Vehicle damage is a fundamental aspect in the GTA series where nearly any vehicle is susceptible to damage from the environment, typically in the form of crashes, gunfire, or other external forces, as it does in real life, providing a certain degree of realism and illustrating the vulnerability of vehicles in the series. If a vehicle is sufficiently damaged, it explodes in a fireball, destroying it and rendering it useless. As the series progressed, the variety of damage has been increased, offering additional opportunities on how the player can destroy vehicles. In addition, the manner in which damage is depicted in game has changed as new game engines are used.
Damage resistance should be considered when selecting a car for a task. The high performance of certain vehicles may be offset by a weaker body, while a slow, heavy vehicle may be far more resilient to damage. If a player is not proficient in their driving or has not properly planned their path to their destination, the choice of vehicle may become a hindrance if the player is urgently completing a mission or escaping from pursuers.
Certain missions and tricks throughout the series can create a damage-resistant vehicle, which include resistance to bullets, explosions, physical collisions, and fire. Tanks and certain armored vehicles are also naturally highly resistant to damage and are invulnerable to certain forms of destructive forces.
As the series began, vehicles in Grand Theft Auto 1 and Grand Theft Auto 2 can be destroyed via high speed crashes, gunfire from firearms and drops into water, features which are still present in all games after. The games are also capable of accurately visualizing portions of vehicles which are damaged using collision detection, and each vehicle has a number of sections that represent each part as either damaged or undamaged: Six in GTA 1 and four in GTA 2.
Unlike much of the series after, a vehicle's performance degrades as its damage is increasingly severe. For GTA 1, the only hint to this is a growingly louder clunking engine noise; in GTA 2 the clutch of the vehicle breaks, making the vehicle produce a loud chattering sound as it drives. Additionally a fire will start in the middle of the vehicle, which grows with increased damage or on its own over time.
By Grand Theft Auto III, vehicles are far more sensitive with damage, as parts can show signs of damage with the slightest collision, as well as high speed collisions with pedestrians. However, the performance of vehicles remains unaffected from damage, and imminent destruction of vehicles are represented by a burning engine. If a vehicle is flipped over, its engine may also engulf in flames and result in the vehicle exploding.
Developing from GTA 1 and GTA 2, GTA III's visual representation of vehicle damage improved in complexity. The engine may now emit smoke, providing a gauge on how much endurance a vehicle has left before it catches fire. Most road vehicles in the game are also constructed from individual polygons with a central "core" (the wheels, engine, chassis and body of vehicles). The damage system of vehicles represents the minor vehicle parts (doors, frontal quarter panels/head lights and bumpers) as undamaged, damaged or missing, based on collisions detected on the vehicle; the core of each vehicle remains visually unchanged despite heavy damage. Boats and aircrafts, however, will not show signs of damage until they are on the verge of exploding.
Between GTA Vice City and GTA Vice City Stories, various improvements and refinements were made on GTA III's damage engine:
- For road vehicles in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, front windscreens may now be shattered and tires can be punctured using a firearm (the latter affects handling and grip as an affected vehicle is more prone to spinouts; it also allows for the inclusion of spike strips) and melee weapons may be effectively used to damage vehicles, while trunk lids may detach from a vehicle at a certain speed if ajar; motorbikes and helicopters, which were introduced in the game, have only smoke from the engine to show damage. Smoke effects and color from the engine have also been improved to better depict the condition of a damaged vehicle (from white, to a mix of white and black, to black). Destroyed boats may also sink in the water, as do aircraft and road vehicles that have landed in water.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas forgoes removable front quarter panels altogether (although headlights may still be broken if the same area is damaged), but allows bumpers to dangle before detaching. Doors, trunk lids and boot lids may also be closed shut by physical force (i.e. swaying a vehicle side by side), making detachment of these parts far more difficult. Road vehicles may also explode if its fuel intake cap is shot at. Fixed-wing aircraft in the game may degrade performance-wise with increasing damage, and possess the ability to emit smoke from damaged parts (such as the wings and fuselage), while ailerons and flaps on the tail and wings may dangle for similar reasons. Airplanes and helicopters may also explode on impact with any surface. Unlike cars and motorbikes, airplanes and helicopters will explode several times upon destruction, which, depending on the area, can cause a lot of desimation. Bicycles, which were introduced in the game, are invulnerable to damage. Also, cars will emit a subtle clunking sound when the smoke becomes a combination of white and black.
