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Grand Theft Auto III needs no introduction. It’s a landmark title. It not only shifted the franchise from 2D to 3D but also introduced the world to a new kind of sandbox. Open world games had been around but nothing like what was on display in Grand Theft Auto III. Developed by DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North) and published by Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto III was released for PlayStation 2 in October, 2001, PC in May, 2002, and Xbox in October, 2003. For this review, I played the PC version. Grand Theft Auto III was a groundbreaking title for its time and it opened the floodgates for other similar titles that many, at the time, referred to as GTA clones.
Grand Theft Auto III was not only groundbreaking and innovative but also controversial due to its violence and sexual content. There are people to this day that still think the Grand Theft Auto titles are all about mindless killing and having sex with hookers. In my experience, it’s usually older people that share this mindset. You might think it would have opened the eyes of parents so they could be more informed and actually read the back of a game box and maybe even glance at the rating. But, no. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. Grand Theft Auto III is not the only game in the franchise to generate controversy, either, and like other violent games that came before it including Doom and Mortal Kombat just to name a couple, over the years people have tried blaming the violent actions of children on the franchise. Does the name Jack Thompson ring a bell? He was a lawyer that often argued the Grand Theft Auto games taught children to kill. This dude was dead set on bringing the franchise down along with other violent games. His ridiculous crusades against games made him an enemy of the video game community and he was disbarred by the Supreme Court of Florida in 2008 for inappropriate conduct.
This is a very special review for me because what’s referred to as the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy consisting of Grand Theft Auto III and its two successors, Vice City and San Andreas, were a big part of my teenage years. They left a big impact on me and the Trilogy remains as one of my favorite series of video games of all time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve completed this game but it has been a while since I last played it so I was excited to jump back into it again for this review.
I did install the game from the disc and consulted the game’s PCGamingWiki page for any fixes and tweaks needed to get this running properly on a modern system. I did not install any official updates so I maintained version 1.0. I believe official updates will break old saves so if you plan on playing the PC version, I would recommend figuring out which version you want to play. v1.0 is recommended for a lot of mods including certain fan-made patches and mods which fix more issues than the official patches. I would highly suggest installing the SilentPatch which fixes numerous things. Grand Theft Auto III does officially support 16:9 resolutions but it comes with some eyesores like a stretched HUD among other things so I would recommend installing ThirteenAG’s Widescreen Fix. You also might want to check out the SkyGfx mod as well. It can restore the visual aesthetics of the RenderWare engine from the console versions. Personally, I prefer playing these games with a controller so I did download and install the GInput mod which adds support for XInput and DualShock 3 controllers and even includes the appropriate button prompts.
Grand Theft Auto III is a satirical look at what was, at the time of release, modern day America. Set in the fictional Liberty City, the story centers on a nameless and silent protagonist who is shot and left for dead by his girlfriend Catalina during a heist. He’s arrested and during his transport to prison, the transport vehicle is ambushed by the Colombian Cartel who abduct a different prisoner. During the chaos, the protagonist and his new friend 8-Ball escape and so begins his quest for revenge. He makes his way around the city working for different criminals and shady characters. The protagonist does actually have a name but it’s not revealed in this game so I will not spoil it.
I like the story but I do think it’s the weakest in the trilogy. Since the protagonist is silent, you never really know what he’s thinking or how he feels. In some ways, he doesn’t really amount to anything in the criminal underworld other than being a reliable lapdog. He basically just does was he’s told. I think it’s humorous that he gets as far as he does without uttering a single word. While I think the stories in the sequels are better, that doesn’t mean I think the plot here is bad. In fact, I think it’s quite good and I really enjoy the writing and voice work.
Grand Theft Auto III has a cinematic charm to it primarily due to the Hollywood talent behind the characters. Plus, much of the writing and tone are clearly influenced by popular films and shows like Goodfellas and The Sopranos. The cast is comprised of a lot of celebrity talent including Frank Vincent, Debi Mazar, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Rapaport, Kyle MacLachlan, Robert Loggia, and Michael Madsen. Grand Theft Auto III is not the first game to feature celebrity talent but the amount of talent combined with the writing and style gives the game a cinematic quality that just wasn’t present in a lot of other games at the time. I’ve always looked at the 3D Grand Theft Auto titles as interactive crime and action films of sorts. They reference many popular films and shows and put you right in the action.
