Wine or Vinegar: Grand Theft Auto III

[Our “Wine or Vinegar” series examines older games that were influential in a big name series and examines how well they’ve aged.]

The most influential sandbox game ever.

Every medium has it’s classics, film has the all to often mentioned Citizen Kane (still a great movie though), literature has The Great Gatsby, and theater has Death of a Salesman, just to name a few. The art form of video games is in the process of building it’s own library of classics, but due to the nature of the medium, these classics don’t always stand the test of time. That’s why we’re starting this series, to see whether highly influential titles have aged like fine wine or grown bitter like vinegar (or in most cases, a little of both). Whether you like the series or not (and we do), Grand Theft Auto, particularly the third instalment, has had a nearly unparalleled impact on video games, arguably on par with Super Mario Bros. and Doom. But wait, you probably won’t ask, why GTA III? What about the first two games in the series? Well, to the few people asking this question, Grand Theft Auto III was the first installment that most people played, the first one that was considered a truly landmark game, and, not coincidentally, the first one that was 3D (2D graphics can’t quite capture that signature GTA gameplay). So let’s look at some of the aspects of this classic game and see what still works and what doesn’t. Even though one of us is a huge GTA fan, we’ll try to stay objective.

Gameplay

Harder than it looks.

This section’s honestly a very mixed bag. As far as the controls go, driving still holds up pretty well. It’s easy and intuitive to get the hang of (probably easier than GTA IV) whether you’re coming back to the game or if it’s your first playthrough. Even this early on in the franchise, Rockstar did a good job of making the different types of of vehicles (cars, trucks, SUVs, etc) all feel different, so that there’s more of a reason than just aesthetics to choose a sports car over a van. Boats on the other hand control alright once you’re out in the water, but getting out of them is a pain since you can’t swim and jumping can out can be somewhat imprecise. The one plane in the game is nearly impossible to fly without a lot of practice but given the name, the Dodo, this is definitely intentional and you never have to fly it on missions, it’s strictly and easter egg. You’re able to move around on foot much faster than in GTA IV and hijacking cars is also quick and painless, but the controls really fall apart when it comes to the shooting. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the PS2 edition here since it was the original version and the shooting mechanics work better on PC, but on PlayStation 2, shooting is clunky and unintuitive. You’re supposed to lock onto the nearest enemy but often times you’ll find yourself targeting a fleeing pedestrian instead and though you shift between targets, you’ll lose precious health while shifting to the target you want. Oh yeah, and there’s no map of the whole city on the pause screen so you have to navigate by mini-map alone. Have fun watching for landmarks.

Tailing someone, very conspicuously.

As for the missions, the best ones tend to be the less linear missions that involve wide portions of the city. Unlike GTA IVIII isn’t really capable of telling a narrative through it’s missions. Many of the more linear missions, especially the ones that introduce new gimmicks like the “spookometer” shown on the right, tend to fall flat since said gimmicks are often unintuitive at first (the spookometer for instance is way to sensitive, rising almost quicker than you can react if you get too close to the target). Also the linear missions don’t have a sense of progression. The bank heist in GTA IV was linear but it covered a lot of ground, leading you from the bank, through the surrounding alley ways, down into the subway, and then finally through one last car chase. Most of the linear GTA III missions, even if they have an interesting premise, don’t amount to much more than “go here and kill these mooks.” One of the best missions in the game, “Triad’s and Tribulations”, tasks you with killing three Triad leaders on behalf of the Leone Family. These Triad kingpins are scattered all over Portland (the first district of the city) and as you drive around looking for them, you’ll see Triad and Mafia soldiers fighting on nearly every street corner. This mission manages to be fun by making you feel like your part of an epic citywide gang war and gives you the freedom to take out the Triad bosses in any order and in any fashion you like. It uses the sandbox to it’s full advantage.

Characters

Claude: “…”

The inhabitants of Liberty City in GTA III are not as deep as the characters in the later games but entertaining none the less. First off, Claude, the player controlled character, is a silent protagonist. Rockstar presumably made this decision to make the player feel more a part of the world. The problem is, Claude feels like a lazily designed silent protagonist, with the bare minimum of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations (grunts, screams, etc). Link, from The Legend of Zelda series, is such an effective silent protagonist because he’s given a wide range of the above features which all work to give him a personality. He has all the advantages of a silent protagonist without feeling like a cipher. If Link is a stylish designer suit, Claude is a used sports jacket; he still gets the job done, he just feels like nothing special while doing it.

Donald Love: “Nothing drives down real estate prices like a good old fashioned gang war.”

Unfortunately, the other characters Claude interacts with are also hampered by his muteness. Most of the pre-mission cutscenes merely feature a character giving a brief monologue to set up the mission, though the writing is usually still entertaining. Special mention goes out to Donald Love, CEO of Love Media which owns several of the in game radio stations, who is a yuppie billionaire using gang violence in his business practices and has some…questionable eccentricities. Another interesting fact about the characters is that two of the major gang leaders in the game are women: Asuka, the sadomasochistic leader of the Yakuza and Catalina, the head of the Columbian Cartel in Liberty City, the main antagonist, and Claude’s ex-girlfriend. This is noteworthy because many of the later GTA games (with a few exceptions) don’t feature women in such powerful roles. Overall, while the characters don’t feel nearly as fleshed out as those in Vice City or San Andreas (not to mention GTA IV), they’re still quirky and interesting enough to hold your attention and leave a lasting impression.

The World

Welcome to Liberty City, where your car is all our car.

The Liberty City in GTA III is much less based on New York city than the GTA IV incarnation and is more an amalgamation of north-eastern American cities in general. The intro to the game perfectly captures the feel of the city. The slow jazzy piano theme that plays over the intro is the perfect combination of class and sleaze to introduce the world of GTA III. The city itself, definitely leaves something to be desired today. It doesn’t have nearly as much of a distinct look and feel as Vice City or the Liberty City of GTA IV. There just aren’t enough noticeable buildings or other landmarks to make the city truly interesting. The city does however have a very dirty, gritty look that emphasizes how poorly run Liberty City is. If GTA IV’s  Liberty is modern day New York, GTA III Liberty is more like 1970s New York. Pedestrian models recur far too often and the pedestrian dialogue, while funny at first can get old pretty fast. There aren’t nearly as many songs on the radio stations (Flashback FM for instance is just the Scarface soundtrack– okay, yes, that’s awesome) and you won’t find very many famous songs either. The radio DJs, however, are just as funny as those in other GTAs, especially Head Radio (fantastic satire of mega corporation radio stations). Finally Chatterbox, the first talk radio station in the GTA series and the first appearance of Lazlow, is just as funny as ever.

In the end, GTA III is nowhere near as amazing as it used to be, especially after GTA IV, but it’s still genuinely fun to play. Age has dealt the game a lot of shortcomings but the best parts of it are still a lot of fun and make it worth playing.

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