As the years go by, video games constantly strive for higher levels of realism. The line between the real world and the video game world is starting to blur with the current level of technology in today's gaming hardware. The advancements in AI, heightened graphics, the ultimate switch to 3D, and the medium on which the data is carried are just some of the things that allow the video game industry to not just create games, but simulations. Whether it is the simulation of playing a little sword-wielding green kid or of driving the world's greatest cars, video games are starting to be looked at less like games and more like experiences.
So, now that we have ever-increasing realism in video games, what happens when developers decide to create an experience based on the darker side of our reality with today's technology? You get something like Rockstar Games' latest creation, Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3). This game is basically a crime simulator. You play a common thug who is double-crossed by his girlfriend in a botched bank robbery and left for dead. After getting picked up by the police, the van you are being transported to jail in is hijacked, letting you loose on the streets of Liberty City. You figure the only thing you could possibly do from here is climb the crime ladder to the top, but first you're going to have to start from the bottom.
It should be stated, and obvious, that GTA3 is definitely not for children. The level of brutality and violence that can be found in this game is disgusting at best, and those against the idea of stealing cars, killing gangsters, and running from the law should probably think twice before this purchase.
Even after that being said, you just can't deny how great GTA3 is. The freedom alone that the game allows you is enough reason to give it a try. Go ahead and simply play through the missions if you like. When it becomes time to take a break from elevating your criminal rank, you can go earn some cash by taxiing the residents around, putting out fires, or cracking down on fellow criminals in vigilante missions. Find a ringing telephone booth and answer the call for some entertaining side-missions. Or you can just go have some fun with the fast cars—my favorite is jumping them off the insane stunt ramps that are located all over the city (which are accompanied by some very slick slow motion cut-scenes). This just scratches the surface of what you can do during the game, and is an example of the many different gameplay approaches you'll be confronted with.
Ultimately, GTA3 is linear in the sense that you have to follow a number of missions to come to the end. But even the order in which you do the missions is somewhat up to you (to advance to some of the later missions, you have to create a name for yourself first). And the greatest thing about the missions is the variety of objectives that you'll have to fulfill. Along the way you'll be finding yourself stealing cars as favors to your boss, getting involved in gang wars, and disposing of bodies for your employers. These are just a few of the 73 missions that the game has planned for you.
GTA3 also leaves the solutions to the mission objectives open to your imagination. An example: In a later mission, you are instructed to shoot a Colombian cartel plane from the sky and collect its cargo of SPANK (a drug that circulates Liberty City). The instructions for the mission indicate that you are to steal a boat and station it at a buoy, where you'll shoot the plane down when it flies overhead. "Well", I thought, "screw the buoy", and instead chose to navigate the boat directly to the airport so I could stand right on the runway as the plane flew in. Seemed much easier to me. There are countless ways of playing through the missions, and I appreciated the freedom the game gave me in this respect.
The greatest part of GTA3's open-ended nature is the choice to conduct your character as you want. Feeling good? It's possible to complete the game without harming one innocent person. Feeling bad? Hell, my game's body count statistic just passed one thousand. Unrestrained violence does have its downfalls in GTA3, though. If you start going on a civilian rampage, eventually your arrest meter will get one star (out of six). Kill a cop and you'll get around three stars. Keep killing indiscriminately and you'll eventually get the FBI and the Army after you (when tanks start filling the streets, you know you're screwed). Get arrested, and it's back to square one—you fail your mission, lose your weapons, and become a thousand bucks lighter (same goes for when you run out of health). I'll admit that not harming any innocents is pretty far-fetched—GTA3 is like a war, collateral damage is the nature of the beast—but the option to play 'good' or 'bad' goes to show the depth of the environment GTA3 takes place in.
Speaking of the environment, I have never played a game with a more fully realized city than in GTA3. The sheer size of it all will overwhelm you at first. Towering skyscrapers, warehouse districts, city parks, freeways, planes, trains and automobiles all round out the experience that is the maze of crime and villainy known as Liberty City. The epic proportion of it all really hit me one night when I just stopped and watched the city go on around me. You can hear conversations. Watch the sunset. Fog starts to creep in. People are getting in fights. Other criminals are robbing pedestrians. Hookers try and pick up on you. Car crashes happen in the streets. If a stray bullet or a car hits someone, an ambulance comes along to pick them up. You have to see it to believe it.
I think the largest heap of praise should go to the Auto part in Grand Theft Auto. The driving mechanics and vehicular physics of GTA3 could have its own game and be a solid title. First, there's the number of car models to drive (I think I heard a figure around 60—but I'm not sure), and the countless number of colors and additions that can be found on the cars. Put all the combinations of car makes, colors and modifications together and you're looking at driving hundreds of cars throughout the game. Second, the vehicles are just plain cool. The way the cars break up in the over-the-top accidents will crack a smile on your face, and what makes it all even better is the extreme detail on the models, right down to their interiors. Third, the cars feel right. When you jump into a full-size van, it feels like a full-size van. Same goes for the sports cars, passenger buses, station wagons, SUV's, family sedans—and don't get me started about driving the tank...
And when you're not running down pedestrians in a Yakuza Stinger, you'll be huffing it on foot in the familiar third-person action/adventure style, which is also worth mentioning. It's all done in the traditional behind-the-back camera view, although 5 alternate views are at your disposal. You're going to amass quite an arsenal through the course of the game—bats, uzis, grenades, assault rifles and more—and using them is fairly simple, with a few being extremely fun. There is an auto-targeting function that you use for most firearms, but some, like the sniper rifle and rocket launcher, use a first person targeting system (those are the fun ones). Considering how well the first person targeting is executed, you'll be spending a lot of time...ahem...'practicing' on the streets.
If there is one general complaint about GTA3, it's probably the frame rate. You'll experience slow down at times during the game, but it's going to take complete mayhem to get this game to stutter significantly. Sometimes while driving the really fast cars you'll notice a little hiccup here and there mainly because this game is drawing objects in the distance from miles away. Frankly, I'm impressed that the PlayStation 2 can handle the scope of Liberty City as smooth as it does.
A personal complaint I have is the lack of a full city map. GTA3 provides you with a small map/radar that sits in the lower right-hand side of the screen, but it only gives you the layout of your general surroundings. Its helpful in guiding you along to the mission objective points, but its not very helpful in giving you a feel for where you really are in the city. Considering how humongous Liberty City is, I don't understand why a simple, full city map wasn't included.
GTA3 is sure to turn some heads. The option to enact Armageddon on the city and its innocent dwellers will definitely raise some moral and ethical questions in the gaming community. But, you know what, this is a game. Even though the level of gaming technology today is starting to create vividly realistic imagery, it's still not real, and never will be. People who worry about the social implications of a game like GTA3 are missing that point. If you can realize that, and you have the stomach to sit through your average mobster movie, you're going to have a blast with GTA3. It's the first must-have game I've played for the PlayStation 2.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.