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...