Grand Theft Auto 3
When it comes to portraying the world in which we live through a darkly humorous, rough-and-tumble lens, the folks from Rockstar and DMA surely win the prize. I mean sure, there is corruption in the world, there is lots of crime and undoubtedly far too much drug-dealing, prostitution, cruelty, etc., etc. These things we get to read about in the newspaper, if not live out in our own little lives. They're not pleasant. So can these elements comprise a game? What happened to simply solving happy little puzzles, saving penguins, and receiving kisses from princesses?
Apparently, enough gameplayers and gamemakers have grown up to want something more in their games, and in the last four years videogames have grown. In Rockstar's fourth effort on PlayStation 2 (Midnight Club, Smuggler's Run, Oni), Grand Theft Auto III truly incorporates everything that its creators have strived for in a "proper game" since Take-Two created the upstart game division in 1998. In it, gamers have the chance to get dirty, to play the role of an ambitious, low-life criminal. The game is riddled with a breadth of goodies starting with the Mafioso rags-to-riches story, high-quality music, telling cut-scenes, and not ending with its giant, bristling, extraordinarily complex landscape.
What makes Grand Theft Auto III so much different and so brilliant in this third iteration is that while, with its huge scale, we might find familiar gameplay elements, the whole thing, the monstrous size and scope of the game, delivers something more than just the actual value of its parts. Having taken advantage of PS2's new technology to expand and develop their vision, the makers of Grand Theft Auto III have created a complete videogame experience like few, if any, before it.
Questionable Content? Maybe For Your Grandma...
Let's get one thing straight: This game is not for the weak. It's not for people who like a little poofy dragon chase or a double butt-bump for shiny coins. Nah. Grand Theft Auto III is about knocking people off, it's a game about criminals and the things they do. You can shoot gang members with simple 9s or run them over in a car (accompanied by a funny squish sound), or toss a grenade at their feet, and watch them split apart at the seams, transforming into a puddle of blood. It's visceral. And, you can do this with innocent pedestrians, too; homeless people, businessmen, shoppers, (no kids), and bag ladies. As far as videogame content goes, it's about as far from Super Mario 64 as you can get.
It's rated M, for mature, which means if you monitor the kind of content in games that your kids play (if you're a parent), you definitely want to check this out before buying it. But the point is that this is a videogame, it's a form of entertainment. Like movies, or comic books, or TV. It's aimed at a mature audience and it's got mature themes. If you don't like it, you don't have to buy it. Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive have sold millions of copies of Grand Theft Auto all across the world, and they have convincing monetary evidence that people love the series, and that they want more. I'm one of those folks. I think the game is insanely good. The videogame market is growing, it's filled with wildly different kinds of games, and there is a big broad vein that includes titles with mature content. Grand Theft Auto III is one of them, and it's worth picking up.
Lastly (and then I'm off the soapbox), is this: The thing that makes this effort so different is that it's got a distinct sense of humor. Dark humor, to be sure, but humor nonetheless. The characters you meet, the random AI on the street, even the kinds of missions you get sent on, at their core, point at the insanity, irony, and the humor at the darkest aspects of life. This is not a murder simulator (come to think of it, no videogame I know of is), it's a work of entertainment, an escape from reality, and at times, it reaches beyond the standard videogame medium to the level of art.
Honestly, I always feel as if I have to explain that bit, even if 99% of the readers here already feel the same way. Anyway, the most important part of Grand Theft Auto III is the gameplay. For those who haven't ever played the series (GTA1 and GTA 2 on PC and PlayStation), Grand Theft Auto III is a hybrid game comprising driving, shooting, exploring, and in the truest sense, role-playing.
Players start off as a nameless criminal, who in the midst of a bank robbery, is double-crossed by his girlfriend, shot, and left for dead. As the "kid," "friend," or whatever your latest boss decides to refer to you as, you escape from the police through a mysterious high-level hit-and-run, and begin life again with the help of your friend 8-Ball and the Italian Mafia. From there, the game leads players through an odyssey of non-linear missions for various factions of organized crime, from the Italian to the Japanese mafia and on. The 3D world of Liberty City is on a scale that's truly epic, consisting of three large urban areas, the industrial, commercial and suburban districts, each with appropriate architecture, landscapes, and aggressive, distinctive AI.
