In case you hadn’t heard, Grand Theft Auto V was released this week with a record-breaking $800m in day-one sales. Wow. Things have come a long way from the original GTA, 1997’s top-down world simulator quite unlike anything else on the market at the time. You played the role of a thug coming up in the criminal underworld of any one of three metropolis: Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, each tougher than the last. The approach: steal and kill for glory and respect.
For twelve-year-old me, it was like video games had grown up (despite the juvenile take on the subject matter). Here was a game that used the word ‘shit’! When you died, it didn’t say ‘game over’; instead, huge yellow letters gleefully informed you that you’d been ‘WASTED!’, as if you couldn’t tell. If you were nabbed by the 5-0, you were ‘BUSTED!’ – this never happened to Super Mario.
However revelatory the original game was, however technically impressive and more complete the later 3D games felt, my favourite of the series remains largely forgotten. In 1999, on the eve of the release of the highly anticipated GTA2, Rockstar released an add-on for the original. Presumptuously titled ‘Mission Pack #1’ (there would be no #2), GTA London 1969 put a fascinating spin on the original concept. Where the first GTA had attempted, through its tone, its sense of humour and its (awesome) soundtrack, to immerse the player in the now, GTA London casts you back to – you guessed it – 1969, and attempts a similar level of immersion. By choosing a real-world location and a specific era, Rockstar set themselves a pretty lofty goal.
You’re given your choice of four likely lads to unleash upon the unsuspecting London: stoner Charles Jones, proto-punk Sid Vacant, well ‘ard geezer Maurice Caine and mod Rodney Morash. It’s purely an aesthetic choice. Regardless of who you choose, your in-game sprite is the same yellow jumper-wearing goon from the first game. If you’ve played GTA to death and are excitedly jumping into new missions in London, it’s an eerie sight to see what could be Kivlov or Travis waging war across the pond.
And that’s not the only jarring aspect. If you’ve adjusted to driving on the right hand side of the road in the US-based original, get ready for a cruel surprise in London. Rockstar have smothered the game in all kinds of UK-style slang, too. Where the first game was full of bent cops, rastas and mobsters all adhering to the broadest of stereotypes, you won’t get far in GTA London without knowing a ‘prat’ from a ‘ponce’, or ‘the monkey’ from ‘the cheese grater’.
Your thug is working for the Crisp Twins, businessmen brothers whose legitimacy is about as kosher as a sausage synagogue. You tear around a scale approximation of London featuring all the good parts and plenty of the bad. The entire palette of the game feels drab, and as such it’s not hard to imagine the gloomy grey sky above the city. When you’re busted in this one, ‘YOU’RE NICKED’, and when you’re wasted, ‘YOU’RE BROWN BREAD’. Cultural references abound: you’ll upstage a James Bondian secret agent, help Lord Lucan disappear, jack a big red double decker bus and drive one of those stupid Union Jack Austin Powers cars while listening to a pirate radio station. Feel like you’re there yet?
That’s all before the best part of the game. The GTA games might be as well known these days for their extensive licensed soundtracks as for their brutal violence, but it wasn’t always that way. The first game has an entirely original soundtrack spanning all kinds of genres (and as I’ve said, it’s excellent), but GTA London was the first time a GTA game featured licensed music. And what a soundtrack it is: Trojan Records superstars like Harry J. Allstars, the Upsetters and Symarip to Italian cinema maestro Riz Ortolani find themselves remixed into 1969-esque radio stations that are absolutely unforgettable once heard. It’s the same keen ear at work behind the scenes picking the perfect songs to set the tone as in the modern era of GTA games, and it’s just as much of a success for it. You can even put the PlayStation disc in your CD player (remember those?) and listen to the soundtrack that way. As you’d expect, it makes for great driving music.
As the series grew in notoriety it’s easy to understand why Rockstar have never gone back to London. Setting the level of violence the fans expect in a virtual ‘real’ city would cause outrage beyond imagination, even if the level of detail put into Vice City or San Andreas makes it no less ‘real’. But that’s okay, GTA London is still there whenever you want to blow it up, not that that was ever the point. The game’s greatest impact and legacy remains its soundtrack. So…let’s blow it up again.