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As hopefully the first in a series of “Rockstar Retrospective” articles, I thought it prudent to start with their first 3D foray, Grand Theft Auto III. Having recently earned the Platinum Trophy on this undoubted classic, I feel in a position to give it a fair and holistic overview. A diminutive eleven years of age on its day of release, it helps that I hold such vivid memories of its initial impact too. With that in mind, there’s plenty about the game that screams of bad design – almost in equal measure to the beautiful details found in every corner of the experience. In many ways an experiment, it laid down the tracks for many games and spin-offs that followed. It’s both quaint in its failures and grand in its success, deserving of every ounce of reverence. There’s a case for it being worthy of a keener criticism too, freed from the shackles of the initial glee that came with the new millennium.
As can be easily inferred from its title, Grand Theft Auto III is by no means the first in its family. Preceded by two top-down perspective parents, its exclusive was in bringing the gameplay arena to true three-dimensionality. Beyond that, not much had really changed. Almost all elements and mechanics survived the transition – even the top-down perspective itself as an optional setting. Instead of jettisoning the past in favour of pastures new, evolution and expansion were the orders of the day. The sheer potential for fun in this freshly realised playground was the main driving force at its original release, so how does that come off in 2016 when that approach is all too pedestrian? Is it even fair to utterly dismiss it as “dated” now?
Taking place in the urban sprawl of Liberty City, it’s a game that took immersion seriously – or at least as much as it could in those days. From the high-rise skyscrapers of Staunton to the residential boroughs of Shoreside Vale, the entire landscape is offered a living construction never seen before in its genre. The city is truly alive, while obviously limited by the technology of the time. Filled with a parodic cast of pastiche characters to interact with, you play as Claude – distinctly bomber-jacketed mute with a vengeful intent. After being shot and left for dead by his own girlfriend during a bank robbery, he’s understandably pissed off. Instantly making ties with the local Italian Mafia, he begins running whatever errands he can to build up cash and learn anything available about the whereabouts of Catalina – his cold-hearted ex. Quickly graduating from “bitch” to a respected professional, Claude moves through the ranks of each local gang stoically; talking with his gun and living frugally.
Gameplay, almost universally, consists of driving and shooting as a result. That doesn’t initially sound interesting to someone with a modern mindset, but it should be remembered that they’re both pillars of the medium. It’s even more forgivable when you consider that Grand Theft Auto III was one of the first games to reinforce those pillars. Innovation and creativity showed how much longevity could be garnered from the two axioms working in tandem, meaning that countless games to come could rest on their established laurels without a need for original thought. The open-world sandbox that Rockstar achieved had no equivalent, and it was an absolute joy to explore. The masterfully curated radio-stations, incredible voice acting and vivid secrets only made the whole thing more unique. We can see its footprint almost everywhere now – so common that connecting it back to Grand Theft Auto III doesn’t occur to anyone anymore.
So where does it fall down? In the greatest of honesty, many of its mechanics are poorly executed. Shooting, one of the primary in-game activities, is horribly implemented. Awkward, ugly and extremely unwieldy, most gun-battles devolve into seeing how far you can get away from opponents in order to snipe them instead. Otherwise you’ll just be blindly firing into mystery off-screen targets while watching your health deplete at an alarming rate. They would go on to smooth it out for Vice City and even master it in San Andreas, but Grand Theft Auto III leaves us with a shockingly shoddy system. Driving fared a lot better, but even that had some irritating flaws that wouldn’t last long in the series. One of the best things about the game’s motoring, after all, is the variation of the vehicles.
It’s also known for punishing you unfairly. I’m not just talking about when you flip your car or get caught unawares by some hidden enemy. Your progress through the story is punctuated by you inevitably antagonising the myriad gangs of Liberty City. Every time you do, entire swathes of the city will become hostile to you for the remainder of the game. This means that, whenever you casually drive through the district on your way elsewhere, you’ll get absolutely panned by bullets; often to the point where you “cannae take it anymore” and explode with kamikaze stupidity. This makes many tasks later in the experience next-to impossible, forcing you to rely on luck. This can get extremely frustrating when we’re used to design that instead rewards us, and provides us with gentle checkpoints at every turn. If it relied more on your skill than fortune then its difficulty would be admirable. Unfortunately, many aspects of its gameplay will have you scratching your head through repetitive retries.
Those missteps aside, what Rockstar achieved with Grand Theft Auto III is truly remarkable. The shadier parts of its design were far less obvious in 2001 because thousands of rip-offs hadn’t yet refined them – showing what they’re truly capable of. Instead, players were just glad to have a 3D sandbox game where you could actually leave your car. Before that, all we really had was Driver – a game that has dated far worse and inspired far less. For every stumble it makes, it also manages to pull off a triple-cartwheel. Genuinely funny, beautiful in its time and still packed with intriguing intricacies, you could get a lot of enjoyment out of it without even going through the missions. It was satisfying enough as a mere rampage simulator.
Size mattered in 2001 too. It helped that it was a huge release, an entire city of immense energy. Discoveries when making journeys around it feel personal, and were unbelievably exciting in the days of its first release. The missions were simply a way for you to traverse that environment with some predetermined goals. Putting them to one side, having Grand Theft Auto III in your collection was a gift that just kept giving. I often see it like a toybox, or a virtual recreation of those mats all little boys have with scaled down roads. An evolution of that aesthetic, much of Rockstar’s first 3D experiment is nothing more than running model cars over one of those very mats. Perhaps that’s why the Grand Theft Auto series will forever have a place in the hearts of inner-children everywhere.