Grand Theft Auto III Review

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Publisher: Rockstar Games (Take-Two Interactive)
Developer: Rockstar North

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 450 MHz, 96 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 16 MB 3D video card, 700 MB HD space

Wealth, power and reputation must be earned by working hard, and stealing every automobile that rolled out of Detroit. For you, as the mute lead in Grand Theft Auto III, it started with a bank heist. Betrayed by your girlfriend, arrested and thrown in a police convoy, Grand Theft Auto III begins on your way to the penitentiary. Sometimes it pays to be a small time crook in the middle of big events, and one of the other prisoners was important enough to be busted out, leaving you and another felon alone and free. Fortunately, the whirlwind which restored your freedom also deleted your identity, thanks to some determined and well-connected computer hackers, leaving you free to start a new life. Your fellow prisoner, a friendly demolition expert with badly burned hands, exchanges his expertise for your help, and sets you up with a hideout in Liberty City and a contact for alternative (to put it kindly) employment.

With a fresh start in life, you are free to take up the honorable profession of Mafia errand boy. If you prove yourself reliable, you can graduate from ferrying Mafia molls around the city, to made man, only to find yourself suddenly performing hits for the Yakuza, and perpetrating drive-by shootings against the gangs in Wichita Gardens. Perhaps you can even pursue revenge against the woman who betrayed you.

Kyle Ackerman

Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is out to prove that computer gaming is not just a pastime for kids, and to do so they have created a living and breathing city, packed to the brim with violence, adult language, sex, and a lot more violence for good measure. Critics have focused on the mature themes, overlooking the fact that GTA3 has a compelling story, engaging gameplay and is intended for a mature audience. GTA3 follows the rising star of a clever criminal who emerges from the seedy underworld of Liberty City into the stratospheric heights of Liberty City society (who also happen to be criminals, of a more or less genteel sort). This is a word where the language is seldom clean, and the ability to deal death is a form of currency. Your in-game avatar is a man who can get things done, from deliveries to calculated hits, using everything from cars to baseball bats to rocket launchers as his instruments of death.

There are at least nine gangs in the city, as well as corporate powers, corrupt police, and even a lowly manufacturer of dog food, most of whom require your services at some point. The plot twists and turns as you ally yourself with one power, betray another, and play sides against each other. They don't always have your self-interest in mind, either. In this setting (with the ESRB label on the box as warning), it is perfectly appropriate for GTA3 to put you in the shoes of a man who kills with little thought, fires rockets at espresso stands, ferries prostitutes to and fro, and recovers a pornographic publication for a neighborhood gang.

GTA3 is no more or less mature than a movie like Taxi Driver or Scarface, and has plenty of recognizable voice talent including the likes of Frank Vincent, Kyle MacLachlan, Debi Mazar and Joe Pantoliano. That said, the sex and violence may be appropriate for the genre, but GTA3 sometimes undermines its own efforts to be a mature, crime/action thriller by pushing puerile humor for a cheap laugh. A billboard for a Liberty City radio station urges citizens to "Give Head Radio (a listen this weekend), It'll blow you away." The armored Securicars that transport cash around the city are labeled as belonging to the German financial conglomerate Gruppe Sechs.

In addition to a strong story and mature themes, GTA3 really sets itself apart from its video game peers by creating a detailed world that gives the illusion of freedom. Liberty City is a metropolis that spans three islands: Portland, Staunton Island and Shoreside Vale. Located somewhere in Northeastern America, Liberty City is corrupt to the core, but filled with citizens (and criminals galore) going about their business. The game begins in Portland, but as you set events in motion by completing missions, the other two islands open to you. To give you some sense of the scale of these urban islands, by the time I had completed the core, plot-related missions, the statistics screen told me I had driven 461.3 miles (and walked another 40.9). The would-be urban planners on the development team managed to create a city that just begs to be explored, full of the districts one could find in a major city such as docklands, a financial district, airport, housing projects, and China Town. Each district is populated with denizens, and automobiles, suiting the economic stature of the area. Liberty City has nine radio stations to suit most tastes (and the ability to create your own by saving MP3 files into the appropriate directory). If you want to learn more about the general populace you can always listen to what they have to say when they throw themselves out of your way as you drive on the sidewalk, or just tune into Chatterbox FM, the talk radio station. Each region is, of course, ruled by its own gang or crime conglomerate. As the GTA3 manual says, Liberty City even has a "full law enforcement system to keep the city properly corrupt and somewhat safe."

