Grand Theft Auto is the best open-world video game series of all time. But it isn't impervious to criticism, and nor should it be. It consistently treats female characters like garbage in its most recent iteration, V. Its rendering of ethnic minority characters rarely surpasses shallow, stereotypical and cinema-inspired cultural categorisation. The ambient, street-side language is often unnecessarily coarse. Series protagonists have been tough to truly love.
Just last week, I ran a piece examining the evident dissonance between GTA V's anti-system narrative and its makers' embracing of big business. I thought it was an interesting perspective for a one-shot opinion piece, and sure enough it prompted discussion. Several commenters were quick to decry its points, but overlooking the countless variations on "hipster bullshit" that so commonly follow any article here that edges against an established grain, one post stood out to me as the saddest of all. Simply: "None of this would matter if the games were any good."
Once more: Grand Theft Auto is the best open-world video game series of all time. Look at the reviews. Look at the number of players that V's online mode is attracting – over 33 million worldwide, and that was before both collaborative heists were implemented and the PC version was released. Look at the money the game makes: in its first quarter of release, GTA V generated revenue of $1.86 billion. In terms of sales, it's the UK's biggest-selling video game of all time, across all formats, and the third-biggest in global terms, behind the console-bundled pair of Tetris and Wii Sports.
I won't go on any further about GTA V's published successes. I don't need to, as it's all out there, if you need convincing. Its blockbuster reputation will never rescind, which while great in the short term, as developer Rockstar rolls out its PC support plan, will pile on the pressure for whenever the inevitable next instalment "proper" rolls around, which it will. The longest gap between titles was that between 2009's triple threat of the mobile-platforms-only Chinatown Wars beside the GTA IV expansions of The Lost and the Damned (pretty decent) and The Ballad of Gay Tony (bloody brilliant) and 2013's V. It's 2015 now, so, 2017 for GTA VI? Right when developers are really getting the most out of the current console generation? Could be something special.
Personally, Grand Theft Auto IV was the most significant of any game in the Scotland-born series, which dates back to 1997 and the very first top-down, 2D GTA for PC and PlayStation. The games had gone 3D just at the wrong time for me, right when my time previously reserved for gaming became occupied by other things. I played a little of Grand Theft Auto III on a friend's PlayStation 2. I remember it feeling unreal, like I couldn't believe a video game could be like this. Claude never looked happy, never looked sad – he was just a blank slate, the perfect cypher upon which to code an identity unique to your play style. He was silent, too, something that would seem entirely alien after the cracking wise of V's trio of protagonists. And yet my flirtation with this new dawn of digital immersion was just that, the briefest of flings. I didn't have a PS2 to call my own at the time, so I just drifted away.
After a break from gaming lasting several years, I picked up an Xbox 360 in the summer of 2008 while between jobs, my first newly bought console since a Mega Drive in the early 1990s. (A word of advice: when you don't know where your next pay's coming from, maybe don't go to Oxford Street and buy a games console. As it happened, I got very lucky.) I brought it home with The Simpsons Game, Burnout Paradise and Grand Theft Auto IV. GTA was on first, and stayed in the drive for a month and more. My jaw hit the floor at the opening sequence – was this a movie, or a video game? It looked so far beyond what I remembered, even of the PS2's processing power. My 360 rattled and whizzed as it brought Liberty City to life, player character Niko Bellic navigating the New York City analogue's seediest avenues in pursuit of his own American Dream, but no amount of noise coming from under the telly could snap me from this game's hold. I've been in it ever since.
The newly released PC version of 'Grand Theft Auto V' introduces the Rockstar Editor
You might say, then, that Grand Theft Auto IV is responsible for me being here, doing this, right now. You'd be simplifying the last seven years of my life quite remarkably, but you might. Had I not fairly recklessly spent over £300 on a console and games I didn't need at a time when that money would have been better put towards covering the coming month's bills, I might never have fallen back in love with video games, more deeply than I ever did prior to university and everything that comes with that time in anyone's life, and I might never have taken that rekindled affection and appreciation and slowly coaxed it into a career.
IV's story expanding DLC packs and V's mix of San Andreas-style West Coast scripted carnage and chuckles-worthy emergent chaos don't merely represent games that are "any good" – they're incredible, uncommonly immersive creations where imagination takes the limitations we all face in the everyday, tosses them to the skies and riddles them with bullets. One I'd played through both The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, I restarted IV's story again. Now, this is a 40-hour-long game, but I was more than happy to start over, to witness its many highs for a second time. I didn't get much further than Niko's first steps into Alderney – but that I'd even started it again says much about the impression the game had left on me (not that I was arsed about the pigeons, even second time). I can probably count the games that I've played through several times, post Sega's demise anyway, without running over onto my toes. BioShock. Bayonetta. Does Journey count? Streets of Rage 2 I must have completed two dozen times in my life, but Red Dead Redemption, just the once.
"What are you playing this again for?" my wife asks when she comes home to find me sat in front of GTA V. It's a Saturday night, the kids are in bed, and it's been just the PlayStation and me for the past few hours. I've a good half-dozen different games on the go at the moment, old and new, in varying states of completion, from Bloodborne to Far Cry 4 via the PS4 remaster of The Last of Us and Monster Hunter 4. (And please, let's not even go near the games I've not even started yet, or we'll be here until next Friday.) I could have reached for any of them, yet GTA V has become a comfortable go-to for me, when I just want to escape for a little while and take in its perfect sunsets and summertime showers.
I played it all the way through on the now-barely-holding-itself-together 360 at the end of 2013 (to be honest, it's not – there's strips of PVC electrical tape keeping it in shape), and am slowly but surely making progress through the same story on the PS4 version. I dip in and out of its first-person perspective but, most of the time, I like to keep my distance – there's something completely unnerving about a GTA fistfight seen so close. I chip away at the missions, at the Strangers and Freaks side attractions. I see a heist to completion without remembering quite why I've set it up in such a way. A lot of cops get shot. I accidentally roll Franklin over a cliff edge and respawn outside the nearest hospital – if only real life were so merciful. I'm as far as stealing some cars for that prick Devin Weston. Two down, and I already want to stick a Vapid Bullet up his backside.
Watch something from the VICE video archive: Do Brits Get Hip-Hop?
Why am I playing this game again? To go back to the most pertinent point: because it's brilliant. I know millions and millions of people have, but if you've not played it, and have the means to, do. But also, it provides me with my own American Dream. It's unlikely I'll ever have the wherewithal to explore California at my leisure, to casually cruise a sports car from my hillside home to Cape Catfish, just for something to do. To take in nine holes of the early afternoon, enjoy a set of tennis before tea, and then gatecrash a party at Hugh's pad before I pass out under the endless stars of a pixel-perfect sky.
Maybe if I just lie here I'll see one of them move in a way that no star should, and maybe I'll go up and see that UFO on this playthrough. Maybe someone will find that jetpack for me, for all of us. Maybe I'll finally go online tomorrow, link up with some complete strangers who I'll never meet for real and eventually take down the entirely fictional Pacific Standard Back for cash that doesn't exist. To have so many maybes in a game so many months after its initial release: how wonderful is that, really? I don't ever want to live like Trevor, Michael or Franklin; I don't want California, should I ever get there, to be quite like San Andreas. Imagine the stress on the heart. But for now, GTA is the second life I need whenever the real one needs a rest. And I'll probably forever turn to it, be its setting on the West Coast or the East, in the Vice City of Miami or wherever the series goes next. I vote Chicago, if only to give us the Windy City open world that Watch Dogs fell somewhat short of delivering.
PC version screen shots via Rockstar