Grand Theft Auto 3 Reader Review
Ten years. Ten years itís been since Grand Theft Auto III unleashed itself on the gaming landscape, revolutionising an entire genre and etching the legacy of a franchise into the woodwork of modern popular culture. So much has changed since that fateful day, yet the Grand Theft Auto brand remains both as revered and controversial as ever before. How, then, does the game that kickstarted a series previously loaded with potential, but arguably let down by the technical limitations of its era, stand up in the unforgiving dystopia we call 2011?
Pre-modify the adverb, ďwell,Ē with the adjectival phrase, ďpretty damn,Ē and youíre not far off. Despite a slew of sequels, clones and ten years of technological advancement, you could make a compelling case for GTA III to retain its crown as the optimum blend of gritty ambiance and sociopathic mayhem in history. So, while it may not be as compelling as Iíd like, Iíll have a stab at investigating the validity of said case. Here goes.
The first thing to notice about GTA III when placed side-by-side with its successors is that itís clearly the darkest of the bunch. Vice City was a light-hearted escapade oozing with camp 1980s charm, whilst San Andreas offered players a whole barrel full of distractions and side-shows to take the edge off its protagonistís troubled domestic affairs. GTA IV attempted to readopt the intensity upon which its canonical predecessor was built, but its goals were undermined by its almost schizophrenic flitting about between slapdash cover-based shooting, racially offensive humour and bowling trips with the player characterís portly relative.
GTA III, on the other hand, is gangster through and through. Its imagining of Liberty City is one of a dark, unfriendly mass of urban crassness, in which inhabitants, visitors and invaders alike are forced to lurk around in small packs in order to survive. Itís admittedly as clichťd and unoriginal as a Hollywood villain with a suave English accent, but itís ironically Rockstarís readiness to stick by a safe formula, rather than trying to rug at the emotional heartstrings of an audience consisting predominantly of sanguinary yobs with insatiable thirsts for virtual destruction, that seems to be the factor that makes it come off surprisingly well. Gone are the half-dozen or so comic relief characters that are generally to subtle wit what David Jaffe is to measure and reserved, and in their places are a cast of clinical, calculating schemers, each favouring strategically and ethically different ways in which to secure territorial dominance and the big, fat piles of cash that inevitably come along with it.
And itís just as well, too, because the darkened visuals and shadowy textures would look jarringly out of place in a field of the thickly-accented gimboids that populate almost every other game in the GTA universe. Oh, yes, the national stereotypes are still very much there, but theyíre somewhat restrained and rarely shoved in the playerís face, as if the developers are yelling, ďLaugh, monkeys!Ē at their target demographic.
While weíre at it, letís not overlook the protagonist. Heís a silent nobody bedecked in black clothing, with absolutely nothing tangible in terms of a definable personality or character. That may seem like a cop-out on Rockstarís part and, to be fair, it probably was, but, if some of the greatest success stories of interactive narrative, namely Half-Life and Bioshock, have taught us anything, itís that putting the player in control of a mute, expressionless gun-toter has the inherent advantage of granting one the freedom to craft oneís own perceptions of the character and his personality traits, allowing the player to use his or her imagination and Ė dare I say it Ė roleplay. The later GTA games decided to flesh out their own poster children, but slapping the distinctive facets of their characters served mainly to render them obnoxious (Tommy Vercetti), passive (CJ), gullible (Niko) or a complete turd (Johnny from The Lost and Damned).
The point is that GTA IIIís main character (who, itís revealed in San Andreas, goes by the uproariously effeminate name of Claude) acts as a blank avatar through which players can act out their repressed antisocialist fantasies in a dank, run-down metropolis. For most observers, the heart and soul of a successful sandbox game lies not in its emotional cutscenes or artistic nous, but in its capacity for mindless violence, and GTA III was arguably the first mainstream game to implement psychotic sadism in a relatively convincing modern-day setting with any meaningful degree of efficacy. Even ten years on, itís still just as fun to mow down stragglers with an army tank and using a sniper rifle to amputate the left leg of a legal assistant on his lunch break.
