"Auto Theft? Grand!"

Intro: As if your copy of Super Mario Bros 3 wasn't enough, the original Grand Theft Auto was definitive proof that graphics meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. Gaming journalists loved to complain about its grainy resolution and top-down camera view in their reviews, but none of this really mattered. It was all trivial. Trivial little flaws that were easy to see past because the game was so compelling, so insanely addictive.

The GTA series has since exploded into popularity, hitting as many platforms as possible in order to reach the most amount of people, so it only seemed logical that Rockstar would eventually have their pride and joy grace the system with the largest user base, the GameBoy Advance. But due to limited hardware, they would have to once again provide proof that graphics just don't matter.

The history of this game is the definition of "development hell". First given to Destination Software to develop, Rockstar pulled the plug on it (a wise move, considering the terrible games Destination is known for) and handed it over to Crawfish, a very well-respected developer known for some great GameBoy Color games (including the GTA clone Driver). But when GTA3 (as it was then being called) was nearing completion, Crawfish went out of business, and so did their work in progress. Only a month before the final game's release, Rockstar announced Grand Theft Auto Advance was being handled by Digital Eclipse, another well-respected GameBoy developer, with the console developers, Rockstar North, overseeing the project.

Although this new entry in the series has, due to hardware restrictions, reverted back to the top-down, birds-eye-view camera angle used in the first two games, GTA Advance is 100% modern GTA. The developers tried to make it feel as much like one of the newer console games as possible, and they've succeeded.

Gameplay: Incredible. Magnificent. Superb. There aren't enough positive adjectives listed in the thesaurus to describe Grand Theft Auto Advance. Although confined to ye olde overhead view, GTA Advance truly realizes what makes the more recent GTA games so much fun and plays much more like them than the original two games.

Despite having the simple name of Grand Theft Auto on the box, this is not a port or remake of the original game. It features an all-new storyline with all-new missions and characters (with some familiar faces) taking place roughly a year before GTA3 in Liberty City. It features the same free, open-ended gameplay as the rest of the series. You're dropped into the massive city and you can go anywhere, do anything, jack any car, at any time. A variety of weapons are at your disposal, and crime bosses are in need of your services.

It's amazing how similar it is to GTA3. The mission design, like pretty much everything else in the game, is closer to GTA3's than the first two games. Although most fall into the category of simple courier and delivery style missions, there's more variety and innovation in them than those of GTA or GTA2, and certain ones are especially exciting and can really get your heart racing. You'll find yourself addicted; you'll have finish one more job before putting it down. Just one more. Promise.

If the main missions do end up boring you, the taxi, ambulance, police, and fire side-missions from the more recent games are included. Hop into the appropriate vehicle and tap L and R simultaneously to initiate its side-missions and earn some money. If these aren't enough, there are street racing missions and rampages to be found as well. These side-missions add a huge amount of replay value, since they're available at any time and there are hundreds of them. The taxi and street racing side-missions alone are better than the GBA versions of Midnight Club and Crazy Taxi. There's always something to do in the game.

Police AI is good, and they can get particularly ruthless. The vehicles are varied and plentiful, and you won't notice much repetition in the vehicles appearing on the streets. The pedestrians are very active; few of them just idly walk around like in past games. The trademark sense of tongue-in-cheek humor of the series is not lost here; it's reflected in the game everywhere from the character dialogue to billboards posted on the sides of buildings. The game keeps track of everything that happens in the stat menu, accessible from the pause menu.

There are several nitpicky flaws not even worth mentioning, but also some not so nitpicky ones. Some of the missions seem designed solely to piss you off. Case in point: an early mission having you collecting packages scattered all over the city within an obnoxious time limit, requiring you to use the slow monster truck. By the time you fail this mission five times in a row, when you're so close to the end with only a few seconds left on the clock, your blood will boil. One mission needs you to protect a girl being attacked by muggers, but when you try shooting or hitting them, you usually wind up hitting the girl as well, failing the mission. Some missions may seem badly designed at first, but just rely on trial and error; fail a mission because you didn't lose the car that unexpectedly started chasing you...solution? Start over, this time beginning the mission with a faster car. Most of the missions are a blast; they're fun, exciting, and leave you with a rewarding feeling upon completion, but some of them definitely leave you with a feeling of, "Well, I'm glad I don't have to play that again."

