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"Everything about Vice City positively reeks of genius." - TotalGames.net
"San Andreas successfully fuses its grand scale with consistently clever missions..." - GMR Magazine, Nov. 2004
"[GTA III is] the most innovative, outlandish, brilliant video game I've ever seen." - Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine, Jan. 2002
Genius? Clever? Brilliant? Really?
Well, OK, yes. As a series, Grand Theft Auto has always been heaped with accolades from critics and fans - and for the most part, it's deserved them. But take a step back from the open-world approach and rampant criminality for a second, and ask yourself: deep down, is the series really as smart as it's given credit for? Or has the freedom to get into firefights with Florida retirees blinded us to its shortcomings?
With Grand Theft Auto IV set to redefine the series' tone and sense of smartness in under a week's time, we decided it was time to take a look back and re-appraise whether GTA has really been as clever as it's always made out to be.
Exploiting stereotypes is something the GTA series gets accused of a lot, mainly by people who've never played it. When those people look at, say, San Andreas and see that it's a crime game starring a young black man with a gun, they make all sorts of assumptions about how he's being portrayed.
Few of these, however, will actually resemble the character GTA fans know and love as Carl "C.J." Johnson. Why? Because when they make those assumptions, the game's critics rely on their own shallow stereotypes of what young black criminals are like. And that's one of the things that makes GTA interesting: in spite of appearances, the series doesn't normally settle for falling back on easy stereotypes. It chews them up and subverts them.
Above: From left to right are Marty Jay Williams, Auntie Poulet and El Burro. Hmmm...
Or at least, that's what Rockstar would like you to think. The truth is that not every character can be adequately fleshed out, and the ones who aren't tend to be memorable only because they're stereotypes. Take Vice City Stories' Marty Jay Williams, for example - do you remember anything at all that was interesting about him, other than that he was a drunken, wife-beating, murderbait asshole who ran the Trailer Park Mafia? For that matter, consider Avery Carrington, Auntie Poulet, Jizzy B. and Kent Paul, none of whom ever really rose above being Texan businessman/voodoo queen/flashy pimp/cockney hustler stereotypes, respectively. They were memorable, sure, but there wasn't much there if you scratched the surface.
And then there are the really cringe-inducing ones, like GTA III's Latino gang leader and donkey-porn enthusiast El Burro. Or the gay construction workers in hotpants who hang out in certain parts of Liberty City and quote Village People lyrics at you. Granted, the series has come a long way since then, but every once in a while, we get the sneaking suspicion that Rockstar's forgotten it's supposed to be laughing at tired stereotypes, instead of with them.