Now that I've finally beaten the majority of the game (although with still plenty of side missions and secrets to uncover), I feel adequately prepared to review Grand Theft Auto 3.
It's fucking amazing. (Actually, "fuck" is one of the words you won't find in GTA3, despite the promises of an M rating.)
It's a game about criminal acts, about dirty secrets and dirtier people. It's a huge leap over the previous GTAs, and a colossal standard for excellence on the PS2. It's consistently surprising, a personal ethical proving ground, and the perfect blend of third-person action and fast, exciting driving.
When the original Grand Theft Auto came out, it made the local news as part of the boring old What's Corrupting Our Kids stories (and this was pre-Columbine, remember.) I recall defending the game mainly because of it's poor graphics... firing little black pixel bullets at little blue pixel policemen was no more morally conflicting than guiding a yellow pixel pie-shape to eat frightened blue pixel ghosts. But most people were more concerned with the concept, rather than the execution (pun intended, I suppose.)
However, now that the worldview of GTA has gone 3D, I can make no such hasty excuses. And you'll note that barely anybody in the Crusading News Media even noticed GTA3... which I'll take as a sign of progress; video games aren't just for kids.
I'm not going to call GTA3 "unflinching" - which is a popular reviewer buzzword used for any supposedly shocking material, regardless of venue. Because GTA3 does flinch... yes, you can kill civilians, cops and gangsters alike, with a wide variety of weapons (not to mention vehicles). But the in-game characters are all heavily stylized, cartoony. Plus - despite cars taking semi-realistic damage - vehicle wrecks err toward spectacular. This is not a game focused on realism, content aside... it's focused on fun. Yes, shooting people is fun, but here's the catch, and it's something you probably didn't know about GTA3 if you're a casual (and concerned) observer.
You don't have to.
Being able to club bag ladies to death with a baseball bat is entirely your option. Carjacking an SUV and then backing it over the former owner is up to you. The game never requires you to enact violence against innocent, unless you consider making it easy to do the same as encouraging it. Actually, it's a fun challenge to play the game as straight as possible.
Take the policemen for example. While they are not as absurdly venomous as the cops from Driver, they will start chasing you if they witness a carjacking, or a major wreck, or activities more obviously illegal. If you have multiple police after you, the easiest solution would appear to be to kill them... but killing police only results in a higher Wanted level which just brings down more cops. The best solution is to find one of the hidden Police Bribe pickups to reduce your Wanted level.
Okay, okay, the game does require illegal acts, but if you have a problem with simulating such things in a freaking video game, I doubt you're ever going to enjoy any video game. The point is that the vast majority of the mayhem at your disposal is just that... at your disposal. Although I took out quite a few innocent civilians by accident (mainly through out of control vehicles), I rarely opted to randomly stalk one, kill him with my Uzi, and then steal his money.
Regardless, a concerned discussion of morality in video games is a jejune one, akin to arguing over the same in film. Given that the incredible majority of people can watch an R rated film with no ill effects, and that a majority of people enjoy an R rated film, why punish them to satisify a minority that ought to learn to control their own weaknesses?
In Grand Theft Auto 3, you begin as a low-rank thug with no weapons and the remains of a beat-up getaway car. At this point, you can choose to either pick up a Mission (assigned to you by one of the game's gang leaders) or just cruise around Liberty City. What is most surprising here is how alive the city feels... assuming you drive along at a careful pace, you'll witness throngs of people walking all over the sidewalk, the occasional street mugging, gang members going after each other, civilians hailing taxis, fender benders... and this is all completely without your involvement. Walk around on your own wingtips and you'll trigger sound samples from overhead conversations and the ramblings of crazy people. Unfortunately, you can't truly interact with civilians (aside from attacking them), but it does give hope for GTA4. Not that I'm asking for the kind of happy-go-shlocky conversation that you get from most RPG townspeople, but it would be nice to actually have passers-by look at you if you stop them, perhaps saying something more related to the current storyline situation than "Where's my damn tool" or "Young man, there's a place you can go."
