2001 was a very different time in gaming. We’d just gotten our hands on Sony’s PlayStation 2 – the console that took over from the original PlayStation. The launch period wasn’t the best for the console – a number of adequate if slightly unremarkable games slid into the open as developers grappled with the new hardware. Gamers were on the fence and Sony was desperate for a system seller to push gamers into buying their new console. Rockstar meanwhile were looking to bring one of their more popular titles into the new generation of consoles with style. On the 22nd October 2001, they pushed out Grand Theft Auto 3.
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3 wasn’t just a game changer – it redefined everything gamers thought they wanted in action games. Similar to how DOOM re-shaped the landscape in 1993 for first person shooters; Grand Theft Auto 3’s arrival altered everything in its path. It wasn’t the first open world action game to touch down – but it was certainly the best. The game blew minds back in the day, an exciting mix of narrative, action and 3D graphics that went beyond anything gamers had seen on the home consoles before. If you owned a PlayStation 2, you had to own this game.
The impact of Grand Theft Auto 3 on the industry can’t be understated. Open worlds were suddenly the order of the day; as other developers scrambled to ride Rockstar’s coattails. A number of GTA inspired clones hit the market, desperate to capture the same limelight that GTA 3 had occupied. True Crimes: Streets of LA, Driv3r and many more were directly inspired by the success of Rockstar’s monster hit. The likes of Spiderman 2 took clear direction from Grand Theft Auto; treading the same path and carving their own niches. If your game wasn’t open world, it was nothing.
From the opening cut scene its clear that the game had its own idea of what was expected. The game teaches its mechanics organically, by making the gamer play through the opening mission and showcasing the basics as they go. There’s no lengthy tutorials or sections of gameplay where you’re taken out of the fun – the game hands you new toys in a slow manner and allows you to become accustomed through trial and error. As time passed, more islands unlocked and gamers were able to explore yet more of the world. Suddenly the playground got bigger, more places to explore and cars to drive. It was this drip feeding approach to game design which made continuing to the very end so irresistible.
Perhaps most impressively of all, the game worked across the board. Controls were smooth (at the time) while the marriage of pin perfect gameplay, quirky characters and impressive graphics meant gamers felt immersed in the world they were exploring. Liberty City was a canvas upon which the gamer could execute their desires at will. If you didn’t fancy following the story, you could find your own fun in the many side-missions on offer. Taxi riding, ambulance driving, police chases and more were all there for the taking; all you had to do was make it happen. Picking up hookers, loading your car with 8-Ball’s bombs or just running down pedestrians were all part and parcel of the experience. Grand Theft Auto 3 didn’t hold the gamers hand; it let them carve their own experience in a world that tailor-made to house their destruction.
But of course it wasn’t just the gameplay that made Grand Theft Auto such a fun experience. Rockstar wisely decided to add layers to their game by including a number of radio stations in the world. These ranged from music stations with quirky DJ’s to the hulariously fun Chatterbox FM. No matter what your musical taste, there was a soundtrack to the carnage diverse enough to make the experience feels more real. There is an attempt to make the coverage follow your actions; with updates whenever you conduct a major mission – although this would be better attempted in future missions.
Of course we can’t talk about Grand Theft Auto 3 and not talk about the story. A tale of betrayal and revenge, with the city’s many players making use of your unique skill set. Missions usually boiled down to “Go to this place, kill all these people”. Mundane by modern standards, it set the bar for what gamers expected in open worlds and created a sense of progression. Rockstar hadn’t quite nailed the pacing of their narrative beats yet; something that becomes apparent through the second island as missions become somewhat blurred together. It’s one of the games bigger headaches and sadly one of its major shortcomings; sometimes it just dragged.
The use of cussing, violence and a mixture of edgy content meant the game always courted controversy. Jack Thompson famously took a huge dislike to the game; attempting to have it banned from sale. Parent groups detested it while the wider media saw the game as something of a sociopathic nightmare. Not since DOOM had the conversation about videogame violence been so rigid, with everyone from politicians to news anchors weighing into the discussion. “Think of the children” was the cry – as they mowed down endless pedestrians in this virtual playpen. Never before had the horrors of violence been so realistically depicted; and it genuinely brought huge chane to the way the industry handled video game violence.
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto was without question, one of the most important video games ever created. It took an already established franchise and turned it into something amazing. There’s no denying that the game hasn’t aged particularly well; it’s sequels raised the bar considerably. Yet its upon GTA 3 that the series found its true footing. It’s a wonderful game, hugely entertaining and perfectly crafted for what it was. There’s no denying Grand Theft Auto 3 deserves the revered state it holds in gamings history.