Classic PS2 review: Grand Theft Auto 3

Grand Theft Auto III for PS2In 2001 a studio notable in the early nineties for the cutesy 2D strategy game Lemmings and in the late nineties for a popular top-down shooter released a game that overturned records for sales on the current generation of consoles and defined a new genre of videogames. The studio was Rockstar Games, the game was Grand Theft Auto 3.

The previous GTA games had been 2D affairs, albeit with a level of emergent environmental activity and immersive, player-driven direction that was unusual, but nothing had indicated that anything of the scope, vision and ambition of GTA3 was in the works. Even when showcased, the arcade-style riot chaos of another Rockstar game, State of Emergency, attracted greater attention at industry shows. No one was quite prepared.

System: PS2, PC (Windows), Xbox
Genre: Action, Driving, Shooter
Release dates: October 22nd 2001 (USA), October 26th 2001 (EURO)
Players: 1
Developer: DMA Design (at present renamed Rockstar North)
Publisher: Rockstar Games / Take Two Interactive
Origin: UK
Rating: M for Mature with Blood, Strong Language, Violence

A grey day in the city. A powerful sports car screeches to a halt in a graffiti-filled alleyway next to a bank. The bank’s back door is kicked open, and a man in a colorful shirt jumps out holding a briefcase. He covers the alley with a pistol as his woman accomplice sprints away. An alarm is ringing, shouts and shots echo from inside. A man in black skids backwards out of the door and, running to catch up with the other two, he hears a shot, turns the corner and comes face to face with the muzzles of two pistols nonchalantly wielded by the woman. The man in the colored shirt lies dead behind her, the briefcase on the ground. “Sorry babe,” she says, “I’m an ambitious girl..” – she shoots the man at point-blank range- “…and you? You’re just small time.” The woman picks up the briefcase and heads for the sports car…and her escape.
Left for dead but far from it, the man in black is held to blame for the armed robbery and sentenced to jail, but his police convoy is hijacked by armed men rescuing a fellow prisoner, destroying a city bridge in the process. His records erased by a computer hack, the man in black is free…and at a loose end.
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Watch the trailer from 2001:

Liberty City is a three-dimensional, complex world, with cycles of day and night, changing weather, residents going about their business, boats, planes, cars, helicopters, its own media, transit system, and despite the ever-present police, a thriving criminal underworld.

The way the game develops is different to the previous two games – there is, for the first time, the requirement to complete plot missions in order to progress. There are more environmental ways in which to earn money, but there are no stages to unlock when your score gets high. You can spend the money you’ve earned, but only after a few plot missions open up the gun store. This leads to an unfolding of options; as the plot develops you have more money, more weapon options, and more space to play in – the other islands open up as, in time, the bridges are repaired. There are three islands, each roughly equivalent to the districts in GTA2. Portland, the first island, is Industrial, Staunton Island is the skyscraper-packed downtown district, and the final island Shoreside Vale is residential and contains both cheap housing projects and suburban McMansions.
Grand Theft Auto 3 portland map

We’ll get to the missions in a moment, but to give you an impression of how much stuff there is to do unrelated to the plot of the game, here are the ‘side missions’ all in one go.
Deep breath: 100 hidden packages, 20 unique jumps, scoring and recording of any ‘Insane’ vehicle stunt, 20 rampages (similar to the ‘kill frenzies’ in the 2D GTAs), taxi missions – pick up and drop off Liberty City residents for money, vigilante missions – hunt criminals in police vehicles, fire truck missions – put out vehicle fires with a fire truck, ambulance missions – pick up and drop off injured people, Toyz In The Hood – blow up vehicles with RC racers and, and this is the good bit – anything you like, because any destruction or havoc you wreak adds to your score, pedestrians will occasionally drop cash as well, and while you’re doing all this there are over 50 different vehicles to cruise around in. Statistics on your activities are stored, and include the gangster and civilian body count, pounds of explosives used, distances traveled by different means…so if you want to see, say, how many gang members you can kill in five minutes, or how many cars you can blow up, or simply cruise around until you find a rocket launcher and take potshots at helicopters, feel free.

Grand Theft Auto 3 mansion screenshot

Back to the plot. In the aftermath of the breakout, a fellow felon guides you to some friends of his to help get you back on your feet. You begin working for a seedy mafia nightclub owner, driving his girls around town for small sums of cash, and as the level of violence increases, your pay increases, and so begins a daisy chain of crime bosses all in need of your skills. To begin with you are passed around the Mafia Capos through friendly recommendation, but as word gets around bosses who need your expertise contact you. In the signature GTA style, you can choose when to do the jobs or if you do them at all, but bear in mind that progress through the game does rely on them; while it might not be directly related to every one of the 73 ‘story’ missions, there is a definite plot here. In your path lies work for the Mafia, the Yakuza, a bent cop, a media mogul, the Jamaican Yardies, and a sprinkling of other gangs, all of which helps you gain weapons, money, influence and information in the hunt for your ex-girlfriend Catalina and her allies.

