The Grand Theft Auto series has always been about taking the good with the bad. On one hand, the open-ended nature of the games and the huge city environments make the games a sheer joy to play. On the downside, the previous incarnations of the game were cursed with poor mission design that never really made you feel like you were working toward any sort of greater goal. You merely drove around, causing trouble, occasionally doing odd jobs for the local criminal masterminds until you had collected enough cash to proceed. Rockstar's latest entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto III, reinvents the series, updates it for a new generation of consoles, and manages to keep every single positive aspect from the two previous games. Or, to put it another way, GTA3 is one of the most amazing PlayStation 2 games to be released this year.
Before we go any further, there's one thing everyone should know about Grand Theft Auto III before purchasing it. It is easily the most "mature" M-rated game on the market today. More often than not, its storyline revolves around rather violent acts of crime, and if you stray from the storyline and just go on a crime spree of your own, the game becomes an absolute bloodbath. On top of that, the game contains adult language and situations, including drugs, prostitution, and a heaping helping of sexual innuendo. If R-rated crime sagas such as Goodfellas or Heat are too much for you, then this isn't the game for you. The game and its dialogue have been written specifically for an adult audience, and it definitely isn't for kids.
GTA3 takes place in a fictional metropolis known as Liberty City. Liberty City is a largely corrupt place, with several warring criminal factions spread throughout its boroughs. You're a small-time crook who gets set up by your girlfriend during a heist. You take the fall for the crime but manage to escape when a posse of thugs overtake the paddy wagon that you, along with a few other prisoners, are traveling in. This is where you hook up with the demolitions expert known as 8-Ball, who takes you to meet a friend in the early portion of the game, which also serves as a tutorial of sorts to help you get acclimated to the rules of the world. That friend is involved with the Mafia, of course, and he gives you tasks of increasing difficulty. Each mission starts with a cutscene that sets up your challenge nicely, explaining why it needs to be done to help "the family" and giving your missions--which include such tasks as delivering an item, tailing a suspected security leak, and wiping out the leaders of opposing gangs--a real sense of purpose. As you progress, you'll meet other people in the business of breaking the law, who will also have jobs for you. This gives you options, as you can either do every available mission from each of your contacts or skip around from boss to boss and do the jobs in whatever order you please. Since certain missions trigger plot points, it's entirely possible to miss some missions throughout the course of the game. As you proceed, other portions of the city will open up, giving you access to new missions, cars, and terrain.
While the missions in GTA3 are fun and sometimes wickedly challenging, there's also a great deal of fun to be had by simply exploring the world around you. Rockstar and DMA Design have obviously spent a lot of time adding tons of little touches to the game that, while almost completely unnecessary, make the world seem like a living, breathing place. Lots of little side missions are included, triggered by jumping into a specific vehicle. Stealing a taxi will let you pick up passengers and deliver them for cash. Jacking a cop car lets you embark on vigilante missions to clean up the streets by killing specific criminals. Fire trucks and ambulances also have their own specific missions. Other little touches are graphical; your character will flip the bird to any car that gets too close to you while crossing a street. If you jump into a car and take off immediately, your character won't have time to shut the driver's-side door, leaving it flapping open until you take your finger off the gas for a second to give him time to yank the door shut. Cars dismantle in spectacular ways as they get more and more banged up, losing hoods, trunks, doors, and bumpers as you go. Some cars have special features, including sirens on emergency vehicles, working water hoses on fire trucks, and working hydraulics on a specific gang's make of lowrider that let you hit switches to make the car hop or roll around on three wheels. The game keeps track of any spectacular stunts you pull off in a car and grades them. Finally, while you can't go into most of the stores and buildings in the area, they have a realistic look that really adds to the atmosphere of the game.
In addition to those touches, ignoring the missions also gives you time to go on crime sprees of your own. This sort of freestyle element isn't exactly rewarded in the game, but it's definitely one of the coolest things about GTA3. As you commit crimes, the police will pick up your trail. Hitting someone with a bat while a cop is watching is a sure way to get them on your tail; stealing a car and putting it up on the sidewalk to mow down a corner full of prostitutes is another. The game keeps track of your status with an arrest meter. Small offenses, such as rear-ending a cop car, will get you one star on your six-star meter. While cops will pursue you if they see you in this state, you can hide and eventually the star will go away. Continue to live life outside the law, and you'll get two stars, and so on. With each level comes a more severe response from "The Man." At three stars you'll have cop cars flying at you out of nowhere. At four, they'll all but give up on trying to bust you and instead simply attempt to gun you down. Helicopters will also be dispatched to your location, ensuring that you won't get away easily. At higher levels, the FBI will respond to your crime scene, and at the highest level, the military will get involved. There's really only one way to get your arrest level up that high: shooting cops. Running over innocents and blowing up a few cars might get you three or four stars, but to truly anger the law, you have to take a few of them down. The AI for police vehicles is pretty rough--they tend to practically destroy their own cars while chasing you into walls and other impassible obstacles. Outside of the car, the law fares a bit better, but there are a few instances where cops get stuck because they can't seem to understand how to use a flight of steps to get to you and simply run into a wall repeatedly, giving you all the time in the world to dispose of them.
