Apparently somewhere along the line I agreed to write about games as well as play them. So I suppose I'll spend a few minutes explaining the ins and outs of this year's finest videogame. However I want it recognized that I do so under protest! (Noted -Ed)
Grand Theft Auto III. What a game. Easily the best on the PlayStation 2, and probably any other system for that matter. If there's one thing that annoys me about it, it's that DMA and Rockstar have elected not to do a PC version, so I have to try and persuade all my friends to blow £250 on a PS2 and a copy of the game in order to waste hours nattering about it in the pub. Frankly though, it is a killer application and it will sell the PlayStation 2 this Christmas. And it deserves to.
You start off as a rookie criminal, busted by the cops after your girlfriend double-crossed you in a bank raid, quietly building up your contacts and level of respect in Liberty City, first with the Italian mafia, then with the Japanese yakuza and other criminal organizations. And there are plenty of 'em. As your reputation improves you get offered more jobs, via payphone, pager and face-to-face meetings. Sometimes your current boss meets you in the company of a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be some big-shot from downtown ready to offer you more work. Reliability is your key asset as far as they are concerned, and it helps improve your status and get you more work.
Now, fans of the original games are probably wondering how anybody could achieve "reliability" in a game like Grand Theft Auto. In previous installments you would often screw up one mission, make a mistake, run into the side of a car, get shot, or something like that, and then sorry chum, that mission is no longer available to you. In some extreme cases this could render your progress up to that point irrelevant, since there was no mid-game saving and if you needed to accrue loads more points you needed to get the missions which paid the best rates. This made reliability something of a fluke. Not so in GTA3. Although I'm not 100% sure I like it, you no longer have to get each mission right first time. You get an infinite number of chances to complete it, and you often have five or so missions available at various employers and payphones, so if you get stuck on any particular one you can leave it for later.
Pigs on parade
So you're a Mafioso super villain thanks to your reliability (and respectability - don't mess with Luigi's girls, for instance), and you get a lot of jobs. But you don't have to take them. If you don't fancy working you can just go for a drive, splatter some pedestrians, buy some guns and kill some cops. GTA3 wins the fight over the Daily Mirror crowd by giving you the choice. I was fascinated when my little brother came over to visit this weekend, because he just sat there driving peacefully around town in a taxi doing nothing in particular.
Speaking of taxis, you can switch professions for a while if you like. Pick up a public service vehicle like a taxi or a fire truck and you can tear around town collecting fares and putting out blazes before the clock ticks down. Your very own Crazy Taxi, except that you can simultaneously be on the run from the law and perform drive-by shootings on some punk who flicks you off. And even when you're not in a hijacked vehicle you can still have plenty of fun. Pick up some grenades and you can stand on the pavement trying to time your throws to coincide with the lights changing for maximum damage. And yes, you can still steal all the cars on the street, line them up neatly and then blow them up, but beware of other carjackers out to spoil your fun.
Police attention is more laboured than ever. You can get away with jacking a car right in front of the police station, but don't try it with a cop sat in the queue behind you. You can squish as many peds as you like, but try to do so discreetly. They also tumble over your car from time to time, which is amusing. Battering traffic is a good way to incite some police action too, or you could get an Uzi, drive slowly along a packed street and use the L2/R2 triggers to line up a drive-by shooting, choosing a cinematic viewpoint of your choice with the Select key beforehand. And for a little harmless fun you can always steal a car and spiral it off one of the game's many huge stunt ramps, which are located in odd places around the map.
Liberty City is more menacing than ever before, with three distinct areas; the industrial, commercial and suburban sectors. You can't access them all at first, thanks to the bridges being out, but as the game progresses and you pick up more street cred and rack up more time, the city planning committee finally gets its act together. Each area is several miles square and you can lose yourself for hours, although helpfully the game comes with a nice fold-out map of the city. The maze of streets is ornately detailed, and roads actually bend now instead of all forming right angled corners.
