"The next generation of Grand Theft Auto could’ve hardly arrived at a worse moment. Two months prior to its release the 9/11 attacks changed the face of the world forever. War was no longer just about fighting uniformed troops on a battlefield, but against guerrilla terror that could erupt at any moment. As thousands of workers in the World Trade Centre discovered, working in a white collar no longer meant you were safe. "
The next generation of Grand Theft Auto could’ve hardly arrived at a worse moment. Two months prior to its release the 9/11 attacks changed the face of the world forever. War was no longer just about fighting uniformed troops on a battlefield, but against guerrilla terror that could erupt at any moment. As thousands of workers in the World Trade Centre discovered, working in a white collar no longer meant you were safe.
Yet come winter 2001 the much-anticipated sequel of an already controversial franchise was about to stocked, where shooting civilians, jacking cars and toying with the authorities in a New York style city was the game’s main purpose. And if it were to serve any consolation, this was the first GTA game in 3D. Adding an extra dimension to the blood and gore that aroused much debate at the turn of the millennium, Grand Theft Auto III made the two classic GTA games look like a silly skirmish played on the Amiga. Top-down shooting was superseded by a crude yet realistic environment where the previously novel violence looked almost too real for comfort. Rockstar did attempt to tone down the impact by scrapping characters, certain damage effects and the NYPD uniform colours. But a game that emphasised killing for funsies was still the last thing many people wanted to see.
The re-imagined New York City is portrayed as Liberty City, named after a level from the original GTA, and centres around an unnamed ne’er do well who’s ditched by his girl-friend after robbing the Liberty City Bank. Arrested and sentenced to jail, the protagonist escapes the police convoy after a crash. With only his fellow convict as a point of contact, 8-ball, he’s left to do a series of dirty jobs for the various criminal organisations around the three islands of Liberty City. In a storyline littered with double-dealing, cross-purposes and mere betrayal, it’s up to the ex-convict (revealed as Claude on the later GTA: San Andreas) to build up his standing amongst the cities feuding gangs and gain revenge from rock bottom.
GTA III could’ve quite easily ruined the series, adding an extra axis to a 2D formula has killed too many franchises. The classic series placed much emphasis on riding cars, whereas here there’s more on-foot action. Even though many missions are predominantly car-based, the environment is so expansive with plenty of hidden corners to explore. Merely driving around in a car just gives the impression of a generic urban landscape, but running around the islands for the briefest of moments reveals some rewarding views, not least the amount of discrete hidden packages available. Watching the blissful cityscape in a quiet dock with only the few hustles of litter, or climbing to the very top of a building are just some of many escapist moments GTA III can provide. Hours can be unnoticeably wasted searching the environment when doing nothing game-wise.
The future releases added theme to the formula that was set here, but this is the “pure” GTA experience. No Scarface rip-offs, no gang territories to fight for, just gritty urban streets. There isn’t much story really, just gangs with leaders contracting you to hunt down an enemy in whatever fashion. Other than that, you’re free to do what you want. You can shoot pedestrians, and then play cat and mouse with the law as you fend off the cops for as long as possible with a maxed out wanted rating. You can joy-ride cars, get whichever one you please by tapping triangle by the car and pull the existing driver out. You can actually do some god for society, by taking on taxi missions (like Crazy Taxi, but without the stunts), cop vigilante missions or taking the role as a fireman with a firetruck, all available by hitting R3 when in the appropriate vehicle. It pays to collect cars for scrap as well, handing the inventory of models leads to plenty of unlockables.
The many seasoned GTA fans will be undoubtedly familiar with all this, and it’s easy to point out what GTA III doesn’t have in retrospect. Considering GTA: Vice City included driving mini-games and property-owning, and that San Andreas added player attributes, flying-licenses, gambling and a ridiculous amount of other things, GTA III seems thin. The story missions take a fortnight to complete, compared with over three months it took me on San Andreas. The learning curve is fairly generous and the missions are a lot shorter, and there aren’t many side-missions. When times get tough they are from merely frustrating moments, navigating around the city is difficult without a city map in the pause menu. There are some needlessly complex street layouts with bridges starting halfway across an island, and the on-screen radar is useless on foot making the supplementary map sheet the only solution. Vis-ŕ-vis combat sends you straight to hospital when the auto-aim is flimsy to align. Thankfully though, most of the missions rely on a car or distant shoot-ups and is thus usually not a problem. However, GTA III’s comparative lack of depth is rarely noticeable in-game because this is so much fun in its own right. The speed chases never fail to be exciting when enduring endless clashes, car flipping and explosions whilst dodging five cop cars when trying to get to the next destination. In the midst of the moments when police helicopters are flying over you when bazooka-ing everything on top of a building you’re hardly going to wonder why you can’t ride motorbikes.
Yet GTA III didn’t just revolutionise how the series played, but has been a model example of integrating real-world culture into a video-game. Rockstar are artisans on capturing the cultural zeitgeist with much of this oozing from the in-car radio stations, changeable for the first time. Head Radio is the station for parody chat shows, plus hip-hop on Game Radio and a live DJ-set on Rise FM generate the city high life atmosphere. Many commercials mock the advertising hype of 2001, petsovernight.com is symbolic of the ridiculous enterprises in the dot-com boom, Pogo the Monkey reminisces the over-franchising of game character attire such as Sonic and Pokémon, and Liberty City Survivor “where we get twenty recently paroled guys and equip them with grenades and flamethrowers” spoofs contemporary reality TV shows such as Fear Factor. Although GTA III lacks iconic tracks like Vice City and San Andreas did from their 80’s and early 90’s settings, GTA III’s game-exclusives are not second rate. It actually adds to the games identity, the 80’s beats from Vice City one would associate with the decade. The tracks you hear here stay associated with the game.
GTA III has been bettered, but that doesn’t make it any less a game on its own. Liberty City almost feels like a micro-culture in your telly, and although the story-line of culture and corruption isn’t extraordinary, it works to a maximum to set the atmosphere of “the worst place in America”. The graphics aren’t too great, they never have been, but do enough to create the universe it aspires. Litter lazes through the streets, the sun sets and rises across the abyss sky-line and the car-horns and gangster squabbles add authenticity to the crime-ridden city. This is smaller, but not inferior, and less to do doesn’t make this repetitive for a moment. Its shortcomings do come from technical errors but the game that introduced GTA as we know it should be played and costs as much as a sandwich to do so. Eight years on video-game attitudes have changed, where bloodlust and killing for fun has become reluctantly accepted as a standard. At least now we can disassociate the timing of the release from 9/11.
Community review by bigcj34 (August 25, 2009)
Cormac Murray is a freelance contributor for HG and is a fanboy of Sega and older Sony consoles. For modern games though he pledges allegiance to the PC Master Race, by virtue of a MacBook running Windows.
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