(This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version; I have played, but not completed the PC version and my experiences are sufficiently out-of-date to be irrelevant to this review.)
By the time that the Sony PlayStation 2 replaced the original PlayStation, Sony had made what was then the best-selling console of all time. The PlayStation 2 would sell even more units, a large part of its success being attributable to the Grand Theft Auto series, several of which are still among the best-selling games ever made. Before the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the Grand Theft Auto series had comprised a set of top-down action-adventure games set in a sandbox; Grand Theft Auto III shifted the game to a 3D perspective and gave the game a proper, focused story to go with the sandbox action.
Grand Theft Auto III is a third-person sandbox action-adventure game, first released in 2001 and developed by DMA Design Limited, a Scottish developer now named Rockstar North. At the start of the game, the protagonist – unnamed in the game itself, but later named Claude in the series spinoff, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – is involved in a bank robbery in the vicinity of Liberty City, which is based on New York City, with his girlfriend and another associate. As the protagonist is escaping, he turns a corner to see his girlfriend, Catalina, pointing a pair of pistols at him. Catalina shoots the protagonist and leaves him for dead while escaping with the proceeds of the robbery; the protagonist survives, but is sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in the robbery.
While the protagonist is being transported across Liberty City, a gang of members of the Colombian Cartel ambushes the police convoy. While the Cartel is taking another prisoner hostage, an Oriental gentleman unrelated to the robbery, the protagonist takes the opportunity to free himself and flee from custody along with another prisoner, an explosives specialist called 8-Ball. Having found a hideout in Liberty City’s Red Light District, the protagonist starts taking jobs for associates of the city’s Mafia, eventually branching out to other employers and other parts of the city as the game goes on. This ultimately culminates in a plot to get revenge against Catalina, who has involved herself in a scheme to spread a new drug around Liberty City.
The main story of the game involves the conflict between Catalina and the protagonist, along with the Colombian Cartel’s attempts to spread the drug, SPANK, around Liberty City and is told through a chain of missions for various employers throughout the city. The early game limits you to a single island of the city, with the other two islands being unlocked as the story progresses. Along with the story employers, there are a number of other employers who will hire you for other missions, including leaders of some of the various gangs in the city.
The game, as the title suggests, revolves a lot around cars and other motor vehicles. The player character can also explore the city on foot as well as collect a set of weapons ranging from pistols and sub-machine guns to rocket launchers and sniper rifles. However, since the game focuses to a large extent on the automotive action, there aren’t as many places where you need to use those weapons as their availability would imply; some of the story missions require you to use certain weapons, but outside of that, a lot of the weapons are superseded by the ease of using cars for the same tasks, since you experience no physical damage while you’re inside an intact car.
While you start with a reasonably good car, the car handling in the game is not especially accurate, making it easy to hit other objects and damage the car to the point where it will catch on fire and explode – and immolate the player character if he hasn’t managed to get out in time. With cars also exploding if they are turned on their roof or if they come in contact with gunfire, explosions or a sufficient level of fire from incendiary weapons, many players will have consequence to change cars regularly.
The main way to acquire cars is to hijack them, either from the side of the road or from passing road users. You can also store cars in garage spaces allocated to you, with one space allocated at the start of the game and more space unlocked as you progress through the game. However, if you’re caught hijacking cars by the roaming police officers, you will attract police attention. The level of police attention is indicated by a set of stars in the top right-hand corner of the screen, ranging from a single star where the police will only use non-lethal force against you and ranging up from there towards roadblocks, SWAT teams and even FBI and army attention.
When you are caught or injured sufficiently, you are returned to the nearest police station or hospital with a small financial cost – covering hospital bills or police bribes – as well as the loss of all of your acquired weapons. This is somewhat perplexing, though, given the protagonist’s crimes and subsequent sentence in the introduction of the game; surely, somebody with a ten-year sentence for armed robbery wouldn’t be able to get out of police custody with a small bribe. Nevertheless, a small consequence arises from being taking too much damage or being arrested, more because of the loss of your weapons rather than the financial cost, since money is largely worthless in Grand Theft Auto III.
