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To me, Grand Theft Auto III meant freedom. I never actually played the game's story missions much – I just wandered around Liberty City collecting hidden packages and killing cops. I can't remember a game that I just... played, like I played GTA III, and despite not actually doing anything in particular, I still have vivid memories from my time with it. Of getting to the top of a building and holding out against cops for as long as possible (and cursing that I had to keep inputting codes to get more ammo). Of stealing that awesome blue car with white stripes from inside the car dealerships. Of getting the tank and just... just driving the fucking tank. It allowed complete freedom, and I'm eternally grateful.
Above: That blue car. That blue car exactly
The only reason I played Grand Theft Auto III was because my brother got it as a Christmas present that year. It wasn’t the kind of game that I was itching to play, since thugs, prostitutes, drugs and brutal violence aren’t really my thing. But after watching him cackle gleefully while making numerous attempts to drive a bus off a steep ramp just to see how much air it could get (and maybe even land it once in a while), I figured I might as well give it a shot.
Now, maybe if I had started from the beginning, I might have been somewhat interested in the story, but I was passed the controller, and the first thing I did was steal a cab. (I had assumed that was the whole point of the game, since, you know, it’s called Grand Theft Auto.) I then proceeded to run over as many pedestrians as I could in a row, just to see how long I could last before getting arrested. I did this multiple times and laughed at the sounds the pedestrians made as I ran them over – is that wrong? Needless to say, I never got very far, and my interest waned, because while it might have been funny the first few times, I did eventually get tired of mowing down innocent civilians.
During summer vacations in my teen years, I used to sleep in late as often as I could. Not (just) because I was lazy, you understand, but because I’d discovered that in that hazy, half-conscious state that comes from waking up and dozing off again, I was a whole lot more likely to suddenly realize that I was dreaming. And once you know you’re dreaming, well, anything’s possible. That same feeling of absolute freedom and control was what I’d hoped to see games deliver for years. Titles like Syndicate and Fallout (both which offered the freedom to explore little worlds and to be a bad guy), were a step in that direction, and the first two GTAs were fantastic (for their time), but their 2D presentation left too much to the imagination. Nothing really came close to what I wanted, until GTA III.
Liberty City couldn’t have been any more aptly named. Here, for the first time, was an enormous, detailed world to explore on my own terms, a giant consequence-free reality in which I was free – and, in fact, encouraged – to behave as though nobody was looking. Driving off cliffs, stealing planes and punching strangers for no reason was exhilarating, and it only got more exhilarating when I discovered cheats that would let me spawn tanks, make cars fly and experiment freely with the game’s weaponry. That it had a pretty interesting plot to follow once I got tired of messing with the citizenry certainly didn’t hurt, and GTA III remained my perpetual go-to game until Vice City came out a year later.
Above: The second I saw this screenshot and realized a 3D GTA was coming, I just about lost my shit
Sure, GTA III seems almost limiting in its scope now – Just one little city? No motorcycles or helicopters? One hard-to-find plane with no wings that handles like garbage? – and its controls (which Vice City quickly improved on) now seem kind of terrible. But so what if it was a little clumsy, and maybe even a little ugly? It was a giant playground that reacted semi-realistically to your every impulse, no matter how bizarre or twisted, and if that’s not worth a few trade-offs, then nothing is.
We’re betting more than a few of you have fond memories of your own. What did GTA III mean to you? Good or bad, share it in the comments below.
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