Let’s take a joyride with Rockstar’s first true foray into 3D for their seminal series for Grand Theft Auto III.
Hyperbole is a bit of a fool’s game, as it only confuses the weak-minded and discourages the bright. As such, big sweeping statements are frowned upon in journalism and need to be used with care. In other words, reviewers like us shouldn’t write cheques that our big fat mouths cannot cash. That being said, I believe that Grand Theft Auto III is the most important game of this millennium, and may well be the most important of all time.
A brief history lesson before this review proceeds to wank off everyone at Rockstar for their work on the 2001 wide-open-sandbox game. At the time of writing (February 2017), nearly everything on the AAA gaming market is wide-open-sandboxed; it’s the easiest and most sure-fire way for uninspired executives to spin a buck, because aside from first-person shooters, it’s the form of gaming that’s most recognisable to the average Joe Sixaxis. Storyline, side missions, vehicular manslaughter; the wide-open-sandbox embodies all the familiar, stock gaming tropes, and the popularity of the genre is unquestionably down to Grand Theft Auto III.
Before GTA 3, in terms of a full consummate package, there was honestly nothing like it available, and this is because no game has made other developers sit up and take notice like Grand Theft Auto did. Okay, there had been the early Elder Scrolls games on PC, but that series didn’t hit its provenance until Morrowind, which came slightly after GTA3. The games industry is, largely, a game of follow the leader – one company innovates, the rest imitate, mostly in the hopes of reviving flagging sales. GTA didn’t innovate in terms of creating an open world, or a racing game, or a third-person shooter – no, the wonderful part of it is how it combined these elements.
Many people who play Grand Theft Auto eschew its storylines and questing for the real meat and potatoes of the game – the raw, unadulterated gameplay, which runs as such: you, as the player-character, stand in a bustling map filled with NPCs and vehicles, and from there, you’re free to do as you please. “As you please”, in this instance, means to go on a widespread criminal rampage. Steal a car, buy a weapon, blow up Hepburn Heights – the destruction that this game inspires is nothing but an orgasm, both in how it revels in violence and how gleeful the experience feels. The reason it works is because Grand Theft Auto III is pure escapism – you do things here that you’d never do in the real world, and the ability to let go and essentially explore another side of yourself has been nothing but catharsis. It itches a deep spot in the brain that craves carnage; this carnage-steeped gameplay is deeply satisfying and it makes Grand Theft Auto III worth experiencing. And yet, that’s only one tiny part of this game.
The real beauty of Grand Theft Auto III is how it feels like a dynamic, breathing landscape. Your playground for destruction is Liberty City, based on the grime and crime of New York circa the 1980s, replete with mobsters, Yardies, the Colombian Cartel, the Yakuza, and others all gunning for a slice of the big (mock) apple pie. It’s full of NPCs that go about their day, coming out with quips and weird phrases (many of them love quoting The Village People), how the shops and buildings are full of character and wit (the internet café’s called tw@, what more do you want?), and a real traffic system in which other drives operate their motor vehicle erratically or get into crashes. That’s when it clicks, and believe it when it’s said that you’ll have lots of these moments playing this game; such is the hard work Rockstar put in – Liberty City is not just a level, it’s a world, and, again, Grand Theft Auto III was one of the first major games to achieve this. Much less like simply playing a game, it feels like you’re sucked into the world of Liberty City, and because of this, the level of immersion that you can feel playing this game is intense. Entire hours and days melt away, simply because, at times, living in Liberty City feels more exciting than our own world. There’s that escapism cropping up again…
Stories in video games, by 2001, were not a dazzling new invention, and Grand Theft Auto III, despite its innovations elsewhere, did not rival War and Peace in the narrative department. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; with the focus that Rockstar had put upon the magical and addictive gameplay, why dilute that with extraneous plot? You play as Claude Speed, a mute protagonist (again, this helps immersion and escapism – the player lives vicariously through Claude) who, after being double-crossed by his criminal associate and girlfriend Catalina, must rebuild his criminal stance in the city. Fuelled by revenge, Claude ascends the criminal ladder in pursuit of his ex-partner quickly, but not without making enemies of every faction in Liberty City. Alright, this story isn’t going to win awards any time soon, but it doesn’t need to; it facilitates progression through the game’s mission tree in a simple but elegant way, and gives the player fuel to continue the story – Catalina must die and that will keep you going. As such, the story here is a total success, complimenting both the missions and the bloodbathed free-roaming perfectly. Of course, you’ll wonder what Rockstar could do with a more compelling plot or protagonist, but – we’ll get to that.
