Adequate Theft Auto

By Shamus Posted Thursday Apr 19, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 38 comments

I’m still working on Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.

I have a very strong love / hate relationship with the GTA series. On one hand, I love exploring a huge, open-ended city with lots to do. I love the freedom, the size, the running day / night cycle, the varied vehicles and other modes of transport, and the (usually) great music. On the other hand, I hate the missions, I find the characters repulsive, and the stories are frequently wearisome. I love everything about the game except the game itself. I hate the mandatory central story, and I love some of the optional stuff.

I wonder how widespread my view is. I can’t be the only one.

The series is is a chart-topping, multi-platform, best-selling, headline-grabbing, money-making dynamo. It’s popular beyond belief, but the aspects for which it is [in]famous aren’t the things that draw me in. For me, the real star of GTA isn’t the thuggish protagonists, it’s the expansive gameworld. Nobody has an engine capable of realizing a city the way GTA can. The gameworld is immense and seamless. You can look over great distances and see landmarks and places miles away. You can go to those locations, often without hitting load zones. When you get there, you’ll find it to be just as detailed and full of activity as the place you left. I think GTA works in spite of it’s brutal story and murderous characters. It is the city, not the violence, that sells this game.

Which is why I find it so maddening that at the outset of the game I can only get to one-third of it. You “unlock” sections of the city by playing (and replaying and replaying) missions to advance the plot. In this bowl of Lucky Charms, the game is making sure I’m eating the stale, tasteless cereal and not just wolfing down the marshmallows. Doing these missions very quickly takes on the texture and flavor of work.

I have yet to unlock earn the next area of the game world. I’m still stranded on the first island, but I can look out across the water and see the the second one, calling to me – an oasis of wide streets and and new vehicles. I want to go there, but I am already sick of the protagonist and irritated with the meandering plot. I’ve quit in disgust twice now. I know I’ll eventually, grudgingly, work my way through this. Sooner or later I’ll get to that second island, and sometime after that I’ll set foot on the shores of the third. I’ll jump through the game’s hoops, but only because at the end of them I can see a wide open field free of hoops.

I’ve always had this gripe with the series. Despite this, I’ll still walk away from the game and blurt out things like “That’s a great game!”. People near me when I’m playing are mystified that I continue to do so, since I seem to hate it so much. I don’t know what sort of bewitchment they use at Rockstar to make me remember the best parts of the experience and forget the anger and tedium I endured to get there. They should license it. I can think of a few games that would would really benefit from that.


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38 thoughts on “Adequate Theft Auto

  1. Vegedus says:

    I’ve never completed a GTA game. I’ve tried a tiny bit in Vice and III, but most of the time I’ve spent on the game have been wreaking havok, with or without cheat codes (tanks are fun). Call me a psychopath (or don’t, it’s a freaking video game), but I find it fun to squash people by driving on the sidewalk or hit a random person with a baseball bat.

  2. xcorvis says:

    Have you tried the Simpsons: Hit & Run? It’s basically a GTA ripoff, but they did a decent job. At least you (probably) won’t find the characters repulsive.

  3. Henebry says:

    Aren’t there cheat codes to unlock these other islands?

  4. Phlux says:

    They’re just pixels. I say murder ’em all! Seriously, though, I try not to moralize actions in video games. Which is not to say that games do not have morality, as any good story does, but I choose not to equate the actions of the character(s) I control with my own morality.

    I am an actor when I play games. I enjoy stepping into a new role as long as it is well crafted and interesting.

  5. Craig Moynes says:

    I feel the same way. A friend and I worked our way through one of the GTA’s, but having to repeat the same mission over and over again grew tiresome. We found working with somebody on a GTA game provided more entertainment than one person going at it alone.

    I think that’s why I like Crackdown so much. It’s an enormous open world with online co-op. The draw distance is huge, and the game focuses on fun, not necessarily ‘reward via slogging’. It can be buggy at times, and some of the tricks they use to make the game work as well as it does are revealed during co-op. But overall I enjoyed it much more than any of the GTA titles.

  6. The only one I ever played was Vice City, and honestly I didn’t play the game at all. I ran around in the world stealing cars and listening to the radio, occasionally having fun with the ramps and such. I eventually stopped playing when I found out I could download just the radio stations. :)

  7. General Ghoul says:

    Sorry if this question seems rude, but how often do you play video games? I realize you work at home, but maybe the question should be how often do you work? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy games and I’m a little older than you, but if I can get in 4 hrs a week, I’m happy.

