In the game you control a criminal, who does various jobs for a series of gangsters and other villains. These jobs involve all manner of criminal activities, including assassination, prostitution, drug dealing, gang warfare and bank robbery. He is a skilled carjacker, which allows him to steal the cars needed to get around the vast cities (Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City), which are the settings for the game.
The game is mainly 'arcade' in style, with an emphasis on action, rather than tactics and strategic thinking. Much of the action involves car chases, although sometimes you must be on foot - either to chase people covertly or take on people where the car cannot go.
The Aim of the Game
Grand Theft Auto consists of a series of levels, each set in one of the three cities in the game. In each level, you have a target number of points to achieve, and you have five lives to attain the score. If you manage to get enough points, you must then drive to a certain location to complete the level, which allows you to progress to the next one.
Apart from that, you are free to do what you want. You could just explore the city, cause death and destruction amid the traffic, or steal and sell cars for profit, although if you want to complete levels, you will almost certainly have to fulfil missions. Even within these missions you still have some freedom, as you are usually free to choose the route to take, although the destination is mostly fixed. This level of freedom is not to be found in most action-based computer games.
There are various ways in which you can earn the points needed to complete each level.
You can earn some points by committing various crimes, such as ramming cars (10 points each), and killing policemen (1000 each). The more serious the crime, the more points, but also the more attention the police will pay to you.
Another way to make money is to steal cars, and sell them at the many docks around each city, usually earning several thousand points.
These methods can give you quite a number of points but this is not sufficient to earn the millions of points needed to complete each level (unless you have a lot of patience), so you will have to take on missions to complete a level. If you complete a mission successfully, you get 'paid', a large amount of points. A typical payment is in the region of 50,000 points.
Also, on completion of a mission, you get an increase of one to your score multiplier. The score multiplier is used to multiply the normal score awarded for achievements, to work out the points you actually receive. For example a multiplier of 3 will mean that you get 3*10 = 30 points for ramming a car, rather than the normal 10 points. This applies for everything you get points for, including the payment for completing a mission.
In most cases, you receive missions by answering telephones, although some missions are allocated on the spot, or require you to find a vehicle to start them.
When you take a mission, you will be given a series of instructions that you must follow. You get the instructions in stages, so your objectives might have to change halfway through if the situation changes.
Many of the missions involve tasks that can be completed at your own speed, so you can take a leisurely pace, and observe the traffic laws, although there is always the temptation to cut corners. However, sometimes the game imposes time limits on mission completion, or there may be people chasing after you, (such as enemy gangsters, or the police), forcing you to take risks to get to your destination on time, and/or evade your pursuers. This means running red lights, driving on the pavement (risking running over pedestrians), and finding shortcuts.
While the cities have other emergency services, as a criminal, you are most likely to notice the local cops.
The police are constantly on the lookout for criminals. You have a 'wanted' level, which reflects how much attention the police will pay to you. At the start of the game this is set at zero and they ignore you, but when you commit a serious crime, the police start to notice you, and your wanted level increases - up to a maximum of four.
At level one, the police tend only to give chase if they are in the area anyway, whereas by level four, the police set up roadblocks on major roads, shoot on sight, and send everyone available to your location. The more crimes you commit, the higher your rating goes. Also, sometimes you automatically get noticed, if a mission leads to someone calling the police, or in the case of bank robberies that, not surprisingly, put the police on full alert.
The police aim is in general to arrest you, although they will not hesitate in shooting you, or trying to ram you off the road, in a desperate attempt to stop you (and they get more trigger happy the higher your wanted level). Once arrested, you are dropped off at the nearest police station, losing all your weapons and armour, and halving your score multiplier - but resetting your wanted level back to zero.
The police are very determined to catch you, but you can give them the slip. Dotted around each city are a number of respray shops where your vehicle can be repainted, or the license plates changed, to disguise it. This makes the police think you are someone else (even if they see you enter the shop), although this does cost money (ie points).
During the game, you can pick up many objects, (contained in crates), and in fact this is where you obtain all your weapons.
The pistol is a rather uninspiring weapon, but is the most readily available. It fires one shot at a time, and while good enough against individuals, it is not very useful in destroying vehicles.
The machine gun is quite a step up from the pistol, allowing rapid fire, and it can destroy most cars in seconds. The availability of machine guns is more limited than pistols.
The flamethrower is very destructive, and highly effective, but it only has a short range. If you use it to destroy cars, this short range means that you are at more risk of being caught in the resulting explosion. If you can handle the downside of using the flamethrower, you are rewarded with a tripling of the points you get for killing people and destroying cars.