If you’ve played any other open world game since the release of Grand Theft Auto III then there should be no real surprises here. The player is put in the shoes of the protagonist and can walk, run, and jump. He cannot crouch or swim. If you end up in water, you die. The same goes for NPCs. Nobody in this world can swim. For it’s time, Liberty City was a rather large place and it’s populated with pedestrians and vehicles on the roads. There’s all kinds of vehicles like cars, trucks, and vans that you can drive. Any vehicle you see on the road can be stolen and driving is easily the best and fastest way to get around. You can also utilize boats and pilot a plane, although flying can take some practice.
The story plays out in missions given by NPCs. Their icon will appear on the radar or minimap. You go see them, they tell you what to do, and you go do it. If you die, get arrested, or fail a mission for whatever reason, you do have to start the mission over from the beginning and, unfortunately, there’s no quick way to restart missions. You will have to travel all the way back to the mission start point. You’re typically rewarded with money for completing missions but sometimes you’ll be rewarded with something special.
Completing story missions isn’t the only way to earn money. There’s plenty of side missions and activities that reward you with money along with other methods like performing stunts in vehicles and killing people and collecting the money they drop. You can also take vehicles to a crusher to make some quick cash. But the real question is what can you spend money on? Compared to the sequels and other titles in the genre out nowadays, not much. In fact, money never really became a problem for me. You can earn a lot very quickly. You can spend it on weapons and ammo at Ammu-Nation shops, at Pay ‘n’ Spray shops to repair your vehicle and lose any cops on your tail, at 8-Ball Autos to rig your vehicle with a bomb, and on hookers. Drive up next to a hooker and when she gets inside, you can take her to a secluded location and she’ll fuck the protagonist, increasing his health and it can increase beyond the normal max.
Grand Theft Auto III does feature a wanted system. Committing enough crimes or crimes in view of police will attract police attention, represented by wanted stars. The more stars you acquire, the more aggressive the police response. They’ll chase you down on-foot, in vehicles, and cops will set up roadblocks. Eventually police helicopters, S.W.A.T., and the FBI will come after you, and if you reach a six star wanted level, the military gets involved. You can easily lose a one star rating by staying way from cops and out of trouble long enough but two or more and you’ll need to either find a Pay ‘N’ Spray or collect police bribe pickups found in the world. The world does contain other pickups scattered about including health and armor and adrenaline pills which will temporarily slow down time. Weapons can also be found throughout city and you can store each of them in your inventory and switch between them on-the-fly.
Unfortunately, when playing with a controller, the camera and targeting feel really clunky in today’s world. But I do prefer using a controller when playing these games as mentioned earlier, especially Vice City and San Andreas, and it’s mainly because I prefer them for driving and flying. When playing Grand Theft Auto III with a controller/console controls, you’ll want to lock-on or target foes to shoot them. However, that doesn’t always mean you’ll hit what you’re aiming at or locked onto and the camera takes a couple of seconds to focus on your target which can be annoying. It’s also easy to target the wrong NPC. Firing without locking on is not ideal because it’s harder to actually shoot anything accurately like that.
Needless to say, the targeting mechanics have aged terribly. And so has the camera. You can’t rotate it around the protagonist to see your surroundings, it doesn’t always stay behind him when running around and moving the right stick immediately puts you in a first-person view. As a result of the clunky camera, it’s not uncommon to get shot at by enemies you can’t see. Even worse is that the protagonist can’t walk or run when firing certain weapons. This makes the Micro SMG one of the best weapons in the game because you can fire it while moving and it’s also the only gun you can use in vehicles to perform drive-by shootings. The PC version fares a little better when it comes to the controls and camera because the mouse allows you to easily turn and aim in any direction and a crosshair eliminates the need to lock-on.
