Grand Theft Auto III was one of the very first games that I played on the PS2 as I excitedly rented it from the video shop (younger readers might need to Google what one of those were) not too long after getting my PS2 in the Christmas of 2001. I had played the first two games in the series (along with the London expansion pack for the first game), and I was suitably intrigued to see how the previous top-down 2D series would translate to the 3D realm. Recently, I decided that, seeing as it’s probably been something like 18-19 years since I last played Grand Theft Auto III, I would revisit it to see how it holds up after all these years.
Grand Theft Auto III was developed by DMA Design and was published by Rockstar Games, hitting the shelves in the October of 2001. Interestingly, the PAL and NTSC releases were only a few days apart, which wasn’t always the case back in the day with us PAL-based players usually having to wait a bit longer before we got our grubby mitts on the newer releases. Grand Theft Auto III was a gigantic critical and commercial success, with it eventually seeing ports to both Windows and the original Xbox. It was an omnipresent juggernaut that was almost impossible to ignore if you owned a PS2 in the latter half of 2001 and the first half of 2002, with the magazines gushing all over it, quickly adding the game to many a “best game on the console” list.
As previously mentioned, I got my PS2 during the Christmas of 2001 and didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I would usually just rent games now and then when I wanted something new whilst saving up for games that I planned to buy. With Metal Gear Solid 2 scheduled for a March 2002 release, I decided I would save up for that one and instead designated Grand Theft Auto III for a rental, with the thought process that if I liked it, I could always get it down the line when it reduced in price. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision to plump for MGS 2 instead as it went on to become one of my all-time favourite games, but I still enjoyed my time with GTA III.
In some ways the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto III hasn’t really changed that much when compared to the first two mainline releases in the series. Just like in those games, you take control of a criminal in a big city that is looking to find a world of riches by completing jobs for the numerous unsavoury types who call the city home. Those jobs can range from stealing cars and ferrying V.I.P.s to certain destinations all the way up to gunning down hordes of enemies. The big difference is that everything is in 3D now, and there’s actually something bordering on a proper story this time.
The game opens with a cutscene where your character, Claude, gets betrayed by his girlfriend during a job and ends up getting arrested as a result. However, Claude ends up managing to escape along with bomb maker extraordinaire 8-Ball when their police convoy is attacked by a cartel who are looking to free one of the other prisoners. Once you make it to your safe house and have a change of clothes, you can get right into the game by taking missions and causing general anarchy if you are so inclined.
Grand Theft Auto III’s controls are certainly far from perfect, with cars being somewhat precarious to control properly, especially at speed, whilst combat can be a bit of a nightmare, especially if you’re used to GTA V with its cover system and smooth combat. I often found fire fights devolved into me desperately trying to run around in order to dodge my enemies’ bullets whilst they just filled me full of lead. It often feels like you all just need to stand still and keep firing at one another in some kind of warped battle of attrition. I would often try to find a way around combat if I could, such as sniping from far away or running targets over.
There was one early mission where I was supposed to kill two gangsters who were driving around the city in a car, and they just whooped me every time, so finally I just rammed them off the road into a nearby river to drown them for want of any other tactics that might work It is a positive that you are essentially left to your own devices in order to complete missions sometimes, and it does mean that you can normally find a way that works for you. Sadly, you will have to start a mission right from the beginning again if you make a mistake, meaning maximum frustration if you manage to make it all the way to the final moments, only to then get popped before the mission can be completed.
So, the gameplay in Grand Theft Auto III isn’t perfect and looks pretty archaic compared to latter games in the series, but I still found the game to be playable. Adapting the game to a 3D world was a big endeavour for DMA at the time, and for a first stab at 3D gameplay in a GTA game, it isn’t that bad. Being able to shoot from a first-person perspective with some of the weapons, such as the bazooka and sniper rifle, is a very welcome inclusion and adds an extra tactical approach for people who like to pick off enemies from a distance. The driving isn’t perfect, but it’s still playable from a driving perspective, and I found myself gradually getting the hang of it the more I played.
One of the chief annoyances in the game is that Claude cannot swim; meaning a trip into the drink is a frustrating instant death most of the time. This was a problem that would remain with the series until the release of San Andreas towards the end of the sixth gen. Seeing as the city is surrounded by water, it can be increasingly frustrating when you swerve off the road or tumble off a ledge into the poisonous waters below. It does limit the ability you have to explore sometimes, but I think adding swimming mechanics on top of everything else already included in the game would have caused DMA to pull their hair out, thus explaining its exclusion.
Grand Theft Auto III certainly shows its age these days when it comes to character models, but for a game from 200, it hasn’t held up too badly, especially when it comes to Liberty City where the game takes place. Liberty City really does feel alive at times, with a host of little extras and Easter eggs for the keen-eyed video game enthusiast to find if they wish to. Liberty City has quite a grey and miserable feel to it most of the time, but that complements the game itself rather well, and the weather effects that can hit the city at any time are pretty darned impressive for an early sixth gen game.
The series would, of course, continue to improve from a graphical perspective, but I think Grand Theft Auto III was a strong first step when it came to adapting the previous top-down series into a fully 3D one. In a neat touch, if you play around with the camera angles, then you can still play the game with a top-down view, if you so desire. I think it’s kind of cute that they left this in, actually, although when you’re used to everything being 3D, it can be pretty jarring to move the camera back to where it used to be.
Grand Theft Auto III is the first game in the series to be fully voice acted, although Claude himself remains mute. Not only do the mobsters and Triads that send you on missions speak, but so do the people who are walking around on the street. Italian mobsters, brightly dressed pimps and even stuffy, British businessmen inhabit the streets of Liberty City, and most of them will make remarks towards you whilst you play. Pointing your gun at one of the Brits will even cause them to exclaim, “Holy Millennium Dome!” (The Dome was treated with great respect back home. We even called it “Domey” and would sometimes bring it living human sacrifices. It was a dark time in British history), which always amused me back in the day.
The voice acting is generally decent, especially the chatter from the DJs on the radios, and there are even some pretty big names amongst the cast, including Michael Madsen and Kyle MacLachlan. There isn’t as much big time recognisable licensed music in Grand Theft Auto III as there would be in its sequel, but in some ways, the sequel is kind of teased with the retro radio station playing tracks from Scarface. Despite the lack of the big TUNEZ, the radio system in Grand Theft Auto III helps with planting the idea that you are part of a living world. The choice to switch between stations is a welcome addition as well, as in previous GTA games, you often had to just accept whatever music was already playing when you stole the vehicle in question.
Grand Theft Auto III has a lot of stuff to do within it, with a bunch of additional missions to do on top of the core story-based ones. There are hidden items, side missions and lots of other things for you to do if you want to fully complete the game, with even some fun additional things you can do if you steal a taxi, police car, fire truck or ambulance. With a press of the R3 button, you can essentially start playing a more violent version of Crazy Taxi, although if you drive too dangerously, then your fare will leap out of the car in fear. On top of that, you can also complete vigilante missions in the police car, as well as put out fires and take injured people to the hospital in your fire truck and ambo, respectively. There’s about 40 hours of stuff to do if you plan to 100% the game, which should keep completionists happy if nothing else.
Would I Recommend the Game?
Even though certain aspects of the game don’t hold up, you can buy Grand Theft Auto III for a veritable song these days if you don’t care about getting it fully boxed, and it’s one of those games most people should experience at least once.