By dankempster 3 Comments
It's pretty hard for me to come to terms with the fact that Grand Theft Auto III is now ten years old. That may be partly because I can remember the quiet hype surrounding its UK release - the infamous TV trailer that set it up like an epic crime movie, and the excited twittering of friends and classmates awaiting the killer app that would justify their investment in Sony's new PlayStation 2 console. At the time I didn't own a PS2, but I was already a fan of the franchise after being introduced to Grand Theft Auto 2 by a friend at school. After convincing him to let me borrow his (or rather his brother's) copy of GTA2, I was immediately ensnared by the freedom and social satire that remain the hallmarks of Rockstar games to this day. As an established fan of the series, aware that the new generation of hardware would allow Rockstar to make up for the technical limitations of the top-down games, I was eager to witness the next step in Grand Theft Auto's evolution. As it turns out, I didn't have to wait long.
Considering it happened almost a decade ago, I'm surprised I can still remember the first time I played GTAIII so clearly. It was actually at the house of my aforementioned friend. In the Autumn of 2001 his brother picked up a PS2 with copies of Gran Turismo 3: A Spec and - you guessed it - Grand Theft Auto III. One day he invited me and a few other guys over to his house after school, so we could check out GTAIII. I honestly don't think I'll ever forget that evening as long as I live. Five of us, crowded onto a three-seater sofa, staring in wonder at what was going on on-screen. We took turns to cause mayhem on the streets of Liberty City, passing the controller down the line when we died or got arrested. It was an incredible social gaming experience, to say the least. When it got to my turn I pulled an Esperanto out of the garage, took it to Chinatown, climbed onto the roof of a building, and began to lay waste to the crowds of Triads below with a cocktail of grenade explosions and sniper rifle fire. I managed to crank my wanted level up to four stars, but inevitably struggled to avoid the game's SWAT team equivalents and ended up being blown up inside my own Esperanto. The next year I was lucky enough to get a PS2 of my own and was able to persuade my mother to buy me my own copy of Grand Theft Auto III alongside it. But I'll never my first experience of playing that game - to this day, I remember it as if it were yesterday.
As it happens, though, I really was playing Grand Theft Auto III yesterday. I've spent the last couple of weeks revisiting this seminal part of my gaming development, mainly as a way of paying homage to the game's tenth birthday, but also to see if it's still just as fun as my latent memories would have me believe. Given the experience I had with Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation last month, I figured it was a risk worth taking. Opting for the PC version this time around, I can honestly say that the game is still a lot of fun. The missions are a little samey and arguably over-reliant on driving and under-reliant on combat, but given they're the game's respective strengths and weaknesses, that's understandable. The weapons all feel distinct and powerful, and are a lot of fun to use when just causing chaos, albeit not so much in mission-centric gunfights. It's also still incredibly funny. Some of the social satire is a little dated and falls flat as a consequence, but the relevance of many other jokes seems to have amplified in the intervening years. The radio stations are loaded with hilarious commercials, and even the peds' one-liners are invariably giggle-inducing. The attention to detail present in the design of GTAIII's Liberty City is still outstanding, in my opinion - even ten years down the line I'm noticing new little things, like the fact the door of the Firetruck reads: "Putting Out Since 1872". Granted, the game might not look that great by modern technical standards, but there's a unity and cohesiveness in the aesthetic presentation of GTAIII that still makes its world a joy to discover and explore. Even if a lot of the trees are 2D.
More impressive than any of this, though, is the extent to which the game seems to have burrowed into my subconscious thought patterns. My knowledge of the Liberty City road map must have been resting dormant, because it's still just as sharp as it was all those years ago. I can still remember my go-to locations for topping up my weapons, health and armour between missions without having to part with my hard-earned cash at Ammunation. I've found myself recalling almost every individual mission I've done so far (about sixty of the game's seventy-three), as well as tried-and-tested methods for getting the job done - which shortcuts to take, ingenious ways of deceiving the scripting to turn things in my own favour. I've even managed to hunt down two-thirds of the game's hidden packages without once resorting to a map or guide, and I'm pretty sure that's the most impressive feat of all because I don't even remember finding that many of them before. To say I know GTAIII like the back of my hand would be an understatement.
The imprint that Grand Theft Auto III has left on me is astounding. With the possible exceptions of its successor Vice City and Final Fantasy VII, I don't think I've come away from any other video game before or since with such strong residual memories of every aspect of its world and design. Perhaps the most incredible thing is that if I decide to re-return to GTAIII ten years from now to mark its twentieth anniversary, I know all that knowledge is still going to be present. I'm not sure if that's comforting or a little scary - probably a little of both. I'd be really interested to hear about any games you guys have played that have left that level of impact on you - as always, sound off in the comments below. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Grand Theft Auto III (PC)