Grand Theft Auto III is a real showcase for the developer’s knack for world building and attention to detail. There’s all kinds of fictional in-game ads and references to companies and brands you never really interact with in the game. But you’ll see signs and storefronts that represent the different companies and brands which helps add to the immersion. The game comes with different radio stations featuring different genres of music and all songs on Flashback in particular are from the film Scarface. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the music selection so I always prefer listening to Chatterbox, the talk station featuring Lazlow Jones as the host. He speaks to various callers, including characters from the story, special guests and the show is broken up by humorous commercials. It is worth noting that the PC version does support custom music that will play on the custom radio station/MP3 player.
The physical version of Grand Theft Auto III comes with not just a manual but also a map of the city and the developers released all kinds of promotional artwork, typically of various characters among other things. From their marketing and promotional material to the details in the game, Grand Theft Auto III proves to be very immersive and, personally, I eat it all up. I love the “lore” in this universe. I’m always curious about characters and their backstories and events that preceded the story or that occur off-screen. All the little things like referenced characters and events and the fictional brands and companies are essentially minor to the average Joe but if you take the time to look around, absorb what you’re seeing and hearing, and what the developers have created, there’s a lot of things that make Liberty City feel like a living breathing place. This applies to each game in the Trilogy, too. And I have yet to play an open world game that captures this same type of immersion like the Grand Theft Auto games.
As it relates to immersion, there’s a lot of things in Grand Theft Auto III that help immerse the player into the experience. For one thing, there’s a day/night cycle and different weather conditions like rain and fog. For the most part, the pedestrians behave like actual people. Pedestrians in cars will actually stop at red lights. When the bullets start flying, they will scream and flee and the ones in cars will try and speed away. Some pedestrians are thieves that will try and steal your car. Sometimes the pedestrian you stole a car from will try and pull you out and attack you. Some cars are actually locked and you can’t break into them and stealing certain parked cars results in the car alarm going off. When someone is killed, paramedics will arrive to revive them. When you blare the sirens of an emergency vehicle, traffic vehicles will slow down and pull over. This all sounds minor today. But I think it was all pretty impressive for the time this came out. These kinds of things make the city feel alive and realistic which helps immerse me into the world.
That’s not to say Grand Theft Auto III feels completely realistic. For one thing, there’s never enough pedestrians and cars on the streets to make Liberty City feel like a truly heavily populated urban location like New York City for example. All the pop-in doesn’t help either. Granted, bumper to bumper traffic would make getting around a pain, and I’m sure technical limitations play a role, but sometimes the streets feel a little too empty. It’s not uncommon to see a car coming, then you turn around and back again only to see that it disappeared. It becomes obvious that vehicles will frequently spawn near you and usually out of view. Emergency responders often cause more problems than they resolve. For example, police cars, ambulances and firetrucks will often crash into other vehicles and run numerous people over on their way to their destination. Also, the police only respond to the crimes you commit. People could be shooting each other in plain view of the police and they do nothing. Taxis are just around for show and the Taxi side mission. You’ll never see them actually pick anybody up or drop anybody off.
What made Grand Theft Auto III special for its time is basically everything about it. Once you take control of the protagonist, you’re free to do whatever you want. Freedom is what it’s all about. There wasn’t anything quite like it before. It’s not like now where open world sandbox titles are a dime a dozen. This was fresh and different and it’s a window to a criminal fantasy. You see a car, you can steal it. You see a person, you can kill them. You can go on rampages, shooting sprees, blow shit up, set people on fire, have sex with hookers and then kill them and take their money and drive into a crowd of pedestrians. Totaled your car? That’s okay. Just steal another one. And what’s the consequence for committing all these crimes? Police attention. Wanted stars. But that can also make things more enjoyable, especially if you’re just messing around and not on a mission. You can get into car chases and shootouts with the police. If you get arrested or die, you lose your weapons and armor but I always had more than enough money to buy more and you’re simply thrown right back into the world at a police station or hospital.
Liberty City consists of three islands; Portland, the industrial district, Staunton Island, the commercial district, and Shoreside Vale, the suburban residential area. You start on Portland and must unlock the other two by advancing the story. Clearly influenced by American east coast cities, each island is distinct and they are connected by bridges and tunnels. You have the option of using the subway and you can take a train around Portland. You are completely free to go anywhere you want and do whatever you want in the city or any unlocked islands.
