Classic PC review: Grand Theft Auto 2 (now a free download)

Grand Theft Auto 2 for PlayStationIn the month leading up to the release of Grand Theft Auto IV on the 29th of April, we’ll be looking back at the series that revolutionized the videogame industry. Last time we looked at the cult success of the original GTA, and today we’ll look back at the 1999 PC and PlayStation sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2. After reading our review, why not play the game? Download the PC version of GTA2 for free at the Rockstar Games Classics page. Simply register, download and play.

Two years after the release of the first GTA game, DMA and Rockstar Games unleashed the sequel, GTA2. After the innovative, sarcastic fun of the original, the sequel was eagerly anticipated. What improvements and new features would they include? Read on for our look back through the mists of time at the last time GTA appeared in 2D…

System: PC (Windows), PlayStation
Genre: Action, Driving, 2D Shooter
Release dates: October 1999 (Worldwide)
Players: 1-6
Developer: DMA Design (at present renamed Rockstar North)
Publisher: Rockstar Games / Take Two Interactive
Origin: UK
Rating: PC: M for Mature, PlayStation: T for Teen

GTA2 is a much-needed graphical improvement on the original, and it fleshes out some of the things that made the original so good while introducing some new features – with mixed results. This installment of GTA feels like an experiment, like they were playing with the originally conceived formula, trying to improve it. You can see what DMA were trying to do – there was something missing from the original; you felt immersed in the city, you got jobs from criminal bosses and occasionally you had run-ins with the criminal element during missions, but apart from your one man crime-wave, the cities were clean, lovely sunny places where you’d be happy to raise kids. Not so in GTA2. Set in an unnamed city ‘three weeks into the future’, the streets are gloomy and mean, graffiti abounds, and you ain’t the only criminal on the block.

The city is split into three districts (levels), each district has three gang territories, and the new gang respect meters are the big difference between GTA and GTA2. The gangs are huge organized crime networks locked in deadly competition with each other, and they’re the guys offering work. When you complete a job for one gang, another will lose respect for you. If you’re successful your employer will respect you and trust you with more important work, but competing gangs will start to shoot on sight. Respect rests on all of your actions; turn on your employers at any time and take a load of their men down, and the other gangs will be happier to see you. A gang will also lose respect for you if you fail one of their missions. You can tell what any gang thinks of you with the HUD respect meters.

Levels and Level Design
As with the first GTA, the goal for each level is a score, or sum of money. Working for cash and getting a score multiplier is the fastest way, but there are many ways to earn points.
The Downtown Area is the first level, and you’ll be doing work for the monolithic Zaibatsu Corporation, the green-clad Loonies and the honor-obsessed Yakuza. The three gangs on level two, The Residential District, are the Elvis-loving Rednecks, the tech-savvy SRS (or “The Scientists”) and once again, the Zaibatsu Corporation. The final level is The Industrial District, where you’ll find the militant Russian Mafia, the surprisingly malevolent Hare Krishna, and yes, again, the Zaibatsu Corporation. Each gang has their own unique vehicle marked with a symbol on the roof (top-down game, remember) for easy identification, and these vehicles (with the exception of the Redneck Pick-up Truck) are faster than the average car. They also contain an armed driver who won’t be happy to be carjacked. Each gang has a main stronghold and a few external bases, as well as armed members on foot patrolling their territory. The level design is more varied and complex than in GTA – the grid system is less rigid, and while the game keeps the top-down camera, there are more ramps, stairways and elevated passageways to explore, suggesting that if only in environment, GTA2 is a step closer to full 3D. The city where GTA2 takes place is a dark and murky place (if playing the PC version, set to ‘Dusk’. The PlayStation version is locked to the sunny and less visually complex ‘Noon’ setting.) On completion of a level, there are three types of bonus level, including a race to destroy as many ice cream trucks as possible.

Check out this video of a very good player running through some missions in The Industrial District in the PC version of the game. Warning – this guy makes it look easy. It takes hundred of hours of play to get this good:

Control and Interface
The one-shot death of GTA is replaced by the more forgiving classic five-heart health meter, opening the door to more on-foot combat and less reliance on vehicles to take out large numbers of enemies. To complement this the number of weapons increases. In addition to the pistol, machine gun, rocket launcher and flamethrower, the arsenal expands to include a silenced machine gun, grenades, a crowd-stopping shotgun and potentially treacherous Molotov Cocktails. You can pick up the ability to dual-wield pistols, and there’s also the novel ‘electro gun’, which fires an arc of electricity that can leap from person to person or vehicle to vehicle, inflicting a lot of damage with a sustained blast.

