40: Grand Theft Auto III

The last few games have all been reasonably old. Obviously when I say old, I’m talking in videogame-years which are an even more hyperbolic and made-up concept than dog years, but the point is these have been glimpses into times in gaming development before current paradigms took hold. Now, as some things get old, they mature. Monkey Island is a fine cheese or wine that is, essentially, timeless. As other things get old they get retro, and that’s Age of Wonders, very much of its time but still interesting and relevant. And as some things get old, they just sag in the middle. Step forward, Grand Theft Auto III

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I’m not on about looks. GTA3 isn’t going to win any awards for them now, for sure. It’s a little bit polygonal and a little bit early frontiers of 3D and a little bit horrendous rendering of eyebrows (or it was intentional to look like caterpillars have been stapled to faces) but it still works. The cars look like cars and the buildings look like buildings and it’s clear what’s going on around you, so that’s all you really need in terms of aesthetic. Every now and again the land gets drenched in red sunlight and you look over the bay and it’s even a bit pretty.

In fact even now you can’t help but be impressed by some of the technical achievements that went into making Liberty City work. The illusion of a living, breathing city, with hundreds of cars and thousands of pedestrians, is convincingly woven. While this is done with trickery to prevent your computer from exploding, they are clever tricks that mean the whole place feels alive. There’s not a lot of identikit going on either, the city is split up into scores of blocks of different styles and layouts. There’s stadiums and raising bridges and dams and isolated villas and much more. This city is clearly a labour of love and there is something to be gained from just wandering around, drinking it in.

A special shoutout should go to the radio stations, which serve as more or less your only real human contact throughout the game. They’re all brilliantly voiced, hours long and superbly written. They wield their satire with finesse or occasionally with bludgeoning force, but they are entertaining in a way that Fallout’s were not.

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“Proceeding on foot!”

Certainly there’s signs of oldness in the design. It’s actually quite pleasing not to have to slog through mandatory tutorials for once so I have to applaud that. You’re just dumped onto a bridge with the instruction to get home and you figure it out from there. More of a problem given the massive area you’re traversing is the complete lack of a map or a pathfinder. There’s a little circle at the bottom left of the screen showing what the streets immediately around you look like, and maybe where your next objective is, but if you’re trying to find where the garage or gunstore is, then you’re going to have either cruise aimlessly around the city, or memorise the basic layout.

Maybe that’s a good thing, by forcing you to remember stuff and (in my case) sketch out the most important routes, you are forced to make a bigger investment in the city you’re cruising about. However, it does mean that anything off the beaten path, I’m probably not going to stumble across, because of my second problem: Open worldness.

See the way the game is, you have two choices. You can drive around, blowing things up and then presumably high-fiving people about it. Blow up enough things and this summons the police who are having none of your hijinks. Fight them and your wanted level will continue to rise, bringing forth tougher elements of law enforcement until eventually you’re being pursued by helicopters and the army. To shake those off your tail, you either make it home, shout “base!” and they let you off with a warning, or they kill you. If they kill you, you respawn outside the hospital with all your stuff gone. I’m simplifying a bit, there’s other ways to amuse yourself in that freeform manner but they all eventually end up with the police killing you or the reset button getting hit.

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“Alright, everybody remember where we parked”

And for me, that’s the antithesis of fun. Think about how much work I’m having to go through to engineer entertaining situations and at the end of all that, nothing has changed! In fact maybe I’m worse off because I’ve lost all my carefully hoarded weapons or my good car exploded. But let’s assume that nothing changes. Now what? The only way to motivate yourself there is to set yourself challenges, but I’ll get into why I’ve no interest in that in a bit.

I’ve mentioned before, in the New Vegas review, that I have an instinctive distrust of open-world games. For me it’s like comparing exercise to sport. Exercise is I’m sure a fine and noble activity but you, on your own, working by your rules, that’s never going to get me to do anything useful or productive as I just won’t be motivated to. Sport has that social aspect, sure, but more than that, it has rules that everybody is attempting to play by and so you have measurable goals that all your energies can be focused on. I love sport.

So I’m definitely not going to be spending my time in a sandpit. I have no other choice while playing this game than to do the missions. These are built into the game as locations you can go to, get a little snippet of cutscene and then you go do the mission for the mob boss or mogul or whoever. Now I have my structure, great. The snag is that few of the missions are particularly enjoyable. Sometimes you have to drive around the city in a certain time limit, or go to a building and kill a guy outside it, or put a bomb on a particular type of car and use that to blow up somebody’s factory. While it may be reasonably well voiced and written the missions are for the whole part not that exciting to do.

From time to time you will be given an absolute bastard of a mission and the reason for its absolute bastidity is the save system. You can’t save the game unless you get home and do it manually, there are no checkpoints or quicksaves, and missions can take up to twenty minutes. What does this mean? It means that never have I swore quite so much as when playing this game. Time after time I would near the end of a mission only to have that parachute of hope yanked away from me and replaced with the plummet of despair. The final mission is a last “Fuck you” as all your guns are just taken off you. Go kill the cartel with this handgun and five sniper bullets, bye! I actually cheated, spawned a tank and got on with my life, this wasn’t fun.

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PROTECT INCREDISLOW CAR FOR AN HOUR. BEEP.

But why am I dying so much? Why am I not setting myself challenges? Why aren’t the missions that fun? It all boils down to the same thing: gameplay in third-person games has moved on. This is the game that launched an entire genre of GTA clones and over time they refined and improved until the annoying shit bits had been mostly taken out. GTA3 had not had that process happen to it yet. The shooting felt reasonably awful (on a PC so no aim-lock apparently means you can’t hit a thing unless using the sniper rifle or rocket launcher). Running about is just that bit too slow and of course all the water is poisonous death lava so you can’t go in that. Add in the infrequent saving and I found myself playing in an pretty boring fashion, advancing slowly and killing things from a long way away with the only guns that worked.

So, alright, you’ll stay inside the cars? This is slightly better but there is only the germ of an idea of a physics engine at play here so they will do some pretty bizarre things given a chance. Through the first few hours I was just continually tipping the car over, again and again. I failed so many times because my mission critical vehicle was on its back and as we all know when cars go upside down: THEY EXPLODE. Eventually I got the hang of it but the driving never became fun for me, no matter how fast the city zipped past. It was more a case of me desperately trying not to smash into something that would send the car exploding as I crawled out of the sunroof.

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GTA3 is functional; it is not fun. It has huge potential that will I imagine be realised later down the series, but at the moment it’s just an impressive technical achievement without proper direction.

2 stars, 26 hours spent, missions complete.

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2 Responses to 40: Grand Theft Auto III

  1. Everblue says:

    My friend Rhys just used the GTA 3 sandbox to do exactly what he did in real life.

    This was to drive a big black van around very slowly, while playing drum and bass music at high volume. Seriously. For hours.

  2. jiiiiim says:

    He must be the happiest man alive

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