Hands-on: Grand Theft Auto 3

We check out a hearty build of GTA 3 and provide you with some new media.

At a recent press event held in the Arizona desert, Rockstar Games displayed a very meaty build of Grand Theft Auto 3. Remaining faithful to the series' grand tradition, the game puts you in the shoes of a petty criminal who must work his way up the ranks of the underworld by committing a chain of aberrant acts, everything from mob-style car bombings to shady escort missions. If the build we recently saw is any indication, the game will feature a remarkable amount of depth that is nicely accentuated by some clever aesthetic direction.

Grand Theft Auto 3 takes place in Liberty City (which, incidentally, is in no way related to the famous Miami neighborhood of the same name). The city is modeled in lavish detail, with three enormous, distinct districts composing its whole. Each of the districts contains a great many opportunities for mayhem. As you progress through the game, missions will become available all throughout the city, and if you want to practice some freestyle crime, any number of motorists and pedestrians are at arm's length at any given time. A conveniently placed real-time map facilitates your navigation of the city, and potential missions are clearly marked on it, as are the objectives of missions you've recently taken.

From a game mechanics perspective, GTA3 is really starting to shine. As fans of the series well know, you spend equal amounts of time controlling your actual character and the vehicles he commandeers. The control scheme for both of these cases is well thought-out and quite responsive. When moving without a vehicle, you can dash, jump, and attack. The dash grants you a small burst of speed--though, due to poor decisions made by the character during his youth, you can only dash for a limited amount of time, at first. As you progress through the game, though, the benefits of exercise pay off, and you find yourself able to dash more. The jump is really more of a long leap that, when used in tandem with the dash, allows you to clear a variety of obstacles. Finally, your attack is largely defined by the weapon you have ready--anything from baseball bat swings to shots from an Uzi, AK, or bazooka. When you're in a car, GTA3 suitably transforms into a full-featured driving game: X accelerates, the square button brakes, and the R1 key activates your hand brake. You can also shuffle through a variety of view modes using the select button, including a first-person mode, a variety of third-person views, a cinematic angle, and a classic overhead view. The first-person mode, though, is where you can activate one of the game's more compelling features: the drive-by view. When in this view, the camera actually points out of either of your windows, capturing your gun hand in the frame. From there, you can shoot any unfortunate passerby. It definitely isn't the most practical camera view for the purpose of driving, but it can't be matched when you have to make some quick kills with a bit more finesse than vehicular homicide allows for. Drive-bys, however, don't feel quite as satisfying as they should at the moment. There's currently little response from the weapon, and the only indication that you're actually shooting something is the barely perceptible trails the bullets leave when shot. This will hopefully be remedied in the coming months. Overall, the driving physics are markedly spectacular, seeming to emphasize U-turns, powerslides, and mad jumps. The physics are perfectly suited to the game, making the experience feel as inherently cinematic as it is interactive.

GTA3 was looking quite attractive as well. While it's hard to argue that the models and environments are the most detailed and poly-rich you'll find, they're definitely rendered with a style that's quite rare in games. Not quite realistic and not quite cartoonish, the game falls somewhere in between; real-world textures and structures are intermingled with pulpish characters for an effect that is pleasantly jarring. The lead character's running animation is the perfect example of this interplay. The game's lighting effects definitely help, too--they're perhaps the game's most impressive graphical element. When night falls, all the automobiles, street lamps, signs, and so on ooze colored light sources that bleed into one another, forming a tangible mood that's hard to pinpoint. Couple this with generous motion blurs, and you have something that looks pretty special.

We're very excited to play more of this one, and we'll definitely bring you much more very, very soon. Keep your eyes on this space.

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