The Grand Theft Auto franchise is many things to many people, but the one thing most can agree on is that Rockstar Games' gangland action titles are loud, bloody and audacious video games that have defined the medium and redefined entertainment. The series is both a lightning rod for critics and genre pinnacle for fans.

It's indicative of this dichotomy that when I mentioned my addiction to Grand Theft Auto 4's multiplayer in a meeting, the audible gasp that accompanied my colleagues' jaws hitting the floor was followed by spirited discussion. Indeed, I too have mixed feelings for the series, which is the source of my love/hate relationship with open world games in general.

But I can't deny the influence that Rockstar's seminal creation has had on the industry. In anticipation of the release of Grand Theft Auto 5, I revisit a few previous titles to illustrate where this series has been and possibly suggest where it might be headed. Invariably, however, I don't ask for directions and get hopelessly lost along the way.

Though I had played the original top-down perspective driving games on the Playstation console, they never really appealed to me. I also missed Grand Theft Auto 3 when it made its debut, ushering in an era of open world, third person shooter crime dramas. So Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was my introduction to the franchise.

This Playstation 2 game was the perfect entry point for a fan of Michael Mann's Miami Vice series or Brian De Palma/Oliver Stone's Scarface movie. The unmistakeable '80s Florida setting combined with the criminal underworld element established an addictive context for causing virtual mayhem.

Indeed, the game was entertaining despite unintuitive controls (including shoulder buttons for targeting and face buttons for shooting) that unnecessarily restrained the open world gameplay. But that didn't stop me from drawing a weapon on a civilian (above) who amusingly backpeddled into traffic. I guess in Vice City people would rather take their chances with the traffic.

It wasn't long before I was carjacking my rides, though to my chagrin the outcome was more often of the Flaming Vehicle Of Imminent Doom variety. But vehicle variety, the enormous and entertaining licensed playlists on their radios, and decent driving mechanics meant I was happy to test my theory that all cars in the game were modeled after the Ford Pinto..

I rarely pursued story missions, maybe because people like Pizza Delivery Man were among my dreaded nemeses. My guess is he never delivered within the 30 minutes guarantee. Normally he might deserve a smaller tip in those instances, but in Vice City a bullet says it with panache.

I decided to spare Pizza Delivery Man. In reality, I got distracted (as often happens) with a municipal killing machine extraordinaire, otherwise known as a Vice City bus. Turns out the cops are not to keen on turning their streets into my own personal bowling alley. Cue respawn.

Tommy Vercetti would never be mistaken for putting women on a pedestal, unless said pedestal is the hood of his car. In fact, pedestrians sometimes make amusing hood ornaments, especially when one's hood disappears. Too bad a local thug wasn't as impressed when he carjacked Tommy's pimped out ride.

Vice City residents appear to be transplanted Angelenos if their driving skills are any indication. So I feel right at home playing bumper cars with other motorists and, in fact, often would make it my mission to take down anyone stupid enough to run into me. Too bad, then, that I'm the one who often ended up in the hospital. Who's stupid now?! Oh, it's me.

At times I did get my revenge, typically by pinning others' cars until mine exploded, taking them out in the process. It's inelegant but, oh, so satisfying. Provided I managed to bail out in time, which is not as foregone a conclusion as one might imagine.

Pulling off vehicular stunts in Vice City is a pleasure, especially when rewarded with cinematic camera angles that show off your mad skills. And by mad, I mean stupid for having even tried, in particular when you end up in the drink. For all his tough guy demeanor, Tommy wouldn't even qualify as a guppy in the Y's child swim classes.

It's only fair that Tommy take his turn as a Vice City hood ornament and, in fact, it's one of my favorite means of getting around town. You can enjoy the sights and sounds of the city from a unique perspective and a leisurely pace. But it's most entertaining when your driver takes a wrong turn, pun intended.

If my driver was a flavor he'd be vanilla, starting out as a staid law-abiding citizen who obeyed every traffic law. Until he didn't. At some point he snapped, maybe when he realized Tommy was a permanent fixture. After that, he was all rocky road, literally cutting corners and nicking other vehicles.

The AI of nonplayer characters is one of the appeals of exploring Grand Theft Auto settings. There are a variety of character models and canned remarks, but seeing them react to a situation is often comical. Case in point, my driver's meltdown, to where he was running red lights, driving on sidewalks and colliding with other motorists, was an amusing spectacle.