  8. Shamus says:

    Ghoul: I only get a little time during the week. Maybe an hour or two each night. Keep in mind I don’t commute, so I usually have an extra hour a day to play with that most people spend driving.

  9. GEBIV says:

    I felt this way about GUN. When it was coming out, I thought it was going to be GTA: The Old West. But when I actually got the game, most of the “world” was locked off and unplayable until I worked through the story line. And much of the time you were railroaded along what you had to do. And even when the whole “world” was unlocked, it wasn’t much to speak of. Great concept, poorly executed.

    Personally, I had a lot of fun with GTA: Vice City and San Andreas. I used cheat codes pretty extensively though. ;p But getting the whole worlds open was great. And cruising around on the open road on a Harley made playing the story lines worthwhile.

  10. Ferrous Buller says:

    I also recommend you check out Crackdown (Xbox 360): it’s surprising how much more enjoyable I find the GTA formula when you play a supercop who can (eventually) leap 30 feet into the air and hurl cars at people. :-)

  11. The Pancakes says:

    Xcorvis: Simpson’s Hit-and-Run was awesome. I played it on GameCube and loved it so much, I called in sick to work to finish it.

    Shamus: I agree with you on GTA. The storyline missions are impossibly hard, the payoff for completing those missions is lame and the best reason to play the game is to find and play all the hidden mini-games.

    I’m impressed with GTA from a technological standpoint. Like you, I find the city compelling, life-like and wonderful. I’ve had more fun driving the ambulance, taxi and firetruck than I’ve had doing any of the storyline missions.

  12. Roy says:

    In a moment that will shock absolutely nobody who’s read my recent comments, I find GTA repulsive. I’m right there with you, Shamus. The ability to drive around and see a world more fully realized than in any other game is amazing. Like some other people, I loved driving the cars off of various ramps, or seeing how many cars I could blow up at one time, or just sort of causing mayham.

    I couldn’t deal with the repulsive characters and story, though. Casual racism, sexism, and homophobia are pretty quick ways to get me to turn off a game.

  13. Ghafla says:

    Like Shamus and several others, I just hated the missions in GTAIII. The fact that the characters and missions are often so transgressive doesn’t faze me in the slightest, since unlike an RPG, I expect that coming in. What does bother me is how arbitrary and difficult many of the missions were. I played the game for some time, enjoying the freedom to explore while only doing the missions to unlock content. After about 40 hours of play, I had about three or four missions left in the main plot, and I failed one of the missions several times in a row. That killed it for me, and I never picked it (or any other GTA game) up again.

  14. AJ says:

    I’m with Shamus on most things here too. I dislike the concept that GTA functions on. My friends can spend endless hours running over pedestrians and messing with street harlots. I enjoyed driving around the various environments and playing with the physics engine, but that’s about it. In truth, for me, the GTA games are on par with solitaire. I’d drive around and goof off with the pretty world in fun cars for something to break up the monotony between things I actually cared about.

    I’d play it for free, but I’d never get anywhere since the plot in the game annoys me and I’d certainly never pay money for the game. I’m not morally opposed to games that make someone a bad guy. Too many tabletop games as a bad guy in my history to feel that way, but I also don’t really find violence for the sake of violence appealing or entertaining. Still, for those who can be endlessly entertained by it, cheers.

  15. Downtym says:

    The problem with “Sandbox Games” is that the feeling among designers and marketers and other people that make money in the games business is that without a plotline or goal or some missions to complete, the customer will not be interested in purchasing the game.

    I mean, on its face saying, “It’s a game where you drive around killing people, earning money, and finding weapons – so you can kill people in new and interesting ways” doesn’t sound like something you could sell – much less get past the ESRB. But if you jazz it up with a story “It’s a game about mobsters taking over a city and the in-fighting that goes along with it. By the end of the game, you progress from low-level thug to mob boss! Oh, and you get to drive around killing people, earning money, and finding weapons along the way!” then you suddenly have something that can be marketed outside of the context of “Microsoft: Thug Simulator 2000”.

    I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you about the stumbling blocks put in your way while playing the game – for the record, I feel that all games should have a “sandbox” mode where you can just run around and enjoy the fun parts of the game without worrying about plot-railroading. I’m just trying to present the driving force that causes these invisible walls to pop up.