There are plenty of locations to memorize, like spray shops, bomb shops, police and fire stations, hospitals, drop-off points and such. The radar in the bottom left corner of the screen shows you which way is north and marks the various bosses you are currently working for, along with your home garage, where you can save your game between missions and put cars in the garage. During missions these aids all vanish except for the compass point, and are replaced with objective beacons. These are often pink or brown dots at different extremities for you to work towards, or little icons for shops and the like.
The graphics are generally pleasant to look at and have their own charm, even if they aren't up to the standards of a Gran Turismo 3 or ICO. The thousands of pedestrians and cars in the game look good and move beautifully - men walk like men, bag ladies hobble like bag ladies, hookers prowl hips-thrust-forward like hookers, hobos slump like .. well, you get the idea. The textures are pretty drab, but that's because it's a city, and cities look like that. In fact the game offers one of the most delightfully accurate portrayals of a sprawling American metropolis that I've seen on any machine; there's no film noir undertone or anything like that, it just looks realistic. There are some real eye-opening moments, like rain pouring down from the clouds and the huge moon glinting at you from the sky, thanks to a time of day function that rotates conditions and light levels depending on how long you play. The cutscenes deserve their own paragraph as well, but then so does so much else. They use in-game graphics, which is a sort of weakness, but it's a compromise you have to deal with. The lip-synching is perfect and the voice acting is superb, with some decent uncredited actors in there, including the chap who played Cypher in The Matrix.
Vehicles are the mainstay of the game, naturally. There are something like ninety in total, and they range from the huge rig wreckers to the ubiquitous stationwagon to the Mafia sentinel and Yakuza and Diablo sports cars. Everything is accounted for, and you can pinch just about anything on wheels (and perhaps more). You can also trash everything, as the cars have innumerable damage skins and crumple a lot more realistically than before. Nick a taxi as you swerve onto a main road and you'll know it. Hit something straight on and the bonnet flies up. Or maybe the doors give a little, failing to close. Ultimately, you can do far too many things for me to mention them all here. You want to watch it though - little tongues of flame mean the car is done for. In GTA and GTA2, it wasn't quite terminal until the thing was a ball of flame and sounded like a wind-up toy, but in GTA3 you get the hell out as soon as things start to turn red. You also need to get the hell out if you roll over. The Hollywood car physics remain, but DMA have introduced Hollywood's attitude to physics in general - a car on its roof is a car which is about to blow up, and this can rock you off your feet if you're not too careful, losing you valuable health points.
Finally, I ought to mention the sound. Not just the soundtrack, which is fabulous, but the little things. The sounds of the city are, as always, perfect. Pedestrians shout abuse as you mount the pavement, cops yell orders about dropping and surrendering (yeah right) and the spoken lines of the other characters in the game are all excellent. Your character never utters a word though, giving his opinion through various bodily gestures - as artistic a decision as DMA have ever settled upon. The soundtrack is monstrous too. Over three hours long, it features pop, classic, RnB, drum and bass, what sounds like speed garage, ska and even talk radio. That last one is the real killer though - you can pump the volume up and listen to ads about 24 hour pet shipments and a guy who thinks he's a 'yoghurt-trained ninja'.
There are problems with Grand Theft Auto III. Given the enormous scale and the tremendous number of things the game attempts, that's inevitable. There are some minor collision detection issues, such as the trees on the lawn near the first police station you visit which you can drive straight through, and car doors which don't seem to pose much of a problem for our hero. Also the damage skins on the cars, although mostly perfect, are a bit suspect at times. The biggest problem though is the distance clipping. There is some acceptable slow-down, but you often notice quite a lot of clipping, and texture-drawing seems to have trouble catching up with you if you are driving particularly fast. Driving under a bridge in the first section of the game, the front lost all semblance of texture for a while and just flickered beneath me, which was a bit disheartening.
But you have to appreciate that these things are small fry compared to the main dish. GTA3 is a luscious, sprawling epic of a game and one of the most complete experiences I have ever encountered. If this is what I've waited a year to see on my PlayStation 2, then I would have waited ten. Magnificent.