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Grand Theft Auto III (PC) artwork

Grand Theft Auto III (PC) review

"As controversial a reputation the original Grand Theft Auto had on its release, I can’t confess to ever enjoying it. The only way to realistically collect enough money to advance to the next stage was by doing jobs for bosses, and these jobs were often far too frustrating and tedious to hold my attention for long. The sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, heralded a colourful graphical improvement and the missions were generally more amusing, although it was far from a classic. "

As controversial a reputation the original Grand Theft Auto had on its release, I can’t confess to ever enjoying it. The only way to realistically collect enough money to advance to the next stage was by doing jobs for bosses, and these jobs were often far too frustrating and tedious to hold my attention for long. The sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, heralded a colourful graphical improvement and the missions were generally more amusing, although it was far from a classic.

Then came the announcement of Grand Theft Auto 3 for Sony’s PS2 - from British developer Rockstar North. Although early screenshots and samples looked promising, there wasn’t a hype machine to go with the game at all, really; yet, as soon as it was released GTA3 was an instant smash, both with the critics and the public. Dozens of websites and magazines the world over voted it their Game of the Year, and GTA3 often trumped the opposition at any award ceremony it was in. In 2002, Rockstar ported GTA3 to the PC and it turned out rather good.

You control a handsome, petty and nameless crook living in Liberty City, who has been betrayed by his girlfriend during a bank heist and left for dead. As you are being transported to jail in a van packed with fresh convicts, armed Colombian gang members hold up the police convoy on the Callahan suspension bridge and escape with an old man. You and a fellow convict, 8-Ball, seize the opportunity and knock out some cops. Incidentally, a live bomb has been left by the Colombians in the middle of the bridge and wipes out the central girders. With the police distracted by the explosion, you and your new friend speed off the scene to a hideout in the Red Light District of Portland. Liberty City is split up into three islands, so with the bridge down, Portland is left cut off from the rest of the population.

After settling into a hideout, 8-Ball suggests that you visit Luigi Goterelli’s club to get some work. Luigi has connections to the Italian Mafia, so he is a good stepping stone. Our hero is small-time to start with, but rest assured; he’ll make a name for himself soon enough, and as sought after as his hard-boiled services will become, just as many people will want him dead.

Your bosses either meet you in person or are voices over a payphone. Some represent established gangs, such as the Japanese Yakuza, Spanish Diablos and Jamaican Yardies; others are independent, such as Ray Machowski, a gruff bent cop who wants his partners whacked and Internal Affairs to keep their noses out, and the charming Donald Love, a media mogul who sits relaxed in his office, all the while ordering assassinations, revenge and extortion. Depending on their status and personal fortunes, the bosses will either pay very tasty lump sums or scraps.

The storyline missions are GTA3’s bread and butter, but Liberty City has so much more to offer. The engine is incredibly free-roaming. Stealing a cab will start a mini-game where you ferry around dim-witted passengers; you can hunt down your own kind by going vigilante in a police car; you can beat up bystanders with a baseball bat, go on a rampage with a flamethrower, pop heads from the top of a skyscraper with a sniper rifle, deliver rare cars to the import/export garage at the dock, engage in a bit of illegal street-racing or invite a prostitute into your set of wheels and take her to a back alley for some “private time”. You’re simply allowed to cruise in an open-top convertible through the sprawling urban and suburban environment that Rockstar has pieced together (it really is enormous, at the expense of the very occasional bug), enjoying the sights and sounds of the city, waiting for the evening news on your pager.

And why not? The reason that you’ll be entertaining yourself in this manner is simply because you can. Nobody is going to stop you, unless you stray onto enemy turf and a firefight erupts. The Chinese Triads are the repeat offenders as far as this very realistic aspect of gangland goes. It ensures that you watch your back in Liberty City, as moving up the ladder has its pros – the babes, the firepower, the beasts on your driveway – and its cons – the attention from the law and the price on your head.

