Grand Theft Auto III turned ten a short while ago, so it’s time to celebrate the release of probably one of the most influential games since home consoles made the leap from 2D to 3D.
Rockstar have celebrated by re-releasing the game for iOS devices, starting with the iPad and the iPhone 4S, and also by releasing a limited edition figurine of Claude, the games distinctively mute anti-hero.
And of course they’ve announced GTAV, which has set the familiar GTA rumour mill working on over-drive. But this post isn’t about that. This post is about the classic game that kick started the 3d sandbox revolution.
While the idea of sandbox games wasn’t a brand new idea at the time (the previous, top-down installments in the series followed roughly the same template) the idea of a living, breathing 3D city as presented to us in GTA III was, well, unthinkable.
And what a city it is. Liberty City was a massive part of my childhood and I know the first island like the back of my hand. The thing that GTA III nailed, in a way that I’ve never really felt the sequels understood, was how to make a place feel real. Drive around town at 9am, and it’s rush hour. Do the same thing at midnight, and the streets are bare.
You had to learn your way around Liberty City, which took perseverance. There was no GPS system on this game, unlike GTA IV, so you had to find your own way to objectives and mission markers, which frequently led to detours. Hilarious detours where you threw grenades at police officers, or went on a drive-by spree just because those pedestrians were there and you’d just got more bullets for your uzi.
Probably the most interesting thing about GTA III isn’t the story that the game feeds you, but the stories that the player invents or causes just driving around Liberty City.
Whether it’s trying to fly the Dodo, solving a mission by stealing a tank and blasting the hell out of whatever (or whoever stands in your way) or running away from the police while the wonderful Push it (to the Limit) blasts out over the radio, GTA III is what you make of it.
The thing that strikes you most if you go back and play GTA III today is how tame it is compared to GTA IV, where the HD consoles lend their realistic graphics to a distinctly uncomfortable feeling as you beat a street full of people to death with a baseball bat, a wry smile forming on your lips as they take their last breath and you move onto the next victim.
But for the time, GTA III was shocking. The tabloids went mad. The Daily Mail was said to spontaneously combust if you brought it into a house that had a copy of the game.
I always thought the shock factor was overstated. I mean sure, if you turn on the extra gore cheat and shoot someone with a sniper rifle their head comes off, their neck spurting blood and their headless body carries on what it was doing for a few seconds before flailing lifelessly to the floor, dropping money for Claude to pick up and spend on more guns, but if you look past that, it’s mostly fine.
As the old saying goes, every penny counts and don’t spend what you haven’t got. What I’m trying to say is, you can use prostitutes to get you to beyond full health, and then stab them to death (save ammo) and get your money back. Thrifty!
All in all, GTAIII is probably the most important game of the 3D era. Taking lessons from sources as diverse as Driver 2, Super Mario 64 and Sim City, GTAIII gave us the idea of a living, breathing sandbox that we see now in Skyrim, Saint’s Row, even Batman and Toy Story 3.
Of course it’s not perfect. The camera system is terrible, not letting the player have control of it. Combat, as is to be expected from a GTA game, is clunky and can be tricky to control.
It doesn’t help that it’s bettered by other games in the series, which introduced better control systems, motorbikes and more weapons, culminating in the best of the series, San Andreas.
But there’s something special about Liberty City, and the characters that inhabit it. Something very special indeed…
It still holds up today as a pinnacle of the genre, and for that it should be applauded. Claude, old friend, I miss you. Now to buy an iPad and that lovely, lovely statue.
[review pros="Holds up today, and brings back wonderful memories" cons="Clunky camera system, bettered by later installments" score="Amazing"]