  16. Patrick says:

    Am I the only one who finds the majority of the missions in the GTA games a lot easier than most others make them sound? If anything, my only issues with the missions are that they usually boil down to the same thing each and every time. Drive somewhere, shoot something, mission over. Drive somewhere, shoot something, dodge the cops, mission over.
    There are a few missions that are fun and just difficult enough, like the mission in GTA San Andreas where you steal the jetpack for example, but the game isn’t that horribly difficult to me. I’ve completed the game both with and without cheat codes.
    I will say one last thing, the absolute worst part of GTA San Andreas for me was the forced learning to fly. I seem to have trouble flying the planes.

  17. Patrick the Evil Twin says:

    Hmmm seems to be another guy around here posting as ‘Patrick’…lest we confuse the two I shall henceforth ( am I the only one that thinks that sounds like a fake word? I mean really…. Henceforth?) be known as Patrick the Evil twin

    And Vegedus…. that’s exactly what I do…. misiions? eh…once in awhile… mostly I just randomly ramapge.

  18. Phlux says:

    What I like to see, but rarely do outside of Turn-based strategy games, is the option to either play through a campaign, or enter sandbox mode.
    That way, people like me who want to play and unlock and do all that can, and people who like to run around and not have to unlock every last little piece of the game can just enter into the city and wreak havok.

    The ideal setup for that in my opinion is to allow the sandbox mode certain configuration settings. In a GTA game this might mean choosing which weapons are enabled, what state of gang-warfare is currently happening, how sensitive the police are to transgressions, which areas of the city are open and closed, etc, etc… This should be available immediately out of the box, or at the very least accessible with a cheat code.

  19. T-Boy says:

    Funnily enough, the only turn-off that I could find in San Andreas were the rhythm-based missions. I couldn’t stand those damn things, and very quickly decided that I’d have fun just running around what I already had explored rather than do that first rhythm-based mission.

  20. Patrick says:

    I’m Patrick 3 now? Hmm…I think after this point I’ll start posting as Arson…

    Anyway, Patrick (1), there are very few missions that I find really difficult (and many of them are racing missions) so you’re not alone there. I guess only having problems with some missions is why it never really felt like it takes a long time to unlock missions…

    Of course, I got bored with the series so I haven’t played any of them in awhile.

  21. AdamB says:

    I’ve had the same problem with GTA: VC, LCS, and SA. I think the problem isn’t so much the story, hey a criminal’s rise to power can be interesting. I think the problem is what Shamus called the ‘plot driven door’. Also my problem with them at least was that it didn’t seem real. That is you did EVERYTHING yourself. Need to knock over a bank? You gotta drive and then do the hold up part. Someone needs to be whacked? You gotta drive over there, kill them in a ludicrous fashion and then run away.

    That’s what bugged me.

  22. Miral says:

    In GTA:SA I’m still stuck back at the mission near the start where you had to race cars with hydraulics. I never could get the hang of that (I can consistently come in second, but never first). It’s been over a year now since I last played it — that was a real turn-off.

    One of these days I might try it again, but the missions definitely don’t count as “fun” in my book.

  23. mike says:

    I don’t think ANYONE plays the GTA games for the missions. I know that I love the great vehicle selection, potential for insanely impossible stunts & stunts, the hilarious radio commentary, and the occasional murderous mayhem. Mostly I just ride motorbikes around as fast as I can before crashing horrendously into something and sending my character to a violent, gruesome death 500 feet away.

  24. Joshua says:

    What is the difference between GTA games and Baldur’s Gate such that you enjoyed following the storyline of the latter more? Do you find the GTA protagonists more shallow, or just more evil, or what? Recognizing that in both cases, the producers of the games inserted storylines with the intent that it would spur people to explore the game from the perspective of certain characters with personalities, why did BG succeed where GTA failed?

  25. Sartorius says:

    I think that the antiheroes in GTA are evil in a way which is more accessible to us than those in Baldur’s Gate. Playing a (note: example does not actually occur in BG) evil sorcerer attempting to take over the world is wickedness in a fantastical, over-the-top way which makes it a remote whimsy. A thug who is being paid to murder some guy’s wife or to sell drugs is much less like fantasy, and more like ugly reality.

    To put it another way: nearly anyone can play a fantasy game where you whomp your way through goblins or blue yeeks or peahats or something, even one which shows your character cutting them to bits with a sword. Most people can play a simulation game where you graphically shoot other humans, even one which shows your fallen foes bleeding or screaming. Few people would care to play a simulation game where you graphically shoot your family or friends.

