Developer: DMA Design
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How exactly does GTA3 innovate? It starts by being firmly rooted in the past--the first two GTA games. Evolving the almost whimsical top-down, 2D gameplay of GTA and GTA2 into a fully realized 3D world is no small undertaking, but Rockstar and DMA Design have done it so well that it almost looks easy. While other games restrict you to one small course or section of their world, GTA3 opens up its world and stretches the game out, letting you decide what to do and when to do it. Other games have tried to deliver on this sort of non-linear freedom, but none have done so with this level of success. Most games that strive for non-linearity end up sacrificing their storylines for the sake of freedom. GTA3 manages to avoid this. You might not always have a solid purpose in GTA3, but when you're looking for one, it's only a phone call away.
The innovation continues in the subject matter, which is what caused it to take our award for the year's most innovative game. Most M-rated games wear their rating like a badge, hoping to attract people with low-grade, shock-value tactics. In the end, most M-rated games end up looking like cheesy teen slasher films. Grand Theft Auto III never seriously flaunts the fact that it is a mature game. It may have a few over-the-top blood effects and a few hidden back-alley treats that seem shocking, but they never seem unbelievable in the context of the game world. The violent crime mixed with the game's twisted sense of humor manages to deliver a gritty reality while not seeming overly dark and dreary.
The game's graphics and sound are also stellar. Liberty City and its inhabitants are well-rendered, cars look great, move well, and perhaps most important, blow up very nicely. The sound effects are real enough to make your neighbors scared and the voice acting, supported by Hollywood talent, is among the year's best.
Well-executed gameplay, a cohesive and well-told story, a mature game that doesn't feel like it was made for teens, and, above all, a fantastic game that lasts until you decide to stop playing. Looking back over the past year of game releases, it's hard to ask for much more that. It's hard to ask for much more than Grand Theft Auto III.