The 10 Greatest ‘GTA Clones’ Of All TimePlatforms: All
Mafia: Definitive Edition is released today, remaking one of the original ‘GTA Clones,’ but was it one of the best? Let’s find out.
First of all, let’s clear up some important business. What constitutes a GTA Clone?
It needs to be set in an open-world sandbox, driving needs to be a major part of gameplay, and you need to be able move around on foot and enter other cars. So no Red Dead Redemptions, no Spider-Mans, no Drivers.
Since sales figures are too vague in many cases to make a reliable, consistent metric they won’t be factored into this, but Metacritic scores (or an equivalent aggregate score, where Metacritic data was not available) and only the ratings for original releases would be counted, so no post-release ports or remasters.
With the ball bustin’ out the way, let’s get down to business.
10. Watch Dogs 2 (2016)
The original Watch Dogs was met with much reservation on release. After a mindblowing E3 presentation, the finished product left a lot to be desired. A graphical downgrade was disappointing but more disappointing was how listless the game felt. It was not fun to be handed the power of a god and let loose on a city dependent on technology to function. It was so self-serious and drab. A GTA Clone really should be fun to play, it should give you some reason to care.
Thankfully, Watch Dogs 2 was a huge step up. The world was more colourful, the characters actually had character, and the hacking gimmick was finally being used in inventive and entertaining ways. Hopefully Watch Dogs: Legion continues this upward trend in October but, for now, Watch Dogs 2 is the best realisation of the concept. It’s only a pity they didn’t get it right the first time.
9. LEGO City Undercover (2013)
I don’t think anyone would have ever predicted LEGO would have their own GTA Clone, let alone that it would be one of the absolute best, but it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. GTA was a franchise built on the idea of giving players a wide, open canvas to find their own fun. That is LEGO’s entire philosophy. The two were made for each other. Obviously, a few things needed changing to make the formula suitable for a younger audience, such as sidestepping the whole ‘being a criminal’ thing, but it all clicked together so perfectly. It very much felt like a legitimate GTA Clone, sprinkled with that beloved trademark LEGO humour. A young kid could not ask for a better (or at least more appropriate) entry point into this style of game.
8. Sleeping Dogs (2012)
Originally envisioned as a True Crime sequel before the project was cancelled by Activision Blizzard, only to be resuscitated by Square Enix under a new name, Sleeping Dogs is a terrifically entertaining spin on the GTA formula with a heavy, distinct focus on action. Much like LEGO City Undercover, Sleeping Dogs has you playing an undercover cop but, unlike LEGO’s spin on the material, this cop is a little more compromised. Hard choices are made, rules are made to be broken, but it is not some dour meditation on morality. Sleeping Dogs is probably one of the most dynamic GTA Clone on the market.
The driving is impactful and focused on high-speed takedowns, the shooting is slick, but it’s the melee combat mechanics that really set it apart. These are among the best in the genre. They worked so well that a DLC was released focused entirely on hand-to-hand combat, with a very entertaining Enter The Dragon pastiche. Sleeping Dogs may not have the most memorable characters or the most original story beats, but it stands out from the crowd in terms of gameplay.
7. Crackdown (2007)
From a personal perspective, Crackdown was one of the best Xbox 360 games in history. Spinning the standard grounded crime sim formula into a futuristic superhero game, Crackdown was a high impact and exceedingly over the top in a genre that usually takes it easy. While travelling the city in skyscraper-sized leaps would be the preferred way to get around once you unlocked more of your powers, getting around by car was still default form of travel. Your powers come with the bonus of also powering up your cars into instruments of devastation, which really comes in handy when raiding a criminal base.
While the story and characters are a fat lot of nothing, the gameplay was consistently entertaining and the game offered an online co-op mode that saw you and a friend patrolling the city together. To this day, there are few GTA Clones that offer an online experience as blisteringly entertaining as Crackdown.
6. Just Cause 2 (2010)
Much like Watch Dogs, it took Just Cause two tries to get the idea right. Just Cause 2 delivers on the full potential of the free-roaming sandbox action spectacular that the original game could only hint towards.
While there is a narrative driving all of this mayhem, it is immaterial to the true value of Just Cause 2; this game lets you play the action your way. Drive a car into the base, skydive from the very top of the game’s skybox and latch onto an enemy-controlled skyscraper with a grappling hook, parachute into enemy territory using the grappling hook to propel you across the skies. Just Cause 2 is so willing to simply let you enjoy yourself, it is very easy to forget to even start a new mission.
