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The Greatest Moments in Grand Theft Auto History

Betrayal, bloody murder, Hollywood-ripping heists, and a motherfucking jetpack.

Sam Diss

Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham

Rockstar Games created a monster when they decided people just wanna fuck around and be gangsters in a video game. Think of all the hours swallowed by the Grand Theft Auto series—each a best seller, each a classic in its own right—and of all the pop-culture references shaped. Boring dads in band T-shirts and shitty jeans have Star Wars, we have Grand Theft Auto. I know which I would prefer.

Mafia fantasies, jackknife betrayals, and murdering people with a purple rubber dildo. Pimps, two-bit hustlers, and fast money of the most illicit means possible. Big guns, exploding cars, and soundtracks that became instantly iconic. Each GTA game blessed players with a huge, weird sandbox in which they can cause chaos and lose themselves entirely. Full of cultural references and cartoon mayhem, the series has mixed humor and a genuine love for the crime genre and created several games that have kept gamers glued to their controllers.

Here are just a handful of the series' greatest moments.

Being betrayed by Lance Vance – 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City'

I suppose we should've all seen it coming. In the chunky lines of pure gangster movie cliché that we'd been chopped out thus far, we should've guessed that a double-cross was likely. But not like this. It caught me cold, like a gut punch—even though the name of the mission was a pretty huge clue. Regardless: Fuck you, Lance Vance, and fuck your Lance Vance Dance.

"You sold us out..." said Tommy Vercetti—still (for me) in that stupid blue Hawaiian shirt; stuck in the wardrobe stasis that was the sixth generation of consoles—on learning of his mate's siding with Sonny, Tommy's ex-boss and now enemy.

"No... I sold you out, Tommy," said Lance. "I sold you out." Then, with everyone in their place, Tommy starts shooting.

For a 13-year-old me, with the culmination of this many references I didn't fully understand, living my life by the thrilling chameleon hue of Tommy's HUD and the buzz of hairspray rock, this was pretty much the best way you can end a game: murdering a friend who betrayed you in a massive mansion in a hail of lead. It was amazing.

Unlocking a motherfucking jetpack – 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'

Up until this point, San Andreas had seemed cartoonish, yes, but at least grounded in some sort of reality. It was a viscous, sweating gumbo of every low-rent rap narrative you could name, loosely tied together with lazy references to every movie from the early 1990s, but at least it made the vaguest bit of sense... And then came "The Black Project."

Forgetting the fact that San Andreas earlier became so bogged down in reality that it made you do a series of excruciating flight exams before it deemed you safe enough to fly, you now got the chance to use "jetpack" as a verb while you flew out of a military base named after a sex-act and let rip a clack-clack-clack-clack with your tiny Carbine rifle.

A mission set up by a cock-eyed hippie named The Truth, "The Black Project" was—for lack of a better term—fucking dumb. (And that's coming from a game in which someone hid a mini-game where you earned points for sexing your pixelated girlfriend real, real good.) But it was brilliant: you had to break into San Andreas state's version of Area 51—here, called "Area 69" because this is a game for adults—and murder everyone as you descend a pretty terrifying spiral staircase full of lads dressed in camouflage and violence, steal a LITERAL JETPACK, and then jetpack it home. It was frankly quite pornographic.

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Three Leaf Clover – 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

For all the things the Grand Theft Auto series does poorly—hand-to-hand combat, online stability, literally anything to do with women—there are twice as many things it does brilliantly. And it doesn't do anything half as good as it does a heist.

Considering that GTA IV is easily the least loved game of the series, it adds a little bit of edge that it contains its best mission: the Heat-ripping, heart-pounding "Three Leaf Clover."

It starts with you, Niko, walking wherever you're walking, and getting a text from one of the McReary brothers, an in-fighting gang of Irish-American cokeheads that you've somehow fallen in with. Next thing you know, you're in a suit with a massive shooter and a bag of C4, about to take the Bank of Liberty for a cool $1 million. How did this happen? This was supposed to be the game of small-time crooks and grubby apartments.

"Three Leaf Clover" is a thrilling mission that requires you to shoot every person in your path, and every car with flashing lights that comes screaming into your view. Every single set-piece in the mission becomes an event: Michael's death, the hostage killed in retaliation, the first NOOSE chopper that comes into view, the getaway through Chinatown. It takes everything that's good about the series and pounds it deep into your brain, with a slick narrative and a sound mix that'll make you shit your pants.

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Going 3D – 'Grand Theft Auto III'

I think I said "Fuck" or maybe "Fucking hell." I was ten and sitting on my mate Tyler's bed and he'd put Grand Theft Auto III on and let it load. That loading time seemed to last 20 minutes. And then I saw it. "Fuck."

