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Greatest Games of All Time: Grand Theft Auto III

One of the most controversial games in history is also one of the greatest--we induct Grand Theft Auto III into the hall of fame.

Platform: PS2, PC, Xbox | Genre: Action/Adventure | Released: Oct. 22, 2001
Publisher: Rockstar | Developer: Rockstar

Grand Theft Auto III is easily one of the greatest games of all time. It was quietly released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2 and after widespread critical acclaim and positive word of mouth, quickly became a cultural phenomenon that forever changed the world of video games. It may seem crude now, but when it was released, GTAIII offered an unprecedented level of freedom and detail, giving rise to terms like "sandbox" and "open world" to describe the entire genre of games that this one inspired. Yes, GTAIII was also violent and controversial, but it isn't the defining game of the PlayStation 2 era because of its success. Rather, it epitomizes its generation because it's an undeniably fun, well-designed, immersive, and hilarious game that broke new ground for future games to follow.

There's something satisfying about launching an all-out war on an entire city, just for the heck of it.
There's something satisfying about launching an all-out war on an entire city, just for the heck of it.

In what might be the most significant leap forward for any video game franchise, GTAIII took the series from a somewhat obscure top-down game of cops and robbers to a fully realized action adventure set in an expansive 3D world. Playing GTAIII for the first time, it's easy to feel intimidated by the sheer scope of the game. You play as a nameless hero who happened to catch a lucky break and avoid going to prison. After a short intro, you're thrust into the streets of Liberty City, where you can do just about anything you want.

You can steal a car and simply cruise through town to check out the sights. Or, you can hop in an ambulance and try your hand at being a paramedic. If that doesn't suit your fancy, you can get behind the wheel of a police car and hunt down criminals to deliver your own brand of vigilante justice. And of course, you can always visit any of the dozens of intriguing story characters to take on special missions and earn some serious loot.

This looks like a lovely evening for a stroll through the park…
This looks like a lovely evening for a stroll through the park…

The size of the game's world and the freedom it gave you to explore are the most immediate and striking aspects of GTAIII, but it's more than just a huge maze of streets for you to run around in. Liberty City was so well designed and detailed that it felt remarkably lifelike. Pedestrians strolled down the street muttering to one another; newspapers blew in the wind; gangsters patrolled and protected their territories; hookers propositioned johns on street corners; and through it all, the sun continued to rise and set on the comfortable chaos of life in the big city.

Subsequent GTA games would expand the scope of the playable world to encompass multiple cities and miles of virtual space between, but Liberty City from GTAIII felt just right. It was by no means small; the game had three huge districts and hundreds of miles of roads to explore. The different districts were perfectly distinct--for instance, the hilly suburbs of Shoreside Vale offered a completely different experience from the seedy red-light district on Portland Island.

In addition to the superbly crafted world and top-notch gameplay, Grand Theft Auto III had a fantastic sense of humor. Everything from the dialogue and characters to the radio stations and billboards was infused with a satirical wit that was funny without feeling overplayed--a remarkable feat for a game that easily lasted 100 hours or more. Whether you were laughing out loud at the ridiculous Smokey and the Bandit-like antics of angry police officers or chuckling at the goofy Lazlow as he rambled on about nothing in particular on his talk radio show, there was always humor to be found among the mayhem in Grand Theft Auto III.

Who is this guy?
Who is this guy?

Of course, GTAIII generated plenty of controversy when it was first released. After all, a game that lets you pick up a hooker, have sex with her, and then rob and murder her is going to raise a few eyebrows. What you have to understand about the game is that it's not the senseless violence and mature themes that made it fun--violent games have existed for years. What made Grand Theft Auto III fun was the way it was so cleverly designed to keep you entertained despite a relative lack of structure. Essentially, GTAIII gave you the freedom to entertain yourself, which in this case proved much more effective than holding your hand and dragging you through a rigidly organized series of challenges. Grand Theft Auto III defied all expectations of what a video game must be and delivered a gameplay experience unlike any other. And for that, it's without a doubt one of the greatest games of all time.


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