What makes Grand Theft Auto III so different than other games in the series is the volume of characters, cut-scenes, and story imbedded in nearly every mission, large or small. Players find that their missions are packed with characters who are acted out at a professional level, and who perhaps sound more far more realistic than their simplistically visual caricatures reveal. The game actually does have a beginning, middle and end, too. Players can choose missions from telephones like before, or they can be paged like before, but most often, there are central characters whose missions drive the story, and whose missions tell the story, too. Thus, players find that in amongst the throng of distracting missions and the humungous landscape that must be traversed, there is a central focus, and it's there when they're ready.
For example, I spent the first three hours of playing Grand Theft Auto III choosing some primary missions, but found myself constantly being distracted by random missions, side jobs, and simply exploring. My own personal raison d'etre was just to find the impressive insane stunt jump sections and to test the cars to their limits. After I got my fill, I then went back to playing the story in a more linear fashion. Players essentially can play the game as fast and as linear as their skills allow, or as distracted and as random as they feel. It's just another way in which Grand Theft Auto III offers freedom, non-linear gameplay, and variety like never before.
Size and Scale
What's just awe-inspiring about Grand Theft Auto III is its sheer size, geographically, and utter volume, in terms of missions. There are seriously hundreds of missions. The three cities are dozens of miles in relative size, and they open up gradually as you progress and as each of the bridges is "fixed." Once all bridges and subways are "repaired," players can drive, ride or walk, if they want to, to every section of town. The game delivers a seemingly unlimited sense of freedom, enabling players to walk or drive across virtual miles of roads, beaches, subways, into buildings, etc. Unlike the first two games of the series, players can walk into buildings, in some cases, to balconies, apartment building rooms, or even rooftops, and they can explore, jump off and die, shoot helicopters, whatever.
What creates an even larger sense of scale is that nearly everything can be explored. Adding to that, little things can be found in the most remote places. One hundred "secret packages" are located throughout Liberty City; and Slowdown pills, Frenzy icons, Health icons, Cop Stars, Secret Instant Stunt Jumps, and loads of weapons are scattered everywhere. There are hidden alleyways, second-story rooftops, and secret locations placed in every nook and cranny of the game. I just can't find enough words to describe the immense, fantastic sense of freedom and size in GTA3; it's simply mind-blowing.
The learning curve is both instant and gradual. The first time I picked up the game, I learned how to how to drive a car, handle the weapons, which takes a little time to master (especially the aiming system for automatic weapons), and then got to grips with learning where everything is. That's the breadth of the difficulty scale in essence. I think I spent about two to three hours simply driving around doing nothing in particular. The cars vary in speed, handling, etc., but they're easy to drive. Jump in and press X to accelerate, Square to brake, R1 to powerslide (an awesome and crucial part of driving), L1 to switch the radio, R2 and L2 to perform a drive-by shooting, and Triangle to carjack.
The biggest learning curve is really in discovering where the secrets are. Things like Cop Stars (which remove stars off the Wanted Meter), health power-ups, weapons, and paint-and-spray garages take some time to locate and remember. Grand Theft Auto III is shown through nine perspectives, four while on foot (first-person, close, far, and top-down), and five while driving (first-person, close, far, top-down, and cinematic, which is a low, beside-the-car side-view), and it offers a small circular map/radar with colored icons to distinguish important areas, such as Save Places, Mission Hubs, etc., and a Compass.
Cars and Weapons
When playing GTA3, most of the game takes place in a vehicle, and a few on foot. It's another variable that people tend to forget when they first see GTA3. The point is not only size but also ability. Players are offered an amazingly free and easy sense of movement in the game, and the level of commands -- the input list -- is huge and dynamic. Players drive cars, and have a huge list of car-related things to do (carjack, jump out of a burning car, steer, accelerate, brake, power slide, etc.), but they get to do lots of things on foot, too. One can walk, run, sprint, jump, pilot a boat, handle 11 weapons, open doors, and carjack any one of 81 (yes, 81) vehicles in the city. It's all handled with a simple interface and an ease of use that's instant and gratifying.
The cars are just amazing. They each have their own handling, shocks, turn radius, speed, and more. The slow ones, such as dump trucks ("dust trucks") military vehicles, and police vans, are plodding and cumbersome, but they take an incredible beating. Most of the cars in the game are mid-sized. And they never seem to stop coming. Once you've driven the fastest one though, if you're anything like me, you'll only want to drive them, and only them, again. As the game opens up, and different parts of the city are freed up, newer, faster cars can be carjacked. Cars such as the Mafia Sentinel, or the Sentinel, which looks like a Mercedes, are sweet in the beginning, until you drive a Yakuza Stinger, Cheetah or the like. Then the game gets incredibly fast.
