2001 certainly was a busy year for gamers, wasn’t it? Around the start of the sixth console generation, this landmark year brought us the Game Boy Advance, two new consoles, and the start or return of dozens of franchises, most notably Grand Theft Auto III – the game which brought new life and innovation to open-world games.
Though Rockstar’s infamously controversial series had been in existence for years prior, it was only then that the crime-oriented franchise got its due time in the mainstream spotlight. With its promise of AAA-grade storytelling, an open city packed with side activities and the highest production values money could afford at the time, GTA III was set to be the game all others are measured against. However, does it still hold up as a product, and as an experience, over a decade later?
Taking place in Liberty City, one of the settings of the original GTA, the story begins with the mute, unnamed protagonist the player controls being betrayed by his girlfriend, Catalina, and is left at the mercy of the police. On his way to prison, a bombing of the Callahan Bridge, combined with a carefully planned prisoner extraction, allows the player’s character to escape. This also serves as a cleansing of the slate for him, as he sets out to rise up in the criminal underworld and get his revenge.
While not wholly original and fairly standard, each part of this tale adds up to make it greater than the sum of its parts. The story itself progresses as quickly or slowly as the player decides, since the main missions can be skipped indefinitely but they do act as a measure of gameplay progress. Seeing as the player character is essentially a blank slate, the other characters manage to pick up the slack in terms of wit, character development and sheer entertainment, which is aided by appropriate writing. While events may feel drawn out, the story does have interesting moments and makes its way to a nicely conclusive, if ultimately ambiguous, final scene.
The core of the experience lies in gameplay, and this is where Rockstar’s first 3D GTA game makes its noticeable mark on gaming culture. First thing to clarify: this game throws aside the mandatory top-down view of the first two games, instead turning to a then-new, now-traditional third-person camera view. This gives the player a greater connection to their character, and to the world, particularly when paired with technically perfect controls that allow for fluid character movement while being generally precise and adequately complex.
As we are dealing with the criminal underworld, naturally the player will have to get their hands dirty to make any notable progress. The combat system in this game relies on simple but accessible third-person shooter mechanics, sporting weapons cycling and a lock-on button system that works fairly well. There are a wide variety of weapons, ranging from using one’s fists to baseball bats, pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and even grenades.
Of course, given the title, solid combat doesn’t mean jacksh*t if the driving mechanics are poor. Fortunately, Rockstar has not lost their touch in this regard. Driving in GTA III is based on the simplest principles of real-life automatic driving: the player utilizes the left stick to steer, requiring great care and being believably challenging, while alternating between buttons for the gas pedal, the brake pedal and the handbrake. It adds to the immersion through its simple elegance, as well as adding to the available content by giving players a wide range of cars, boats and other vehicles to try out.
The missions also give the game some teeth, as they can range from slightly difficult to mind-f*ck levels of challenge. This is due to a number of factors, namely the steadily rising difficultly curve that keeps players being cautious and focused, the persistence of the rival gangs and police officers’ artificial intelligence, and the variations on traditional mission tropes (find and deliver a package, find a kill a guy, drive a car to a location, et cetera) alongside some unique gems like collecting issues of a magazine or taking part in street races.
Taking that to heart, it’s easy to see that there is plenty of content just in the missions. Liberty City, however, is not content with just the developer’s creations being displayed – it presents more dynamic opportunities to get into entertaining amounts of trouble. At any point, the player can hijack taxis, police cruisers, fire trucks and ambulances, and are able to take on missions exclusive to each vehicle. This allows you to do some good while causing chaos, if you’re so inclined to avoid massive civilian casualties.
Plus, that’s not even discussing the collectables or the variety of places to explore. Liberty City is divided into three enormous districts, separated by the sea and connected by bridges. Each area has hidden tokens which affect the player in various ways (extra health and armour, slow-motion effect, reduced reputation with the police) and various stores and shops to spend money on everything from weapons, to changing the colour of your car, to planting bombs in said vehicle (which comes in handy at times).
With the gameplay, there are almost no flaws, but those that exist are notable failings. The most worrisome issue is one that quickly becomes apparent – there is no autosave system! Yes, back in 2001, autosaving was merely a conceptual dream, so players are recommended to keep their save files updated constantly. Otherwise, they risk having to replay levels they already completed, which brings up the other issue – there is no fast travel option! All movement from location to location must be done in real-time via travel in a vehicle or on foot, which will become tiresome after the first few hours.
When in the previous generation, the presentation was novel but flawed – now its limits are more evident. The graphical quality is more reminiscent of PlayStation-era textures and character models then the highly-detailed, near-photorealistic imagery we are used to today. Thank goodness that the art design of both Liberty City and its denizens is virtually timeless, giving a sense of almost goofy but believable personality to every facet of this society.
The sound is tricky to describe, at least when it comes to voice acting. There aren’t any stand-out actors, but everyone involved clearly cares about the production and puts effort into their lines. The soundtrack, appearing when driving any vehicle and which can be easily cycled through, is quite varied, with a bit of everyone’s tastes available for enjoyment. Finally, the sound effects give new meaning to the phrase, “The City that Never Sleeps”. as pedestrians chatter, engines purr, and every street feels lively and interesting.
Games that innovate in one age tend to have issues with lasting until the next generation, and Grand Theft Auto III certainly toes this line. Luckily, it remains a solid, well-produced piece of gaming history that any gamer should be proud to display on their shelf. It still has lasting power in this day and age, and I recommend – almost wholeheartedly – that you go out and buy this game. Welcome back, GTA III. We missed you.