Another big flaw is the dialogue and other text that pops up on-screen during gameplay; it simply disappears way too prematurely, and there's no way of replaying it. This isn't a problem when characters talk in short sentences, but it's pretty ridiculous to have five lines of text appear on-screen and disappear a few seconds later, when you're not even close to finishing it. It generally isn't a huge problem with the characters since their dialogue is never really anything terribly important, but when the game is giving you a tutorial on how to do something, it's completely unacceptable. Also, some elements of the console games have been left out; helicopters, boats, drive-bys, import/export garages and tunnels all were left on the cutting room floor.

Overall, the game delivers all the punch of the console versions, and fans of said games would be fools to pass up GTA Advance if they own a GBA.

Graphics: The visuals of this game are entirely unique unto the GBA. Although character and vehicle sprites look slightly cartoonish like the first game, GTA Advance doesn't really look exactly like any other game in the series. Characters animate very smoothly; blast someone with the shotgun and watch them spin around as they're blown back. Vehicle animation is just as good; they seem more like 3D models than the sprites they are, due to the smooth animation and the leaning effects. (More on that in the Control section.)

There's a diversity of pedestrians, and they're detailed enough so that you can tell what's an old grandma and what's a gang member. Like the first two games, the top-down camera zooms in and out depending on what's happening on-screen - speed along in a vehicle and it'll zoom out so you can see further ahead. (You also have the option to lock the camera to one of three heights.) The on-screen stat menu and mini-map are taken directly from GTA3, and all of your current objectives (along with your hideout, current boss's location, etc) are marked on the map, along with alleyways and the such. Dots marking objectives on the map get larger as you get nearer.

The frame rate is not this game's strong point. When I first played it I was thrown off at how it chugged along and it really turned me off, but you get used to it. The sad fact is that the game can be a little sluggish overall and I question the use of the 3D graphical effects in the game, if sacrificing them would have meant a smoother playing game. However, you'll become so immersed in the actual gameplay that you won't even notice it, and the game still delivers an awesome sense of speed when you're barrelling around corners in a hot rod. If you can tolerate the PlayStation versions of the first two games, this is still very playable. Sadly, although there's an in-game clock, there are no night effects, just daylight.

The 3D effect used to make buildings jut up into the sky and shift around in perspective to the camera works wonderfully; they look no different than the polygonal buildings in the first two games. And like those games, they can look blocky and pixelated when held up to scrutiny, although the detail in the texture mapped sides of the buildings makes up for this. Buildings aren't the only objects that appear in 3D, however. There's elevated terrain and roads, trees and traffic lights, even tiny basketball goals are rendered. The presentation is top-notch, and all the menus look nice. Pretty impressive overall.

Sound/Music: The entire GTA series is known for its incredible music. Whether it's composed in-house or licenced from established artists, Rockstar always makes sure its games sound terrific. Of course, you can't expect actual performed songs on the GBA, but the developers have done a respectable enough job emulating the quality and variety of tracks featured in the console games. A lot of it is sampled directly from GTA2, and the quality is good. Don't expect simple beep-beep music. Vehicles are tuned to different radio stations, although there's no way to change them like in the other games.

Speech quality is good, and you'll hear plenty of it from pedestrians and cops, and even some limited vocals in the music. The game seems to sometimes have trouble processing multiple sounds at once. For example, activate the siren in a police car, and the engine sounds stop. The music has a habit of fading in and out when you've got police chatter on the scanner and cops yelling at you, and speech sometimes interrupts all other sound effects and music when it plays. The music used in the menus all sounds nice. Engine sounds seem kind of sketchy; they'll rev up and hit a "top speed" sound and stay there, which sounds slightly awkward. All the weapon fire sounds good, and when vehicles explode, they create a powerful, satisfying "boom!" just as they do in other games.