In fact, itís almost taken for granted that a sandbox gameís side missions are more worthy of the admission price than its main content, and GTA III was as much the bastion of this notion as any other game in history. For many, it was the optional mini-games that were triggered when one entered a public service vehicle, such as an ambulance or fire engine, that swallowed up many a gleeful hour by themselves as they scrapped and dashed to complete each level against an increasingly strict time limit. Collecting taxi fares was a satisfying means of collecting extra cash and almost held its own against the quintessential taxi funbag of the era, Crazy Taxi, albeit at a slower pace and without having to mute the Bad Religion background tracks.
For me, though, it was the vigilante missions that took the blood-laden cake, combining the gameís chaotic high-speed driving elements with the consequence-free liberty previously only afforded to the absurdly trigger-happy police force. Chasing down criminals and splattering their innards onto the bumper of your car was satisfying enough in its own right, but what made things even tastier were the minor, logic-defying moments of marvellous quirkiness that never failed to raise a mirthful smile. Iím talking about the randomised criminal character mapping assigned to each level, which could just as easily find you hunting down a rocket launcher-wielding pensioner in an ice cream van as it could have you trading fire with a limousine full of pimps with pump-action shotguns.
Itís moments like this that have always coloured the GTA experience because, after all, everything always boils down to the individual tales of wacky nonsense you canít wait to tell your friends about. Everyoneís got a unique story to tell about their adventures in the Liberty City streets, and these are the minute details that stick in the mind for much longer than any story-based challenge could ever aspire to do.
Speaking of story-based challenges, it would be a glaring oversight not to mention the actual in-game missions. GTA IIIís campaign, for want of a better term, rarely ventures off the beaten path and sticks closely to what it does best: driving, shooting and blowing things up. Again, itís Rockstarís conservative approach to experimentation that actually works in its favour here, preventing the creation of botched attempts at stealth, strategy or that damned swimming level from San Andreas that was about as engaging as televised bowls commentated on by an Alzheimerís patient. Most of these gimmicks ended up in GTA IIIís younger brethren, but most of them were so contrived and unenjoyable that they ended up being there purely for their own sake, adding nothing of merit to the overall experience.
Still, thatís not to say that GTA IIIís mission variety couldnít have done with a moderate shake-up. A few too many of the urban quests focused on the task of keeping an AI ally alive, with the maddeningly moronic behaviour of the CPU-controlled team mates offering yet more proof that escort missions almost never do anything more than annoy the Hell out of everyone who plays them. The game was also the title that set a trend that might as well be referred to as ďGrand Theft Auto Syndrome,Ē the controller-snappingly frustrating exercise of making players drive halfway across the city to receive their mission briefing, only to have to drive all the way back again when they failed the mission because a soft furnishings lorry got in the way of a fleeing hoodlum. Astonishingly, despite endless pleas to the contrary from the gaming community, Rockstar continued to force this infuriating ritual upon us all for each and every one of its subsequent GTA iterations, only offering a checkpoint-based solution in its 2010 western epic, Red Dead Redemption. It would be unfair, therefore, to use these grounds as a means to criticise GTA III is comparison with its counterparts, but the fact remains that Rockstar can justifiably expect every last scrawled note of adolescent hate mail that comes their way if they let such an unfriendly, flow-breaking system into its inevitable GTA sequels of the future.
Thereís no doubt that ten years of graphical advancements, coupled with the ever-growing experience of its development team, have not let GTA IIIís aging veneer of last-gen graphics go unnoticed, nor have they failed to highlight the conspicuous absence of some of the most satisfying gameplay features that made later editions in the Grand Theft Auto franchise so much fun. But even with all the fancy bells and whistles that have come our way during a decade in which the so-called ďcore gamingĒ culture has become bigger and more socially influential than ever before, GTA III still packs a surprisingly emphatic punch. Itís rough around the edges and itís devoid of the luxuries of a Havok physics engine, snazzy HD visuals and every other arbitrary marketing phrase coined by PR man in sharp suits, but, like a grizzled veteran of its trade, it soldiers on and continues to show some of its bastard children from other developers how itís really done.
Happy birthday, Grand Theft Auto III. Iíd get you a cake, but Iím far too stingy. Hey, youíre the one who taught me not to share the wealth.