The Grand Theft Auto franchise is a series that manages to achieve the impossible: appealing to the mass market, whilst also maintaining an impressive degree of integrity and relevance to the core gamer. Spend just a short period of time talking to a handful of GTA fans and you are sure to be greeted with several different opinions and anecdotes on their own time spent with the game.
The creative minds at Rockstar work tirelessly to consistently construct colorful characters, places and storylines and it is in this depth that we as gamers share some of our fondest gaming memories.
It would be extremely challenging to compile a top ten lists of the best locations found within the GTA universe, so listed below, you will find a few choice locales from each of the major console releases since the PS2 era, where the series really found mass market success.
Francis International Airport
October 22 2001, and for the first time Grand Theft Auto stepped into the third dimension, a move that allowed developers Rockstar North, formerly DMA Design, a great deal more scope when developing its worlds.
Francis International Airports lies within Shoreside Vale, or as it is commonly referred to by many gamers, ‘the third island’ of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto 3. The design of the airport does not draw from any particular real life source, with its original terminal design and rather grey mundane color scheme. We get a brief glimpse of the interior in the opening cut scene from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas which shows the inside to be decorated in similar shades. From the official GTA 3 website, we also learn the airport boasts that the executive traveler may ‘relax in our business class lounge, or enjoy a pre-flight drink in DODO’S, our cocktail lounge.’ The airport is also serviced by a nearby subway system and has a fire station complete with a re-spawning fire truck which can be used to activate one of the many side missions. However, much like the traditional eighties haircut – the mullet – the party could be found around the back.
A quick drive around to the rear of the airport and one could find the now legendary DODO: the only vehicle in GTA 3 that allowed the player the chance to take to the skies, however briefly, and earn their wings. The DODO was notoriously hard to fly and required a tremendous amount of skill. The fact that it was also on the final accessible island supplied players with a feeling of achievement and exclusivity upon reaching this landmark moment. Gamers could spend hours attempting to perfect the art of flying, crossing over the sea from island to island. Just to mention the word DODO to a fellow gamer is to summon up memories of time spent trying to ever so slightly adjust the wing of the plane with a precision movement on the thumbstick.
The rear of the airport also had several spots for the players to attempt unique stunt jumps for additional money. As previously mentioned, the airport also made a brief appearance in GTA: San Andreas, as well as GTA: Liberty City Stories.
The Vercetti Estate
In the next iteration in the series, Rockstar changed the setting of the game, both spatially and chronologically to Vice City in the 1980s, allowing a monumental shift in design. GTA: Vice City, with its story focusing on the meteoric rise of the protagonist Tommy Vercetti, used the purchase of property and businesses as a mechanism to propel the story. This provided some of the series’ best loved locations to date; the Malibu Club and the Leaf Links Golf Club spring to mind, but perhaps none are more memorable than the Vercetti Estate.
The Vercetti Estate – or as it is originally known, the Diaz Estate – can be found on the south side of Starfish Island, Vice City, and becomes accessible during the early stages of the game. The design of the main mansion was inspired by Tony Montana’s mansion from the 1983 film Scarface, starring Al Pacino. The mansion’s exterior is decadent pink and red in color and is surrounded by lavish gardens featuring a hedge maze, pool , private dock and two-car garage, complete with a respawning Infernus and occasionally a limo parked out front.
The interior of the building continues where the extravagant grounds left off: a grand staircase in the main entrance hall leads to the second floor where you can find the main office, which again draws inspiration from Scarface with its desk and security monitors, which is said to depict images of Tony Montana’s mansion and the “The World is Yours” fountain. Facilities include a basement believed to be an armory, an indoor swimming pool, and even a helipad on the roof which spawns a Maverick helicopter.
The complex is at first owned by Ricardo Diaz, whom Tommy diligently works for in order to progress in the Miami underworld. As Tommy completes missions, the aesthetic of the building changes with souvenirs being added after the completion of several missions; for example, after completion of the ‘Pizza Boy’ side mission, empty pizza boxes can be found in the living room, and after completion of the ‘Martha’s Mug Shot’ mission, a poster of the adult actress Candy Suxx can be found in Tommy’s office. Eventually, following the mission ‘Rub Out’, the building trades hands and becomes property of Tommy Vercetti and his gang. The complex becomes the center of the Vercetti empire and the hub for the player, who will eventually begin to earn a daily fee for owning the property, which can be picked up from the front.
