Grand Theft Auto III is one of the greatest games of all time and revolutionized the open world genre. Even the previous games in the series were doing things not normally seen in games although from a top-down perspective. This was the first 3D game in the series and with that came a large urban environment to explore, complete with a cinematic storyline, side missions, vehicles to drive, guns to shoot, hidden packages to find, and much more. Controversial for its content, it was the start of a long campaign against the series by ignorant people who most likely never played the game or bothered to read the rating on the back of the box before buying it. You could now pull up to a prostitute, get her into the car for a quickie, kill her if you wanted, and then take her money and according to some, this would corrupt young minds for years to come. Things like this only fueled the anger of parents, probably the same parents that watch movies or television shows with more graphic content but were too stupid to read the back of the box or even the title of the game for that matter before buying it for their children. Vice City was actually my first foray into the Grand Theft Auto series and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. It’s my favorite open-world series and action series as of this date and I own every game.
Set in the fictional Liberty City the silent and unnamed protagonist is betrayed, shot, and left for dead by his girlfriend after a bank robbery and is now out for revenge. You’ll end up working for various criminal organizations as you get closer to finding those who betrayed you. For the time, the storyline was incredible and was accompanied by Hollywood voice talents like Robert Loggia, Debi Mazar, Frank Vincent, Joe Pantoliano, and more. You start working for the Mafia doing odd jobs which help you learn the mechanics of the game. You work for money and completing a mission grants you a sum of money. Unlike previous games in the series where missions were activated by visiting a phone booth, you can now walk or drive to locations designated on the minimap and the mission begins with a cut scene. Whoever you’re working for usually appears and explains what needs to be done and once the cut scene ends you can begin the mission. Missions range from basic things like picking somebody or something up to killing specific enemies and during the course of the story you’ll make friends and enemies with various gangs throughout the city. The mission-based storyline structure has been used by countless games nowadays but for the time, its cinematic approach was very unique and different than what we were used to. The only gripe I have is with the silent protagonist. Since he doesn’t say much you’re more or less a puppet for the bigger players in town and never feel as if you have control. This was of course rectified in the sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Liberty City is broken up into three islands, Portland, Staunton Island, and Shoreside Vale all connected by bridges and even a subway system which also double as loading points. Based on New York City, it has many buildings and landmarks that reflect what’s in the Big Apple. The design of the city, atmosphere, and level of detail were quite incredible for a 2001 game and really make me feel like I’m playing around in a fictional version of NYC. Portland is an industrial area and based on some parts of Brooklyn, Staunton Island is a commercial area based on Manhattan, and Shoreside Vale is a residential area based on several real-life locations like New Jersey, The Bronx, and Westchester County. The city is obviously a much smaller and parodied version of its real-life counterpart but the developers at Rockstar proved they could create a detailed and immersive world. Bellville Park is filled with trees, grass, walkways, just like Central Park. The Red Light District of Portland is complete with adult stores, seedy pedestrians, and even a strip club. The locations feel diverse and they all connect together to create a believable world. My only issue with the city itself is the lack of vehicles and pedestrians. Yes, vehicles and peds are everywhere but not enough of them fill the streets to really give that New York feel. You may be walking down what should be a traffic-filled road only to notice three or four cars drive by and a few pedestrians walking around. Granted, if the streets were truly filled up the game would probably slow down to a halt, especially on consoles back in the day. The seasons never change but the game does have weather effects like rain and fog and is complete with a day/night cycle. I would guess the season is fall based on some of the trees changing colors. The protagonist wears what looks to be a leather jacket and many pedestrians are wearing coats. Time is accelerated and the protagonist even carries around a pager should you receive notifications.
Liberty City is a violent place and there’s plenty of guns to choose from. From pistols to rocket launchers, shops like Ammu-Nation have what you need. You can spend your hard earned cash on weapons or pick them up from fallen enemies, along with their money of course. On consoles you’ll need to press a button to aim and another to shoot on target, otherwise you can just press the fire button and hope you hit something. The aiming can sometimes seem weird as the camera doesn’t always position itself in a spot where you can see the target. Luckily, pressing the aim button puts a reticle on the target but it would be nice if you could see what you’re shooting at. The protagonist has a stance for each gun and sometimes it can look weird. When firing certain weapons he may position his body in ways that just look uncomfortable. When firing an uzi sometimes it looks as if he’s just sticking his arm out and looking in an entirely different direction. The PC version contains a crosshair and manual aiming. Thanks to some great mods to the PC version over the years, you can download some mods that replicate console controls flawlessly if you prefer a controller to the keyboard and mouse setup. You are able to perform drive-by shootings but only if you have the uzi equipped. The series isn’t called Grand Theft Auto for no reason. You’ll be stealing cars all the time and sometimes a pedestrian may even pull you out of the driver’s seat and steal your ride. You’ll obtain safe houses on each island where you can save your game and each come with a garage for storing vehicles. You will obtain specialized vehicles as rewards for completing missions and I tend to use the garages for those. The selection of vehicles in GTA III is nowhere near the amount found in recent entries but you still have a decent variety. You have trucks, sedans, sports cars, boats, and even a plane. Flying can actually be a real challenge and there’s even a stat for how long you can keep the plane up in the air. Good luck with that. The cars all handle well but it feels very arcade-like. None of the vehicles have a real sense of weight to them and it wasn’t until San Andreas was released that I truly noticed it. In fact, crashing into other cars will reward you with money. For PC players there are, of course, mods that you can find that alter the handling of vehicles. If vehicles are damaged enough or end up upside down they catch fire and then explode. If you happen to be inside the vehicle when this happens, you’re dead. When in police pursuit or just cruising the city you can listen one of the many radio stations hosted by unique DJs which play licensed music. Flashback FM is dedicated to playing songs from the movie Scarface. I never really cared for most of the music stations in the game and only listened to the talk station which I still feel is one of the best talk stations in the series with great callers and commentary. It’s right up there with VCPR from Vice City. The music stations contain different genres of music like opera, hip hop, reggae, pop, soft rock, and some others. None of which I’m a huge fan of but music is subjective.
