The list of changes were huge. The dev team finally got their full day/night cycle, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. What really changed was the scope. Freedom was front and centre, as always, but the level of freedom was just incredible. GTA III's Liberty City wasn't just a bigger world, it was a denser, deeper, more textured one, jammed with missions, sidemissions and hidden secrets.
That there was only a two-year gap between 2 and III just made it more impressive. But if GTA III was good, Vice City was better.
The big technological shift had already taken place, so with Vice City, Rockstar set their sights on refining the experience, rather than the engine: GTA III's edges were smoothed out, and everything that made the third game work so well, worked even better in Vice City.
Features were bolted on, like the ability to purchase properties, but what really made Vice City tick was its unmatched sense of time and place: this was a pitch-perfect interpretation of '80s Miami, backed by fantastic characters, knowing nods to the likes of Scarface, a soundtrack that was one, big guilty pleasure, and a sandbox that struck exactly the right balance between freedom of movement and careful directing of the player. It was - and maybe still is - the series' high point.
"San Andreas was startingly ambitious, with three cities of almost intimidating size..."
When San Andreas arrived, it was clear Rockstar were totally at home with the engine. It was a startlingly ambitious game, with three cities of almost intimidating size. For the first time it included an RPG element, minigames like basketball and pool, burglaries, gang wars and car mods. There were 200 vehicles, 861 actors, plus you could even import your own MP3's to add to the eleven radio stations that were already there.
But San Andreas was still an odd game: it was almost too big, too open-ended, the sandbox a little too unregulated, and - after the cracking Liberty City Stories and problematic but excellent Vice City Stories on PSP - perhaps it was the reason Rockstar scaled things back for the next 'full size' game, GTA IV.
Not that IV was lacking in scope - Liberty City remains a stunning piece of design - more that Rockstar put a limit on the feature set and, in some ways, what was possible in the sandbox. In doing so, IV lost some of the series' sense of fun (even if DLC Gay Tony was a riot) and is, perhaps, the reason fans don't love it in the same way they love III, Vice City and San Andreas.
Yet, it's easy to get picky when a series is as stupendously good as this - and it's easier to forget that all of this has been achieved in a little over 11 years...
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