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mendel's GTA Review

Attention: if you've never played GTA, you probably won't have much fun with this review as it has no sales talk, no screenshots, no handbook-like explanation on how to play the game. Get over to Gouranga where you'll find more information about the game and also some playable PC demos. Look a bit, play a bit, then come back here and read my analysis of why this game is great. Oh, and if you dislike swearwords and bloody splotches on the screen, don't let your kids have it.

GTA takes almost everyone who plays it for the first time by surprise. It's fast, it confronts you with an incredibly complex environment, it's easy to play, and it not only has action but dialogue as well.

The GTA interface shows you everything at a glance. No funny instruments, not even a speedometer - who needs it? You can see for yourself how fast you're going, and you can hear for yourself how damaged your engine is. You don't need a radar to show you your enemies because they're right there. Your inventory (such as it is) is right there on the game screen. Very well designed!

The GTA gameplay puts it somewhere between action and simulation. Most action games make you survive, this one makes you earn money. (Hmm, ever seen "Slobzone"?) Most simulations make you buy your resources, here they're up for grabs, driving (or running) around the street. Your capital is your car, you invest it in a job, and you can get a new one anytime. The gameplay is fast - much faster as any adventure or simulation. (Or does it just sound fast? Great soundtrack, guys!) The world is much deeper than any action game's.

Typical action games are boring. I mean, yes, Quake has great architecture, but the people! All the guys/monsters are on guard duty, standing around waiting or patrolling. Who's living in these halls? Doesn't anyone have anything to do at all? I want to see monsters looking for food, small ones scrurrying away as they see big ones, if there is supposed to be a hierarchy have them be at their various tasks, if you must have guards have someone feed them or change guards, have one shift rest in the quarters, have them run from you if they're few, have them send reinforcements, give the evil overloard at least some realtime strategy intelligence powers to counter you! (I hear Body Harvest by DMA will have Aliens with a believable task, but I don't have a N64 so I won't play it,most likely.) GTA presents you with a believable world where the streets have names (well almost) and most people just aren't out to get you. (If you are out to get them, well, that's another matter...) Trains go, someone cares for the wounded (in an action game they're just left to rot), fire trucks and police make the rounds, and you can see any kind of vehicle, not only high-powered ones.

Some action games have a semblance of a storyline, advanced in cutscenes (Wing Commander, anyone?) or mysterious messages. Adventures have a storyline, too, but they make the player advance that. It's almost the same in GTA. Your actions decide what the boss will say to you, they will decide your career, they mean life or death for those characters you hear about. Granted, the locations aren't as colorful, you hardly meet up with anybody (friend or foe) directly, and if you do, they're just a heap of pixels. Your alter ego seems a silent type, with no time to think about what to say to anyone, so he just lets it go. Adventures use music to set a mood. GTA does that excellently. Some cars aquire a personality that way (you just need to use the hillbilly pickup once in a while ;-).

All in all, GTA succeeds in doing what art forever strives to do: create a world of its own for us to escape to while reflecting ourselves in it.

Good job, guys!

So where's room for improvement? Which direction should a sequel take?

Were I DMA Design (which I am not, obviously), I would...

  • let more than human be in a world while doing meaningful tasks. Yes, that calls for a cooperative mode, improved TCP/IP gameplay that can cope with pings up to 200ms, and some servers or other meeting-places for players to gather.

  • give the authors more freedom in crafting a storyline. I am a bit at loss how this could be done without slowing the action down. Perhaps the ability to get and give more varied objects to people and to have dialogs where the player can select between two possible answers (yes/no) could be integrated.

  • let GTA enthusiasts be authors. I hate games without editors. If your 3D-world gets more freeform, make sure the editor can import common 3D model formats such as VRML, for instance.

  • support for LCD Shutterglasses. Come on, it's not that hard! The 'looking-down-effect' would be enhanced, with the city inside your monitor and the text on the face of the screen.

  • be more varied in themes: Science Fiction, rural Texas, even Rallye tracks come to mind. Or Chicago 1920s? Have Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade drive around some scenery. Have a fiction storyline: as you are the driver, you won't be a main actor, but you'll be able to follow a tragedy unfolding from afar. Actually, that leads us to 'GTA - the Movie' and thus beyond the scope of this review.

Since I am not DMA Design, I'll just wait to see what these fellows will come up with. Good luck to you!

If you want more thought food on why GTA gets to you, I suggest you take a look at this Telepolis article of May 1998 where the thrill of modern computer games is compared with the effect Labyrinths always had on humans.

Playing in Labyrinths

Norman M. Klein: "Scripted spaces are configured as a narrative journey where the audience becomes a central character, from the domes by Brunelleschi or Mantegna in the fifteenth century to Citywalk, Sim City computer games, Doom, Myst, ..."

original English text German translation

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Created by Michael Mendelsohn 12. Sep 98