The city is also packed with hidden events that essentially amount to mini-games... although they're so perfectly integrated into the gameworld that I wouldn't necessarily call them that. There are 100 Hidden Packages to find, and finding them yields various free powerup rewards. There are several ramp areas, where a fast car can be launched into the air for bonus style points. Jacking a taxi, ambulance, police cruiser or fire truck can trigger a mini-mission appropriate to the vehicle. Rampage points offer nigh-impossible killing sprees. Pay phones may ring as you walk by, opening up waves of secret missions. And some car collection businesses are open for you to deposit certain models, regardless of your methods in procuring them. Although they may at first seem like meaningless side levels, they all will generate some sort of sweet reward... as simple as extra cash, as needed as free weapon stashes, and as cool as a private garage stocked with any vehicle you could want.
The city itself functions as one huge open-ended freestyle level. Even without accomplishing anything, you can spend hours just tooling around, exploring Liberty City's three islands. Many interesting areas of the city never come up in the assigned missions, so general exploring is your best chance to cover the ground. (Plus, you'll teach yourself shortcuts.) The underground subway and the elevated train are two surprisingly detailed areas that you don't utilize much in the game proper. There are innumerable gag billboards, a few enterable buildings, and lots of general dirty-city feel that you might miss if you play too fast. Have I mentioned how beautifully the city transitions from day to night (when the hookers come out and the strip clubs raise there rollaway doors)? The many weather effects? The gloriously produced in-game radio stations, about which I could heap lavish praise to fill 4 reviews?
Notice how I haven't even discussed the missions yet. This is how big this game is... you can devote hours to it, enjoying the secret missions, the Crazy Taxi runs, picking up hookers... and still not have touched the game's central storyline. (Although actually the storyline does serve the important function of unlocking portions of the city as the levels progress.)
You'll start working for a Mafia-inspired family, taking easy orders from Luigi (voiced by Joe Pantaliano) and Joey (Michael Rapaport). After earning their trust, you'll take a few jobs for the family Don. Eventually you transfer yourself across town to work for Asuka and her Yukuza gang, and that's how the game progresses. A couple lesser gangs will also recruit you (mostly in the hidden missions), as well as a crooked cop and the town's Trump persona, Donald Love (Kyle McLachlan). The plot takes several gruesome twists, all following a basic subtext of deception and revenge.
Another one of GTA3's detailing strengths lies in how the city responds and changes to your advancing plotline. When the bridge from Portland to Staunton opens up, you'll read about it on the Times Square-esque digital newsline. After saving Maria from a run-in with the law, you'll hear her call talk radio to discuss her infatuation with you.
So are you convinced? I ranked this my personal Game of the Year 2001, atop even such masterstrokes as Conker's Bad Fur Day and Paper Mario. I didn't let it go toe-to-toe with Metal Gear Solid 2, because I really didn't get into MGS2 until January 2002. But I'd have to say that MGS2 stands as a better game (maybe 10.5 to GTA3's 10), and here's why.
GTA3 is a little sketchy at times... most noticeably when you're in a fast car and you start out-pacing the game's draw distance. Sometimes it just can't keep up with you, and you'll experience some popup and missing faraway polygons.
Sometimes cars will do exceptionally weird things, all in the name of sensational wrecks. I once had a Cartel Cruiser (a beefy blue monster truck) flip completely over after I raced straight across a runway light.
Your walk controls are unpolished. The character's jump is weak, and often you can't jump over something that looks perfectly jumpable. Falling into water is an obnoxious instant death (well, near instant... you're forced to watch your life counter roll all the way down first); how about a limited ability to swim? Weapons targeting (R1) is very touchy, thanks to a camera that will work against you if you let it. It is very common to target an offscreen enemy, but the camera won't swing around for a better view. You can alter the camera yourself (L1), but by the time you do that, any solid amount of enemy shootists will have pasted you to the pavement. I also hate the near-useless first-person look-mode (R3), which automatically snaps back to third person after 2 seconds of non-movement... making getting an uninterrupted view of a scene impossible.
Overall, these are minor detractions. Grand Theft Auto 3 is a divinely orchestrated game. The adult content gives the game its luring spark, but the perfected mission-based gameplay and rampant secrets are what makes GTA3 a winner.