Grand Theft Auto 3

Review - Grand Theft Auto comes home to the PC; can it steal our hearts (and wallets) again?

A Good Shoe Starts From The Ground Up

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Big trouble in little China

Grand Theft Auto 3 practically sold the PlayStation 2 single-handed last year, ending a famine of must-have titles in style. But with that exclusive period now over, the console's finest game has finally found its way back to the series' spiritual home on the PC.

And what a homecoming it is. To all intents and purposes you are in a living, breathing, brawling, pimping city. Blocks of buildings stretch out to the horizon, the streets bustle with cars of varied shapes and sizes, pedestrians wander down the pavements and run screaming as your car slides past them at speed, trains rush by overhead on elevated tracks and rival gangs indulge in turf wars, taking pot shots at each other, and at you, if you've done something to upset them.

It's also a very open, non-linear experience. I spent my first couple of hours with the game completely ignoring the preset missions and just cruising around in stolen cars, running people over and getting chased by the police. Once the novelty starts to wear off there's a dazzling array of jobs for you to carry out for gang bosses, bent cops and dirty business men, ranging from simple parcel deliveries and escorting other characters to taking out police informants and battling SWAT teams and FBI agents on the streets of Liberty City. However long you play the game for, you'll never run out of things to do - after the best part of a week playing non-stop I've still not reached the end of the storyline and my "completion" score is barely at 50%.

We Get To Play With Knives

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I fought the law, and the law won. Luckily I can respawn at the nearest police station though.

Although this freedom of action may be a little bewildering at first, the game does ease you into the world of Liberty City a little at a time. When you begin the game you have only a baseball bat, a hideout and a mafia contact who might be able to throw some work your way. You are also restricted to just one of the three islands that make up the city, as the bridge connecting you to the neighbouring island of Staunton was destroyed in the opening cutscene.

As you progress through the game your options multiply rapidly though. Most of the time you will have two or three different bosses that you can carry out missions for to push the storyline forwards, which means that if you get stuck on one mission you can ease your frustration by trying something different while you come up with a new plan. This is lucky, because some of the missions are incredibly difficult, and the most obvious approach is not always the best one. One mission, involving taking out a police van transferring a witness, was proving utterly impossible until I finally gave up on it and went off to work for another gang boss. This soon opened up a new weapons shop, giving me access to a bazooka for the first time, at which point completing the police van mission suddenly became a doddle.

The arsenal at your disposal by the time you've unlocked all three islands is certainly an impressive one. From your humble baseball bat you soon progress to a handgun, before moving up to uzis, shotguns and assault rifles. As well as being useful for taking out cops and gang members, you can also threaten passing pedestrians by targeting them with one of your guns, encouraging them to drop all their money and run. If you're in need of something a little heavier, grenades, rocket launchers, molotov cocktails and flamethrowers are eventually available, while a sniper rifle can prove useful for picking off targets from a safer distance.

Yesterday, I Made A Dollar

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Fly the friendly skies

Completing core storyline missions and holding people up at gunpoint in the street aren't the only ways to make a quick buck in Liberty City. Steal a cab, for example, and you can indulge in some Crazy Taxi style action, racing around the streets picking up punters and dropping them off at their destinations. Similar mini-games can be unlocked by stealing police cars, fire engines and ambulances.

The game also includes a selection of optional side missions, which aren't necessary to finish the game but will add to your completion score tally and can earn you extra money and equipment. Most of these are picked up by stopping at ringing telephones, and work in much the same way as the game's main missions. Others are more freeform and can be dipped into whenever you're not busy with something else, such as a Gone In 60 Seconds inspired mission that has you stealing a list of cars and delivering them to a warehouse near the harbour.

Then there are the more esoteric distractions, such as the bonus points you can earn by pulling off insane stunts, flying off a bridge or hitting a ramp at speed and cartwheeling through the air. The more impressive your jump and the better your landing, the more money you earn. There are hidden packages to recover, unique jumps to pull off, and bizarre little bonus games to find like an assault course for off-road vehicles. All of these accomplishments are recorded in a lengthy list of statistics that reels past you when you select the appropriate option from the game menu, and even once you've reached the end of the storyline, the chances are that you'll still have a whole host of things to see and do before you get anywhere near 100% complete.

Always Running .. From Something

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Eat your heart out, Keanu

All of which will no doubt be familiar to PlayStation 2 owners. And that's the only problem - GTA3 on the PC doesn't really add anything to the game except high system requirements, low framerates and hardware conflicts.

Yes, you can create new skins for your anti-hero and import your own MP3 files to supplement the hilarious in-car radio stations, but that's about as far as Rockstar have gone in exploiting the PC's capabilities. There's no multiplayer, no mod tools, and the developers haven't even managed to fix the rare graphical glitches that afflicted the original PS2 version. If anything they've got worse. Bits of road or even entire buildings can vanish from view, and driving across the Callaghan bridge with nothing beneath your tires but the river far below is a disconcerting experience to say the least.

The translation to the PC has been a rather quick and dirty one by the looks of things, and performance is uneven. Whatever it says on the back of the box, if you have a graphics card with less than 64Mb of memory you're likely to run into problems. Framerates vary from low to near stationary on a GeForce 2 GTS, producing an ersatz bullet time effect in the midst of a major shoot-out or car chase as the game grinds to a halt. Some people have also experienced lock-ups, which seem to be caused by the game choking the AGP bus in an attempt to shift data back and forth between graphics card and system memory.

Conclusion

If you're thinking about buying GTA3, you have to ask yourself two questions - do I already own the PS2 version, and is my PC much more than a year old. If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you can probably forget about it. If you have yet to witness the splendours of GTA3 though and have the hardware to handle it, you're in for a real treat. GTA3 looks great, sounds great and plays great, will keep you busy for months, and has the kind of production values most PC games can only dream of.

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