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Ten Years Later, Is Grand Theft Auto 3 A Sandbox Masterpiece Or Overrated Success?

Posted by on October 19, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I hated Grand Theft Auto 3. At school, my friends wouldn’t shut up about it. At work, my customers wanted ‘the game where you have sex with hookers, beat them up, and take your money back’. As an Xbox fanboy in 2001, GTA3 as a PlayStation 2 exclusive was unbearable. Several sequels and plenty of successful copycats proved that it was a successful improvement and starting point for the 3D sandbox genre, but what lessons did we really learn from GTA3 and how has a decade changed my mind?

Overrated Success

My first reaction to GTA3, especially when I had no direct access to it, was to pick up its predecessor on my PC, which would actually run it: Grand Theft Auto 2. Before 3, the series was top-down and had a more cartoonish look. The engine was capable of displaying a lot more actions on screen, so it was possible to block a car and cause a massive, cascading destruction with a rocket launcher. If you never played GTA2, there was “story” to speak of, instead, each city block you fought through had several factions that you worked for or against. As you gained their favor, you got more complex and rewarding missions. It was completely dynamic and how strong each group got was based on your actions.

By itself, GTA2 did well and it had some great ideas at its core, but it also had more than a few fundamental issues. For one, advancement required money, as did saving. Yes, you needed 50,000 in-game dollars in order to save your progress, which equated to completing about two or three missions to lock your effort early on. There was also no personality to the factions aside from thumbnails that appeared during mission briefs or their specific cars. The game was very fun, but very flawed. Many of those guys wound up founding Realtime Worlds, who created the similarly fun, but slender Crackdown years later.

GTA3 took many of those fun and dynamic aspects of GTA2 and funneled you down a narrative tube. One of your first contacts after your null character Claude escapes a prison transport is even played by Joe Pantoliano (Bad Boys, The Matrix). You can run around and cause chaos, but much of it’s ruined by the fact that the universe carries more weight. You can look up and down and snipe, but the PlayStation 2 hardware ruined it as the engine was unable to render people very far out. Put forth the effort to climb a tall building to start sniping innocent civilians and they don’t even render on the ground anymore. The game by default had a nasty “blur” filter that was supposed to look film-ic, but really just looked awful. That and once the action cooked up on Sony’s console, the whole affair got framey.

The PlayStation 2 ruined everything. When GTA3‘s sales exploded in late 2001, right as the Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube launched, Sony locked the series down as an exclusive to the platform for a time. I made the fight day to day that the Xbox was a superior platform that needed the spotlight, was far more capable and (inevitably) had the better online service, but as people wandered in to pick up the game merely because they could beat up hookers in a universe that wasn’t nearly as interactive or fun as even its predecessors. When Vice City released a year later, again exclusive to the PS2, people continued to ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ the whole affair while cooing about the use of 80s music. My roommate at the time even shattered a controller on one of the harder missions.

The series went on to sell millions and millions of copies and ended up solidifying the PlayStation 2’s lead over my nubile Xbox. But, there are some bright spots…

Sandbox Masterpiece

Both GTA3 and Vice City ended up debuting on the Xbox in late 2003, long after everyone who had really wanted the game had already chipped in for the PlayStation. San Andreas released a year later, but as only a timed exclusive, but still not quite soon enough. I had a decent time with 3 and honestly enjoyed the setting and aesthetic better than Vice City. I probably put thirty hours into 3 and a dozen into Vice City, never owning San Andreas. Various aspects that popped in between the second and third games were emphasized even further when GTA4 came out for next-gen systems in 2008 (and ending up running better on the Xbox 360 than the PlayStation 3. Take that!) because it continued to ruin the fun elements of previous games in the franchise by taking itself way too seriously. A decade later, GTA3’s longest-lasting effect wasn’t on the series itself, but really on those that take advantage of it.

Activision’s True Crime released opposite the Xbox release of the Grand Theft Auto Double Pack and it was a truly awful, celebrity drenched rip-off. What GTA3 did well was legitimize a constructive narrative in a sandbox action game. While there are more direct passes that copied formula straight up, but made it infinitely more fun (Saints Row for reals), the value of an open world with vehicles becomes clear in games like Red Faction: Guerrilla and even the recent Rage. With a cooperative mode, Crackdown was a very enjoyable game that built on the verticality that a 3D universe allowed while giving you the super powers needed to toss cars at foes or drive in Agency vehicles that transformed and gained abilities as you leveled up your character.

Of course, as mentioned previously, the series has sold millions of copies and has become a cash cow for 2K Games and Rockstar’s crown jewel. I felt the series returned to its more fun, arcadey roots with the release of Chinatown Wars for the NintendoDS, which may honestly be the best (primarily because it’s fun!) Grand Theft Auto game ever made. With the Hauser brothers at the helm of Rockstar, maybe someday they’ll inject some enjoyability back into the series. Grand Theft Auto 3 may still be the most overrated title of the past ten years, but there’s no denying it shaped gaming culture in a big way.

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