OPINION: The Return of GTA

Michael French
OPINION: The Return of GTA

We're just a few hours away from finally having some of the answers.

Will Rockstar North choose to revisit San Andreas, its digital recreation of an entire state, or the neon-clad Vice City? Will it go for somewhere else, but another slice of Americana? Or maybe somewhere different – a spoof of Paris, London or Tokyo? And are the rumours right - is the anti-hero lead character finally a woman, not a man?

But is the setting really important? Or the lead character? It’s GTA, right, so it’s going to sell by the bucketload?

Well yes, it does matter. Because GTA was, and still is, the ultimate games franchise. No other single games brand inspires so much fervour and speculation, so much passion… so much fury. It is closely watched, and dearly loved. And having another one is treat unlike any other. So every point matters, and demands scrutiny.

WORLD BEATERS

I don’t have to tell you about all the ways GTA and its sequels changed the world. I don’t have to tell you that it set the first benchmarks of how a game can sell and sell and sell, maintaining a high price and good margins for both retailers and publisher.

I don’t have to tell you about the pages and pages of media interest it garnered, the comedy spoofs, the punditry and right-wing scorn, or the indelible mark on pop culture. 

I don’t have to tell you that the games are always not just good, but excellent. They were the first and still the best at creating a real ‘living, breathing’ digital environments in which you can wreak havoc. It’s been long copied, but never bested. 

And I don’t have to tell you that they are a true sign of Britain’s creative industries at its best (because in part if I do I have to beat my chest and wave a Union Jack at you like an idiot). 

What you do need to know is this: the world has changed around Rockstar Games. The world has changed around GTA. So watching how GTA V reacts to it all is going to be part of the fun this time. 

GRAND CHANGES

Grand Theft Auto V will debut in a vastly different world than the one its predecessors created and ruled in the first half of the noughties. 

Of course, in many ways GTA’s legacy helped precipitate that change.

GTA IV was the first console game to release significant digital content expansions post-release, which in turn boomeranged back into retail ‘best of’ compilations. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars meanwhile, swerved from DS flop to iPad triumph.

But still, things have moved on. Rockstar has maintained its edge through games arguably better than GTA IV, such as Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, but gamers have started asking for more than just a rogue hero fighting with or against the system.

Online games, Facebook games, mobile games, DLC – what were once two-bit 2D tuppence novelties have exploded into viable, gripping experiences. They have diffused the disc-based single-release blockbuster model which GTA exploited into something else. 

Meanwhile Call of Duty, the world’s most polished war game and an exercise in good but glossy drama, is now the best-selling franchise of all time.

What I’m hoping for, however, is a game that takes on all that, expands on it, but adds that very specific GTA quality: humour, parody, social comment.

Imagine the commercial and satirical pasting the modern games market will get at the hands of a fully armed and operational GTA, driven by masterminds the Houser brothers and their US creative team plus Scot exec producer Leslie Benzies and his partners in crime at Edinburgh-based Rockstar North. 

GTA IV, after all, arrived in mid-2008, before credit crunched around us all, before Twitter took off, before the iPhone, before the first black president, and before the world’s most famous terrorists were hunted down in scenes straight from Modern Warfare.

THINKING BIGGER

I don’t doubt for one minute that the new Grand Theft Auto will work hard to return to the top of the pile. It’s probably got an advanced DLC plan, incentives for retail, lots of social content, an excellent cast, witty script and all that other stuff. 

So in a way, yes, it’s important that we know more about GTA V. And the trailer this week no doubt told us more. But it’s most important that we’re getting a new GTA at all. 

This was the series that forced the games industry to at least talk about topics like sex, money, drugs, violence. In raw, awkward ways, yes – but not always glamourous ones.

This was the series that taught the games industry to think bigger and reach more people before the Wii had even been devised.  This was the series that changed our industry for the better.

Welcome back, Grand Theft Auto. I’ve missed you.

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Tags: Rockstar , gta v , series , grand theft auto , gta

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