The rocket launcher is one of the most destructive weapons, destroying most vehicles in a single shot, as well as causing a large explosion that could kill more than just the original target. This can be a downside, as (if the rocket hits something close to you), you can get caught in the explosion.
Body armour is not a weapon as such, but is very useful in combat. Normally being shot once is enough to kill you, but body armour will protect you from three shots before its power runs out.
Some of the power-ups are self-explanatory, such as 'Extra Life' and (score) 'Multiplier Increase'. However, there are some more interesting bonuses, that deserve a more detailed mention:
The Police Bribe is useful if the police are looking for you, as it reduces your wanted level to zero, so they suddenly ignore you, in a similar manner to going to a respray shop.
On picking up a Kill Frenzy, you are given a time limit in which to get a certain number of points, and usually a weapon to do it with. This encourages you to cause carnage by blowing up cars and killing people, attracting the attention of the police. This increases the challenge, as you then have to avoid (or kill) the police while getting the points, although killing police does earn more points than killing civilians.
If you succeed you get a reward, and your wanted level is reduced to zero, so the police ignore you. This provides an incentive to complete the challenge - particularly as, if you fail, your wanted level is likely to be high, due to the killings and destruction usually involved in an attempted killing spree.
These missions sometimes give you a vehicle to complete the frenzy. These include tanks, and remote control cars packed with explosives.
The Speed Up and Car Speed Up power-ups are similar, in that the former allows you to run faster, while the latter speeds up any cars you drive. Both of these are therefore useful if you are in a hurry.
The Get Outta Jail Card, unlike the other power-ups, is not used immediately. Instead, it is saved until you are arrested, and allows you to keep any items you are carrying, as well as preserving your score multiplier.
Throughout the game there are a large number of vehicles, each with their own characteristics, from fast sports cars, to slow but resilient lorries. These you can steal, either by throwing the occupant onto the street, or by breaking into ones that are parked. Some vehicles are also provided in missions, or hidden in various parts of each city. Also, each city has a train service that lets you travel quickly around it.
Most of the traffic in each city consists of cars of various sorts. These vary considerably in speed. The more sensible cars are fairly slow, and have appropriate names such as the Bug. The sports cars however are much faster, and have names like Jugular2 which reflect their more adventurous nature. These are more suitable for high speed cases, whereas the slower cars are more suited to missions without a time limit. Vans are available as well, although they are usually at the slower end of the scale
Some of the vehicles are longer and more unwieldy than cars. These include limousines, buses and coaches, but the biggest of these is the tanker. Due to their bulk each one takes a long time to speed up, or slow down, and they have similar difficulties in turning, having a wider turning circle. This bulk however, gives such vehicles more pushing power, making them ideal for ramming cars out of the way, and also makes them hard to ram. They also tend to be more resilient, taking more damage before they are destroyed.
In contrast, motorbikes are small and much more manoeuverable, with a smaller turning circle, and are able to speed up and slow down very quickly. They also tend to have high top speeds. Their lack of bulk however, means that they are more vulnerable. They can take less damage, and are easier to ram, while having very little ramming power of their own, and a violent enough collision can throw you off the bike.
The emergency services also have vehicles that can be stolen. Fire engines are large vehicles, similar in handling to tankers, and are called out whenever there is a fire, usually as a result of an explosion. Ambulances are similar to small vans, and are called out in the case of someone being injured. Both of these events are frequently the result of your actions. Finally the police in their squad cars are called out to chase criminals - you in particular. Unlike other drivers, the police cannot be simply thrown out of their vehicles, but their cars can be stolen if the driver is killed, or lured out of the vehicle. None of these vehicles can have their plates changed to reset your wanted level.
And for special occasions there is the tank. This, as would be expected, can simply drive over other vehicles on the road, and cannot be rammed by other vehicles. It can take a lot of damage before being destroyed, although it isn't quite invincible. Tanks are very rare, and are usually hidden, on the levels that have them.
The success of Grand Theft Auto led to a number of sequels.
These started with the London based expansion pack Grand Theft Auto: London, followed by the first proper sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, both of which appeared on PC and Playstation (Grand Theft Auto 2 also appeared on the Dreamcast and Gameboy Colour). The most recent sequels, (at the time of writing), Grand Theft Auto 3, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City have appeared on PC and Playstation 2, and have abandoned the top down view of the earlier games, for a 'proper' 3D view.