The AI is nothing to write home about. Enemies and police officers will normally just come running at you or they’ll stand in spot one as they shoot you making them easy targets. Health drains fast and the more crimes you commit the more police attention you obtain. This was when the wanted system introduced a series of stars. There are six stars total, committing crimes causes the stars to light up. One star means if a cop spots you he will try and chase you down. Two starts and the cops will turn it up a notch. Stay away long enough and you can lose the stars. When you hit three stars you’ll need to run or step on the gas pedal as full-on police pursuits will begin accompanied by a police helicopter that will shoot at you. The S.W.A.T. team is called in at the fourth star and they’ll ramp it up by the fifth star. If you piss everyone off enough to obtain six stars the military is called in and the chances of survival are slim to none. The soldiers carry automatic rifles that can drain your health faster than you can blink and any vehicle that makes contact with a tank is immediately destroyed. Scattered throughout the city are police bribes that will lower your wanted level one star at a time and you can even drive into a Pay ‘n’ Spray to have your vehicle resprayed. Respraying your vehicle will eliminate your wanted level completely. It can be funny driving into a Pay ‘n’ Spray with cops on your tail and as soon as you drive back out they’ll just drive away. Other than story missions are side missions and other objectives to complete. You’ve got street races which are actually quite challenging compared to future games. You can collect one hundred hidden packages hidden throughout the city which are tedious to find but the rewards are worth it. Rockstar seems to enjoy placing hidden packages in future games as well and I’ve never been a fan of it at all. Without a guide it’s just way too time consuming and if you want to achieve one hundred percent completion you will need to find them all. There are many stunt jumps throughout the game that when you drive off of them the game will slow down time and if you meet the distance required, you’ll be granted a monetary reward for a successful jump. These jumps are scattered throughout the city and you’ll need to find them and jump them successfully to achieve one hundred percent. They are cool at first but can be tedious to discover. If you enter a police car you can start vigilante missions which enable you to chase down criminals and kill them before the timer runs out. Similarly, enter an ambulance and you can drive patients back to the hospital, enter a taxi and you can become a taxi driver, enter a fire truck and you can put out fires. It was all very cool stuff for the time but to complete these side missions requires you complete a specific number of them in order to complete them. For example you need to go through twelve levels of ambulance missions and if you fail at any point you need to redo it all again. They can be time consuming and become repetitive quickly. This applies to all but the taxi missions as you don’t have to complete taxi missions in succession. The reward for completing these missions however is usually worth the headache like permanent extra health or gaining the ability to sprint without getting tired.
The protagonist can perform basic movements like walking, sprinting, and jumping. He can’t crouch nor can he swim so if you fall into a body of water, you’ll die. Considering the three islands are surrounded by water it would have been nice if he had a swimming lesson or two. Luckily you can travel on water via boats but they are never utilized enough and it’s much more fun navigating the world using a vehicle. Some bugs and annoyances will arise like frame rate drops on the console versions during very hectic moments. You may get hit or run over by car and get stuck under it but you can’t move so you’ll just watch as your health drops to zero. The AI drivers can be sporadic and the emergency vehicles can cause more death and destruction than they’re supposed to prevent. The cut scenes look good enough for the time but the in-game animations can look stiff at times. This game was released in 2001 and at the time these things never bothered me too much and I never found anything game breaking.
Grand Theft Auto III is one of my favorite games. I still play it to this day and have beaten it on PC and each console numerous times. By today’s standards the visuals are dated as is the gameplay but the game still holds up. It’s still fun to explore Liberty City and cause chaos and destruction or even to just cruise the streets, look around, and listen to pedestrians. Even after all these years people are still modding the game and some amazing stuff has been created. It was a revolutionary experience that broke new ground back in the day and caused tons of controversy. However, I get the feeling this worked in the game’s favor as all of the publicity attracted attention and introduced people to a truly fun experience and immersive world. It was cool to shoot someone only to see an ambulance show up and save the person, or to steal someone’s car and drive it to the crusher for money, you’ll finally get to drive the tank and just mindlessly drive down the road destroying everything in sight just because it’s fun. Freedom is the idea and if you want to walk down the street with a flamethrower igniting everyone on fire, you can. It’s the freedom, humor characters, and little details that draw me in and I fell in love with the lore of the Grand Theft Auto series immediately with Vice City and soon after that picked up GTA III. It will go down in gaming history as a classic and you can see the influence in the gaming industry by just looking at how many, what were first considered to be GTA clones, we have now.