You can pull off the most amazing stunts in mid air. You can flip, twist, spin, roll or move your car in any way, shape, or form, as long as you hit your jump right, and the results are almost always insane (I guess that's why they call them the "Insane Stunt Jumps"). Plus, DMA slows down the camera and provides a lovely little cinematic still shot of your vehicle flying throug the air and landing. It's remarkably fun.
And in case you didn't know, each car is totally and happily destroyable. There are about 17 parts to each car that can be broken, dented, or that can fall or fly off. And you'll be surprised find how quick one can total any single car. A typical car is smashed in the front first. Next the hood loosens up, so that it's right in your face, and the your doors fly open uncontrollably, and it goes on from there. It may be broken off later, as your fenders are crushed, windows are pummeled, and eventually your engine starts taking damage. First, you see just a little steam, later it becomes a darker more noxious fan of smoke, and once you see flames, it's over, bub. You need to get out before the vehicle blows up (and which rattles everything around it).
As for the weapons, there are loads of them, starting with your hands. Players can get into a fight with any single character in the game by simply hitting and kicking (oh yeah, and head butting). As soon as you find your home (the save place), you get a bat. Soon after, there're handguns and more. The full list includes your body (melee), the bat, a Colt Pistol, Uzi, AK-47, M16, sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, Molotov Cocktail, grenades, and the flamethrower.
My personal favorites are the sniper rifle, the Molotov Cocktail, and the Uzi, but only while in a drive-by shooting. The Molotov Cocktail is a dangerous weapon to use because just as easily as you can throw it, you can catch your own body on fire. The fire spreads, causing great collateral damage, and well, it's nice and violent, and it kills real quick-like. The Sniper Rifle is superb. It's easy to zoom in and out, and it's incredibly accurate. It's a little amazing to see that DMA, which doesn't specialize in first-person shooters or anything, can get a gun, such as the sniper rifle, so dead-on right. You can quickly move it about, there's a good range of distance that it can cover, and it's easy to move tiny little distances without disturbance or fudging it and having to start over. Plus, as with so many things in Grand Theft Auto III, it just feels right. The weapons are great.
While I certainly have been spouting about the size and scope of GTA3, and all the little extras -- all of which are certainly deserved of the praise -- the game offers a stunning level of missions and mission variety. Players start off performing simple little missions such as picking up floozies and dropping them off in a specific area. As you progress through the hundreds of missions, they grow increasingly difficult, some relying on old-school, "try-and-die" kinds, while others are a little more kind on you, based on timeliness, driving skill, or a combination of location-based hits and gunmanship. I loved the 8-Ball assisted sniper mission, in which I sniped several Columbian Cartel agents at the dock. And I loved the mini-missions, including Midnight Club-like city races, featuring insane enemy car AI.
While the try-and-die style of gameplay does have its drawbacks, Grand Theft Auto III relies strictly on your skill level and there are tons of missions that are either more forgiving or less rigid in their makeup. And with so many missions in the game -- as many as five lined up at a time, from various characters, phone booths, or by the use of simple icons -- if players are having a difficult time with a particular mission, they can go and do more than a handful of others before they return to tackle the difficult one they sucked at.
Lastly, players can completely ignore the basic missions if they so choose. If you just want to cruise, you can, to just see what happens. And if you want to get a little involved, but still don't want to take on the basic missions, the game is ready for you. Remember how I said you can carjack any vehicle in the game? That includes cop cars, fire trucks, ambulances, and taxis. That's right, you can make money delivering people to their destinations in a taxi, rescue people in an ambulance, bust criminals in the cop cars, or put out fires in the fire trucks. It's all built into the game, and each mission, however small, is amazingly cool.
In Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2, the sense of scale was offput, by-and-large, by the game's perspective. Now, you're in the game, closer and more intimate. Players can choose to select the distant, top-down look, which is the classic view from the first two games, or they can look at the game from a different perspective, from a close-in, over-the-shoulder view. The feeling of being this close creates a visceral emotion that's much more intense and direct. The first two games were big, and GTA3 is much bigger, but thanks to the perspective, it seems even bigger than it actually is. So, just in this respect alone, the game has changed drastically for the better.
