Rockstar: Jumping the Open World Shark

Will Grand Theft Auto V reawaken the childlike excitement I had pre-GTAIV? I guess I'll have to wait and see.

In 2002, at 14-years-old, I went to my local GameStop to get the Xbox port of the then-legendary Grand Theft Auto III.

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I went to that specific GameStop because they knew my face, they knew my name and I knew they wouldn’t care that I wasn’t 17. I purchased the game, spending several weeks of my meager allowance (without telling my mother of course, who would have had a some sort of motherly equivalent to a heart attack) set it up and fell in love with the world of Liberty City for the first time.

**I loved you like my brother when he wasn’t beating the crud out of me.**

GTAIII was a revelation in the gaming world. It was like realizing for the first time that you can watch T.V. when your parents aren’t home and they would NEVER find out. There had been other open-world games, but none with the charisma, humor and draw waiting around every corner of Liberty City. Every nook and cranny was packed with interesting things to do and see. On top of that the unique humor of the game spoke to me at that age, and quite possibly influenced my brand of humor now. The tongue-in-cheek Lazlo radio show perhaps most of all embodies that air of stylization that permeated every facet the game. Unfortunately since then, Rockstar has lost the magic.

Vice City and San Andreas were pretty similar to III, but San Andreas began to change the formula. The characters were more realistic and the story was more serious, which in many cases is a good thing, but in this case I could never sit through San Andreas without shutting it off and popping in III. It’s like watching a cruddy sequel to a great movie; all you want to do is cut the sequel short and watch the original so you can enjoy the best version of that world. GTA had lost its way and the tunnel would only become darker for me over time.

**Will you hurt me like all the others?**

This revelation came to me while watching the new gameplay trailer for GTAV. It looks amazing. While watching I felt the familiar spinning in my stomach when I find myself getting excited to lose myself in a new game. Yet then, like a comically massive anvil on my cartoon head, I remembered I had the same feeling when waiting for GTAIV, which ultimately left me disappointed and bored. For the record, I know GTAIV is one of the most critically acclaimed games of the generation, and I respect that; people love that game as if it was their grandmother dipped in gold. It was praised for amping up the realism of the series and making the main character, Niko, a somewhat relatable and sympathetic criminal-out-of-necessity. However with this they made the city bigger yet included the same amount of content (relative to the older games).

**Yeah you were pretty – but also kind of empty.**

GTAIV Disappointments

The new Liberty City was a ghost town. There were some buildings to go into and distractions to be had, but the vast majority of the city was a visual façade that amounted to a mere representation of what a city is. Yet Rockstar often hyped the size of the game in relation to the previous installments without really delivering a truly comprehensive gaming experience. Adversely, take a look at Arkham City in relation to Arkham Asylum. City was way bigger (and considerably smaller than GTAIV), but there was something to see and do around every corner. GTAIV failed to do this.

In addition to the somewhat lackluster world, GTAIV changed the driving to a more accurate representation of how actual cars handle. You couldn’t whip around corners or drive on the sidewalk easily like some maniac. You had to, from time to time (gulp) slow-down! Insanity, I know; take a minute to collect yourself. I remember sitting in my room thinking: If I wanted to break around a corner I’d play a racing game, or better yet, I’d hop in my car and piss off the cops. It upset me that Rockstar forsook that silly packed world in exchange for a Taxi Driver aura of seedy side streets and slightly more realistic hookers.

**A hilarious and accurate representation of my day-to-day life.**

Enter Saints Row

Saints Row came out in 2006 to lukewarm reception. I’ve played it–it was OK. Saints Row was clearly a GTA rip-off; like those Hollywood mockbusters in the vein of Transmorphers and Atlantic Rim. Saints used many the same tropes and gameplay mechanics but with a twinge of levity.

When Saints 2 released, it was beginning to become clear that the developers wanted to separate themselves from the GTA copycat aura in exchange for the ridiculous. This insanity grew with time and will definitely top out with the super powered Saints V. One of the things that attracted me to Saints 2, which I loved, was that humor; it was very similar to the snarky silliness of GTAIII that I so sorely missed.

On top of that the series topped off their ridiculousness with hours of side missions that were both challenging and stupid in the best possible ways. I was never bored, and it was never so challenging that it bored me, something that GTA sometimes managed to do.

**Here’s to hoping there’s actually something to do in all that space.**

The Future

The gameplay footage recently released for Grand Theft Auto V looks amazing by any standards. It’s clean, pretty and thorough looking. It awakens the excited child in me that loved Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode II and Totino’s Pizza Rolls for every meal (not sure what I was thinking with that Star Wars bit – that movie was terrible). But what if I get hurt again? Can I even trust Rockstar anymore?

The trailer used one series of buzzwords that makes me feel like I have something to look forward to in GTAV: “The world is not only huge; it’s packed with a vast array of things to see and do.” Packed with things to do, huh? Sounds like GTA may be taking a huge step forward, while taking a necessary step back. Here’s to hoping that Rockstar’s new riff on the open world style will reinvigorate the franchise for me, and many others that miss the older style of the long treasured franchise.

What do you think? Will the new GTA capture that je ne sais quoi or will it be more of the same? Also, have you liked the direction GTA has gone in over the years, or are you hankering for the old school goofiness of the earlier games? Sound off in the comments down below and maybe we can go get some digital prostitutes in the near future together, as true friends often do!

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Max Jay
I am an aspiring video game journalist and a professional awesome person. My words make knowledge parents in your brain that give birth to baby-smiles on your face. You can listen to my podcast by going on iTunes and searching Video Game Podcast Show!