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Vehicle theft, or carjacking (also known as grand theft auto by the police scanner from Grand Theft Auto IV onwards), is a basic act available in all Grand Theft Auto games, where the player possess the ability to steal an occupied or unoccupied vehicle. It is a fundamental feature in the games, and an inspiration for the "Grand Theft Auto" name, which is a legal term for vehicle theft.
The theft of vehicles is committed with a simple stroke of a key or button when the player character is close to a targeted vehicle. If the player character is not already next to a front door of the vehicle (passenger's or driver's side), the player character will automatically walk or run towards the aforementioned door.
Stealing an unoccupied vehicle
If a vehicle is unoccupied, the player may simply break in, start the engine, and drive/ride/fly away. For Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, often times the player must take the time to shatter a window of a road vehicle or helicopter if it is locked (larger vehicles and boats, however, do not have locked doors to begin with) and hotwire the vehicle before they can start the engine. If the player interrupts the carjacking by pressing any other key in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, GTA IV, or GTA V, the player character will simply open the vehicle's door but will not enter the vehicle. Players use this for being able to take snapshots of their supercars/sports cars with their doors open, especially if they use a special door design (e.g. T20).
For Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the act of stealing an unoccupied car is significantly more complicated, with each car featuring any one of three different lock-cracking minigames that the player must successfully pass in order to finally assume control of the vehicle; these include forced ignition by twisting a screwdriver on the ignition lock (for low grade vehicles), hot wiring by screwing open a wire panel and twisting two wires together (for middle grade vehicles), and matching the code of an immobilizer using the PDA's hacking software (for high grade vehicles).
In certain cases, road vehicles will automatically trigger an alarm when intruded, attracting police attention. This can be averted by tripping off the alarm by hitting the vehicle with a weapon or another vehicle, waiting until the alarm stops, and then breaking into it. For GTA Chinatown Wars, a vehicle alarm will only go off if the player fails to start the car engine within an allocated time or leaves the vehicles before the car is unlocked; vehicles with immobilizers do not impose a time limit given the act of decoding the immobilizer may take considerably more time. In Grand Theft Auto 1, certain vehicles may also be armed with a bomb activated when it has been broken into, serving as a deterrence to carjacking attractive vehicles parked in the game.
Stealing an occupied vehicle
If a vehicle is occupied by a driver, the player must pull the driver in question out before they can enter and drive away. If the player enters via the passenger's side, the player character simply forces the driver out from inside the car; if the passenger side is also occupied, the player character will pull the passenger out before entering. If the player interrupts the carjacking by pressing any other key in GTA San Andreas or GTA IV (for motorbikes and low sports/supercars only in Grand Theft Auto III and GTA Vice City, including the Rhino and Romero's Hearse in the latter), the player character will simply pull out the first occupant but will not enter the vehicle.
Whereas most games simply depict the player character pulling its occupants out, player characters in GTA San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, and GTA IV employ violence to obtain a vehicle. In these games, punches and kicks (common in lower vehicles such sports car) may be used against an occupant, and if the player character in GTA IV is wielding a firearm, he may threaten the occupant at gunpoint. It is also possible in GTA IV to steal a vehicle without having to directly "carjack" them. If one aims a gun at the driver of a vehicle (or passenger), they may exit a vehicle in fear and flee on foot, or back up their car and drive away, trying to avoid the player. Non-playable characters who fall victim to vehicle theft in GTA IV and GTA V may also end up calling the police for help.
For ships, the player may simply jump aboard the boat, triggering its driver to leave the controls and flee. Carjacking an occupied aircraft may be done in multiplayer modes, but is otherwise difficult in single player mode, if not impossible, as occupied aircraft are often not within reach to the player.
Since GTA III, non-playable character criminals have the ability to carjack other non-playable character vehicles and including the player's own vehicle. These criminals do not ever gain attention of the police. Criminals do not distinguish the type of vehicle the player is currently in. It is possible to allow them to hijack the player's helicopter if it is stationary on the ground, but the criminals do not have the intelligence to fly them and will simply stay put in the helicopter.
In GTA San Andreas, on rare occasions, police may commandeer empty civilian vehicles if ever their police vehicles disappear.
Since GTA IV, the police has the ability to commandeer other vehicles, both occupied and unoccupied, if there are no police vehicles nearby. This behavior is most commonly seen if the player is wanted by the police and stays put for foot officers to come, and then flee by car. They do not discriminate which vehicle to commandeer, and this includes vehicles the player has parked in the parking area.
Repercussions of vehicle theft
Carjacking is not without its dangers. From GTA III onwards, certain drivers will react aggressively towards the player if their vehicle is stolen, dragging the player out, and either reenter their vehicle to drive away, or pick a fight with the player; taxi drivers and gang members are usually depicted with such behaviors.
As expected, carjacking, as is the possession of a vehicle with a triggered alarm, will attract police attention if a police officer is within the line of sight of the crime, often resulting in the player attaining a one-star wanted level. In GTA San Andreas, however, it is possible to entirely avoid police attention during a carjacking. If the player is in the process of pulling an occupant out of a vehicle and notices an officer nearby, they can just interrupt the carjacking. This is because the police officer will only respond if the player gets in the stolen vehicle; simply pulling an occupant out will not earn a wanted level.
Normally, should the player attempt to steal an occupied car belonging to a gang member, other gang members of the same gang nearby will chase the player on foot, usually using firearms such as pistols or SMGs to stop the player to retrieve their gang car back or even kill him. In GTA III and IV, nearby gang members will also give chase in their cars, which tend to be very difficult to outrun as they act like police officers on a 6 star wanted level, attempting to box the player in and gun them down.
If the player attempts to carjack a vehicle just as it begins to move and accelerates, the player will inevitably be thrown off, emphasizing the need to carjack only when a car is traveling in low speeds or is in a complete stop, however, in GTA San Andreas, if the player enters the passenger side of the vehicle, the driver may panic and begin to drive away, but the player character may still enter normally as if the car was stopped, making for a good boost of speed after taking full control of the vehicle (especially a ZR-350 or an Infernus); likewise, any non-playable character attempting to drag the player out of their car may be met with the same experience if the player manages to bring their vehicle's speed up. In GTA IV and V, the proliferation of ragdoll physics allows for both the player and NPCs to be dragged along the road while clinging to a door handle after a failed attempt carjacking a vehicle which is beginning to move at a higher speed.
Vehicle theft odd jobs
Many quests and side features in the GTA series revolve around, or at least require, the stealing of a car, and some optional missions require the 'collection' of many cars. Some of the optional missions include:
- Import/Export: The car-theft side-mission in GTA III.
- Sunshine Autos Import Garage: The car-theft side-mission for Sunshine Autos in GTA Vice City
- Exports and Imports: The car-theft side-mission in GTA San Andreas.
- Love Media thefts: The car-theft side-mission in GTA Liberty City Stories.
- Civil Asset Forfeiture Impound: The car-theft side-mission in GTA Vice City Stories.
- Exotic Exports: A car-theft side-mission for Brucie in GTA IV. This mission series is triggered by emails, and differs from most car-theft side-missions in that it employs a mini-map tracking icon, and precludes the player taking on other missions until the car is acquired and returned to Brucie.
- Stevie's Car Thefts: A car-theft side-mission for Stevie in GTA IV. This mission series is triggered via cell phone messages.
- Angus' Bike Thefts: A bike-theft side-mission for Angus in The Lost and Damned. This mission series is triggered via cell phone messages.