A variety of additional missions and challenges exist, from the collection of a series of hidden packages and challenges involving jumping over obstacles in cars to side missions involving acting as a taxi driver, a vigilante or an ambulance driver. These range from the fun – the vigilante and unique jumps being particular highlights, to the tedious – the necessity to get 100 taxi fares to unlock a hidden vehicle is repetitive while the hidden packages promote exploration but also cause a lot of backtracking without a map, to the frustrating – the ambulance missions require you not only to use a slow, wishy-washy and top-heavy vehicle, but to drive precisely against a time limit.
Many of these side missions and challenges come with financial rewards, but these end up being rather worthless even by the middle of the game. You can use the money to respray and repair your vehicles and to buy weapons, while a couple of story missions require you to hand over large sums of money, but money comes in thick and fast from employers, let alone side missions and, in a hold-over from previous Grand Theft Auto games, even causing damage to other cars. The biggest rewards come from completing a sufficient number of vigilante or fire extinguishing missions along with the collection of the hidden packages; these missions give you additional weapons or police bribes at your hideouts, which are very useful for completing some of the challenges in the game.
Graphically, Grand Theft Auto III is adequate for an early PlayStation 2 game, with decent polygonal models for the environments and vehicles, although the characters’ faces look a bit off compared to the rest of the models. The environments don’t have as much personality as those of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and they end up looking a bit generic compared to the distinctive styles of the later titles in the PlayStation 2 generation. Similarly, the sounds are adequate as well and work well with the rest of the setting, with a decent selection of sounds for vehicles, bystanders and police.
One of the most persistent features in the Grand Theft Auto series has been the ability to select radio stations in vehicles while driving. Unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto III‘s radio stations are not as strong as those in later PlayStation 2 era Grand Theft Auto titles, with a substantially smaller selection of songs on each station compared to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and for my money, worse options than on the latter titles.
However, the wry and zany nature of the Grand Theft Auto games does show up well with the radio commercials, from the Petsovernight.com parody of the ridiculous sites of the dot-com bubble to the advertisements for the gargantuan Maibatsu Monstrosity making fun of the SUV craze which was as evident in 2001 as it is now. The Chatterbox 109 station, featuring the omnipresent Lazlow Jones, who has featured as a consultant and a radio personality in every home-console/personal computer Grand Theft Auto game since this one, also has a nice selection of crazy phone-in callers with various crackpot views and peculiarities.
When you take Grand Theft Auto III in context with its contemporary titles, it’s not difficult to see why it has been so influential in game design since then. It was one of the first games to offer not only a big sandbox to have fun in but also a well-plotted storyline in a genre that wasn’t a Western RPG. However, while it hasn’t aged badly, it has been displaced by its lineal successors in a lot of aspects. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City offered a more stylised environment with more personality in the game, while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas offers a much bigger environment and arguably a much more intense story.
Probably Grand Theft Auto III‘s biggest downfall versus its successors is the comparative lack of things to do outside of the formal mission structure. It is still fun to cause mayhem with a shoot-out against police, but once you do this enough to acquire a tank – or acquire a tank at the end of the game, there isn’t anything the police can do to threaten you any more. With money being mostly useless, it just becomes a token to collect at will. There are the rampages, unique jumps and off-road missions to complete, which do make 100% completion a challenging prospect, but there isn’t as much of a sense of achievement from them as there could have been. Nevertheless, Grand Theft Auto III is still fun and deserves to be remembered as a turning point in video game design.
Bottom Line: Grand Theft Auto III was a revolutionary game and is still fun, but has been displaced by its successors, particularly in its own series.
Recommendation: For casual sandbox gamers, if you can pick up Grand Theft Auto III as a cheap second-hand title, it would be well worth a bite, but Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a better introduction into this era of Grand Theft Auto games. I’d expect many sandbox enthusiasts to have already played and completed the game, but if you haven’t, snatch it up – it’s still worth playing.