Classic game appreciation section: Grand Theft Auto III

Back when I was a fresh-faced 17-year-old, my games website of choice was called game-online. It actually became GamesRadar's sister site, CVG, which is kind of fitting. Sadly I ended up getting it blocked by the mean IT man when I took all lunch hour to download an 11MB trailer of Sonic Adventure on the college network. Point is, I distinctly remember this same website running the first screenshot of Grand Theft Auto III... and the writer clearly hated the very idea of it. It depicted a dark alleyway with three or four men in it, holding guns. “Is this really what people want?” he asked. If only he'd known...

Above: Some people didn't want anything to do with this. At least that's what they said...

GTA III was a huge step away from the games I’d grown up with. Sure, I’d already played the first one on PC, but while it was a guilty pleasure with its civilian-flaming challenges and criminal underworld plot, on the surface it still looked like harmless children's games thanks to its top-down view and tiny sprites. By comparison, GTA III was virtual reality - and that made it way more exciting.

Sans the parentals...

By the time the game was complete and ready for launch, I was in my second year at university. Being over 18, I was probably drawn to it because I was actually old enough to buy it. And my parents weren't around to disapprove. Sweet!

Above: I can imagine the horrified looks I'd get at home if someone saw me playing this

However, the reviews had been good, but not amazing. Official PlayStation 2 Magazine UK gave it 8/10, knocking off marks for its crappy combat system. Even then, nobody expected GTA III to set the gaming world alight. But it did - with a molotov cocktail through the window. It sold and sold and sold.

So I got the game home and loaded it up. Nothing could prepare you for the first time you see GTA III in motion. That intro sequence was incredible. With its over-enthusiastic use of screen blur, the (now crude) city streets looked like a CG movie as the camera swept through them. The bank job, the shooting, the bridge blowout...

...and suddenly you get given control. Former Radarite Ben Richardson described that moment as "not daring to touch the controller" and I know what he means. The game looks like it wants you to walk forward, through these incredible surroundings, but you just know it will then change back into top-down crap-o-vision or something, sadly resigning yourself to the fact that no game can look this good. But then you jog forward - and it stays like that. Then you climb into a car and start driving... and it doesn't change. You can go anywhere. You are free.

Oh, so it's like Driver?

The cars in GTA III are superb. They handle so well, yet everyone seems to forget just how good a simulation of driving the game offered. Sure, the cars are way grippier than perhaps they should be, but their sense of inertia and suspension is way ahead of anything similar. Compared to Driver on PSone (which clearly convinced Rockstar a 3D GTA would be amazing), it's proper next-gen. No floatiness, no slowdown - just impeccable physics every time you get behind the wheel.

And you can steal anything. Just press triangle and you can watch Claude drag the driver from his seat, leave them on the kerb and hop in, zooming off... or backing over them and leaving a blood red tyre mark halfway down the street. This even extends to the police and (eventually) army vehicles thrown at you when you're 'wanted' for your crimes. Yep, you can steal a tank too, although sadly it won't save if you make it back to your garage.

To say it's fun is an understatement. And it represented a watershed for gamers. You could do whatever you wanted, consequence-free.

Above: I don't remember a trail of broken bodies behind Tanner's car...

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  • IceBlueKirby - October 22, 2011 6:16 p.m.

    My experience with GTA3 was mainly notable because I wasn't supposed to be playing it at all. My mom wouldn't let me play M-rated games until I turned 17 (I was around 15 when I played GTA3) so it was a forbidden pleasure, adding a lot to the game's appeal because even if I'd been allowed to play it, I still would have cracked an evil grin over the unrestricted violence and theft. But knowing that I wasn't supposed to be doing it made it even more deliciously taboo. I'd played GTA2 before (because, oddly, it was rated T on PSX and M on DC, so I got it for PSX) but because of the aforementioned sprites and top-down view it just didn't have the same grit to it. GTA3 looks (and mostly plays) like ass now, but it's still got a special place in my nostalgia banks.
  • spawny0908 - October 22, 2011 11:03 a.m.