Your character is faster on foot but still reliant on firing weapons the direction he’s facing, meaning that running backwards firing into pursuers is often necessary. Driving is more fun than in the original, with handbrake turns and vehicle damage smoother and more natural feeling, meaning that using a fast car through traffic is more of a test of reflexes than just plain luck. When you attract the attention of Anywhere City’s law enforcement agencies, the worse you behave, the harder they come down on you. If the regular police can’t handle it, SWAT teams are sent out, then the FBI, and if you’ve been a very bad boy, the army are deployed, and the city gets put under lockdown until you’re brought to justice.

Grand Theft Auto 2 explosion screenshot
Explosive Fun

Missions are slightly different to GTA, but there’s a very similar errand-like feel to most of them; drive to a location, pick up/drop off/destroy item/car/person, and make good your escape to another location. Some of the missions are more shocking than others – one mission entails driving a bus around and picking people up, then dropping them off to be killed and processed at a meat processing plant and then selling the resulting hot dogs. Needless to say, the controversy established with the first game was not eased by the release of GTA2.
The ability to save in the middle of a level is a vast improvement on the gameplay. Churches will allow you to save – for a fee of $50,000. No donation? No salvation.

Alternative Sources Of Income
Aside from working for the gangs, GTA2 offers a lot of different ways to earn a living, including some quirky innovations making their first appearances. The ‘Wang Car’ garage (more British slang puns) will pay cash for the delivery of vehicles hidden all over the map in The Residential District, and when all eight are found provides a pool of fun vehicles – a fire truck equipped with a flamethrower, a Jeep, a Tank, and sports car, all with hidden extras. Taxis are common in all three levels, and other pedestrians will occasionally hail one and get in. If you steal a taxi you can pick up one of these unsuspecting citizens. There are no target destinations, but as you drive around you will earn money at about one point per second. As you bounce off traffic, you’ll be awarded points based on the severity of the collision, and scores for running over pedestrians increase for larger groups. As in GTA, there is a bonus for getting all of a special column of people – in GTA2 it is Elvis impersonators, and if successful you’ll hear ‘Elvis has left the building!’ There are collectible tokens all over the maps. You’ll receive the first of these after the orientation mission, and collecting all of these leads to different bonus missions in between levels.

Grand Theft Auto 2 wang car bonus
These Will Come In Handy

While the gameplay for GTA2 is a lot darker, the radio stations have humor and satire on a much larger scale than in GTA. Stations change with each level, so things don’t get too familiar. There is a larger selection of music, and more DJ speech. Each DJ has a very distinct character and vary in temperament and style. Commercials are crude and juvenile but raise a smile as you drive; Head Radio has an ad for a durable condom, “because when you’re on the game, not all prophylactics are the same” and commercials for erectile dysfunction products (marketed by The Scientists) and thinly-veiled recreational drugs (new from Zaibatsu Pharmaceuticals) are common. Each gang has its own radio station in its own style. As an example the Russian Mafia’s KGBH station – a pun on US radio station IDs starting with K and the British criminal offense ‘Grievous Bodily Harm’ (GBH), is completely comedic in the DJ’s attempts to get equipment working, to make up to his wife after an argument, and to get his car back after his drinking binge the night before.

What are the main features of GTA2?
-Vastly improved graphics, lighting and textures from the original game
-Ability to save mid-level
-New ‘respect’ system, balancing your reputation between three gangs in each level
-New weapons, including the ‘electro gun’
-More features to the city – reacting pedestrians, taxis, other criminals in the form of muggers and carjackers
-3D features viewed in 2D – ramps and jumps to reach different levels
-Arm your vehicles! In addition to respraying you can now equip your vehicle with a bomb, machine guns, or deployable oil slicks to thwart pursuers
-Great radio stations
-At higher wanted levels you attract the attentions of the FBI and Army, meaning even more powerful vehicles to ‘borrow’ and play with
-Side missions
-PC Version equipped with 6 player online multiplayer with dedicated maps