What really helped with the sense of creating a world was the strong radio system implemented into the game. Rockstar, known as DMA Design in 2001, were not hurting for money as they’d pioneered the fairly successful Lemmings series, but they still were not flush by video game company terms. As such, they couldn’t quite afford the amazing and expansive video game soundtracks that they’re known for today, so they improvised. They signed up unknown artists with genuinely good tracks such as Dil-don’t and Conor and Jay, spanning a wide array of genres, from reggae, trance, pop – disappointingly, no rock/metal, but that’s just quibbling – but the master stroke in terms of selection is licensing out the entire Scarface soundtrack and putting it on one radio station – beautiful. Yet, not as clever as using music diegetically is the effort put in to make the stations feel real. Between tracks, there are suitably yammering and annoying MCs – the highlights are the Partridge-esque Laslow on the talk-radio broadcast Chatterbox, or the hilariously Morgan Merryweather on Double Clef, who enjoys a Chardonnay and a warm brie as he listens to classical music – fantastic stuff. This just contributes to the world of Liberty City, a place you’ll scarcely want to leave.
This is contributed to by all the little touches that the game provides, and the silly humour that Grand Theft Auto III revels in is often a true virtue. As mentioned, there’s an internet café called tw@, but that’s just one example in a sea of many. “Give Head Radio a Listen This Weekend”. “St Mark’s Bistro: Eat ‘till You Explode!” (at the site where you program a car bombing). “Sex Club 7”. The game is filled with these little jokes, to the point where just driving around and taking it all in is a delight. Yes, a game replete with killing and prostitutes – and certainly not one for children, god no – still manages to be a delight.
However, in life, anything is rarely perfect, and for all its ambition, Grand Theft Auto III has a few stumbles which don’t ruin the game but do somewhat dampen the experience. In this early 3D outing, the driving controls are horrid and stodgy, and require real focus to avoid crashing into a building. Shooting is also not great, as the auto aim is somewhat wonky and sometimes requires wrestling to get it to work – not what you need during a heated gun battle. Finally, of all the little kinks the game offers, perhaps the most egregious is the underwhelming map – granted, it’s extremely helpful to have a mini-map, but all it ever displays is mission locations, not places of interest that you really need – such as the Pay ‘N’ Spray, which is of huge importance in the late game where police pursuits become more frequent and expected. Of course, this simply means that you just have to learn the map, which isn’t a bad thing, just a minor gripe. That’s all that these problems are – just minor gripes, things you LEARN to live with. They don’t prevent Grant Theft Auto III from being amazing, but you do wish they weren’t there.
This game is an orgy of sex and violence, but it’s not witless. In a sense, Grand Theft Auto III lampoons America, and Liberty City is like a microcosm for the seedy underbelly of the country. This game is a lot more clever than it lets on, but who CARES about being clever when this game is as enjoyable as it is? As a gameplay experience, it’s near perfect, and as a package, even with its flaws, is one of the finest games of all time. As I said before, hyperbole is a fool’s game, but maybe this time, this one instance in talking about GTA3, it’s acceptable. Simply: Grand Theft Auto III is prolific and deserves all the accolades and hyperbole that the world can afford.
Verdict: An absolutely dazzling game, perhaps marred by a handful of tiny things that never upset the balance compared to the world of good it does. Essential play for anyone who likes games.