    Ok I'm not the biggest fan of the GTA series but out of all of them I played this one the most. I may not like the series but I do respect it. I respect what the game did for gaming and me. It ushered in open world games, exposed me to games with a darker storyline and more mature themes, and showed me how fun just exploring in games can be. So happy 10th GTA3!
  • NotSteve - October 22, 2011 9:15 a.m.

    I still remember the Christmas my brothers and I got this as a present (we were 18, 16, and 14 respectively, so not too inappropriate a gift to get from your folks). We spent ALL DAY playing it, dying, and passing the controller, breaking only for meals... pretty good day.
  • Ninja-KiLLR - October 22, 2011 8:44 a.m.

    i played GTA 3 after i played vice city and this game didnt even come close to matching the awesomeness of vice city. im sure if i played them in the order they came out my view would have been different but this game was zero fun compared to vice city in my opinion.
  • Moondoggie1157 - October 22, 2011 7:18 a.m.

    Oh GTA III, the days and nights we had. Please come back in HD :D
  • IREPMINNEAPOLIS - October 22, 2011 6:41 a.m.

    I dont think I've ever heard or seen the word watershed so much in my entire life than this wk. Its been a watershed wk for watershed.
  • Mezolitik - October 22, 2011 4:59 a.m.

    I didn't like this one, largely because I played it after Vice City, which was incredible. I played III (and Liberty City Stories) for ages, but I couldn't tell you anything about either game. Loved San Andreas. Now playing IV, which is good so far, but they've REALLY worn out Liberty City. Eight GTAs are based in Liberty City. Rockstar have really missed a trick by not branching out into Japan, Columbia, Cuba, Brazil, etc. Even Resident Evil moved on after a while. So yeah, love GTA; bored of Liberty City. In other news, Steam is currently selling a pack of seven GTAs for £4.99. Score!
  • MCN2011 - October 22, 2011 5:59 a.m.

    Problem is, as soon as Resident Evil moved location, it got accused of being racist. Imagine the furore if GTA had you shooting up a city full of Brazilians or Japanese. It was bad enough when they were forced to remove the Haitians in Vice City.
  • icbacomingupwithapropername - October 22, 2011 9:08 a.m.

    true but you could always try moving it to somewhere like England Germany or France.
  • joerevs300 - October 22, 2011 4:35 a.m.

    I barely dabbled in GTA III (I didn't hear about the series until GTA:Vice City) but to this day, GTA:Vice City is the best game I have ever played, period. I am a HUGE 80's nut, and Rockstar absolutely nailed that decade, right down to the radio stations, atmosphere and story. Outside of wanting an HD remake of FFVII, this is the other game I PRAY that Rockstar will update to 2011 standards. If they could somehow do that with GTA III and GTA: San Andreas, now THAT would sell some serious copies. I'm guessing, despite the PS2 having fewer and fewer games released for it, these are still 3 of the most popular. My favorite pastime in GTA? Getting on top of a roof (after getting a wanted star) dropping grenades down to get enough for the helicopter to come, and then just shooting one after another after another...until I got to 6, dropping a grenade, jumping down, stealing a Rhino and going to the streets to cause chaos LOL
  • Y2Ken - October 22, 2011 3:29 a.m.

    I remember reading magazines when this came out, and when my friend brought it over for PC. Didn't get my own copy as I was about 11/12 at the time but I loved playing it. It wasn't even about the violence specifically, even the driving around in this realistic 3D world was incredible to me, and the open-ended mission structure just felt so fresh as a change from the linear progression of most games. Certainly a landmark moment in gaming history. Nice article Justin!
  • karlosswan - October 22, 2011 3:19 a.m.

    I knew nothing about this game when it came out, only that it was GTA in 3D. Based on that alone I took a punt on it and fell in love. It was the first game that blew me away and the only game since that has given me that wow factor and utter utter genuine pleasure from not knowing a single thing about it before hand.