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Grand Theft Auto Vehicle Physics Appreciation Post

I’ve played a lot of racing games in my life, and throughout the years by far the biggest change in the genre has been the physics engines. Gameplay modes come and go, and generally speaking the thin line that developers have to teeter is between the realism factor and the fun factor. Some games and franchises have done very well going full-realism (Gran Turismo stands out here, Forza, and on the more extreme end, Project Cars), and arcade (Mario Kart, Cruisin’ USA, and Rush). Most games live somewhere in the middle and borrow a little from both camps.

Since I was a kid, I was always interested in dirt bike racing games, which of course have been around forever (Excitebike on the NES being the most obvious one that everyone’s heard of), and traditionally I’ve preferred the arcade style feel. The MX vs ATV series is a great example of how arcade physics have evolved within the genre. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have the MXGP series, where shifting, clutching, leaning the rider (typically with the right joystick, while turning the handlebars with the left), locking into ruts, and not coming up short on jumps and casing the landing, are the defining factors of the game.

But what about the games that have driving as a secondary, or even “add-on” feature? In other words, non-racing games that have the ability to drive cars? What do you typically expect from them? The expectations most likely aren’t as high for realism as that’s not the sole purpose of the game, so a more arcade-y feel is what you might look forward to.

So far, I’ve spoken in vague terms about physics and how they can differ, but this article isn’t about racing games at all. More-so, it’s about one series that I think has mastered the fine line of realism and arcade to create the most impressive vehicle physics ever. I’m talking about Grand Theft Auto.

I just recently wrote about how much fun I’ve been having playing all kinds of games on my PSP, one of them being Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. One of the defining features when the Grand Theft Auto III series was at its peak popularity was the addition of a myriad of extra vehicles, particularly when the first sequel Vice City came on to the scene. It added a lot of cars but also boasted motorcycles, boats, bicycles, a golf cart, and even freaken helicopters.

I have one question for Rockstar: how did you do this? Seriously – just think of all the work that has to go into designing, implementing, and testing every single one of these vehicles. With all that work, you’d probably expect the physics to suffer, right?

Actual gameplay screenshot from Vice City.

Freaken nope – especially for the period of time in gaming, the physics were incredibly well done and made cruising around town in your vehicle murder vessel an absolute blast.

Let’s compare this to other games of the time. A few days ago, I started playing MX vs. ATV Untamed on my PSP. This game absolutely sucks. The physics are terrible, the vehicles feel rigid, and it’s flat-out not any fun to play. And this is coming from someone who often plays motocross games from the Playstation 2 generation – I’m not too picky when it comes to vehicle physics.

I tried playing this for hours too, I really wanted to find something good about it – but there’s just nothing fun or challenging about it. You hold down the accelerator button, and turn on the dime. Now I don’t expect modern physics here, but there’s just no substance to the game. You can’t even pull tricks decently, because even when you land properly (back wheel first!), your rider goes flying off and dies immediately.

https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/gtawiki/images/2/24/InvoluntaryEjection-GTAVC-motorbike.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20100313032658
When you crash straight into a car, this is expected behavior. But after a clean landing?

Compare this to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories – I just discovered this morning that there is a whole motocross park where you can mount a dirt bike or quad (two totally separate race series, by the way) and race against the clock and try to beat goal times. It’s so much damn fun, and while the physics are far from perfect, they’re just good enough, but still friendly – no cheap dismounts, but you can get some real hangtime!

Would you believe me if I told you that in MX vs. ATV Untamed, you can’t wheelie? What kind of bone-headed decision is that, to not include the ability to wheelie whenever you feel like it in a motocross game? It’s not even like they need to implement the feature specifically, it’s just what happens when your physics engine isn’t garbage. Pulling back on the control stick to shift your weight back, and hammering the throttle from a complete stand-still should throw that front wheel up in the air. But nope, I couldn’t do a wheelie to save my life. Dirt bikes were basically invented to pull sweet wheelies, and yet I can’t lift the front wheel an inch off the ground.

Come up short on a jump? Who cares, you won’t crash anyway!

Meanwhile I can roundhouse kick a cop of his police cruiser, steal the bike, and pull dank whoolies down the freeway in Vice City Stories, a game that at no point claims to be a sweet motorcycle simulator. What’s more, that I can wheelie freaken bicycles in that game! And the physics actually make sense too. Think about it, a police motorcycle is a very heavy machine, and thus it is far more difficult to wheelie in-game. Still do-able, but it takes some precision throttling and leaning. Hop on a sport bike and you can wheelie all damn day! Rockstar went through the trouble of dialing in physics for these machines to make it as fun as possible, and I think that’s the precise reason that the series built in the Grand Theft Auto 3 engine became so popular.

The later installments in the MX vs. ATV series did a much better job of dialing in the fun factor, and the series evolved into what I think is a very accessible arcade racer with hours of fun. There’s also the MXGP series that did to motocross racing what Gran Turismo did for auto-racing regarding the extreme realism factor which has continued to toe the line between “too realistic” and “still fun.”

I haven’t played any of the Grand Theft Auto games past the Playstation 2 era titles, so I don’t know if they’ve maintained their fun vs. realism level, but this wasn’t supposed to be an appreciation post of those games. Rockstar managed to make driving around a taxi actually fun in the early 2000s, and yes, while running over civilians on your way to drop off a bleeding patient at the hospital adds a hint of bonus fun points in Grand Theft Auto, it’s seriously surprising just how much fun can be had in these early GTA games. It’s for those reasons that they have earned my appreciation!

Now, before this gets too rambly, I’m going to put on some tunes and moonlight as a taxi driver again. And probably take some people out along the way.

Image result for gta3 taxi mission

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