The gameplay has changed greatly from the 2D GTAs to this 3D version, and while it has some problems, they are more than made up for by the ways in which the control scheme is quick, simple and gratifying to use. There is a full arsenal of weapons from a baseball bat through assault rifles to flamethrowers and rocket launchers, and on foot there is a simple automatic lock-on aiming system – L1 to aim, and R2/L2 to cycle through targets. This changes when using the scoped weapons – the sniper rifle and the rocket launcher, which have no automatic lock-on, but have a very smooth and intuitive first-person view through the scope. Apart from a first-person view available when the player is standing still, the camera is third person and automatically controlled. When on foot the camera’s adjustment through direction changes can lead to problems identifying where shots are coming from, and the camera maintains its standard field of view even when the auto-aim function has the character pointing his weapon out of view. The driving controls, however, are marvellous. Carjacking is simple and easy, meaning the streets are an open buffet of vehicles awaiting your selection. Each of the 50+ vehicles in the game handles differently, from plodding garbage trucks to souped-up tuners and powerful police cars, and they all lend themselves perfectly to the simple and gratifying driving controls. You will be pulling off breathtakingly narrow escapes and cop-confusing handbrake turns in no time. Boats wend their way between the islands, and of course you can jack those as well, but beware – you cannot swim. There’s also a crippled light aircraft – the ‘dodo’ – in a hangar at the airport in Shoreside Vale. It can be flown…but only with a special technique.

Grand Theft Auto 3 taxi jump screenshot

There is no in-game map. While the player Heads Up Display has a small compass roundel with the local street layout displayed and the direction of key game points, there is no way to plan out a longer journey, and reliance on the roundel will only give you a general indication of where you’re meant to be going, and while the game map is large, the designers have laid out each of the islands to make them feel even larger. They are labyrinthine. Parts of Central Park in New York City are designed so that when you follow a path you are blocked from seeing other nearby paths by strategically placed hills or banks of rocks and trees. It gives the impression that the park is much, much larger than it is. GTA3‘s Liberty City is laid out on similar lines. There are few direct routes; straight paths are blocked or require detours, cunning corners and varying levels enforce either long paths or dramatic risk-taking jumps and drops. All of this without creating the feeling that the city was designed to thwart the player or be deliberately awkward to travel around. The level design is truly masterful.

Grand Theft Auto 3 staunton island map

While crime very obviously pays in Liberty City, it will also attract the attention of the authorities. The greater the crime, the higher the authority, and the bigger their guns. The police, SWAT, FBI and army are all there to put a stop to your activities and will shoot to kill. Taking damage knocks your health down, dealing out damage and committing crimes bumps up your wanted level and attracts stronger law enforcement. If you’re shot and ‘wasted’ you’ll respawn at the nearest hospital. Your weapons will have been confiscated and some of your money taken for medical expenses. If you’re busted by the police (and they’ll pull you out of your car if they have to) you’ll respawn at the nearest police station, again your weapons will have been confiscated and money will have been taken by the cops to, er…’keep things quiet’ shall we say. Bribery will get you everywhere. This is an area where Rockstar really innovated. There is no way to lose in GTA3; death and arrest only inconvenience you. You’ll have just bought an assault rifle or a rocket launcher in preparation for a tough mission, and then if some lucky cop pulls you over for an accidental hit-and-run you’ll have to go and buy them again…reload from an earlier save. A failed attempt dumps you back into the city to try again or to do something else for a while before having another go. It’s rare as you progress to only have one story mission to attempt. Going back to death and arrest – the health bar and wanted level can be altered by in-game powerups. Hearts recharge your health to 100% and collecting a police star ‘Cop bribe’ takes your wanted level down by one. A controversial additional powerup exists in the shape of prostitutes. The game starts in the Red Light District and any slow-driving nice car will attract calls from prostitutes on the sidewalk. Picking one up and finding a secluded space results in a simulated sex act; a rocking car is accompanied by a decrease in money, and health can increase to as much as 125%. Because you are free to act as you please in the game, it is also possible to kill the prostitute and regain the money spent. The possibility of doing this caused enormous controversy in the press, and has also led to Grand Theft Auto becoming infamously portrayed in crime dramas and other television shows as a ‘murder simulator’ or ‘that hooker game’.

