GTA has become widely popular and known for critiquing and satirizing typical American pop culture and society, with fictional versions of the most famous cities in the USA serving as locations for the games. However, the franchise has actually gone international in the past, and one of the most ambitious modding projects wants to take GTA back to London.
GTA London was an official expansion pack for the first GTA game, taking players to the British capital during the '60s. It was the series' only outing in another nation other than the USA, but has been the source of many rumors about a return to London in the decade since.
A group of skilled fans, however, has decided to take things into their own hands and develop a total conversion mod that brings a fictionalized version of London to GTA 5. The mod support and technical capabilities of the current game could make this the definitive return to London, lest Rockstar actually give us an official game set in the city.
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Pulling this off is a massive task. The team, headed by Kieran Merrilees, isn't planning on making a fully accurate recreation of London, since that would be nigh impossible even for a full development team, let alone a group of fans doing this in their free time.
They're building a city "like London", with all the important landmarks and rough matching layout, but taking several liberties with it. It's unclear whether they will attempt to alter the side on which cars drive to match the inverted roads of Britain, however Kieran approximated achieving that would require 210 man-hours of work, and isn't a terribly high priority.
To get something so seemingly simple done, the pathfinding of all NPC vehicles would need to be rewritten, which is a massive task considering you need to meddle with the AI programming without messing up everything else. However, the team is focused on other, more tangible tasks for now.
What makes a virtual city instantly recognizable isn't the street layout, but the landmarks. Currently, the team of just three developers are putting together accurate models of some of London's more notable buildings and placing them in the default Los Santos map.
Instead of tackling something like Tower Bridge which would demand some intricate and detailed modeling (not to mention the default Los Santos map has no place where it would fit in), the trio crafted virtual renditions of Wembley Stadium and a number of tube stations and hospitals. Heathrow Airport is also in the current version of the mod, but not entirely complete.
Billboards and accurate British Emergency Services vehicles are two other features that are already functional, but working on this mod is slow going for Kieran and his team. PC Gamer's reporters asked him some questions about the development process, which is difficult to balance next to a particularly stressful corporate job.
It's a lot of work, it will take time, but whenever I'm finished one thing—I've just finished Heathrow Airport, for example—I add it into the pack, update it, and release it. There are three of us working on it now, and while we strive to mirror reality, if we think something looks right in situ, and it still looks like London, then we're fine with that.
Any modders reading this will know how much effort goes into a smaller, simpler mod. Basic additions or alterations need extensive testing, since there are a million ways any foreign files can cause bugs or glitches. When you are replacing buildings there are fewer underlying concerns like how it affects the game's AI, collision is easier to set and so on. However, in these cases, there are still a myriad of interlocking systems that can cause issues elsewhere.
The team is still far from worrying about which side of the road NPCs drive on. They've outlined a pipeline of new features on the mod's page, with the city's hotels and bus stops being their next target for conversion. As time goes on, Los Santos will borrow more and more of London's skyline, until finally the team can go on to adjusting the street plan of the city to better match the British capital.
The current progress of the mod is really impressive when you take it into account that Kieran has only been at it for about a year, and this is his first mod. He is entirely self-taught when it comes to altering GTA 5, and the two other members of his team only came on board recently, meaning most of what has been achieved so far is his handiwork.
Being part of various communities has made me realise that I've got an opportunity to do something. And that's where Project London started. Compared to other games, GTA is easier to mod, it's easy to get the files that you need in order to do work, and there are a lot of people who're able to offer advice and help out. That fact alone spurs you on to do more.
Kieran is a long time GTA fan with Vice City being a favorite of his, however GTA 5 mostly attracted him because of the game's technical aspects. Learning how to mod it is a simpler task than it is with other games, and the popularity of it would give his mod an audience.
With just three guys who are working for free, the total conversion mod still has a long way to go before it actually starts resembling a total conversion mod as opposed to a minor reskin, but they're forging forward nonetheless. Hobbyist modders are fuelled by passion and a quaint kind of curiosity mostly, which is an endearing quality.
To be honest it was becoming aware of the modding communities that support Grand Theft Auto 5 that encouraged me to start doing the work I'm doing. Between [the three of us] we're trying to push forward and see what we can do, and achieve as much as we can achieve.
The project has no projected release date and Kieran couldn't even guarantee that it will ever be finished. When you're working on a side-project like this that eats both money and time, the former due to paid software used, you can never know when something comes around forcing it off your list of priorities. However the work put into Project London so far is impressive and has us hoping to one day see a version where Los Santos has been veritably transformed into London, landmarks, street layout and all.
I know there is a lot of us that wish we had a new GTA London and this project, ambitious as it is, goes a ways to realising that. There are a lot of us working to give the game a British-leaning look. We do a lot of hard work and I'm proud of that.
You can download the current version of Project London for GTA 5 over at the mod's page on GTA 5 Mods, where you'll also find some of Kieran's other, smaller mods which act as standalone vehicle replacements. Whether Rockstar will ever return to London in any official capacity is anyone's guess at this point, but if they end up sticking to the States, Kieran and his mates are working to bring a bit of Britain back into the game.