I was adamant, seeing this guy on the screen in an alley wearing a battered black leather jacket and army trousers, that nothing would ever top this game. My eyes stood on stalks, and nearly fell out of my head. This wasn't a video game—this was a movie that I controlled. The dialogue was slick and sharp and funny, and the music was brilliant (I'll never forget driving around in a blacked-out Sentinel listening to Double Clef FM as long as I live), and the missions were hard, violent, and just a little bit crazy.

But for all its bells and whistles, the game had a mood. It felt nasty. It felt dangerous. Like, Resident Evil had a mood that suggested horror and pure evil and guts and gore, GTA III had a mood that dripped dirty needles and burned-out cars and taking baseball bats to those who crossed you. That game hit me like a bat when I played it. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The moment I took control of this little shark-eyed thug with squeaky sneakers, I knew I loved this game.

Meeting Trevor – 'Grand Theft Auto V'

You're way out in the weeds and Johnny, our beloved biker protagonist from GTA IV expansion The Lost and Damned, is chatting to some geezer, Trevor, clad in a vomit-y wife-beater vest and with a pretty severe look in his eye. See, Trevor just fucked Johnny's missus, and Johnny has taken exception to that...

Until now Grand Theft Auto V had been almost a little bit underwhelming. The scale was immense, the detail was extraordinary, but the story? Eh. It felt like maybe there was a little too much going on under the hood to make much of a show on the surface. And then Trevor came along.

Far from being the series' best character—or even this particular game's—Trevor was an absolute weapon. He was as close a manifestation of evil as you're ever likely to see from the series and he's on your screen and he's got his cock out and he's kicking a well-remembered character from a previous game's head into watermelon chunks in a hick half-a-town while screaming "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" like Sexy Beast's Don Logan. And you—sitting there in your boxer shorts playing this game on a Saturday morning—got to control this fucking guy. He was a character that held a mirror up to the genre and showed us what real villainy looked like: bitter, spiteful, and cruel.

Kent Paul and Maccer – 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City' and 'San Andreas'

In possibly the most Essex moment of anyone's life, the moment Tommy Vercetti stumbled into that nightclub and met Kent Paul I stood bolt upright and shouted "DAD! QUICK! DANNY DYER!"

A national treasure whose wit and wisdom has now become stamped onto our collective psyches like the iron emblem of a decent lager tap, Danny Dyer's appearance in Grand Theft Auto remains one of the funniest and most surprising things I've ever seen. Twice.

In Vice City, he was a slang-spouting motormouth club promoter with a brain full of bugle and arms that swung about like wind chimes when he spoke, and in San Andreas, he was the beleaguered (and still heavily gakked) manager of Mancunian musician Maccer, played by fellow (somehow still-)living legend Shaun Ryder. The second appearance, in particular, is an absolute delight: lost in the Las Venturas desert with Maccer, they're pilling out of their box, trapped in a car with C.J., our main man, who hasn't got a clue what's going on. Bringing an entire game's worth of hilarity and cramming it into a couple of throwaway cutscenes, it's easily the best pair of cameos in the whole series.

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The introduction – 'Grand Theft Auto II'

The second installment was my introduction to the whole franchise, as an idiot eight year old that somehow convinced his mom to ignore the 18 rating. I don't know what I was expecting. At the time, the only games I ever played were FIFA and anything with Tony Hawk's name plastered on it.

The introduction to II is, in retrospect, a shoddy compilation of clichés and Jack Branning from EastEnders running about New York with the kind of whip-bang-flash editing that came to define a lot of the late 90s (plus there's one weird moment where a woman sings "Yakuza..." with all of the enthusiasm of someone ordering some tiles from Wickes). At the time, of course, everyone thought this intro movie was the best thing anyone had ever seen. "Bloody hell!" we'd say, sweaty at the mere thought of it. All of our action dreams in one place, neatly packaged at the start of what proved to be a solid top-down fuckaround game with a touch of subtlety that was probably wasted on a gaggle of pre-pubescent children from east London who just wanted to mow down Hare Krishna processions.

Killing Vlad – 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

It feels like you don't get a gun for ages in this game. You're just running errands and meeting people and you sort of forget that you're playing a game where you need a gun all the time... And then you get one. And then you use it. It's loud and scary and sounds like it shoots thunder and picks up echoes off the walls and sends blood flying out of people's heads. It feels and sounds like, well, a gun. It felt like you'd been given a responsibility and you had to exercise it with caution and respect (at least for a bit).

When you have to murder Vlad, the East-European crook with a dickhead complex who makes you run about doing his bidding and then screws you over, the gun feels heavy in your avatar's hand and it actually feels really, really shitty to be about to kill someone. It's crazy to think that a game can make you feel like that. You kidnap Vlad and take him out to the river. He's pleading for his life as you shoot him in the head and watch as he slumps, lifeless, bloody, into the river and sinks to the bed.

It genuinely felt quite shocking to do that to someone. The series never really came close to recreating this sense of intense guilt and shame and humanity again, but for one fleeting moment—click-click, bang—they nailed it.


More 'Greatest Moments' pieces, here.

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