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Review – Grand Theft Auto III (PS2)

So who hasn’t played Grand Theft Auto III?  Ok, probably a lot of people.  It was a game that really redefined the idea of what a game could be back when it was first released ten years ago in 2001.  I like to brag that I came up with the idea first personally, though it’s probably a real stretch.  A bit of some history.

I played quite a bit of the first Grand Theft Auto with it’s more open ended top down game play.  The older games were less story driven than the later 3D titles, you generally just had to collect a certain amount of money before proceeding to the next city.  There were a lot of similar elements, the cities were named Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas, names which were later reused in the subsequent PS2 titles and based loosely on the real life cities of New Your, Miami, and Los Angeles.  You would drive around getting missions from phone booths, steal cars, shoot random pedestrians.  It even had the radio stations which were pretty decent though pretty much unknown music.

I also for a short while in 1999 played a decent amount of the title Midtown Madness.  This is a title that never seemed to get a lot of attention though it’s notable for being the first real sandboxy style racing game.  In addition tot he standard tracks, there was a free roam mode which let you explore the relatively large city of Chicago.  Ok, mostly it was just “The Loop” area and Interstate 90 was altered to create an outside barrier to the city.  You could still pick out where the game took place by looking at a map of Chicago.  It was pretty neat.

One thing I remember most about playing Midtown Madness was that it reminded me a bit of GTA’s free drive experience only more three dimensional.  I always thought it would be pretty awesome if you could actually get out of the car in Midtown Madness and run around the city.  They could even have missions where you were like a cop or a hitman.  Maybe you could have an apartment where you keep your junk and possibly even an online aspect.  It would be totally awesome.

Then Grand Theft Auto III happened 2 years later.

And so I bought a Playstation 2.  Three titles drove this purchase, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy X, and Grand Theft Auto III.  Here’s a bonus fun fact, I bought my PS3 in December/January near the end of 2001, I had those three games alone for it until roughly a year later when I added three more titles, Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy X-2, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

I have played a LOT of GTA3.  Probably more than any other game I have ever owned.  I once figured up based on how many in game days I had on my save file and how many save attempts I had made and how long an in game hour took to calculate I had played around 300 hours of the game, and this was back in like 2001 or 2002 soon after the game had been released.  I’ve explored every nook and cranny of Liberty City countless times.  At one point I could locate every one of the 100 packages without a guide.  I’ve completed the game to 100% completion without being arrested or killed or failing a mission (the game keeps track) and without once doing a “save and reload because I had “messed up”.

It really is an amazing game.  It gets a lot of flack for the violence and crime aspect but even that is only as bad as a person makes it.  Yeah, you can go around shooting pedestrians and hookers and make it a complete gore fest.  Or you can play the story and get an interesting mobster plot.  Yeah, there is some violence but not any more than your average R rated action film.  Hell the whole series is really just a series of movie parodies strung cleverly into a crazy plot.  The problem only comes up when you get players who can’t manage to get anywhere in the story that just run around randomly shooting things.  The first game is even pretty tame, especially next to Vice City which takes it’s Scarface homage pretty seriously.

From a gameplay standpoint it was pretty revolutionary.  For years, games were about doing what was required, the way it was required.  Sure, you had your warp zones and some games like Castlevania or Metroid would let you roam a bit but never before was there a game so encouraging of doing… whatever.  It wasn’t just the freedom to wander around the city that made it work either.  The city itself was a massive living creature.  You could just stand on the sidewalk and thugs or businessmen or old ladies would just wander around.  Cars drive around, sports cars, taxis, cops, delivery vans.  People would get in the taxis they would argue with each other, they’d talk to you as you walked by, it was like being in a real city.  The whole game just reeked of atmosphere and you didn’t have to interact with it to trigger activity.

This was coupled with exceptional cinematic fully voiced cut scenes to drive the plot.  Sure, many of the plot points were lifted from movies like The Godfather but it worked so well as a whole.  There was mystery and betrayal and vengeance and even subtle nods within the plot to earlier events.  This wasn’t just random events happening.  Characters interacted with each other, they referenced other events, it was cohesive.  Even things that you don’t even really realize like the Asian Guy with you at the start of the game in the jail car.  The Columbians kidnap him and thus you end up free and the game starts, but later, you effectively end up taking out the Columbians in your quest for Vengeance.

These minor points just help the whole things feel so much more cohesive.  It creates a great universe that works with itself, which is part of the whole reason the game works so well.

There was also the openness of the missions themselves.  Sure, many more or less required one path to completion but many of them were very open to the player’s preference.  Say you’ve been asked to kill some mob guy.  If you’re the gung ho type you can charge in and assault his guard and the character with pistols and machine guns blazing.  Want the more subtle route, just find yourself a sniper rifle and pick him off from a distance.  Maybe you’re the kamikaze type and want to just plow through his posse in a speedy sports car and hope none of them are carrying shotguns or rocket.  You were very often just given a general objective and a map marker and the gaps are something the player gets to fill in.  Even if you were terrible the game also didn’t really have any lives.  There was no real penalty to dying, you would just wake up at the hospital or police station minus guns and some money.  No lives, no continues, just a simple “Try harder, PS, also you’ll have to find a pistol”

So here we are, it’s been ten whole years since GTA3.  A game that spawned many sequels and spin offs, Vice City, San Andreas, Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories, GTA4, Chinatown Wars, The lost and the Damned, The Ballade of Gay Tony, hell I’m probably forgetting some.  Then there are knockoff series with the same gangster sandbox concept, Saint’s Row, True Crime, Mafia, Just Cause, Simpsons Hit & Run, The Getaway, there are a lot of them.  It’s a game that inspired many and crated a whole genre of gaming.  Not many games can claim this title.  It also holds up pretty well to time, even with it’s sequels, playing through it again can lead to new methods and a whole new experience.

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