- As Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories reuse GTA Vice City's game engine, their damage engines are exactly the same as in GTA Vice City. However, like in GTA San Andreas, front quarter panels are not detachable.
Grand Theft Auto Advance, which uses an independent top-down game engine, possesses a vehicle damage engine largely similar to that of GTA 1 and GTA 2, except large vehicles (i.e. buses and trucks) may also face the risk of rolling over when cornering at high speeds.
Grand Theft Auto IV
For Grand Theft Auto IV, vehicle damage has improved in leaps and bounds. Imminent destruction is now represented by either a burning engine, a burning fuel tank or both, and clunking engine noises are reintroduced for vehicles with damaged engines. Alternately, the engines of severely damaged vehicles may simply cut off (this can be rectified by calling any number on the player's mobile phone); in addition, vehicles no longer catch fire and explode when they are flipped. If a car the player is not driving falls from a reasonable great height, it instantly explodes.
Instead of using readily modeled parts, GTA IV uses a more flexible (but not necessarily realistic) damage engine that allows any part of a vehicle's body to flex and distort based on the force and direction of an impact; the body of boats and helicopters may now be damaged in this manner, while motorcycles still do not. Essentially limitless on the extent on damage that can be done, players can literally flatten or crush any vehicle using extreme force; explosions are also known to damage a vehicle's bodywork severely. In addition, should a road vehicle sustain severe frontal or rear damage, its axle may also bend to a point where it can no longer function, locking and dragging its wheel along the ground as the vehicle moves, greatly affecting performance. A similar effect is caused if a wheel arch is damaged to the point where it will buckle the wheel. The wheels can also crook, causing the car to pull to one side while driving, making driving in a straight line more difficult.
Other minor damages were added in the game. Individual lights (including those of motorbikes) and windows can be broken. Opened doors can be broken off by forcing them against another solid object (as doors are now registered as solid objects). Scrapes, scratches and bullet holes are added as minute damages (meaning they will disappear after a certain amount of time has passed). Flat tires can break apart at a certain speed, resulting in the wheel running on a bare rim; tires may also be destroyed by fire, burning out excessively, bullets, or extreme pressure (A car that lands on top of or gets T-Boned at the fender by another car, on rare occasions, can pop its tire). Vehicle bumpers can hang and bounce around from collisions or bullets. They will not detach until the vehicle explodes.
A vehicle's suspension can also be damaged. A common tactic is to partially submerge a car in water (to avoid accidental explosion) and shoot behind the wheels inside the wheel arches. There are two distinct drops in ride height for each wheel arch shot at. The newly-lowered car can be used to drift easily in a similar way to modded PC drift cars, even on consoles.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
In GTA: Chinatown Wars, the damage system reverts to that of games prior to GTA IV, limiting visual damage to ajar doors and hood and trunk lids, and smoke or fire from the engine. Vehicles are now certain to explode after sufficient damage, and the player will also be set alight when a vehicle they have damaged heavily ignites. Flipped vehicles will also explode in the same manner as it does prior to GTA IV.
In GTA: Chinatown Wars, Baggage Handler drivers, when killed with a melee weapon, Chainsaw, or Teaser, will continue to press the gas pedal with their foot and the car will start moving, although it was stopped when you were killing them.
Grand Theft Auto VVehicle damage in GTA V remains somewhat similar to GTA IV's. The bodies of vehicles will distort and deform based on the force and direction of the impact with another solid object. The vehicle's bodies are more rigid however to keep some aspect of realism; wheel axles will break more easily, especially when landing hard on a wheel. Engine performance can be degraded from a head-on collision with another object. Wheels can now come off if a vehicle is hit by a large enough force, or by landing on a wheel at a certain angle. Scratches are more visible and longer compared to GTA IV. Individual lights and windows can be broken. However, if a window is broken, small shards of glass will remain protruding from the window slats, unlike GTA IV, where the whole window would break all at once, leaving behind no shards of glass at all.