The Vercetti Estate’s omnipresence and constant development cleverly manages to show the progression of Tommy as a character, acting as a measuring stick on his progress and rise to infamy which culminates in one of the most memorable final missions of a GTA game. This location perfectly captures the exact essence the developers were looking for in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
The next console iteration of the franchise took the series to San Andreas, and with it the biggest map in GTA history. San Andreas proved to be a huge commercial and critical success and brought with it some hugely entertaining locales, one of which was Area 69.
Located in Bone County San Andreas, Area 69 is of course Rockstar’s comical interpretation of Area 51. In a game filled with controversy, the ever classy Rockstar christened it Area 69. In the surrounding area, further nods to Area 51 can be found such as the “Lil Probe Inn”, which is little more than an Easter egg. The base primarily compromises of an external fence to keep people out, a small airstrip, a watch tower, several garages in which military vehicles will spawn and an underground research facility that is accessed during the mission ‘Black Project’. In this mission, Carl is tasked with infiltrating the facility and stealing perhaps the most unique vehicle in the game on request of San Andreas favorite The Truth; the jetpack. During this mission, the PA announcer can also be heard uttering comical phrases such as “would the owner of a green alien saucer move it somewhere else please.”
At the time of the release, rumors were rife regarding the inclusion of UFOs within the game. This might at first seem farfetched, but given Rockstar’s now synonymous reputation for littering their games with Easter eggs, it doesn’t appear so strange.
Perhaps the fondest memories one has with this location however lie outside the parameters of a sanctioned mission. If the player was to enter or fly over Area 69, they were immediately awarded a five-star wanted level and began to be chased by Hydras and SAM missiles. Similarly to Francis International Airport, the fact that this location was so far into the game and was in such a secluded area provided a sense of exclusivity. It became a challenge amongst friends, and again a massive talking point to discuss the best way to avoid destruction, and war stories regarding how long one had lasted.
With the next game of the franchise returning to similar shores this year, gamers are left questioning whether this area will feature again. Will the same rules apply? And how will Rockstar trump their previous interpretation?
The most recent entry into the GTA franchise is of course GTA 4, in which we are invited to return to Liberty City and see it through the eyes of Serbian Immigrant Niko Bellic, cleverly allowing us to share a different perspective on the city that never sleeps.
Rockstar took a grittier, darker approach to this game and this can be seen in many of the locations visited, from as early as the opening safe house which you share with your slob of a cousin.
One location that particularly stands out is the Russian-owned club Perestroika. This can be found in Hove Beach in Broker. The club’s dated appearance and, indeed attitude works well at the beginning of the game to help set the tone and the gritty nature of the story. The club’s exterior is believed to be based mainly on the Millenium Atlantic Oceana in Brooklyn.
Once you have entered, passed the Russian guards (who react differently to you depending on how far you have progressed through the story), and passed the cloak room, the venue opens up into a large dining room with tables, chairs and booths to the side with the focal point being a slightly raised stage. The atmosphere inside is dark and dingy again, masterfully capturing the tone of this early part of the game.
The introduction of taking your character to watch a live show was first introduced in GTA 4, a move that aided the player, adding immersion and depth to the game. Later on in the game you could be treated to some world class comedy, with Ricky Gervais or Katt Williams. But Perestroika also provided some rather obscure entertainment which maintained the tone of the early hours of the game. The guidebook provided with a copy of the game puts it best stating “travel back to a time when sawing a woman in half was still considered entertainment at this popular Russian Nightclub”.
Aside from the cabaret shows you may choose to frequent, the mission ‘The Master and the Molotov’ also takes place in this location. A classic shootout and chase sequence which begins in the front of house and ends on the rooftops proves to be one of the most memorable missions in the early game, and is perhaps what helps to preserve its memory so clearly.
Grand Theft Auto V: What’s Next?
As previously mentioned, the creative team at Rockstar continue year after year to outdo themselves with the great worlds in which their games take place. The level of detail they supply is unparalleled and creates a fully fleshed out world that is truly immersive and encapsulating. It is this philosophy that makes them one of the most successful game developers of all time and leaves us as gamers waiting with baited breath to see what they do next.