(Review archived from April 21, 2015)
Every legend begins somewhere, and Grand Theft Auto III is the game that laid the foundation not only for the entire GTA series as we know it today, but in many ways for the entire open-world sandbox structure of games that continue to enjoy popularity. It’s been said that this game pales in comparison to the games that would come later in the ‘GTA III trilogy’, namely Vice City and San Andreas. While it’s true that those games further refined and expanded upon the GTA experience in important ways, the essential building blocks for those changes were created here in GTA III.
I’ve trumped up the historical importance of the game a bit but the question remains as to whether the gameplay in GTA III has held up, especially in relation to the later iterations in the series. Thankfully I can answer that with a resounding, “Yes!” So let’s talk about some of the things that make this game tick. First and foremost, we have the story. In GTA III Rockstar was pinning down some of the aspects that would come to be regarded as the Rockstar style of storytelling. The story here is basically a love letter to latter day crimeland movies like Goodfellas, Heat, Donnie Brasco, Reservoir Dogs, and the like. In this capacity all the requisite pieces are in play, including the Italian mafia, Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads, as well a healthy assortment of street level thugs. You are a mute protagonist (who we would later know as Claude thanks to GTA: San Andreas), making a name for himself on the back of jobs from all these various criminal factions. Naturally there are betrayals, double-crosses, hits and feints between all of these organizations, and Rockstar handles its authorial pen deftly enough to keep the story moving at a good pace. The whole story has the tone and feel of a pulp crime movie you might see as part of a matinee crime movie marathon; nothing of great substance, but a whole lot of fun nevertheless.
In GTA III we also see the beginnings of Rockstar’s tendency to include well-known actors performing voice work in their games. Here we have Michael Madsen, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Rappaport, Debi Mazar, Kyle MacLachlan, and gangster movie legend Frank Vincent all playing supporting roles in the game. The caliber of voice acting in this game really does some great things for the conveyance of the story. In the hands of lesser actors, certain aspects of this story might have come off as laughably cringe-worthy. As it is we are treated to voice work performed by old pros, particularly where crime drama is concerned.
Here we are also treated to the first GTA game to include an absolutely killer soundtrack complete with genre specific radio stations, distinct DJs for each radio station, and some great licensed music. It had been quite a few years since I played this game, and these tunes (as well as spoken dialog) really filled me with a sense of nostalgia. In truth it’s the radio stations that give this game its comedic timing and fantastically dark sense of humor. As an added bonus, the PC port of this game allows you create a custom playlist of mp3s which can be imported into the game. I really had a great time importing my own tunes into the game. Once you do so, the ‘MP3 Player’ becomes selectable in any vehicle just like a normal radio station which plays your tracks on random repeat. Let me tell you that you haven’t lived until you’ve gone on a drive-by rampage with Electric Wizard’s Funeralopolis blaring from the sound system of your Patriot. >=D
The gameplay mechanics are admittedly somewhat long in the tooth at this point, but even still they are pretty darned enjoyable. The drifty, somewhat floaty driving mechanics that are a hallmark of 3D GTA games make their debut here. At first the driving might seem a slightly off, being that I don’t know of any other driving game that handles quite like the GTA games. The handling is a bit loose, but once you get that part dialed in it’s a real blast. Of course the looseness of vehicle handling depends a lot on what vehicle you’re in at any given time. It does need to be said that there are no motorcycles in GTA III, which for me is perhaps one aspect of the later games that I missed the most here. There are also no helicopters, and only one (notoriously difficult to control) aircraft. That said, the variety of vehicles available here is suited well to the game, and I feel that the slightly limited selection of vehicles can be forgiven being that we are talking about the first GTAs first foray into full 3D.
This was my first play though of the Steam PC port of GTA III, and I will say that I found some relatively minor issues with the port. First and foremost, the aiming mechanics were … problematic for me in this version. In the ‘Classic Control’ scheme, the relatively responsive nature of the auto-targeting feature found in the console version of the game just doesn’t carry over very well in the PC version. It fails to reliably switch between targets, and in many cases it fails to find any targets at all (despite the fact that said targets are in the process of filling you with lead). Furthermore, when you’re using the Classic Control scheme the right thumb stick puts you in first person look perspective rather than adjusting the 3rd person camera as one might expect. Others may have had a slightly different experience with Classic Mode controls, but for me the combination of the above factors made this option a non-starter. The ‘Standard Control’ scheme makes some marked improvements to the above, but in this case you’re stuck strictly with free aiming. I tend to prefer keyboard & mouse controls for games that require free aiming, and indeed given that strafing features prominently into the Standard Control scheme in GTA III, one might assume that KB+M is what the developers had in mind here … except that KB+M makes driving nearly impossible (although not entirely impossible as I do know at least one person that beat this game entirely with KB+M). Using the Standard Control scheme, I ultimately ended up ruling in favor of using a controller to better facilitate driving, although I did find a helpful mod that made this option a bit more feasible. The GInput mod allows you to fully utilize an Xinput device in GTA III which makes using a controller in the game a bit more palatable, and has the added benefit of additional customizable settings. It even swaps out correct button icons for onscreen prompts. So there’s that.
On my (Nvidia-based) gaming rig there were also a couple of graphical glitches present in this port. Most noticeably I encountered the ‘dark vehicles’ glitch, in which all the vehicles appear to have a much darker tint than they should. For this issue I applied a second light weight user-made patch to the game which resolved the issue promptly. If you find yourself with the same problem, this fix is probably worth your time as well.
At the end of the day, the question is whether or not this game is still worth your time. Given the popularity (and occasional notoriety) enjoyed by the GTA series, you probably already know whether the source material is your cup of tea. Dark comedy, violence, and debauchery abound! If you’re already a fan of the series, or if you’re looking to get into the 3D era of GTA games at the ground floor, I would say that this game still holds a lot of enjoyment even today. It had been a number of years since I last played this game and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected I would especially given the historical perspective of subsequent GTA games. This old jalopy has still got some life in ‘er yet!