Grand Theft Auto 3 in trouble screenshot

GTA3 is a mature game. It was rated mature wherever it was released, and there’s no doubt that the violence, language and overall theme is adult in nature. I don’t want to get into the finer points of the long-running mature videogames argument, but merely want to note that this is an adult game, before moving on to mention the mile-wide satirical streak that runs through the middle of this game. The humor of GTA3 is enormously immature and satirical. Within ten seconds of starting the game ‘Head Radio’ has already touted that its parent company controls ten US senators. The game lampoons the blandness of commercialized pop culture and music, it pokes fun at the absurdity of modern advertising and the products being advertised, and it is endlessly referential and sarcastic. Other videogames are far from safe. Racing missions are dubbed ‘Turismo‘ and in one particular Yakuza mission, old-time free-roaming game competitor Driver is lambasted. You are asked to kill a ‘strangely animated cop’ who is ‘more or less useless out of his car’ – a reference to the graphics of Driver and the fact that the game included no on-foot aspects. GTA3 is a gangster-on-the-rise story, and all the tracks on retro 80’s radio station ‘Flashback FM’ are actually the soundtrack to the Al Pacino film Scarface … many of the actors were working on The Sopranos when they worked on the game.

Grand Theft Auto 3 drive-by shooting screenshot

I think the special quality that separates GTA3 with every game that came before it is the detail. Every video game is simpler than real life. Whether it’s Final Fantasy, Mario or Metal Gear Solid – regardless of their fantastical elements, they are simpler than real life and present players with less information than, say, walking down the street, or sitting on a bus. They are models. It’s only with an act of will, or a fantasy-trip, that the player immerses himself/herself in the model world and plays inside its limitations. GTA3 provides so much information – advertisements, uninvolved characters, weather, camera lens flare, object interaction, the music on the radio, light, shadow, water, clouds, the sparks from striking a lamppost with a car, freedom of choice… that the act of willing yourself into the game is so much easier. The level of detail is closer to that in the real world. It’s still nowhere close, but after playing for a while there’s a transition – a pleasant one – where you realize you’re thinking your way through the world of the game on a much more complex level than expected, and actually filtering out some details to focus on what you’re doing, and gives the game great depth and a sense of being truly immersed in something.

Grand Theft Auto 3 shoreside vale map

The power of true world-building in videogames was shown in GTA3 for the first time. The worlds in which previous games took place were background…mere scenery by comparison. GTA3 demonstrated the versatility of a world built with integrity across its physics and object interaction by using its world to recreate entire sets of features from other games. In GTA3 there are a series of street races – at one point they are mission critical, but later become voluntary – and they are as good as many checkpoint-based racing games were at the time of GTA‘s release. The manner of racing bore more than a passing resemblance to the first incarnation of Rockstar’s street racing franchise, Midnight Club. The taxi missions – again, entirely optional – where pedestrians hail a cab, give you a destination and a time in which to reach it…the quality of driving, the car’s damage and the clock all provide a challenge and affect the score given…and this was the entire premise of the game Crazy Taxi!

GTA3 is phenomenally enjoyable to play. It has very strong plot missions, huge potential for exploration and discovery, an integrated physics engine that means experimenting with the game elements is possible (if I got that really fast car, could I use that ramp to get it up to the elevated train tracks?) and it’s big on humor and cartoon violence. If you accept it’s an adult game with adult themes and content, what’s not to like?

Graphics: 9
On its release, GTA3 pushed the PlayStation2 to limits it hadn’t reached before. The console was only 23 months old at the time and developers were still exploring methods of using the technology to it’s best potential. While the graphics themselves bordered on cartoon style, the depth of detail and the physical integrity in the constructed world was unlike anything seen before…litter blowing in the wind, camera lens flare, daily cycles, vehicle damage and real interaction between objects where unknown at this time. When your character gets into a car – that’s actually the character in there, turning the wheel.

Audio: 9.5
A marvel. Hours of humorous radio station footage, with a mixture of original compositions and new tracks, and great voice acting that elevated the cartoony graphics in the cutscenes to evoke real drama and suspense.

Ingenuity: 9
While the theme and premise of the game had been laid out in the earlier titles, pulling off the full GTA experience in three dimensions and adding so much to it was ingenious in the extreme. No one had ever done anything like this before.

Replay Value: 9
Liberty City is a world in which you are free to explore and do as you please. The missions are rarely linear and can be approached in different ways, with different weaponry and vehicles. Exploring the city alone is a huge and enjoyable experience – hidden weapons, jumps, powerups and shortcuts reward the curious.

In developing the groundbreaking GTA3, Rockstar had produced ideas and possibilities that, due to production constraints, were not included in the game. While GTA3 became the biggest-selling game on the PS2 in just two months, Rockstar were already at work on a sequel – a game in which they could include the ideas and innovations to build upon the already revolutionary GTA3.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City teaser
Next in’s roundup of all the GTA games comes 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.