  26. Shamus says:

    I think Sartorius nailed it for me. I don’t mind playing a conquering despot who opresses a hundred worlds, but I can’t stand playing some souless thug who murders for no discernable reason except that the plot demands it.

  27. Luke says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter here (well I haven’t been reading for that long… but it sounds better if I say I have).

    I actually agree with Patrick 1 & 3 on the difficulty of the games – I’ve never had any real trouble with the missions in any of the GTA games, and I’ve actually thought that they should perhaps include a “hard” difficulty setting as well, where the bad guys are a bit harder to kill, the cars a bit quicker, and that sort of thing. By the sound of things though, it seems like there should be an “easy” difficulty, too.

    I’ve never had any problem with the storylines, either. Sure, they’re about stealing, killing, extorting and whatnot, but if they weren’t it wouldn’t be called Grand Theft Auto. I find it quite refreshing to play as a “good guy” who isn’t actually all that good.

    I do agree, however, that it’d be nice to have some sort of “sandbox mode” as has been suggested, where it acts as if you’ve effectively finished the game already – be that through a cheat or some menu option, it’d be fun. I know that that’s what gives GTA games their replay value for me.

  28. Lot says:

    I always found the GTA games to be fun but the mission difficulty always bothered me. I’ve beaten all of the games but I’ve almost thrown the control through the screen of my TV in frustration. This isn’t due to the actual mission difficulty, but how arbitrary that difficulty was. Sometimes my awful auto-aiming wouldn’t work. Sometimes the NPC I was escorting just would get killed for no good reason. I remember one Vice City mission where I found myself chanting “Lance, get in the car. Lance, get in the car. LANCE, GET IN THE CAR!!!” But did Lance get in the car? No, he wandered around due to pathfinding issues until he got lit up by a dozen cars, starting over a mission that had required ten minutes of busy work driving to get to. That stuff was never a dealbreaker, but it came close a few times.

  29. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Shamus, You have had the game for about 2 weeks and your still on the 1st island. shame shame Shamus….YOUR CHEATING for crying out loud. The missions aren’t that hard. And the stories aren’t that bad. You have written about 4 posts on this game, and dumped on the story every time.
    How about you figure out what the plot is first. Sure it’s predictable but what Mob story isn’t. Finally you stated “I can't stand playing some soulless thug who murders for no discernible reason except that the plot demands it.” The plot doesn’t demand soulless murderous rampages my, good sir….His Life Does.

  30. Shamus says:

    Yes, I’ve had it for two weeks, but I haven’t played much. I’ve spent more time writing about it than playing, really.

    I’m actually using LCS as excuse to unpack a lot of thoughts about the series in general that I’ve built up.

    And this time through the city I just don’t have a lot of patience for it anymore. I can’t care. Even with cheating, some missions require a few attempts to figure out the trick. And there is no cheat to skip the @#!$#@ing racing missions. If I were to get really worked up maybe I could bring myself to feel less than totally apathetic about Toni, but that is looking less and less likely.

  31. Noumenon says:

    According to Clay Shirky, it’s a proven fact about gaming: games where they let you go anywhere and have everything aren’t fun. You need restrictions and you need to work at the goals so you feel like the city is your long-awaited reward.

    I mean, imagine that the other half of Prawn Island or whatever it’s called was locked out. You’d be like, “oh, why won’t they let me drive up on the monorail track,” “oh, I wish I could get up to that mansion on the cliff.” Since they gave it to you right away, you don’t appreciate it as much.

    Now that I’ve ruined your confidence in my judgment by disagreeing with you, let me say that the ultimate in “there’s a beautiful landmark, and you can go there” is Ultimate Spider-Man. Central Park, the big bridge into Queens, the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building. It’s like GTA only so much more freedom and power.

  32. Mordaedil says:

    The games we love to hate, huh?

  33. Joshua says:

    Maybe these guys would be more tolerant of the “unlocking” if it were more believable. If I recall, in Vice City, there was a hurricane warning or high winds or something (mentioned on the radio) which necessitated closing the bridges. Somewhat artificial, but still an attempt.

    But you have to remember that doing these things well within a story is very hard. I for one am willing to accept GTA’s initial restrictions because first, there’s the reward element, and second, they do make an attempt to make it believable. Not all games can be as well-written as Jade Empire.