The city is full of violent gangs and they make up a major element of the game. Each gang claims different territories around the city. As you progress, you’ll befriend certain gangs and piss off others. And the ones that don’t like you will attack you on sight. Each gang has unique NPC models which makes them easy to identify and they drive their own unique vehicles because fuck being inconspicuous I guess. What’s really cool is the gangs that hate each other can get into shootouts. For example, Chinatown is right next to Saint Marks and these are homes to two rival gangs, the Triads and Mafia. It’s not uncommon to see a shootout ensue because one or multiple members of one gang strolled into the other’s territory.
You will be granted access to different Safehouses across the city. These are where you can save your progress which also advances time six hours. They also come with a garage to store vehicles and I know from past experience that they can randomly disappear which can be annoying. I think it’s more likely to happen if you try cramming numerous vehicles into one garage. Safehouses are also where you can easily access pickups and weapons which are unlocked by completing the many side missions and activities the game has to offer.
For it’s time, Grand Theft Auto III offered a lot to do and when it comes to these games, I always go for one hundred percent completion. And let me tell you, some of the stuff you have to do is either tedious and/or not enjoyable. However, the rewards you get for completing the side stuff is usually very beneficial. There’s one hundred hidden packages scattered throughout the city to find and you’re rewarded with a pickup at your safehouses like armor and different weapons for every ten you find. Finding them all without a guide would be a real bitch and I don’t find collecting them to be fun and I never have. It’s just time consuming and tedious. There’s also unique stunt jumps to complete. There’s a lot of ramps and jumps in the city but only twenty of them count towards one hundred percent completion. You can also drive people around in a taxi, put out fires with a firetruck, use an ambulance to drive people to the hospital, participate in races, bomb gang vehicles using RC Cars rigged with explosives, and deliver cars to different import/export garages.
The paramedic mission sucks because you have to progress through twelve stages and each one increases the amount of people you need to rescue. It’s just long and drawn out and if any of people die or the ambulance gets destroyed or you run out of time, you fail and have to start over from the beginning. This specific mission structure would carry over to vigilante and firefighter missions in the subsequent games, too, unfortunately. In Grand Theft Auto III, you need to complete twenty vigilante and firefighter missions on each island for one hundred percent completion and, luckily, you do not have to complete them in succession. I find the most boring side mission to easily be the taxi. You simply have to complete one hundred fares which I find to be excessive considering how dull the activity really is.
I’ve always found the vigilante mission to be somewhat odd because all the targets are in vehicles and you’re not supposed to get out of the police car. Well you can but you can only be out for one minute before the mission will end. Regardless, you’re targets are always in vehicles and they only get out after their vehicle takes enough damage. This type of mission could have resulted in some really cool firefights and shootouts but for some reason, it’s primarily restricted to vehicles.
I do want to point out what I perceive as an oversight. At a certain point in the game, the Mafia will dislike you and they are the most overpowered gang in the game, probably even the series. By overpowered, I mean extremely deadly. This is because the Mafia gang members are equipped with pistols and shotguns and the shotguns can destroy most vehicles in only a few blasts. When a gang dislikes you, it doesn’t matter if you’re on-foot or in a vehicle, gang members will attack you the moment they see you. So when the Mafia dislikes you, that means running or driving through Saint Marks is very dangerous unless you’re in the Bulletproof Patriot which is awarded to you for completing a certain mission. Not even the Rhino which is a tank can survive the Mafia. It’s absurd.
This is a problem if you’re going for one hundred percent completion because you’ll inevitably have to visit Saint Marks to do something. Gang members are always roaming the streets and driving vehicles around their territory so you will most likely encounter one or more Mafia goons with shotguns in Saint Marks and this basically means it would be impossible to complete the Paramedic mission in Portland after reaching the specific point in the story. Luckily, you can complete it on any island. However, it does make the vigilante and firefighter missions more challenging than they need to be. You will end up pissing off other gangs as you progress but most of them aren’t equipped with weapons that can drop you or destroy your vehicle in a matter of seconds. So, ultimately, it’s better to do everything you can possibly can do in Portland as early as possible. It should also be noted that if you don’t complete certain Rampages early enough, gangs that dislike you can make trying to complete them really frustrating.
