There's a certain novelty to playing a game on a mobile that was as widely lauded on consoles as Grand Theft Auto III. The sheer scale of the open world, the complex narratives, and the excellent voice acting are all as great as you remember. And it's all right there on a device that's as much for telling your other half to pick up some milk as it is about games. Yet, while GTAIII was a seminal and highly influential release for the PlayStation 2 and PC back in 2001, the same cannot be said of its 2011 incarnation on the iOS and Android. Yes, it's as clever and action-packed as ever, but it's hampered by touch-screen controls that sap the fun out of your on-the-go crime sprees, so you're likely to be as frustrated as you are enamoured with the beautiful mobile version of Liberty City.
For the uninitiated, GTAIII is a 3D open-world action game set in a fictional metropolis known as Liberty City, which is loosely based on New York City. It's not the kind of place where you'd want to wander the streets alone at night or even in the middle of the day. Crime is widespread, fuelled by a corrupt police force and government that turns a blind eye to the city's vast criminal underworld. You play as a small-time criminal who is betrayed by his partner in crime in a bank heist. After being freed in an explosion-filled action set piece you're set loose on the city, looking for work and aspiring to rise up the hierarchy of the criminal underworld.
How you go about that is largely up to you. Scattered throughout the city are missions in which you take on tasks for a criminal gang. These include performing simple fetch quests, tailing rival gang members in a car, and assassinating foes. Though there's some repetition in the latter half of the game, there's a huge variety of missions on offer, with excellent narrative and voice acting that's as much about love and romance as it is a gritty crime drama. You won't be working for just one gang, either. Multiple crime bosses seek out your skills as you progress, and you can complete their tasks in whichever order you please, giving you a host of options. The story does a fine job of keeping the disparate missions tied together, with your job as a gun-for-hire giving you an inside look at how each gang operates and the mounting tensions between them.
You need to play through certain missions to unlock other sections of the city or new items, such as guns and vehicles, but because this is an open-world game, you can choose to ignore them and simply use Liberty City as your destructive playground. Fancy jacking a car and mowing down a bunch of helpless pedestrians? How about grabbing a rocket launcher and watching stuff burn? Or maybe you're just in the mood for a quiet drive through the city, watching its many citizens go about their daily business as you listen to the excellent radio? It's all yours for the taking, and it's a hell of a lot of fun. It can be even more fun when the fuzz gets involved. Outrunning the cops or revelling in a five-star wanted rating and watching an ever-increasing squadron of tanks and helicopters attempt to chase you down is immensely satisfying.
Sadly, enjoying these elements to their fullest is hampered by the touch-screen controls. While the solution Rockstar has implemented tries to make the best of the situation, it highlights how easily a great game that wasn't designed for a touch interface is made less enjoyable. Overlaid on the action are virtual touch-screen buttons, which change depending on whether you're driving or on foot. Each action is represented by an icon, such as a car door for jacking a car or a bullet for firing your weapon. On foot, there's a virtual analog stick for controlling your character. When driving, it changes to simple left and right buttons for controlling your car. It's straightforward enough, but in the heat of the action, the lack of physical feedback makes completing missions unnecessarily difficult.
For example, in one mission, you have to chase down a gang member, shunt his car with yours, and then get out to finish the job with a pistol to the face. The multiple button presses required mean you have to take your eyes off of the action to see what you're pressing, which more often than not results in crashing your car into a wall (a problem exacerbated by the floaty handling of GTAIII's cars) or taking too long to fire your weapon. The lack of an extra analog stick for controlling the camera is also a problem, particularly in a firefight. While you swipe across the screen to position the camera, you have to take a finger off of the analog stick or fire button (or perform some mightily impressive finger gymnastics), making it difficult to keep your eyes on the action in the middle of a shoot-out. The system does offer some flexibility in that you can customize the position and size of the virtual controls to make things more comfortable, but it's not enough to make up for the game's shortcomings.
Android users have the added benefit of being able to use certain USB gamepads, the Xperia Play controls, or even a keyboard and mouse. But there's no definitive list of what exactly is supported, so getting them to work is a matter of trial and error. And, obviously, the bulkier solutions take away from the game's portability.
The quality of the visuals can vary considerably, depending on the device you use. High-end devices like the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy S II run the game admirably well, with crisp visuals and bags of detail that still hold up well today, along with a smooth frame rate. On the officially supported Xperia Play, though, it's a completely different story. The frame rate ranges from fine to juddering slide show, while the texture resolution takes a noticeable drop, so there's much less detail. Even worse, there are numerous graphical glitches, ranging from your character suddenly gaining the power of invisibility to random green screens that require a hard reset to fix.
These issues keep this GTAIII from achieving the same level of greatness as its console predecessors. Sure, the underlying game still holds up extremely well, but that's not enough to make it a great mobile game. The touch-screen controls keep you from fully enjoying everything it has to offer, while varying levels of performance mean you're aren't guaranteed to have a smooth or good-looking experience. The novelty is great while it lasts, but you'll be craving a controller long before you've settled into Liberty City.