We’re still waiting on a GTA 6 release date, with rumours abounding that Rockstar’s next open-world crime game could be set in Vice City and feature a female protagonist. Whether GTA 6 will be wild and wacky or sombre and mature remains to be seen, but I’m hoping for the latter. After almost ten years of madcap GTA Online updates, I want something closer to the mood and brutality of GTA 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2, not the outlandish fun of GTA 5.
GTA 4 was ahead of its time. Grey, rainy, and filthy, its version of Liberty City played perfect host to a form of protagonist and narrative that previous Grand Theft Auto games – previous games, full stop – were never brave enough to embrace. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t played it, but the ending of GTA 4 ultimately sees Niko Bellic, irrevocably traumatised by the Yugoslav Wars, choose between either his cousin, Roman, or his potential love interest, Kate. If he chooses Roman, Kate is unceremoniously killed and any chance Niko may have had at a better, happier life dies with her. If he chooses Kate, it is Roman who gets killed, and Kate refuses to ever speak with him again, once more leaving him alone in the world. After all the killing, stealing, and bloodshed that would normally elevate a GTA character to the top of the criminal underworld, Niko’s life is worse at the end of GTA 4 than it is at the beginning. It’s a bold and atypical rags-to-rags story.
Likewise, Red Dead Redemption 2, which begins its story a long time after the van der Linde gang has started to disintegrate. This is not a story of their rise and their fall, or really even their fall – after the Blackwater massacre and the implied, subsequent infighting, by the time we step into the boots of Arthur Morgan the gang is essentially finished. They just haven’t realised. What follows is not so much their collapse but their decomposition, a slow march towards death and doom, only sparingly punctuated with a few slim opportunities for the eponymous redemption, the majority of which you’ll know, if you’ve played the original RDR, do not work out.
The misery and bleakness of Red Dead Redemption 2 (name another mainstream game in which your character is dying from consumption) symbiotically elevates its moments of hope and beauty. The struggles of Arthur and the gang feel so arduous and constant that their brief moments of reprieve – taking Jack out fishing, drinking in Valentine with Lenny – become some of the most authentically joyful sequences in gaming. As much as it is a game of genuine lows, these serve to emphasise and substantiate the highs.
It’s by comparison that Grand Theft Auto 5 – expansive, expressive, and devoted to fun as it may be – begins to feel shallow. This is a game which, especially in its single-player story, almost always operates on the same emotional basis: keep it light, keep it silly, make it big. There’s swearing. There’s violence. There are attempts at satire. But as much as they shout at and argue with each other, the dynamic between Michael, Trevor, and Franklin never really progresses, and the Los Santos of Grand Theft Auto 5 feels more like a playground, constructed to enable experimentation and chaos, than a genuine, actual world.
Players expecting the same level of freedom and anarchy that GTA: San Andreas offered were left slightly soured by GTA 4: there are no jetpacks; you can’t customise your hair or body type; the map is smaller, there are fewer weapons and cars, and they can’t be upgraded. If this weighed on Rockstar, then I feel the studio responded to that feedback in the wrong way, doubling back on itself and using GTA 5 to offer something much closer to its big, playful sandbox from 2004 – something almost derivative of San Andreas. I would like to think, in the time that’s passed since GTA 5’s launch, videogame stories and aesthetics have matured enough that Rockstar might find its adult voice again for GTA 6. Red Dead Redemption 2 was a huge hit. Everyone loves The Last of Us. There is an appetite, even in open-world games and shooters, for authenticity, restraint, and mechanics and stories that provide more than just unmitigated fun.
Rockstar has spent the best part of a decade using Grand Theft Auto Online as a kind of créche for wacky ideas and colourful extremes, taking it ever closer to Minecraft and Fortnite. In turn, the series’ name has been changed and cheapened – GTA is bigger than ever, but it feels a long way now from its origins or even middle years in the 2000s, when it was regarded as being at the edge of adult-only gaming. If GTA 6 is an attempt by Rockstar to once again plant the flag and push subject matter in games beyond what is expected or ‘safe’, it needs to justify itself by containing a truth and a humanity similar to GTA 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2, a willingness to withhold unfiltered fun from the player in service of a more meaningful experience overall. We’ve had almost ten years of GTA 5, but Grand Theft Auto can still be something else. GTA 6 is a chance to prove that when it comes to maturity and self-seriousness, Rockstar still has guts.
If you want to know more, check out everything we’ve learned so far about the GTA 6 release date, rumours, and facts. You might also want to try some of the other best sandbox or best action-adventure games, a great way to fill your time as we await more news on the next outing from Rockstar.