It is now possible to remove front quarter panels and bumpers, whereas in GTA IV, the bumper would just dangle. Ejection through the windscreen is less common in GTA V. However, it causes much more severe damage to the player than in the previous game, often killing them outright.Also in GTA V, cars will now instantly explode if the engine or fuel tank is subjected to a very heavy impact with the terrain, typically after falling from a great height and landing nose-down. This is obviously fatal to the player.
Some vehicles such as the Rumpo, can take a lot of damage and not explode, but leak out fuel, disabling the vehicle. Similarly to GTA San Andreas, shooting the fuel cap on a vehicle will cause it to explode.
In both GTA IV and V, depending on the size and speed of the vehicle, if the player crashes into a civilian's vehicle, the civilian can be killed on impact. The fatal impact is depicted when either the NPC's head hits the horn and it goes off (sometimes they leave their foot on the gas pedal and the car keeps moving) or they slump on the car seat. In GTA IV, if you hit a beater, a Dukes or Taxi (on some occasions), the NPC and car will catch fire and the car will explode.
In GTA V the Rhino tank once again returns and it still has the ability to blow up cars on impact. If the player drives over a car with the Rhino, the car will be crushed and will explode.
Aircraft damage has improved in Grand Theft Auto V. As with any other type of vehicle in the game, the airplane's fuselage and wings will dent and deform based on the direction and force of an impact, although the wreckage from a Jet is quite unrealistic. Ailerons in the wings and vertical stabilizer can be damaged and fall off in a collision, partially crippling the airplane and decreasing its maneuverability. Also, wings and vertical stabilizers can fall off in the event of a violent collision, rendering the aircraft useless. As with cars, the bodies of airplanes can get scraped and dented.
If an airplane has taken a large amount of damage (from gunfire, collisions, etc.), the airplane's engine may sputter and die in mid-air, and the airplane will plummet to the ground. During this time, there will be a brief loss of power and the airplane's controls will become less responsive and more unpredictable. This can be indicated by dark black smoke coming from the engines.
Unlike helicopters in GTA IV, which can lose the tail or the main rotor if those areas are hit with enough force, Helicopters in GTA V can no longer lose their tail but they can be crippled; if a helicopter's tail rotor has taken enough damage, usually by gunfire, it can fail, resulting in tailspin and eventually leading to the helicopter's doom.
- In Vice City, if you enable the 'Destroy all cars on screen' cheat in the Pause Menu 15 times, a destructive effect will occur; the area of effect will increase with every subsequent use of the cheat, and within a few seconds of restarting play, destroyed cars will begin to fall out of the sky. This was also possible with trainers where you could hold the keys and due to the repeated blasts, the cars would go up beyond skybox limits and after you release it, they will fall down. The reason for this is because cars on every blast lift off the ground and fall.
- Sometimes, it is possible for a vehicle to be set on fire through external means, such as a Flamethrower, Molotov Cocktails or other stray flames in the game world, without actually exploding. Prior to GTA IV, it can be tricky to distinguish these incidental flames from those signalling an impending explosion.
- In some occasions, in all 3D Universe games, vehicles will explode twice when destroyed. This can be done by destroying vehicles quickly using the Minigun or a Rhino - the engine will remain on fire after the initial explosion, leading to a second soon afterwards, potentially catching player unaware.
- In GTA San Andreas, all bicycles are completely immune to damage. However, if a bicycle somehow ends up resting upside down, it will catch on fire and explode. This is very difficult to perform, however, because it is next to impossible to make a bike stay resting upside down.
- In GTA V, however, bicycles are not immune to damage and can be destroyed by explosives, or causing severe damage by a vehicle at high speeds.
- In GTA V, cars can backfire if damaged enough even though they are not beaters. Cars sometimes also have a more realistic stall than just simply cutting off.
- In GTA V, if the player replays a mission while in a damaged vehicle, it will be repaired upon returning to the restore point.
- In GTA IV and GTA V, if a vehicle has been very heavily damaged, it may take the player a little bit longer to start the engine if it shuts off. During this time, the engine's ignition may be heard cranking multiple times, while the protagonist may utter annoyed protests such as "Come on! Start!", until the engine finally sputters to life.