GTA3 has garnered tremendous praise, because it seems like you can do anything you want within the framework of Liberty City. Carjack a taxi, and you have the option to take passengers for fares. Steal an ambulance and you can speed around the city streets saving lives (no matter how many people you have to run over to do so). You can steal nearly any car, drive on or off-road, or just climb to the top of a tall building and snipe pedestrians for fun. This, they say, is freedom. In that sense, you have freedom in every game you play. In a game of WarCraft, you could easy build an army of peons, and march them in protest against the violent ways of the orcs. In Alien vs. Predator you can force your Marine to leave his weapons behind and greet the aliens with open arms. In both cases, the games will continue on their merry way and slaughter you. In GTA3, the designers reward you for nearly anything you might want to do. Want to steal a police car and mete out vigilante-style justice? They've provided for that. Most hidden crevices have packages that ultimately reward you with cash and weapons (or even rampages and hidden missions). Want to see how much air you can get driving a sports car off a ramp? You are rewarded with slow motion footage of your jump, a cash reward, and statistics for your stunt. You can work to master the challenge of flying a snub-winged plane if you find it, or chug around the waters in a variety of boats. You can simply choose to ignore the storyline altogether, stealing cars and cruising the city streets. Still, freedom is different from reward. While I could steal a garbage truck and pretend to go from point to point, cleaning up Liberty City, the designers did not choose to reward me for that particular behavior, nor could you steal a bus and get cash for driving by scenic landmarks. So many behaviors are rewarded, however, that exploration becomes the greatest joy of GTA3.

GTA3 has an impressive variety of missions. Sure, most tasks can be broken down as delivery tasks or executions, but there are so many variations on the themes that most missions seem fresh, and many fit within the overarching narrative, helping to move the plot forward. In general, the missions are just difficult enough to present a challenge, but not so difficult as to require more than a try or two. Many missions are timed, and it's exhilarating to finish on the first try, just as the last few seconds are ticking away on the mission clock. The biggest weakness of the mission design arises because GTA3 is a port from the PlayStation 2. The port is so exacting that there is no ability to save, except at your hideout, and not during a mission. Usually, that's not a big deal. Even a near fatal injury or arrest will just leave you at a hospital or police station, a little poorer, and without your arsenal. Unfortunately, a number of missions are very difficult. Worse yet, the short but difficult portion is usually preceded by a lot of driving. GTA3 contains countless hours of entertainment; there is no need to extend that by adding frustration. The last few missions relating to the plot would benefit tremendously if you had the ability to save after driving far.

There are also a few difficult missions in Staunton Island just before Shoreside Vale opens up. Once you complete these, particularly if you gain access to a rocket launcher and heavy arms, missions become easier. I also found missions in which you had to return vehicles in perfect condition to be less than fun. One of the biggest thrills for me in GTA3 was the ability to drive as one cannot drive in real life. I drove between cars on a two lane street, and traffic laws merely served to keep other cars out of my way. A late mission that D-ICE gave me over a pay phone involved taking his car (armed with a bomb) to be defused and returned in perfect condition. There was ample time, if only I had stopped at red lights. Instead, I flew headlong through the city streets cursing every jolt and bump. Driving in GTA3 for me was about speed and demolition, not precision and proper passing. I had to redo the mission six times before completing it successfully.

The biggest advantage the PC version has over the PlayStation 2 original is the ability to aim weapons while on foot using the mouse. Personally, I didn't enjoy the repetition required to finish the game using a console controller, making the PC version much more fun. The need to create a populous city using the capabilities of the PS2 led to the creation of a sensory bubble. The area immediately around you fills with pedestrians and cars, but very few objects in Liberty City are persistent. Usually this creates a seemingly living environment, but is occasionally disconcerting when you turn around only to find that the beautiful car that just passed you has vanished from existence. The PC port is also well served by higher resolutions. Running the game at higher than 800 x 600 will make most sub-1GHz machines stutter, but even that is a welcome step above PS2 resolutions.

Fundamentally, GTA3 is a detailed story providing just enough of a framework in which to steal cars and drive wildly about a modern city. So many little touches have been poured into the game that most times when you do something clever, the game finds a way to acknowledge and reward you. Most importantly, GTA3 is fun for hours on end. Even without redoing missions, those associated with the main plot line will keep you occupied for a long time. Beyond that, hidden missions, and the fascination of experiencing the detailed, marvelously mundane world of Liberty City – and ignoring traffic laws – make GTA3 a treasure.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 4, 2002 9:21 AM.

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