Classic PC review: Grand Theft Auto 1 (now a free download)

GTA 1 PC box artwork for the original first Grand Theft Auto game
Grand Theft Auto. In the month leading up to the release of Grand Theft Auto IV for the Xbox 360 and PS3 on the 29th of April, here at we’ll be looking back at the series that revolutionized the videogame industry, selling an amazing 65 million copies worldwide. The game that took us on our first visit to the dangerous streets of Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City is the 1997 PC and PlayStation hit, Grand Theft Auto.

Download Grand Theft Auto For PC
Rockstar offers the original Grand Theft Auto as a free and legal download from their website. Point your browser at the Rockstar Classics page, register, download it and off you go.

System: PC (DOS) / PlayStation
Genre: Action, Driving, 2D Shooter
Released: December 1997 (EU), February 28th 1998 (US)
Players: 1
Developer: DMA Design (at present renamed Rockstar North)
Publisher: Take Two
Memory Card: 1 Block
Country of Origin: U.K.

Looking back at Grand Theft Auto is surprising. You’d expect a ten year-old game to have lower graphical quality and cruder style than today’s games, and the rough-edged sprite-based graphics and top-down 2D camera are definitely reminiscent of a past era. But when you realize it came out in a year that also saw the release of Mortal Kombat 4, Metal Gear Solid, and Tomb Raider 3 – all 3D games on the PlayStation, GTA begins to look as though it could be even older. But this game and its descendants took the world by storm. What was it about this game that spawned such enormous success?

The saga begins with a threat: You mess up, we mess you up.
There’s no other build-up or back story to Grand Theft Auto. You’re standing on a busy street, you’re told that work is available from the phones at the south end of the park…and off you go. From this point onwards, nothing is set in stone. You have just one goal – a score. How you reach that goal is up to you. Sure, there are jobs available, and you might get a few hot tips via your pager, but you don’t have to follow them up.
Traffic rumbles by, and a car horn sounds. A passerby jostles you out of the way and calls you a piece of sh*t.
You’re loose in the big city.

Grand Theft Auto 1 Cars screenshot
“Let the mayhem begin!”

This is where Grand Theft Auto differed from its contemporaries. It was something different, something unusual. At the time it was the equivalent of the Wii to the PS3/Xbox 360 – something no one had tried before, and a whole new way of looking at video games. Elements of free-roaming play had been used elsewhere, in Body Harvest for the N64 (notably also from DMA Design, now Rockstar North) and in Quarantine for DOS in 1994, but Grand Theft Auto took those elements of freedom and player choice and founded an entire game upon them. And the icing on the cake? It was irreverent, hilarious and enormous fun to play.

Here’s a video (no sound) of the game in action. This is taken from the PC (DOS) version:

For the first level, you have to score one million points. There are missions available if you choose – picking up and respraying ‘hot’ cars, being a getaway driver, assassinating city officials, recovering stolen drugs, blowing up vehicles with little bomb-rigged radio controlled cars…the list of possible activities is long, and for every successful mission you perform without dying or getting arrested, you get a score multiplier, which helps with getting to that goal score. Points are available from missions, odd jobs and wreaking havoc as you barge your way around the city. Run over a pedestrian or blow up a car and you’ll score some points. If you find yourself in a back alley and you steal a nice-looking vehicle, its owner may have laid it as bait in the hope of recruiting assistance from a criminal like you, and you have the option to take or leave the work. If you’ve stolen an especially nice car, you can sell it to the import/export guys who run the cranes down at the docks. Weapons, armor, power-ups, extra lives and get out of jail free cards are scattered around the city in roadside crates. Every so often on of these crates will contain a short, frantic bonus mission called a ‘KILL FRENZY!’ where you’re given unlimited ammunition and a score target to reach in an allotted time. Accidentally uncovering one of these during a quiet period of exploration instantly swings the game into a full-blown explosion fest.

The game is structured so that there are two levels played in each of three cities – Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, modeled on New York City, San Francisco and Miami respectively. The streets of each city are heavily based on grids and right-angled corners, but despite this, each city plan retains the main geographical features of the cities they are modeled on. The change in location is conveyed with subtle changes in road coloring, building colors and the types of trees. Liberty City is heavily urban, San Andreas has a central harbor with docks, and Vice City has a beach and palm trees scattered about. Despite the overall grid based layout, it is necessary to learn your way around each city, because there is no available map. Each time you enter a new part of a neighborhood, the name appears on screen, (North Brocklyn, South East Hackenslash etc) so by paying attention you can quickly gauge, roughly, where you’re meant to be heading, and after a while you’ll know fast routes and the best roads to reach crucial bridges and bottlenecks. Each level has a score that needs to be reached, but there’s no option to save in the middle of a level, so each time you start a game, you either reach the goal or fail in the attempt. The only way to achieve the high totals quickly is to pick up the multipliers awarded when you complete a mission, but with enough time and effort the totals can be reached without doing the missions… if your four extra lives last that long.