Grand Theft Auto III is not a game that holds your hand. You can die quickly if you’re not careful and there are no mission checkpoints. There’s no arrows pointing you where you need to go and there’s not even a map of the city to reference in-game and that does prove to be annoying when playing the game now. The radar or minimap on your HUD will display icons for objectives and certain locations so you can easily get to them. If you were to reference a guide with a map that shows you where certain things are like Hidden Packages or Stunt Jumps for example, it’s not super helpful if you don’t know the city or exactly where you’re located within it. I would recommend memorizing where certain landmarks and buildings are so you can easily get your bearings. Compared to some of the open worlds of today’s games, Liberty City will seem small so it shouldn’t take too long to learn the city and how to get to certain places and there’s only a few missions that basically require you to know your way around.
I do like the atmosphere, design, and layout of Liberty City. However, I do think the layout of Shoreside Vale in particular is terrible for certain side missions. The island consists of two major what I’ll call regions connected by a bridge, dam, and tunnel. There’s also a wooden bridge/jump in one region that will take you to the other but it’s twisted at the end and can result in your car flipping over and vehicles that end up upside down will automatically blow up after several seconds. Anyway, this layout makes missions like firefighter and vigilante a real pain in the ass. The locations of your objectives during these missions are randomized and you never know where the next one will be. Plus, you’re given a time limit to complete them. So when you’re objective is in the other region, you’ll want to get to the bridge, dam or tunnel just to get across which can be time consuming depending on where you’re located and it may seem like you don’t have enough time to get to your objective. Alternatively, you can try driving off the jump in the one region but you risk destroying your vehicle.
The story mission objectives vary and most of them involve some form of violence. You’ll have to kill people, rescue people, drive people around, evade police, steal cars, retrieve items, and destroy things. The protagonist will act as a getaway driver, assassinate people, participate in gang wars, and commit numerous acts of grand theft auto. Playing the game now, the missions come across as very simple and lack layers. Go here and kill this person or steal a car or retrieve something and bring it to this location. That’s how simple it always is. There’s not a lot of twists and turns or exciting scripted events or sequences like you would experience in the sequels. You won’t be shooting at people from helicopters or sneaking around or getting into scripted action-packed car chases or doing jobs that prepare you for a heist or anything like that. By today’s standards, the missions in Grand Theft Auto III are very simple and straightforward.
Much of it the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto III stems from the violence and sexual content. By making the jump to 3D, Grand Theft Auto III looks and feels a bit more realistic than its 2D top down predecessors. You can beat people with bats, set them on fire and blow off body parts. Liberty City is based on real world urban locations, most of the characters are essentially stereotypical criminals, and almost everything in the game is based on something in the real world. You’re not casting spells, slaying monstrous creatures, or utilizing any kind of super powers. The game is rooted in reality and the developers designed it to be satire and a parody of American culture. Whether or not the humor lands is up for debate. It’s also clearly not designed for children. That said, Grand Theft Auto III is a violent game and there’s nothing stopping the player from being a mass murderer.
There are plenty of ways to kill people in Grand Theft Auto III and I’ll be the first to admit that killing people in this game is a ton of fun. In fact, I spent a most of my time in these games just killing random people and I enjoyed the subsequent police chases and shootouts as a result. After I completed the game to one hundred percent, I would just mess around and shoot people because I could. Although, I found it more fun to get into firefights with gang members. This is a game that lets me do things I would never do in real life. It’s an escape. Liberty City is a sandbox. You can do whatever you want and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so much fun. That’s the big appeal. But context is important. The protagonist is a criminal who works for other criminals. Shootouts encountered in the story always involve other criminals or police who are trying to stop the protagonist. The game makes it clear that he’s a bad guy and in a world full of terrible people.