When it comes to the visuals, Grand Theft Auto III blends several kinds of elements to create a whole fleet of stylized looks. The game features a particular style of artwork, basically hand-drawn caricatures of the various starring figures in the game. The artwork is performed with heavy outlines, and depicts real kinds of people, ones that are heavy, balding, square-jawed and square-headed (in some cases), and all of them convey a kind of urban chic, heavy, experienced fatigue, or even sadness. The artwork shows up in the cutscenes and during loading times, and it's interesting, but personally it's not my cup of tea. But what works in a sort of weird way is the mixture of this gritty, corrupt cast of characters that move about in a 3D world, flanked by the artwork at every corner. Add the nicely lip-synched cut-scenes using in-game models, that blink and move about with relatively realistic human movements, and you've got an unusual and formidable combination.
The guts of the game are delivered through a streaming process that's very difficult to achieve; just ask anyone of the few developers who have used it. Using a combination of streaming techniques and the help of RenderWare, DMA has created a game that offers an incredible display of effects and techniques, and yes, a phenomenally huge game that's simply awesome to look at. There is a day/night system that provides a constantly shifting flow of events. You'll see an incredible moon that takes up what seems like half the sky the first time night comes by. During that time, you'll also notice that different people come out and inhabit the streets -- and act differently, too.
The game is packed with weather effects as well. There is a heavy fog that clouds the city at times, while at other times, it's as if the sky is pouring with rain. The smoke and fire effects are good, too, with most of it revolving around the cars themselves. Lens flares, tons of moving objects, and a flood of good textures fill in the gaps. The actual characters look very good, in their own weird, slightly grotesque (as in the literary meaning of the word) fashion. The clothing textures on the central character are great and feature everything from pocket flaps to zippers, while the faces highlight facial sideburns, facial lines, moving eyelids and other unique facial features.
I suppose the biggest chink in Grand Theft Auto III's armor, if you can even call it that, is the visuals. They're not perfect, and they don't represent the most impressive set of graphics on the system. The game does feature a noticeable amount of fade-in and pop-in, and it's most noticeable when you're driving fast (it seems that you're driving faster than the game can draw the textures). There also is a noticeable level of texture clipping (using the behind the car view, just drive up into any multilevel car garage) and some less than respectable collision detection issues. While I have been looking at them for more than 35-plus hours now, I have all but forgotten about them. I only remembered because of the review. Still, one must remember that the game is showing almost the entire city at one time, and whenever you look about, you can see it all, what seems like miles and miles of Liberty City. That's quite impressive.
Every aspect of the sound in GTA3 is unbelievably and meticulously delivered. The sound is certainly one of the game's strongest points. The list of bands, songs and people who were involved in creating the sound in this game is unbelievably large. As with the previous games in this series, every car you jack has a radio in it tuned to a different station. Old ladies in their sedans might be listening to a classical station, while younger dudes might be listening to a reggae, house or oldies station.
There nine different stations to listen to and players can quickly and easily flip through them by pressing L1. The selection of stations is awesome, with more than three and half hours of CD quality music, and the sound quality is superb, to say the least. The stations include Head Radio (commercial pop), Lips (commercial pop), Double Clef (real classical music), Game Radio (hip-hop), Chatterbox (talk radio), K-Jah (reggae and dub), MSX (drum-and bass), Rise FM (trance), and Flashback (retro '80s pop).
My favorite is Chatterbox, the 24/7 talk show that parodies with remarkable wit the radio shows we Americans all endure in our regular life. Everything about it, from the insanely stupid callers to the host with a chip on his shoulder to the over-the-top commercials (Pets.com -- "delivering little bundles of love directly to your door") is original, hilarious, and endearing.
As if the music itself weren't incredible, the voice acting is superb, and represents some of the best quality sound production I've ever heard in any game. The cast of characters is supported unofficially (Rockstar won't confirm or deny any of these folks' participation): Joe Pantoliano (Memento, Cats and Dogs, The Matrix [Cypher], US Marshals: The Fugitive 2); Robert Loggia (Dodson's Journey, I Dreamed as Africa, Return to Me, American Virgin); Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs 1992, Donnie Brasco, Wyatt Earp), Kyle Maclachan (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Showgirls, Dune); Michael Rapaport (Men of Honor, Deep Blue Sea, Dr. Dolittle 2, Bamboozled); and Debbi Mazar, Frank Vincent, and Guru.
The sound design was really approached as if it were done for a movie; the 3D audio system is dynamic, so that all sounds are referenced and scaled from the player's perspective. Everything from radio stations in cars, to collisions, in-game speech, car sounds, weapons, and weather effects were researched and implemented carefully and thoughtfully. I would go so far as to say that the music is actually is more moving and more powerful than the visuals.
source PS2 IGN
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