  34. Ken Talton says:

    “According to Clay Shirky, it's a proven fact about gaming: games where they let you go anywhere and have everything aren't fun”

    I disagree….the first 2 of Black Isle old “Fallout” Games were remarkably open, though there was a certain bit of direction both from the urgency of your (generally heroic) missions and the fact that some compass bearings involved very high level characters.

    I haven’t played any GTA games in a year or more for the very reasons you give, the characters & missions are utterly vile.

    What I’d love to see would be Fallout (or something like i)t using the same wide open engine that GTA uses.

    The system and fiddlybits are great…not feeling unclean after playing would be a welcome patch.

  35. Dan Morrison says:

    I’m a GTA fan – including 1 and 2, which appears to put me in the minority.
    I miss some of the cartoon humour we had in the earlier ones, and it’s possible that if the game went back to being a little more silly you wouldn’t find the gangster plots so abrasive.

    However, I encountered 2 of the best anti-arbitrary-save features ever for the first time in GTA2 (IIRC).

    #1. Saving was an in-game action that MADE SENSE – you went to this room and slept and that was your point in time, it wasn’t some meta-menu option. I’m sure a few RPGs and things have done similar previously in history, but this was (to me) unique in an action/strategy game.
    Choosing to go and save was a conscious and annoying decision, because it took time, the safe houses were invariably down a long path you had to get to by foot.

    #2. The bonus multiplier system kept you going. Some folk might never have noticed, but the more missions you completed IN A ROW, the more you earned for the same mission – up to (I think) a 10x multiplier. This zeroed out on save. Failing a mission was OK.
    It encouraged you to NOT DIE at all, even when things were going really badly, as you’d limp back to find a health pack and try again, rather than restore and loose the multipliers.
    I REALLY missed that in GTA3+.
    Nowadays I restore from save every time I’m busted or hurt – unfortunately the weapon collection has become too valuable, which is annoying.

    The bonus multiplier also paced my gameplay interestingly, as I’d go through phases – only exploring or trying out experimental jumps and rampages when the multiplier was low, really playing the story when it got high.

    As for GTA storyline – I still rave about the cinematic qualities of GTA:SA. I found myself hanging out for the cutscenes – they truly were a ‘reward’ that progressed you through the game rather than annoying distractions getting in the way. Also because they used the game engine rather than being pre-rendered, they just fit better and made it feel like I was really inside the storyline, not being pushed through it.

    And, um, as for ‘unlocking’ the areas as a sandbox… The POINT of them being locked is so that, at various stages through the game you get a fresh set of scenery that renews your exploratory interest. The first few missions in a new territory are filled with wonder.
    Having the whole map open at first is just wrong. Besides, it encourages/forces you to thoroughly investigate each corner of the bit you CAN get to – often with rewarding results!

    One or two of (yes) the races I found frustrating, but went off and did something else for a long while, and just found it easier after a load of non-race practice. I’ve not found any of the missions frustrating or cheat-worthy in the whole series, although sometimes I’ve used a bit of lateral thinking to get the job done … and this is totally rewarded by the game!
    Occasionally I turned to a walk-through, but only after all logic had failed (finding the named cars in VC was annoying – I don’t remember fake model names)

    I’m sure there were a few points I felt frustrated, but because of the open game, I could just drive off into the sunset and do something else for ages. Unlike the game I’mm currently playing – FarCry – which now seems so painfully linear.

    Your video post was just ridiculous :) I certainly would have stopped after a half-dozen goes and figured there must be an easier way.

  36. ryanlb says:

    Granted I’ve only played Vice City and San Andreas, and haven’t yet completed SA, I for the most part find the missions pretty easy. There were a couple of driving/flying school missions that took me a few extra times to get right (the stunt plane is just too responsive for my clumsy fingers), but the only mission that really stands out as being completely EVIL is from Vice City: the one where you have to race and defeat Hillary. Not only do you does the whole premise not make sense (because when I rob a bank I definitely want a driver that’s worse than me) but you have to do it with one of the crappiest cars in the game. I hate the mission with a fiery passion.

    I don’t mind the missions, and enjoy most of them. Sure, there are a few places where I’d prefer to hi-jack the story so I could kill whoever it is that is giving me stupid missions (The Truth – what a whacko, but then he also hooks me up with the jet-pack, but still, I look forward, hoping there’s a mission in my future where I get to kill him) because I don’t like them, but overall I enjoy the missions and cut-scenes.

  37. Booknerd says:

    Damn it Shamus, You got me back to playing GTA San Andreas after reading that post.

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