Grand Theft Auto 2
Revisiting the weirdest GTA.
fter the runaway A success of the first GrandTheftAuto in 1997, DMA Design— now known as Rockstar North—had to keep the momentum going with a sequel. GrandTheftAuto2 was released in 1999, and refined the freeform structure that made the original such a hit, but with a wildly different visual style and a new respect system. Reviews were mixed, and sales were lower than expected, but it was an important step towards the series’ influential leap to three dimensions with GrandTheftAutoIII in 2001. While the first game features contemporary caricatures of New York, San Francisco, and Miami, GrandTheftAuto2 takes place in the entirely fictional Anywhere City, a retro-futuristic metropolis with a bleak, dystopian atmosphere. Promo material for the game describes it as “a fully dysfunctional urban hell” and explains that the artists modelled the city on apocalyptic visions of the future from the ’70s and ’80s movies This is an early example of cult cinema, particularly from America, influencing Rockstar’s games.
The vehicles are especially stylish, taking vintage ’50s designs—all curves, chrome, and giant grills—and giving them a futuristic twist. “As if Havana got transported to the 21st Century,” says the game’s charmingly retro Flash-based website, which is still available online, almost 20 years later. It’s the most heavily stylized and visually imaginative game in the series, representing a curious digression before the studio eventually settled on GrandTheft Auto being a satirical parody of the worst of modern pop culture.
But there are traces of the wry satire that would come to define the series, mostly on the tongue-in-cheek radio stations that play when you enter a vehicle. There are 11 in total, some of which can only be heard in certain parts of the city, playing a variety of music recorded especially for the game. And between the songs there are puerile commercials advertising fictional products, which would eventually become a series staple, including ‘Orgasmo’ chocolate bars (“Cold, hard, and surge after surge of creamy caramel”) and ‘Lad Rover’ SUVs (“A fanny magnet women just can’t avoid”).
Not exactly Rockstar’s sharpest satire, but it’s interesting to see (well, hear)
an important part of the series slowly taking shape. In fact, the whole game almost feels like a prototype for the series’ transition to 3D. It expands on the wanted system, bringing in SWAT teams, roadblocks, and the military when you cause enough mayhem. The AI is smarter, which means fights can break out between the police and gangs, and sometimes you’ll even be pulled out of a car you’ve attempted to steal by its furious owner. We take this stuff for granted in GTA today, but in 1999 it was all brand new. You can see the first seeds being planted for the anarchic, emergent AI interactions that would make Los Santos feel so vibrant and alive in GTAV.
There are six wanted levels, represented by the floating heads of police officers at the top of the screen. A minor crime (at least in GTA terms), such as murdering a few pedestrians, gets you one star and a police chase. Keep killing folk and you’ll escalate to two, then three, which sends more cops after you and more aggressively. But it’s when you hit four heads that things get dicey. SWAT vans carrying four heavily armored officers will come at you. At five heads ‘special agents’ (the FBI, basically) with silenced machine guns are sent in. Then, finally, at six heads the national guard will be mobilized, throwing tanks and armored cars at you. By this point it’s a miracle if you survive for more than a few minutes,
but there’s a thrill in seeing how long you can last when the city is throwing everything it has at you. And, of course, you can drive a tank yourself and unleash your very own symphony of explosions.
Even two years after the first game was released, being able to freely roam the map and tackle missions in almost any order you wanted was still a novelty. As was the addition of bonus missions and optional objectives, like the infamous Kill Frenzies (later ‘rebranded’ as Rampages) that challenge you to kill X amount of people in X amount of time with X weapon. The map was also littered with spinning tokens, a precursor to the hidden packages, pigeons, and radioactive waste in later sequels. Yes, even at this early stage open world games were filling their maps with arbitrary collectibles.
Reading reviews from the time, every single one of them (including our own) criticizes the visuals. The real-time lighting effects and sharper sprites are an improvement on the original, but it’s still fairly ugly, even by 1999 standards. Something the developer actually addresses on the game’s website. “We spend time on gameplay rather than throwing millions of polygons around,” it says, predicting the critics. “We’ve got complex, interactive AI and fun, elaborate missions.” It adds that while a “typical game these days” will use 70% of its processor time on visuals, GTA2 has an “emphasis on content, with 50% used for game code”. A rare time when Rockstar wasn’t at the forefront of technology.
But of all the systems GTA2 experiments with, the respect meter is the most interesting and ambitious. Seven colorful gangs rule the city and its various districts, and your standing with them constantly changes as you play the game.
The Zaibatsu Corporation and the Loonies, for example, are arch rivals, which means completing jobs for one will offend the other and alter your respect. And some gangs won’t even offer you any work until you’ve spilled the blood of a competitor. A meter at the top-left of the screen lets you keep tabs on what each group thinks of you, and some of the most lucrative missions are only available if you have maximum respect.
Some of the Kill Frenzy missions are crazy difficult.
You can save your game at these churches.
No, this is not a handsome game.
Serving up cold death.
The real-time lighting in action.
Hey, at least I wasn’t wasted.
Don’t drive into the water.