 1:29 AM

      Should have called it "Grand Theft Auto DMA".. ha!

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