“Grand Theft Auto” is back in New York. After making stops in stand-ins for Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, Rockstar Games’ notorious chart-topping series is heading back to Liberty City, the stand-in for the Big Apple that served as the setting in 2001′s breakthrough “Grand Theft Auto III.”
At 6 p.m. ET on Thursday (March 29), Rockstar Games revealed the first in-game details of “Grand Theft Auto IV” in a one-minute trailer on RockstarGames.com. The site was hammered by traffic, making it nearly impossible to watch in the first hour. But for those who hit refresh at just the right time, they saw a return to Liberty City for the PS3 and Xbox 360 editions of “GTA IV,” which are slated for release October 16.
Scenes of Liberty City’s thinly veiled New York flashed by — the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Times Square — in the high-definition detail befitting a game slated for the two most powerful consoles on the market. The realistic cities and detailed characters supported a promise made by Rockstar reps to MTV News last year that the game would use the high-end graphics technology Rockstar Advanced Game Engine, introduced in the company’s 2006 title “Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis” (see “The First Rule Of Ping-Pong Club: Talk About Rockstar’s Table Tennis Game” ).
The trailer closed with a depiction of the person likely to be the main character of the game, an olive-skinned man speaking in what sounded like a Russian accent: “Life is complicated,” he says. “I killed people, smuggled people, sold people. Perhaps here things will be different.”
When asked who this man is and where he comes from, a Rockstar rep replied, “We would like to let the trailer speak for itself. However, we can confirm that all footage in the trailer ‘Things Will Be Different’ was captured directly from 720p gameplay running real time in our RAGE engine on a next-gen gaming console.”
The trailer also gave no indication of how this game will play compared to others. Previous games have emphasized a single-player experience, but recent installments have dropped enough multiplayer modes to suggest that expanding beyond solo play is an interest of the series’ development team.
What was evident is that the satirical vibe of previous “GTA” games will return. The quick glimpses of Liberty City were enough to show that New York’s MetLife building is the GetaLife building in those parts. Across the street from Liberty City’s version of the MTV Times Square offices was a movie poster for the fictional film “I Slept With Your Mom,” reflected in the windows of what must be a bizarro-world version of the “TRL” studio. Down the block was an ad not for Sprite but for Sprunk.
The “Grand Theft Auto” series was launched in 1997 by a Scottish development team known as DMA Design, later renamed Rockstar North. The games were played from a bird’s-eye view and featured the now-familiar ability to steal and drive any car around the game’s city. The developers used London as their first recognizable setting.
The series transitioned from success to blockbuster with “Grand Theft Auto III,” which moved the series to the PS2, set the action in Liberty City and — perhaps most importantly — was played in three dimensions. The players now controlled an unnamed hoodlum at ground level. A soundtrack loaded with licensed songs and spoofs of talk radio — all played through in-car stereos — gave the game its beat.
In 2002, “Vice City” remixed those ingredients to present criminal Thomas “Tommy” Vercetti in 1980s Miami. Two year later, beleaguered but violent Carl “CJ” Johnson coped with early-’90s Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”
By 2004, the series was a phenomenon. “San Andreas” sold more than 5 million units in the last three months of 2004 alone, according to the NPD group, the marketing-research firm that tracks sales. It also became a lightning rod, as the series garnered criticism for its depiction of violence against women, police officers and various ethnic groups — and then later for a partially developed interactive sex scene a Dutch hacker found in the game (see ” ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ Makers Sued Over Sexual Content” ). Critics said the game went too far. Fans said the games were great because they gave players liberty to do anything.
More trailers are expected before the release of “GTA IV” on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in October.