Grand Theft Auto III (PlayStation 2 - 2001 - 11 games total)
The crown jewel of all free-roaming games and one of the biggest franchises in the world, video game or not. Famous for almost anything you can peg on it - dark humor, brilliant gameplay, cathartic mega-violence, seedy characters, a vast urban playground... it's truly difficult to overstate its importance.
Why it soared
After long being promised that future video games would let us "go anywhere and do anything," this game finally did it. Never mind that the graphics weren't all that great or the aiming was a bit crap, all that mattered was the open city, its flowing traffic and terrified populace. Gamers were, at long last, given a city to deface and plunder as they saw fit. Want to hijack a car and drive it off a roof onto a rushing squad of SWAT officers? Go for it. Feel the need to beat down endless pedestrians with a bat? That's here too. But the fun didn't really come from the blood or hookers, it came from the unapproachable sense of freedom and release you got when playing this for the first time. Sure there were missions that needed doing, but how can you even stay on course when there's so much happening in this living, breathing city? A simple cruise around town revealed more than any one mission might, so countless hours could be wasted on simply enjoying the scenery and atmosphere. Side missions, such as elaborate taxi driving minigames, added to the overall impression that you existed in a larger world, not just a level in a game. Screwing around with rocket launchers and sniper rifles was cool too, but perhaps not as awesome as flipping your car into fiery oblivion. So refreshing, so liberating, so powerful.
What it did for the franchise
Made it a household name. The first two entries did allow minor free-roaming elements and the concept of rising through the ranks of the underworld, but GTA III made it feel so damn real. By switching from an overhead view to a behind the back, third person view, players felt more attached to the city, the main character and everything that happened to both. Being on the street, running from the cops, hijacking cars, fighting off helicopters and beating down gangs was a combined rush the first two titles couldn't approach. Countless accolades from gaming and mainstream press alike spurred intense interest at the retail level and led the game to sell like crazy, eventually hitting 11 million copies on PS2 alone. Controversy from the violence and implied sexual content brought the series' infamy to a whole new level (and introduced the world to a certain loud-mouthed lawyer). This one game made Rockstar, well, the rock stars of the video game world.
Who it inspired
Arguably any third-person game made after 2001. Free roaming areas became the gold standard for the genre, affecting everything from Spider-Man 2 to The Simpsons: Hit and Run to the Need for Speed franchise. Before GTA III, the concept of offering players an entire city as one massive level wasn't really on the table. Then, all of a sudden, it was the only way to play. GTA III also marked the beginning of the dirty-crime-dirt-cuss-antihero-cuss-dirt-crime-mature-bloody crime wave we've been enduring for many tiresome years. Johnny-come-copycats like Saints Row, True Crime and Scarface would never have seen the light of day without GTA, and the same can be said of conceptual one-uppers like Crackdown and Just Cause. There's hardly a genre out there that hasn't in some way been affected by the advances made in GTA III.