If GTA1 was a revolution in non-linear gameplay, then the respect system in GTA2 is an experiment in generating a non-linear plot. In GTA1 you picked up work at the phones until there was no more left and then you looked elsewhere…the people you were working for hardly mattered – their appearance at the ends of levels was just a marker before moving on; a sort of, ‘Thank you Mario! But…get your ass outta town’. In GTA2 you establish basic relationships with your bosses, and these relationships have risk and betrayal built in at the start. The respect system is a mechanism you can use or abuse to get what you want – it’s there to be manipulated. When you’ve exhausted all the jobs available with your first employer but you haven’t enough money to finish the level, it’s up to you – are you going to turn on the crew that got you this far? Of course you are. But when you betray your boss to take another gang’s jobs, it feels dirty. If a rival gang leader asks you to take out the base of your old gang, there’s a brief moment of hesitation before you wade into battle.
Fundamentally GTA2 is the same game as Grand Theft Auto with more polish and a view new ideas thrown in…but you can say that of most sequels.

Grand Theft Auto 2 electrogun screenshot

What’s interesting looking back at GTA and GTA2 in 2008 is spotting the seeds of ideas that would come to fruition in later titles…but we’ll come back to those later. For now let’s wrap up the GTA2 review by looking at the scores:

It’s just as fun if not more fun than its predecessor. It adds new environments with more depth to explore, new weapons and vehicles to play with and tougher law enforcement agencies to evade. Vehicles can now be armed, and it can be fun to simply sit at one intersection with a wanted level and watch the police skidding out of control over the oil slicks you laid in their path. The difficulty of having to get through an entire level before you can save your progress is removed, meaning play can be broken up into much smaller, more casual periods. Playing with friends with the larger arsenal of weaponry is enormous fun. Hitting someone with the rocket launcher results in the enormously gratifying animation of their sprite zooming up into the sky towards the camera before falling back to earth.

Graphics: 6
GTA2 is a real improvement on the original. It looks smoother and is a lot more slick during play. The PC version has the graphics-intensive ‘Dusk’ setting, where light sources are accurately modeled and the city acquires a malevolent, gloomy feel, a really fitting mood for the game. The PlayStation has to do without this, and playing the game in bright midday sunshine changes how the game feels considerably. Some crudely pixelated surfaces are still very obvious, but the PC version begs the question – how good can the graphics on a game of this format be? The distance of the camera from the playing details is large, and if the progression from GTA to GTA2 is anything to go by, there is very little to be gained from a huge souping-up effort for a top-down game of this type. The ‘dusk’ option introduces complexity in lighting, but the overhaul evident produces little more than a smoother playing experience. In terms of the game’s context, 1999 saw the birth of the Driver franchise, a fully 3D city-roaming driving game, also available on both PC and PlayStation…so Grand Theft Auto 2 was still a little behind the curve where graphics was concerned, but it could be argued that Driver had none of the scope of GTA2, and the truth is, the technology didn’t exist to make a 3D Grand Theft Auto game in 1999 without stripping out the bulk of what makes the series unique.

Audio: 9.5
Great city background and groundbreaking in-depth radio stations that change with the level being played. The curious thing about the sound in GTA2 is that the radio is packed with speech, while the missions are introduced by a cartoon telephone sound effect while text plays across the screen. Again, undoubtedly a design choice, as even with the hours and hours of radio, there are upwards of 60 missions, which would be quite a chunk of data on the disc. A solid progression from the first GTA.

Ingenuity: 8
The respect meters are new and a bold experiment that both works to a degree and detracts a little from the game – while constantly moving from one gang to another on whim is possible, it makes more sense to stick with one gang to get access to the higher-respect, higher paying missions…but of course the system can be played however you want, a hallmark of the GTA ethos of freedom of choice. The touches that add more life to the city – taxi-hailing pedestrians, other car-jackers and muggers and the police reacting to them and the gangs – all of these show the development of the innovations laid down in the original game.

Replay Value: 9
The gang system also comes into play for the replay factor rating. With three gangs, and approximately 9 missions for each, there are many different ways to hit the required score total, and missions vary so greatly in humor and difficulty that you’ll want to play through again to see what you missed. The side missions and violence bonuses never stop being fun, and the multiplayer is a riot.

With the pace of videogame development accelerating, the days of successful top-down game were numbered. The path in front of the Grand Theft Auto crew may seem clear in retrospect, but converting the smash hit living-world sandbox game to three dimensions was a daunting task. Continue with us soon as we leap forward to 2001 and the genre-busting phenomenon that was Grand Theft Auto III.
Grand Theft Auto 3 teaser
Here Come The Big Guns