For many this first instalment in the 3D universe of Grand Theft Auto has alot of happy memories attached and it certainly holds up well especially compared to other games released in 2001.
Grand Theft Auto III was something of a game changer for the series because it shifted from the top down view present in the previous additions of the series to a 3D and more real world perspective. It may have changed how we see the game but it didn’t change what made the game great, it still continues the trend of having a world which the player could explore with little to no restraint to the point where sandbox gaming has become synonymous with Grand Theft Auto.
GTA III really does hold up well and unlike other games I’ve played over the years this one still sticks in my mind. I still remember when I first played it as a kid and how amazed I was by just how much you could do, it wasn’t a linear track from A to B like most other games and when you’re young you can get overwhelmed by all the choice. I remember spending hours just driving about…badly…and just taking in everything the game had to offer. I got killed every thirty seconds or so by any random NPC who had a beef with some mute guy called Claude but it was enough to keep a young boy entertained. As I got a bit older and maybe more skilled at gaming in general I still got killed a lot but at least I started to do the missions as well and that’s when it got really interesting.
Even after all this time hearing the opening chimes and the cutscene with the robbery still send chills down my spine. It’s just so good. Say what you like about the quality of the graphics and I’m the first to admit Catalina’s proportions make Lara Croft’s blocky assets look natural but despite that it really felt real in a way game hadn’t before. I guess because it was gritty and extreme and because of the perspective we felt closer to the action than ever before.
It didn’t have much bearing when I was a kid but Grand Theft Auto gets some of its appeal because it lets you do things that other games don’t and so each instalment has received its fair share of criticism for the sexual content and the gratuitous violence but what can you expect in a city filled with members of the mob, crazy ex girlfriends and hookers who want to make you forget all about your troubles.
I won’t get into every single mechanic of the game because that’s not what this review is about and at this point everyone, even the casual gamer is familiar with it. One of the best mechanics of the game, at least to me has always been the wanted level. Seeing it rise and knowing that with each star the game gets a whole lot more difficult is frankly exciting. It says a lot about the game itself that it can create a fun and infinitely playable challenge outwith the usual missions and side mission, just get some attention from the police and see how long you can go without getting caught or killed. I’d say this is also a really good way to get to learn the map and learn all of those secret little twists and turns.
I touched on side missions above and while the story missions of each game are fun and well worth playing it’s fair to say that Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be the game series it is without these side missions. First off while you are playing the role of a criminal, in fact your first few minutes in the game your character is involved in an armed robbery, you don’t have to just to bad things the game lets you engage in vigilante missions ironically by stealing a cop car. During these missions you’ll incapacitate the worst monsters that Liberty City has to offer…besides yourself obviously. This isn’t the only emergency service you can ‘help out’ during your time in Liberty City, you can also hop in a fire truck or borrow an ambulance and roam across the city putting out blazes and picking up the sick and wounded respectively. If those don’t interest you then you can always become a taxi driver. It’s always amused me that you can ignore the big money making pull of mob work to drive random people in taxis. Maybe you just need to relax. Claude doesn’t speak but maybe he’s a people person or perhaps he just likes to drive (all of the GTA protagonists to seem to enjoy driving) It’s worth mentioning that these activities aren’t just worthless past times because as well as the short term gain of money which you can use to buy weapons and armour, if you complete these side missions you gain special rewards for example completing the taxi missions will earn you the borgnine taxi (a unique skinned taxi cab with some interesting features)
Something this game did really well was present you with these side missions without forcing them down your throat. Sure I can answer a payphone and most likely kill everyone the person on the other side of the line tells me to…it’d make me a psychopath but I could do it… but what’s good is that you don’t have to do it and you’re not being reminded every ten seconds either. As well as that the side missions were great because each was its own self contained story.
My biggest complaints about this game only really come in hindsight after seeing how the other games developed. First off the combat mechanics which I’ll admit I didn’t think were perfect at the time didn’t age well and only seemed worse compared to the next instalments. My main issue is that the controls feel clunky and slow and it’s just not ideal for fast paced action. The next problem is the lack of a map. In Vice City and San Andreas you have access to a menu map and can place markers to lead you to locations and mark important spots this simply isn’t an option in GTA III. Sure the map is simple enough and after a while you can learn where things are but I don’t have the best memory and at times I found my enjoyment of the game being hampered by the fact that I wasn’t always sure where to find what I was looking for. Sure it wasn’t an issue during a mission where the path was laid out for you but I spent way too much time driving around the same few blocks looking for the Ammunation so I could get some weapons and body armour for the next stage of the game. Finally the controls while driving which are also awkward and clunky. I mean I don’t expect the cars to operate as well as in games where the main focus is driving but considering that you spend a lot of time in your car it’d make sense that they operated better than they did. That being said something I did like was the diversity in how vehicles controlled and functioned, with other games you have the same engine and a different skin but with this game you have a variety of vehicles of all shapes and sizes and you could feel the difference. These differences we’re useful for different things and it all added to the realism the game was going for.
The core mechanics of this game were superb, with just minor technical issues, and the gameplay itself was enough to have people replaying it over fifteen years later but if I’m being honest the real star of this game was the soundtrack. It was rich and clear and realistic from the music to the effects. Every radio channel had its own personality and niche and you could express a preference based on the music played. Not something many games can claim. And on the other hand you could wander about a busy street and hear people talking, there was actual dialogue outwith the main character and it all built up the world you were playing in. The game felt rich and nowhere was this clearer than in the voice acting. In fact all the voice acting was impressive with the possible exception of the main character Claude…I feel like he didn’t get a word in edgeways with all the other characters.
Finally the story. We follow the main character Claude as he makes his way up through the ranks of the criminal underground. He was shot by his ex Catalina and as we make our way through the game their is palpable tension as we inevitably build our way to their high octane confrontation. Something that bugged me about this game for years is that canonically it takes place after San Andreas which means that everything that happens in that game had already taken place in this game’s timeline including her banging CJ. I will say this though she’s considerably more fleshed out and interesting in San Andreas. I guess because we spend more time with her there. They do show us her most defining trait in both games though her opportunistic and capricious nature and her willingness to betray a partner and lover.
I’d give this game a 4/5 because of its impressive storyline, excellent side missions and because it’s diverting in a way that more games should be.