Grand Theft Auto 1 gouranga screenshot
“For a GOURANGA! bonus, get the monks”

It’s inevitable that in the course of your activities you’re going to attract the attentions of the police; by running someone over in sight of a cop, shooting people, ramming a police car, or picking up the very shady goods your bosses direct you to shift around. Once the police are after you, they won’t stop or lose interest unless you shake them by respraying your car, successfully ending your mission, or completing a Kill Frenzy. Your wanted level is shown by a number of angry policeman faces along the top of the screen. At a wanted level of one, you’re safe out of sight of cops, but level two and above will bring roadblocks in your path and increasing numbers of pursuing cop cars.

There are four weapons; a pistol, a machine gun, a flamethrower and a rocket launcher. The weapon system is very basic, and takes some getting used to. You fire whichever way you’re facing and because of the crudity of the graphics it’s not always easy to tell which way that is, and sometimes it’s simplest to fire and see which way the bullet goes. If it hits a non-player character they’ll be nothing but a red splat on the sidewalk…and you’ll score some points and maybe attract some unwanted police attention. One bullet is enough to take someone down…including you, so you’re very vulnerable on foot without armor, which can be found as a power-up in the roadside crates. The rocket launcher can destroy buildings…or at least cause them to explode and catch fire, and standing too close to the flames is a sure way to end up WASTED! yourself.

Vehicles range from heavy fuel tankers and buses to incredibly fast sports cars, and the difference in performance can thrill and frustrate in equal measure. You can put a lot of ground between you and pursuing cops with a zippy “Cossie”, but after a couple of severe collisions you’ll be driving a fireball. A bus might be able to smash through barricades and take plenty of fire, but damn, you’ll be going slowly. In the PlayStation version of the game, each vehicle is locked to one of seven different radio stations. A pickup will likely be tuned to a country station, a muscle car to a hard rock or drum’n’bass station. These stations are rarely identified, with the exception of Head Radio (Music for your pleasure) and all simply loop after a while, or use simple ruses to repeat the short audio sample. ‘That song was so good, I think I’ll play it again…’ The humor present is classic Grand Theft Auto – cheeky, crude, juvenile…and funny. All the music was originally composed for the game, and the tracks are playable by placing the game disc into a regular CD player.

Overview: Liberty City
Grand Theft Auto 1 Liberty and New York City map
You begin as a lowly criminal doing work for faceless mobsters. After reaching the score total for the first level, one million points, you receive a target location, which turns out to be an individual standing in an alleyway. During a short and crudely animated cut-scene, you are warned not to cross a particular crime lord on pain of receiving a gun where the sun don’t shine…and the second level begins, with a target score of two million. On reaching this total, you receive another location, a garage in a building. Another cut-scene shows a fat gangster who you’ve been working for sitting behind a desk as police lights flash outside. This guy tells you the cops are ‘crawling up his ass’, it’d be a good idea to get out of town, and he’s booked you a ticket to San Andreas…

San Andreas
Grand Theft Auto 1 San Andreas and San Francisco map
Your arrival in sunny San Andreas is greeted by a lackey of a local boss who has heard of your talents and invites you to visit him – Uncle Fu, at the Rampant Dragon. After a level to satisfy their requirements, you have the honor of meeting with the wizened Uncle Fu (again in an alley) who compliments you with the cheery “We extort money in the manner of our ancestors, and you do us proud”. Next you’re working for El Burro, who, when you finally meet him after his level, seems a little too eager to demonstrate why he got the nickname…and so it’s off to Vice City…

Vice City
Grand Theft Auto 1 Vice City and Miami map
You hit the streets in Vice having already attracted the attention of the corrupt Vice Squad chief, Deever, who says he has evidence to put you away for a long time, so you had better do as he says. After hitting his total, you’re working for the Rastas. At the end you’re face to face with a dreadlocked DJ, who says he’s going to miss seeing you around…

