Reviewed: September 3, 2002
Released: May 21, 2002
Have you ever driven down a highway and passed a really bad car accident? Odds are, you’re a decent person who felt genuine sympathy for those involved. Odds are also that you slowed down and strained your neck to get a good look at the carnage.
Playing Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is like witnessing a particularly gruesome, particularly spectacular car accident. You can be horrified, you can be shocked, but you just can’t look away.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but loyalty to some vague concept of honesty in journalism compels me to: I loved this game. I wanted to hate it. I would never have bought it. I played it for this review, and ended up spending dozens of extra hours above and beyond the call of duty doing things on my computer that I would be ashamed of doing in real life.
“What things?” you ask. (Just gotta get a look at that wreck, don’tcha). Things like beating innocent people over the head with a baseball bat and stealing their money. Things like jacking cars and joyriding them through crowded streets, mowing down pedestrians and knocking over street lamps, crashing into other cars to see how much damage I could do. Things like shooting at policemen, then seeing how many patrol cars I could elude in high-speed chases through midtown traffic.
Yes, there are other games where one can play “bad guy”, complete with graphic violence, but this is different.
In GTA3, you’re not a dungeon keeper or evil sorcerer in some fantasy realm, nor are you a servant of the “dark side of the force”; you are a human being (I use the term loosely) in a city that could very well be New York, the place I call home. It could also be Detroit, L.A., or any other metropolis. It’s a disturbingly realistic setting, containing huge doses of realism within the setting.
You are a stinking piece of two-bit scum (in the game, that is) who’s just escaped from prison, trying to work your way up the corporate ladder- the Mafia’s corporate ladder. You complete nicely varied missions, some of them timed, in order to earn cash and move on to bigger and better things. Missions include escorting hookers to jobs at the Policemen’s Ball, shooting rival gang leaders, planting bombs in cars, and that’s just the appetizer. The game is played from a third person perspective, with your character walking or driving through the city in order to fulfill his objectives.
Obsessive attention to detail is evident in every aspect of this game’s design, from the graphics, to the sound (a pleasant surprise, since sound is so often treated by developers as an afterthought), to the gameplay itself. It’s part of what makes GTA3 so addictive to play. (I suspect that another part of the success formula is the fact that a lot of us really would like to experience this gangster lifestyle).
But there is also an added dimension to gameplay that I wasn’t prepared for: The world of GTA3 encourages exploration and “free play”. Anyone remember Daggerfall, the first Role-playing Game so massive that it encouraged players to build lives for themselves in the game world? Gamers could buy a home, ships, other possessions, start and grow a business, and build personal wealth. Before the online games were as popular as they are now, one could play Daggerfall forever and not even bother with advancing the storyline.
Though it’s not an RPG, GTA3 gave me a similar “feeling” in that I often enjoyed wandering the streets for hours, forgetting about my current mission, just to see what mischief I could make, or what new surprises I could discover. I spent time learning the streets, plotting future escape routes from the police, just as I might, if I were a criminal in real life. I discovered ramps all over the place with which to try daredevil jumps in stolen cars. In back alleys I found Uzis that triggered mini-games (kill 30 gang members in two minutes for an extra two grand, and the like). I discovered that if I stopped my car near a hooker long enough, she got in my car and my money would decrease just like in real… er… never mind.
One of my favorite surprises came the first time my car flipped over and came to rest at the bottom of hill. Instinctively, I crawled out and ran away thinking the car might explode. And I was only half surprised when it actually did explode, sending tires and other parts travelling in all directions.
GTA3 was designed to be run on high-end systems. In fact, I suspect it was designed to induce people to run out and buy high-end systems. On a 1GHz PIII with a 64MB GeForce 2 Ultra Video Card, I had to turn down the resolution to get good frame rates. And even then my system would experience occasional bouts of sluggishness when there was a lot going on onscreen, despite my tweaking, defragging, direct X 8.1 installing, driver updating, animal sacrifices, and supplications to the G-ds of every major religion.
But hey, the game looks fantastic in low-res. I imagine that in high resolution with all the options turned up it would bring a tear to my eye.
In graphics too, it was the smallest details that made the largest impression on me. The weather effects, lens flare from the sun, flashing “Don’t walk” signs preceding a changing traffic light, passing elevated trains, the details are endless. And that’s the point. We’ve all seen these effects before, but the cumulative result of everything happening around you at once is a very realistic, very believable environment, just like real life.
The sounds of the city, albeit a violent, decaying city, are ever present in GTA3. Snippets of conversation from passers by, horns honking, sirens crying in the distance, hookers arguing with Johns who stiffed them, cursing motorists, an occasional gunshot, all combine to form a white noise in the background that the player hears but eventually tunes out just like…say it with me…just like in real life.
When you’re in a car, you can tune in to any of more than a half dozen “radio stations” specializing in everything from classical music to reggae. There’s even “talk radio”. Pay attention to the commercials.
Voice acting in the cutscenes is deliciously cheesy, like something out of Goodfellas. There are some well-known actors in the mix, Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Twin Peaks), Robert Loggia (too much to list), and my personal favorite, Debbie Mazar. I’ll always remember Debbie as Tommy Lee Jones’ sidekick in the movie Batman Forever. She was the one in the black lingerie, and that was Drew Barrymore in the white.
Everything sounds three dimensional, on a two-speaker system or six, with or without EAX or A3D positional sound (both are supported, as well as software emulation). I know, I tried it several different ways. (Yes, you’ve heard it before, I’ve got nothing better to do with my life). Most developers don’t pay as much attention to an entire game as these guys did to the sound.
‘Nuf sed elsewhere in this review. There’s so much to do and try aside from the huge number of missions, optional missions, mini games and so on, that if this isn’t value, I don’t know what is.
The PC version does offer a few amenities that you cannot enjoy on the previously released PS2 version including enhanced 3D audio with the ability to create your own customzied Liberty City radio station using the built-in MP3 player. There is already a large community assembled creating custom MP3 files just for this game. And if you want to give this game the "personal touch" simply scan in a photo of yourself and use the skin texture feature to insert your image right into the game.
This has to be one of the most “fun” games I’ve played in a long time, and I can’t decide whether it’s despite, or because of, the adult content.
One thing though, it’s not for kids. If you have children who are playing GTA3, take it away immediately and send your kids to bed without their supper. (Then, when the kiddies are asleep, pull the game out and rob and kill people to your heart’s content).
Aaahh, if only the people at Rockstar and Take Two would use their powers for good instead of evil. The developers did everything right, in great part (in my superior, yet humble opinion) to their paying attention to even the smallest of details.
I believe that GTA3 has set a new standard for what we’ll expect from other game designers in the future.