Graphically, GTA3 is exquisite. These days, with a decent system you won’t fail to meet Rockstar’s recommended requirements (a 700MHz processor and 128MB of RAM), and as long as your graphics card is fairly recent, GTA3 on PC should end up looking as good as, if not better than the PS2 version with a smooth, consistent frame rate. When my game CD began to warm up after a few hours in the drive, if a lot was happening on the screen at once the game stuttered quite badly for a few seconds, but that’s the only problem I encountered.

GTA3 keeps the pop-up to a minimum, the buildings steadily coming into view on the horizon as opposed to materialising in a flash, and the car models in particular are pretty nice: they go into detail with their brake lights, spoilers, exhaust pipes and door handles, and as they get more and more battered the front lamps shatter, the windows become damaged and ultimately drop away and the chassis decays to nothingness. Meanwhile, the character models are not as crude as you may have heard: the cut-scenes with your bosses are reasonable enough, and there are a variety of oddballs roaming the streets with their own comical lines of dialogue, such as the archetypal stuck-up female clothes shopper (“What ARE you wearing?”), Indian taxi drivers (“He took my cab!”), old ladies (“You look like my daughter”) and camp builders (“In the Navy”).

But all other visual prowess in GTA3 pales in comparison to the stunning weather effects. Just like a place in real life, round-the-clock no less, Liberty City has its fair share of sunny spells, gentle breezes, fluffy clouds, rainy showers, thick fog, strong winds and full-blown lightning storms. A piercing sun rises at dawn and disappears at dusk, plunging the desolate districts into darkness. An ever-changing climate is not easy to simulate in a game, which proves the hard work and dedication of the folks at Rockstar and that they’re sadly among the dying breed: an artistic company that is genuinely interested in creating a product of excellence, and doesn’t solely wish to line its pockets.

GTA3’s sound bank is massive. As well as the effects, that range from shotgun blasts, souped-up cars with a purr and the pitter-patter of your footsteps when walking through a puddle, there are hours of radio content, spread across 9 radio stations, each with their own fictitious DJs, such as Lips 106 hosted by Andee and the operatic Double Cleff FM, with the daft Morgan Merryweather. Some of the material is actually pretty cool, but when the music clearly falls into the “pap” category, it seems that Rockstar is one step ahead and the tongue-in-cheek presentation confirms to us that they know it’s nonsense anyway.

There’s also the delightful Flashback FM, which plays “all the songs you were sick of 20 years ago”, and is a personal homage from the GTA3 team, because all the songs can actually be heard in the film Scarface, a favourite of theirs, and the DJ’s name – Toni – is itself surely a nod to Tony Montana, the character Al Pacino portrayed in Scarface.

The absolute top of the shop, though, is Chatterbox. Hosted by Lazlow, it’s a plain ingenious talk show with a witty script better than most movies, based around Lazlow’s dilemma that he is the only sane person left in Liberty City and all his callers and studio guests are barmy, weird or both. When you listen to what these loonies have to say, you’ll agree with him.

If you ever feel like the default stations are getting old (unlikely), you can warp your own MP3’s onto the game disc and listen to a custom radio station while driving your car instead, a feature exclusive to the PC version. Rockstar have also gone to the trouble of recording a number of wicked satirical commercials, which cleverly poke fun at corporate pigs and false pharmaceutical products that just don’t work.

The voice-acting, meanwhile, is immaculate. Rockstar hired a handful of big names for starring roles in GTA3, including Michael Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Vincent and Joe Pantoliano; nonetheless, every single actor holds their own and fits into their chosen parts perfectly, making up one of the finest casts in gaming history.

Indeed, this happens to be one of the finest games in history! Everything compliments everything else with a level of fault that equals practically zero, and it all gels together in an immeasurably attractive way. Just because Vice City graces the shelves and San Andreas will soon doesn’t make GTA3 irrelevant; it makes it all the more relevant, as you can see where the Grand Theft Auto series moved into 3D and ended up revolutionising an industry. This is utterly first-rate, an absolute good, a pure masterpiece. I implore that you buy it immediately.

eddy555's avatar
Community review by eddy555 (October 05, 2004)

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