Getting the cops on your tail and then trying to run away is insanely fun, and the game gives you a pretty amazing arsenal to make sure that the cops stay busy. Your first weapon will be a baseball bat, great for robbing citizens by beating them to death, but it won't hold up in a gunfight. Eventually you'll secure a pistol, which is when the game's lock-on targeting comes into play. Holding R1 will target a nearby person, and the L2 and R2 buttons can be used to cycle through different targets. As you outgrow your pistol, you'll score an Uzi, giving you fully automatic fire while still being light enough to allow you to run. In addition, the Uzi is the only weapon that can be used from inside your vehicle. When you're driving, the L2 and R2 buttons let you look out either side of your car, and your Uzi can be fired out the side windows. This drive-by technique is amazingly handy for slow-moving pedestrians but doesn't work well at all on vehicles because even though you can see the drivers inside the cars, you can't shoot them directly. All hits to a car simply do generic damage to it, and once it reaches a certain damage level, it catches fire and eventually explodes. Since the Uzi is a fairly low-power weapon, it's next to impossible to shoot up cop cars as they try to ram you off the road, forcing you to do your serious battling on foot. In addition to those weapons, you'll also encounter significantly heavier artillery, including assault rifles, a shotgun, grenades, a rocket launcher, and a flamethrower. The weapons are well balanced, and each has its place in the game. For instance, the rocket launcher can be used to take down police helicopters, and the sniper rifle has a zooming scope that lets you take out people from the relative safety of rooftops or out-of-sight positions on the street.
The previous GTA games were played from a 2D top-down perspective that looked pretty sharp, but they were limited in the amount of realism and action they could display. Even though the camera would zoom out to show more of the road ahead as you picked up speed, more often than not you rammed head-on into buildings because turns simply appeared too quickly. GTA3 takes the series into a polygonal world. This gives the game a much more realistic, gritty look, replacing the cartoonish, colorful look of the old games. DMA has really done an excellent job with the graphics in GTA3. The characters look fantastic, the cars are all well modeled and break apart extremely nicely, and overall, the texture quality is quite nice. You will occasionally see some objects in the world (cars and pedestrians, for instance) fade into view as you approach, but it's hardly noticeable and doesn't affect the gameplay. Additionally, the frame rate can take some very noticeable dives, but this usually occurs only when the screen is filled with angry police, exploding cars, and all sorts of other mayhem. By default, the game uses a tracerlike blur effect that gives the entire game a dark, dreamy appearance. This filter can be disabled on the options screen, if desired. GTA3 contains a number of different cameras for both the driving and walking portions of the game. It defaults to a behind-the-back view for both, but you can change the chase distance, go for a first-person view, choose a cinematic driving cam, or opt for the old top-down look of the older GTA games, which is a nice touch but isn't really conducive to playing the game, since there are sometimes streets on top of streets and other level design elements that simply don't work from that perspective. Other perspective problems include not being able to see behind you effectively while on foot. While you can get a rear view by pushing R3, it's quite easy for police and opposing gang vehicles to simply get behind you and run you down before you even know what's going on.
GTA3 sounds terrific. The streets are filled with chatty pedestrians, and the police have some great, typically macho-sounding lines. Rockstar pulled in some terrific voice talent for the game, and it pays off by making the game's main characters extremely convincing. Celebrity voices include Frank Vincent (Casino, Cop Land), Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix, Bad Boys), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Free Willy), Michael Rapaport (Cop Land, Metro), Debi Mazar (Goodfellas, Space Truckers), Kyle MacLachan (Twin Peaks, Showgirls), and Guru from the rap group Gangstarr. Adding to the aural portion of the game is a series of nine radio stations, any of which can be switched on while you're inside a car. The radio concept has been with the GTA series since the beginning, but GTA3 really takes the concept to the next level. Each station fills a different genre, including pop, classical, hip-hop, and an absolutely hilarious talk radio station. The music is licensed and includes tracks from Moving Shadow Records, tracks licensed from the soundtrack to the movie Scarface, and rap tracks from Game Records, including artists such as Royce Da 5'9", JoJo Pelligrino, and Black Rob. Finally, everything from the squeal of tires to the sound of a helicopter crashing into the ground sounds great and packs quite a punch.
Rockstar and DMA Design have obviously spent some time making sure that Grand Theft Auto III is a quality product, and that quality shows in everything, from the graphics, to the sound, to the plot points, to the gameplay itself. Unlike previous games in the series, the game is extremely fun whether you play it as it was intended to be played or eschew the game's intended mission structure and set out on your own to wreak havoc throughout the city. While the violent nature of the game will surely turn some people off and kids simply shouldn't be allowed anywhere near it, Grand Theft Auto III is, quite simply, an incredible experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone mature enough to handle it.