(Editor's Note: This review contains adult language and subject matter that may be deemed offensive. Parental discretion is advised.)
To say that GTA3 has been critically well received is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Since the short time of its release, the game is already being heralded not only as the game-of-the-year, but also a groundbreaking artistic masterpiece that qualifies for the ever-diminishing title of "greatest game of all-time." What can I say? I feel like the odd man out in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone. I'm not trying to rain on any one's parade here, but I've read Jeremy's review, several professionally written ones and a host of message board posts, and I'm stunned at how forgiving people have been to this title. Let me highlight and comment on some of the most common threads I've noticed.
1. Outside of a few minor framerate drops and lack of world map, GTA3 is technically flawless.
Just wait a second here. Am I the only player who took issue with the buggy camera system that would immobilize itself up against walls? Was I the only person who had difficulty running in a straight line because the camera would strangely veer off to the side? What about the ultra stiff hand-to-hand combat and the atrocious lock-on targeting system for firearms? None of these problems in of themselves are all that terrible, but GTA3 is not even close to being flawless.
And let's be real about the map issue. The lack of a larger world map and other navigational aids like an obvious compass (not that tiny one on the small map) is not a minor problem, but a major one when you consider the sheer size of Liberty City. Why didn't the developers include a Crazy Taxi-style pointer or a something else a little more intuitive? Throw gamers a bone for Pete's sake.
I would have liked to see more criticism of the graphics in those reviews as well. While the vastness of Liberty City was astonishing, I also felt the city was largely unattractive. The architectural design and urban layouts didn't exactly have me doing double takes and the character models won't be winning any awards for detail or animation either.
2. GTA3 offers unprecedented levels of freedom and a dynamically lively world with which to interact.
Lets examine the "freedom" that GTA3 allows a little closer. Does the game allow players to enter the interiors of buildings? Not really. Is it possible to climb structures and hang on to ledges? No. Outside of a gimpy jump, there's not much a player can do physically. Can players instigate conversations with pedestrians? Nope. Outside of driving cars, working routine jobs, and sightseeing around town, does Liberty City offer any different diversions or interactions with locations, people, or objects? Nada. One can argue that these options are out of the scope of the intended theme and that's a fair counter argument, so lets look at the so-call free-roaming gameplay that does revolve around the theme of being a thug.
Can a player choose which mission to undertake? Again, not really. Players visit different employers for jobs, but the options are all fixed according to the storyline and the missions are all prescripted in a linear fashion. There's no randomness or even an illusion of choice in the mission selection. Players cant choose gang affiliation either. Want to work for the Triads over the Mafia? Want to side with the Yardies over the Yakuza? Good luck trying. There are also no dynamically shifting consequences or influence over the storylines from player controlled action. You can fail a mission a 100 times over or kill anyone indiscriminately (including your own fellow cohorts) and as soon as you're "wasted" or you reset the game, immediate transgressions are forgotten. Everyone in Liberty City has no long-term memory, so players have no control over their own reputation outside of what is dictated by the main storyline.
What about the freedom to complete a mission as a player sees fit? In Jeremy's review, he cited a great example of how one can use his or her judgment to complete an objective with alternate means, but I think these instances are the exception rather than the norm. More often than not, there's pretty much only one-way to get the job done. For example, one job requires players to eliminate a spy on a boat. Players are advised to complete the contract by hijacking their own boat in pursuit. The target is well within sniper range off a cliff, but guess what happened when I honed in on my target with the riflescope? The target was "magically" invisible, forcing me to do as I was told: take out the target with a police boat.
The same criticism also holds true against the items and weapons selection. There isn't really any real variety of tools that allow for different functions and styles of play. As more weapons and cars become available, they simply become increasingly powerful. The sniper rifle opens up an occasional deviation, but like my earlier example illustrated, there's still very little room or reason for individualism.
And lets get one last thing straight here. GTA3 doesn't allow players to play through the game as a vigilante, taxi driver, ambulance driver, or fire fighter. The much hyped about "side occupations" are simply mini-game distractions. Just because the game allows people to take a break from the regular action, that doesn't make the game more open-ended or a "true" role-playing game. There still isn't a choice to walk the path of good or evil. There's only a choice between violence and more violence. Wheres the great freedom in that?
3. GTA3 is great work of art and a gritty crime simulator for mature adults.
After reading some of these reviews, I'd swear GTA3 was a documentary-style videogame of unflinching objectivity and realism. I seem to be the only one who noticed the caricature designs of the cast members during the load screens and the laughably cartoonish violence.
My thoughts on the art of GTA3 can be summed up in a mission briefing with the Italian mobster, Toni. In this meeting, Toni is livid and ranting about the Triads not respecting his turf. The scene is well acted and the delivery of the dialogue was convincing. However, what caught my attention was how Toni would always politely and awkwardly refer to the Triads simply as the Triads. Since Spike Lees Do The Right Thing highlighted racial tensions in the 1980s and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction mythologized criminal behavior in the 1990s, its should come as no surprise to anyone that part of the criminal ghetto stereotype includes vivid racism. So I found it ironic that in the heat of his anger, Toni doesn't casually refer to the Triads as chinks, slopes or any other derogatory insult as most fictitious gangsters do. Nor do the Triads refer to Mafioso as whops or goombahs. In fact, all the obviously racially segregated gangs are unusually kind in reference to one another. Liberty City must have the most socially conscious and politically correct criminals in the world. I find it telling that any rated R rated film on the same subject can spew racist epitaphs and four-letter explicatives without any hesitation while a videogame rated Mature, is still too timid to get beyond PG level cussing. Do videogames measure themselves against the same societal and cultural standards that other artistic mediums adhere to or do videogames expect to exist in a vacuous bubble devoid of objectivity and wider perspective? From where I stand, I don't see any boundaries being broken here. Like so many other Mature rated videogames, I see a testosterone-filled adolescent interpretation of violence and criminal activity that doesn't seem consistent with pop-culture and doesn't even do justice to stereotypes.
I know many readers are going to find this hard to believe after all that I've said, but I don't think GTA3 is a bad game. I consider GTA3 to be a very entertaining game that had very ambitious goals. Some of those goals were realized while others were not. For much of my second opinion, I admit to over embellishing the role of the devil's advocate because I was unnerved by the chorus of praise that was showered upon a game that I thought wasn't all that deserving. My criticisms aren't so much directed at the game as they are directed at the glowing reviews that people are giving GTA3. Just because the developers dress-up a few mini-games that are mere variations off the typical drive-here-and-kill-that routine, doesn't mean that this game is "open-ended." Just because players can take Dukes of Hazard-like leaps through the air doesn't make Liberty City "interactive." And just because a game allows players to act out violent criminal fantasies doesn't make it daring art. Is GTA3 fun? Absolutely. Is it great art? Fuggedaboudit.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.