GTA: London 1969
Grand Theft Auto London
Released in 1999, and the first true expansion pack for the PlayStation, GTA: London ran on the same engine as Grand Theft Auto and had many of the same game features, but had a different set of vehicles, missions and radio stations, as well as a completely different city setting. Set in 1969, the game pokes fun at the 60s in many ways, in the vein of The Italian Job and Austin Powers. Some other changes add a little local flavor – all the announcement voices from Grand Theft Auto are replaced with English accents and slang. Instead of WASTED! when you die, you get ‘You’re brown bread!’ (‘dead’ in cockney rhyming slang). Instead of ‘BUSTED!’ when collared by the police, you hear ‘You’re nicked!’. On completion of a mission, instead of the usual ‘mission completed’ cheering, you hear ‘Nice one my beauty!’. These are, I assure you, authentic translations from American into the Queen’s English. The cut-scenes, with their minimal animation, make a comeback, and I have to say to anyone playing this – here there’s a mixture of actual slang and made-up nonsense, where I think Rockstar’s British makers decided to have some fun with the world market. “I’ve heard you’re a bit tasty” is real and means “I’ve heard you’re good”, but, “Remember – I’m the monkey and you’re the cheese grater, so no messing around!” is, as far as I know, a joke, but if you know different, let me know! The radio stations in GTA: London are more complex, with more speech between songs, and I haven’t found any evidence to support this, but I believe that several of the songs may not have been original compositions for the game. A version of ‘The Return of Django’, a reggae track, appears on one of the stations. If true, this would be the first time GTA uses ‘real’ music.

“Sandbox”, “open-ended” and “non-linear” are all buzzwords used frequently in the games industry nowadays. Allowing players to choose the order in which they play a game, giving them an environment to explore and in which to be creative with the game elements…it all comes back to Grand Theft Auto, the forerunner of an entire generation of more mature, satirical games. It was the refreshing lack of respect for authority that garnered the initial success, simultaneously generating uproar in the press and political spheres. The concept of a video game packed with expletives and crime, in which points were scored for killing innocent pedestrians, and even more points were given for killing policemen…this was unacceptable for many in the public eye, and protests were many and vocal. The British Police Federation called Grand Theft Auto “sick, deluded and beneath contempt”. Educational groups and politicians joined in. Take Two used the heightened press coverage to their advantage, turning media-generated controversy into part of Grand Theft Auto‘s place in the entertainment landscape. Instead of suppressing the game, the controversy reinforced the subversive appeal the game offered, and it became a huge commercial success, selling a million copies. The ground was laid for a sequel.

Let’s wrap up our look back at GTA with the VGB scoring system:

There’s no denying it. Ten years on and GTA still has it. Its fun, it’s silly. It has comic book gore, satire and explosions. On a whim you can slip from earnestly playing to win to collecting a huge bunch of taxis and blowing them sky high just for kicks. You can try and evade the cops down tiny alleys, or you can barge through roadblock after roadblock trying to make your goal. The only limits to what you can do are imposed by the game world, which is large and varied.

Graphics: 4
Even for 1997 and 1998, the graphics are sub-par. The player sprite when on foot is a barely recognizable cluster of pixels (in GTA: London 1969, you play a barely recognizable cluster of pixels in flares). Within the budget graphic scheme, however, the different types of vehicles are well designed and can be easily told apart, and the perspective-shifting technique used on the buildings to create the impression of some three-dimensional elements is effective. The camera zooms out when you’re at high speed and zooms in when on foot, but I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough out for driving the faster cars (this could of course be deliberate!), and sometimes zooms in way too close. The textures were improved to a degree in GTA: London, but not so much that the game has a different feel.

Audio: 8
The PC version has switchable radio stations in the cars, allowing control of the music, but the PlayStation vehicles can only play one radio station each. This can lead to annoying repetition of some of the music when certain cars are used frequently (taxis in particular). Environmental noise is first rate, and goes a long way to redeeming the disappointing graphics. The background rumblings and car horns and the pedestrian insults add a lot of depth to the cities.

Ingenuity: 10
GTA cannot be matched here. It blew the games industry and the game playing public away.

Replay Value: 9.5
GTA was the first game to let you take the wheel and allow you to get from point A to point B any way you liked. It is a game built to be played and played again. Especially if you can find someone else with the game to play LAN multiplayer matches with to see who can take the other out first.

What would the developers do with the franchise now there was more money behind it? We’ll see in the next installment of our Grand Theft Auto reviews when we take a look at the 1999 sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2.
Grand Theft Auto 2 teaser