When it comes to the visual presentation, Grand Theft Auto III has not aged all that well. Low-res and blurry textures are noticeable, I witnessed a lot of clipping and pop-in is rampant. Not only did I witness pedestrians and vehicles popping in in the distance, but they would often pop-in in low detail and then noticeably change to their more detailed models when I got close enough. The same goes for buildings. Cut scenes also highlight the fact that every character’s hands are just lumps. The fingers aren’t separated so I’ve always found watching characters point and make hand gestures to be somewhat humorous. I do think the Xbox version looks much better. It features real-time reflections, better textures and more detailed character models. If you’re interested, you can download an Xbox conversion mod for the PC version which makes it look more like the original Xbox game. I tried it out once before years ago and remember it being impressive.
The audio side has aged a little better. Liberty City actually sounds like a city complete with the humming of engines and horns honking as vehicles drive by and pedestrians saying and shouting random shit as they walk around. Weapons sound satisfying and explosions are booming. On the technical side, I can’t say I encountered any bugs or issues and the game ran smooth. Every time you enter a different island, you’re greeted with a loading screen and in my experience playing the game on modern hardware, the load times are less than three seconds, essentially making them a non-issue. At least for me.
Grand Theft Auto III is a historical landmark in the world of video games. Whether you like the game or not, it changed things. It’s a phenomenal title and one of the greatest games ever made. But that’s not to say it’s perfect. It certainly has problems. Some of the issues were even problematic during the game’s heyday and have only gotten worse with age. When playing the console versions or with a controller on PC, the camera and targeting prove to be awful and frustrating. This is my biggest issue with the game and was even a problem when the game was in its prime. Other than that, most of the other issues I have can be forgiven. Grand Theft Auto III is a product of its time and this was groundbreaking stuff. The scope and ambition of what was actually on display here was seriously impressive in 2001.
Like the other two titles in the trilogy, I played Grand Theft Auto III religiously during my teenage years. I’ve easily invested hundreds of hours into each game across all platforms. Vice City was my gateway to the franchise, then I got my hands on III and San Andreas was the first game I acquired at launch. The developers created a universe that completely won me over. I got so invested into this franchise that you could have called me obsessed. And I still love it. Each world has a unique personality and charm and I love the stories, characters and humor. And I don’t just mean in relation to the plots but everything. From the fictional brands to what you hear on the radio stations, I love it all. Every time I play these games, I get completely immersed into this universe just because of how well it’s crafted.
As much as I love the game, it’s hard not to notice some of the improvements that were made in the sequels. And I have to say, I’m spoiled by some of the features and conveniences of modern games as well. Having no mission checkpoints can be frustrating as is having to travel all the way back to a mission start point just to start a mission over again. Having no in-game map to reference can be aggravating if you’re trying to get somewhere specific that’s not an icon on the radar or minimap. And I find much of the side content to be either tedious or simply not enjoyable. I can forgive it all somewhat because Grand Theft Auto III broke new ground for its time but why some of it was made even more tedious in the sequels, I’ll never understand. I also think the protagonists relationship with gangs and how that relates to certain side missions is either an oversight or just bad design. If you don’t complete certain side stuff early, it’s just going to be more challenging later on and not necessarily in a fun way.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has a large modding community and there are plenty of mods out there for Grand Theft Auto III that change or add all kinds of stuff. From visual improvements to gameplay changes, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Even I made a some mods for these games. Nothing too significant, though. I was really fascinated with the gang stuff when I was younger. Seeing them randomly engage each other in firefights in the streets was the coolest thing to me. I actually made a mod that removes pedestrians and fills the streets with gang members. It wasn’t hard to make. I simply changed the values in a data file. I called it “Gangland”. In retrospect, it’s not a very good mod. At the time, I intended it to be used with a trainer to maintain infinite health otherwise you would probably die the moment you step away from your safehouse. But since the development of CLEO and script mods, a trainer is no longer needed. The mod works great with an infinite health script. It was really a mod just for me because I loved running around and getting into shootouts and seeing the gangs all go after each other.
Ultimately, I would absolutely recommend Grand Theft Auto III. It’s a historical piece of work. If you enjoy open world sandbox titles, this is one you should definitely check out just because of its importance to the genre. Not everything about it has aged well but it can still prove to be a lot of fun and Liberty City is still one of the most atmospheric and immersive worlds I’ve ever explored. Grand Theft Auto III marks the start of one of the greatest video game trilogies in history. Definitely check it out.