The success of Just Cause 2’s approach to sandbox mayhem was so great that it arguably impeded the sequels, I recall trying to play Just Cause 3 and the games early stages tried to insist you play the missions and stick to the script when all I really wanted to do was let loose. This was reflected in the reviews, as no Just Cause sequel ever did as well as the second game.
5. Saints Row: The Third (2011)
In a genre dominated by GTA, Saints Row managed to make itself an undeniable part of the gaming landscape in the years between GTA IV and GTA V. For a time, Saints Row: The Third was the top dog until GTA V hit and flattened everything in its path.
Saints Row: The Third was a lot of weird, crazy fun. It amplified everything silly about the previous games to an almost obscene degree and that obscenity was part of the appeal.
Its place in gaming history suffered somewhat due to the release of GTA V and because, for everything the game did well, it did so thanks to the game that came before it.
4. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005)
Mercenaries was one of the lesser classics of the PS2 era. A massive-scale action game that let you have all the chaotic fun your mind could conjure up. All manner of weapons and vehicles are at your disposal to take on enemies and raid their bases.
Fans are still passionate about this game all these years later, clamouring for a remake or remaster to relive the carnage and bring the devastation to a whole new generation. It deserves a rejuvenated audience, the genre owes so much to this game and it rarely gets its dues. Mercenaries walked so that games like Just Cause could run; its influence on expanding the idea of what a sandbox game could do should not be downplayed.
3. The Simpsons: Hit & Run (2003)
Before 2003, The Simpsons had seen a long and complicated relationship with video games. The 8-bit era was especially rough on the franchise. The biggest problem was that the games were (a) barely felt like they were connected to The Simpsons games and (b) bloody awful.
The Simpsons: Hit & Run blew everyone away with a game that managed to capture the mix of sharp satirical humour and madcap slapstick that made The Simpsons such a comedic behemoth in ways no games before or after could match. And, most importantly, it was brilliant.
Taking the mechanics and design philosophy of the GTA games and transplanting them into a Simpsons game worked so well, it’s amazing no one has thought to rip this idea off in the same way so many shows ripped off The Simpsons.
A game that managed to pull off something many GTA Clones struggle to achieve; it was a game that felt as much of an event as a real GTA game. Fans still rave about this game and it holds up beautifully for anyone lucky enough to revisit it.
2. Saints Row 2 (2008)
The first Saints Row somewhat missed the mark on offering GTA fans a viable alternative. It tried too hard to copy GTA without the wit to pull it off. Saints Row 2 showed a conscious effort to move as far from GTA as possible. It opted to get really silly.
It was exactly what the genre needed, players were growing tired after the more po-faced GTA IV and wanted something that brought them back to the deranged fun of the early GTA games. Saints Row 2 showed that GTA was not the only game in town. It may not have lasted long but for a time it proved a genuine threat to one of the biggest IPs in gaming history.
1. Mafia (2002)
Mafia arrived a year after the release of GTA 3 had changed the gaming landscape forever, but rather than simply imitate everything GTA did, Mafia made a point to do its own thing and thus stood out from its predecessors perfectly. Driving was far more realistic, with speeding and obeying rules of the road being something players needed to pay attention to, in order to avoid any unnecessary trouble by the police. The story was more serious and its presentation much more cinematic, with a well-implemented flashback structure framing the action.
Which brings us to the most crucial thing Mafia did to separate it from the pretenders. A real sense of focus. Most sandbox games present you with a world and try to pack it with so much incidental material to justify the size of the map. Unless you have talented writers like Rockstar that sort of thing can really dilute an already thin narrative. The world of Mafia is there to lend the game atmosphere, to ground the story in a sense of time and place, because Mafia is all about the story. There are no superfluous side jobs, no mini-games to artificially pad out the runtime, it is all story and it is a fantastic story.
Mafia: Definitive Edition had a strong foundation to build from, thanks to the brilliant storytelling already established with the 2002 original. From the opening scene to the closing screen, Mafia was an unforgettable experience. The game pulled you into its world with meticulously detailed world design but the writing gripped you like a vice. Mafia was the first game to truly establish that the GTA style could be used to tell other stories in unique ways, it became a piece of history all its own and remains one of the best games of its kind.