Rockstar suggests that Grand Theft Auto 5 will see more development of NPCs. They will be fully motion-captured, have a lot more to say and generally be more interactive so that gamers' experience will be that much more rewarding even when only sightseeing outside of story missions.

Driving as a maniacal cabbie (redundant, I know) makes me feel a little less guilty when T-boning a road rage recipient. But why take the fun out of guilty pleasures like causing a chain reaction explosion among motor vehicles? Vice City streets are filled with such opportunities, which is both a boon and a bane.

In open world games I typically lose myself to exploration of the setting and gameplay. But without any real progress to show for one's considerable time, the allure can wear thin. At least in role-playing games, your character can level up. Absent that, the narrative and character development become paramount.

In Vice City, however, I never felt compelled to stick with story missions. Perhaps it was the sometimes unintuitive controls or the stilted gameplay that felt more forced than fluid. I found such missions annoying or frustrating, which is likely why I stuck with free roam gameplay. Thankfully, Rockstar knows how to craft compelling worlds to get lost in.

It's a credit to Rockstar that even now I discover new things. Sure, the fact that paramedics actually revive seemingly deceased pedestrians likely comes as no surprise to seasoned veterans of the series, but it was a revelation to this GTA thug who was focused on causing mayhem instead of repairing what I broke.

The next installment in the franchise, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, exceeded its predecessor in scope both in terms of geography and gameplay. Such a playground was hard to resist, even if I spent an inordinate amount of time attracting and deflecting the attention of local law enforcement, to judge by the above screens.

My stats likewise show new micromanagement features focused on upgradeable attributes such as fat, stamina, total respect, lung capacity, etc. You could eat and exercise, plus participate in myriad other activities. The problem is that I don't want to do the mundane things in a game that I have to do in real life. Hence the brush with police.

It's hard to resist the allure of commandeering large, sturdy people movers to clear city streets of the riffraff. The irony is that, in the immortal words of Falling Down's Bill "D-FENS" Foster, "I'M the bad guy?" But being bad rarely felt so good. In fact, garnering a coveted five star rating in Grand Theft Auto is the only time such a score is rewarded for bad service.

Being a passive observer is entertaining in its own right thanks to the wonderfully absurd NPC behavior sometimes on display. This ambulance driver (above and below), for example, demonstrates how paramedics apparently are not required to take the Hippocratic oath or otherwise commit to do no harm. Just ask the officer and pedestrians under tire.

He somehow became convinced that the only way to his destination was through the building, so he drove forward and backward incessantly, mowing down anyone unfortunate enough to walk behind his ambulance. Most got up again, even when hit two or three times!

Interestingly, he only got out once to revive a pedestrian he ran over.

And then he ran her over a second time.

Even I tired of his antics and punched his already smoking vehicle once before it burst into flames.

Thank goodness firefighters arrived to put out the flames. But then they, too, chose the road less traveled.

Determined to get around the charred ambulance, they drove back and forth over passersby until they made their own path.

Seconds later, a cop and bystander had a shootout on the same spot. I love this town! 

Maybe my affinity for Los Santos can be attributed to its resemblance to my own City of Angels. In the same way that Liberty City (GTA 3) was a revamped New York and Vice City was a retooled Miami, Los Santos is a reimagined Los Angeles. General topography, landmarks (such as Pershing Square, above), music and other touchstones reinforce the resemblance.

Any game set in the real or fictionalized Los Angeles (such as True Crime: Streets of LA or Rockstar's own L.A. Noire)immediately draws my attention for its treatment of the metropolis. With landmarks (above, from top to bottom) such as City Hall, the Library Tower and Farmer's Market, nevermind ubiquitous palm trees, Los Santos is an interesting variation.

As with Vice City, I never spent too much time on story missions so my progress sometimes felt wasted on side missions, minigames or just free roam mischief. Entertaining while they lasted, I was left feeling like I'd accomplished nothing. At least in games like Saints Row my merrymaking can not only upgrade my character but increase my territory.

That said, there's always the caveat that Rockstar creates more immersive worlds with their strong sense of time and place, scope, drama and characters. In fact, Volition's Saints Row compliments Grand Theft Auto with its more over the top, campy and hilarious open world games.

With Grand Theft Auto 4 once again I rarely played story missions, but this is more testament to the addictive multiplayer than issues with the former. Indeed, with more streamlined, intuitive controls and, for me, a more interesting storyline, the campaign is more compelling.

