GTA 3 Retrospective: Criminally Innovative

It’s time to cast our nostalgic eye over Grand Theft Auto 3, generally considered as one of the most influential games of all time. Many give the game credit for giving birth to the open-world genre. Welcome back to the gloomy streets of Liberty City as we take a retrospective look at this classic.

Grand Theft Auto 3: Criminally Innovative

As the game rapidly approaches its twentieth anniversary, the time has come for a GTA 3 retrospective. Open-world gaming has improved at a startling pace and is arguably the dominant genre in the modern AAA industry. Yearning for memories of a simpler time, I decided to replay Rockstar’s first 3D entry into the franchise. The question? Is Grand Theft Auto 3 the game I remember it to be when viewed with a more mature, retrospective eye? Let’s find out. 

The Foundations Of A Classic

The game that would birth Grand Theft Auto started life as a project called Race N’ Chase. The brainchild of DMA Design, a small Scottish studio with big ambitions. They wanted to push gaming beyond the boundaries of the “for children” label that the industry still held. Renamed GTA, it soon gained international recognition from gaming outlets, and widespread scorn from parents and governments, leading to bans in several countries. Rockstar knew how to weld controversy, even hiring infamous media publicist, Max Clifford, who manufactured the public outcry to advertise the game.  

Race N' Chase originally involved you playing a cop, catching bad guys. Grand Theft Auto turned that concept on its head.

Race N’ Chase originally involved you playing a cop, catching bad guys. Grand Theft Auto turned that concept on its head.

The original Grand Theft Auto’s gameplay mechanics aren’t unrecognisable from recent instalments. You play a criminal, working freelance for a verity of gangs around the three US cities. There’s a plethora of havoc-causing weapons and vehicles, as well as a wanted level, gained through the general mayhem your sprite partakes. Even a rudimentary form of multiplayer existed, via a LAN connection. Success and sequels followed, but with a new generation on the horizon, Rockstar turned its gaze to an altogether more groundbreaking project. The developer may not have been aware that its next game would redefine the industry, and expand the limits of what games could deliver.

The Handsome Handyman 

Set in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3’s purpose was to parody modern life and all its grim realities. Liberty city represents every generalisation a foreigner could label against the United States. It’s a city of organised crime, cut-throat businessmen, guns and depravity. Your mute guide through this millennial hell-scape is Claude, an escaped criminal with little motivation and proficient at taking orders. After an introduction to the city’s mafia, Claude finds himself in a world where loyalties have a price and paranoia is ramped. A new drug has incited a gang war that threatens to rip the city apart. Unsurprisingly, your protagonist lacks an opinion on these issues.

The narrative lacks the polish of later instalments and a voiceless protagonist detracts from the overall story. Rockstar wanted Liberty City and its citizens to speak for themselves. As an early example of open-world design in which you live in the world, instead of the world existing around you, GTA 3 is a rough specimen. A story told by street signs, billboards and radio hosts. The context of the narrative comes through the dialogue of a corrupt cop, desperate to escape a life of looking the other way, or a paranoid mob boss, wary of outsiders. Rockstar wanted you to get lost in the world it created, and to accept Claude for what he is -- A necessary mechanic.  

Unlike later protagonists, GTA 3's Claude never rises above the rank of hitman for hire

Unlike later protagonists, GTA 3’s Claude never rises above the rank of a hitman for hire

There’s nothing special about Grand Theft Auto 3’s story apart from it being the first of its kind. Without a voice, Claude makes for a bland protagonist. But, the world and its inhabitants more than make up for that shortfall. The choices Rockstar made would make later entries so loved by Rockstar fans, making this game a martyr of sorts.  

Grand Theft Glitch 

The limitations of the time judge the standards of design. With that said, Rockstar redefined that standard. Third dimension graphical design was in its infancy and the game wears that experimentality on its face. Character models are basic polygon figures, buildings clip in and out of existence, and vehicles lack any semblance of realistic grip. The city itself is split into three areas, blocked by a loading screen to allow the island to load. Games still have these issues today, but they are noticeable here. In the version of GTA 3 I played for this retrospective, crashes were few, considering the need to save manually.

It was in this very game that my love affair with Rockstar’s take on talk radio began. I spent many an evening listening to Lazlo on Chatterbox, listening to the weird and wonderful residents of Liberty. As I’ve already mentioned, Rockstar understands the importance of context, better than most studios. Every nugget of information lends itself to the history of Liberty City, from the game’s booklet to the translucent newspapers littering the rain-soaked streets.  

It may not look inpressive now, but it was groundbreaking in 2001

It may not look impressive now, but it was groundbreaking in 2001

Lacking in the scale of San Andreas or the 80s sentimentality of Vice city, it would be easy to forget Claude and his escapades. The game’s lack of technical prowess, while once impressive, looks almost medieval now. Modern gamers may struggle with the immense levels of jank. Still, there is a fondness, a familiarity of streets and dialogue. Playing Grand Theft Auto 3 is like being reunited with an old friend. An old, glitchy friend.   

Is GTA 3 The Game I Remember?  

If I’ve come to one conclusion during this GTA 3 retrospective, it’s this. Though it may not be the best example of the franchise’s immense success, the game did push the industry forward. You won’t be impressed by its forgettable story or prehistoric graphics. However, its world stays with you and within that lies Rockstar’s genius. Nostalgia is rarely built on reality, relying instead on half-remembered sights and sounds. It isn’t the game I remembered, but that’s ok. I enjoyed my revisit, and, with time, my nostalgic delusions will return; misting over the game’s issues till my next journey to Liberty.

Grand Theft Auto 3 - 10th Anniversary Trailer (Multi)

If this retrospective of GTA 3 has rekindled some childhood memories, the game is available on PS4 and PC

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