Play Control/Game Design: The vehicles have always controlled appropriately in the top-down GTA games - speedsters had loose control and high acceleration, vans were slow and clunky, etc - but GTA Advance goes a step further and emulates the vehicle physics of the 3D games. Every vehicle has a speed and weight, and leans in turns appropriate to its weight. Vans are top-heavy and can easily flip over. The "leaning" vehicle physics add greatly to the general control. While you can't get a fully 3D physics engine using sprites, it feels a hell of a lot more 3D than either of the first two games.

When you're not in a vehicle, the way the character controls makes the game feel somewhat like Smash TV or Loaded, especially when you're shooting and strafing at the same time. When you're strafing back and forth, spraying enemies, cops, or even innocent pedestrians with machine gun fire, you'll feel more like you're playing a top-down Contra than one of the old GTA games. Having direct control over your character will take some getting used to for veterans of the old games, but I think you'll agree it works out better in the end. Weapon selection and the new strafe move both work well.

Taking place in the same city and time period as GTA3, the map uses GTA3's level layout as a very basic blueprint. Hold the maps of both games an arms length away and squint, and they'll look about the same. I'm not prepared to confirm Rockstar's claim that the map is three times as large as GTA3's, but it is indeed significantly bigger. Like any GTA game, the levels are massive, with streets laid out logically and plenty of back alleys and other areas to explore on foot. (Especially if you want to nab all of those hidden packages.) And for those wondering, yes, there are ramps for jumping vehicles over.

Part of what makes you really appreciate the game design of a Grand Theft Auto game is the attention to detail. It seems every time you turn on the game you'll notice some new little in-joke plastered on the side of a building, and when being pursued by the police, they'll announce over the scanner the color of the vehicle you're driving and what district of town you're in. Your character's sprite changes and animates appropriate to what weapon you have selected. You can see the name of a company on the side of one of their shipment trucks when it tips over. Walk over a dead body and you'll leave bloody footprints. Sometimes when driving someone around, their comments will change depending on what you're driving. The game is full of subtle little things like this that really add up and contribute to the atmosphere.

Vehicles do not show visible damage when you wreck them (considering how many sprites the game has to store on the cartridge to use the leaning physics, this would be almost impossible) but other than that, the vehicle damage works like it does in GTA3; vehicles gradually start smoking from the hood and when they catch fire, you have a few seconds until they explode. There's variety in the buildings, and their designs reflect what part of town you're in. There are a few glitches to be found, but nothing critical to the game's fun factor.

Improve: At the time of GTA Advance's release, Nintendo's DS system is less than a month away from release, so I doubt we'll be seeing another GTA game on the GBA. But if Rockstar did decide to give it a sequel, I'd suggest they nix the 3D elements or find some other way to smooth out the frame rate and general sluggishness. Also fix the little quirks with the sound effects and quit it with the frustrating missions.

Also Try: GTA, GTA2 (PC, PSX), Payback (GBA), Driver 2 Advance (GBA), Driver (GBC). If you like the on-foot weapon combat in this game, try Super Smash TV (SNES) and Loaded (PSX), and if you want an excellent top-down racing game, try any of the Micro Machines games, which have been released on pretty much every system you can imagine.

Final Words: To say that Rockstar and Digital Eclipse knocked it out of the park with this one would be a little much; it plays a tad too sluggishly and has too many tiny flaws that add up for me to just ignore. But the game as a whole is an incredible GameBoy Advance game and a very worthy entry in the GTA series. Even if you disliked the original top-down games, you should still look into this game. The few nitpicky flaws I've pointed out may make this review sound overly critical, but you should consider the score I gave the game, as well as these words: If you want a great Grand Theft Auto game, not just on a handheld but for any system, GTA Advance will not let you down.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 10/29/04

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