That said, the dynamic camera is a royal pain. Whether driving or on foot, the camera does not always stay in an over-the-shoulder perspective. The more cinematic angles create an annoying problem of having to adjust one's direction repeatedly to compensate for a new perspective. I die often enough by my own hand that I don't need Rockstar to help.

This (above) is what I saw of my vehicle's undercarriage before it erupted in a fireball with me inside. It was difficult to extricate my car from its predicament, let alone myself, when presented with such dizzying viewpoints. Not that I could have saved myself to begin with. I do have a knack for such delicious quanderies.

Upon exiting the hospital, one is presented with the option of a do-over. While sometimes having to restart from a checkpoint much earlier, the option to return to the mission with a simple click is appreciated, especially when as accident prone as yours truly.

Driving is pretty intuitive but that doesn't prevent me from causing plenty of carnage on the roads of Liberty City. Often it's difficult just to figure out whether my vehicle is facing in the right direction. At least the analog stick helps me right the camera from time to time, if not my driving skills.

Melee combat is more involved in GTA 4 though that doesn't mean I'm any more proficient. In fact, the more moves available to me, the more inept and helpless I become. It's basic math. As my gameplay options increase, my comprehension nose dives. Welcome to your forties.

We're being chased! I know, I'll hide in this random walled divider (above). They'll never suspect a thing! Seriously, I somehow managed to get my car stuck inside this when being chased by police, though if you know me at all you're probably not that surprised. What is impressive is that I was able to get us out of it while surrounded and under fire.

Less impressive is that our vehicle was now a flaming metal coffin careening off a cliff. You're welcome, hapless passenger! Needless to say, I did not get my passenger to their destination, did not pass Go, did not collect. At least I didn't kill him. But do I get a Thank you?

So I crashed in Cerveza Heights. Something tells me this is not an unusual occurence for this part of town.

The fact that the game recognized I totalled Roman's car was impressive, I thought, as in other games you'd just obtain another set of wheels. Though I suspect another of Roman's cars will be waiting for me at the garage. I also failed the mission. Will I get another chance at redemption? The suspense is killing me!

So I'm minding my own business behind the wheel of my latest ride when these idiots walk directly in my path. On the sidewalk no less! The gall of some people. Anyway, the poor woman behind me suffered an ignoble end and I did feel a pang of guilt so stuck around to see if anyone would help.

Far be it from a patrolman to be bothered with even acknowledging her predicament. But perhaps I judge to hastily? Maybe it's not as unusual a sight on the streets of Liberty City as one might suspect, after all, he looks like he's been around the block a few times. But only a few. Unless there's a Dunkin' Donuts on the block.

Oh, happy day! Paramedics have arrived to miraculously resuscitate the poor woman. Though hiding on the other side of the ambulance would appear to defeat the purpose. Perhaps I should have pocketed my knife.

And there they go. Another hapless victim returned to health by the city's sterling health professionals ...

The guardian angels of the city's sick and ... oh nevermind. I may go ask that other woman for a toke; it's been quite a day after all.

To top it off, I later earned the ire of local law enforcement by trying to access a seemingly restricted area (automatic five-star wanted level) among other trespasses. I managed to evade them a long while on this bridge (above) after ditching my vehicle, but I know trouble when I see it ...

Liberty City's tax dollars at work!

As suggested earlier, I played the game's multiplayer almost exclusively upon its release. The reasons were that it was the first game in which I had that option, and it's simply a blast to play with friends or foes. I kept to free roam, especially near the airport and environs. Throwing gunships into the mix makes for a fun, memorable experience.

What also helps is the plethora of weapons including rocket launchers and sniper rifles, plus the varied elevations for getting the most use out of your arsenal. Throw in a mix of vehicles in the parking lot and elsewhere, and firefights are lively and varied.

Whether Liberty City, Los Santos or Vice City, the impression I'm left with after revisiting these games reinforces an idea shared by some others: Namely, that the cities in each Grand Theft Auto game are characters in and of themselves and, in fact, are the principal features that differentiate each title.

As the narratives reportedly improve with each successive title, the connection with each setting becomes stronger, especially as their presentation becomes both more grand and detailed. With Los Santos redesigned in Grand Theft Auto 5 to be larger and more varied, with more personality in both neighborhoods and NPCs, the evolution to more immersion continues.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this installment of my Evolution series. Previous entries looked at  Metal Gear Solid, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Thanks for visiting!