Grand Theft Auto III
Around the Christmas of 2001, there was a bit of a rivalry brewing between the PS2 and the new Xbox. Both systems had a high-profile game coming out. The PS2 had Metal Gear Solid 2, and the Xbox had Halo. But a lesser known game came out of nowhere to far more commercial success than either, a 3D sequel to a kitschy top-down driving series. It was GTA3, and it was a lot of fun. I remember playing it for the first time and being amazed by what I could do. It was the first true open-world game of its kind. The freedom was incredible. Going anywhere in the city, getting into fights with the different gangs, uncovering street races or secret jumps, listening to the hilarious talk radio station.
Of course, what we ended up doing a lot was just causing mayhem, recklessly plowing through pedestrian traffic with a semi truck and getting as many cop cars as you could to chase you. It was a revelation when we realized the best way to rack up stars on your wanted level was to attack people on foot instead of just running them over. And of courses, you could pick up prostitutes to heal you in exchange for money, and if you so chose, kill them afterward to get it back. Money was never an issue in the game, it was just a darkly humorous way to beat the system. Unfortunately, this single aspect of a huge, often quite intelligent game was focused on by media watchdogs and overzealous parents. They warped it, trying to make the game out to be training kids to be brutal killers, with the mistreatment of women in the forefront. Never mind that the series has never once instructed you to harm a prostitute, or any other person who could be considered an innocent bystander. It just allows it, letting you make yourself into any character you wanted. The game also allows you to use an ambulance to deliver people to a hospital and rewards you for doing it well, but I guess that doesn't sell newspapers as well.
Beyond the sandbox mayhem, the game also started the series' trend towards interesting storylines set up by very professionally handled cutscenes. The main character never spoke, but you still felt sympathy for him when he was betrayed and wanted to help him set things right. Working your way up the ladder, interacting with all the different movers and shakers in the criminal underworld, and having a hand in the direction the city takes was a hell of a lot of fun. Everybody latches on to the primitive technology and unsatisfactory weapon targeting now, but it wasn't that big of a deal back then, when you had so much choice in how you took care of things. Other games let you decide between picking off foes from a distance or getting in their face and making them explode, but few let you set up a barrier beforehand and block off their escape route. It started the trend of making the last couple of missions in the game a little too difficult, when you're faced with tons of guys with automatic weapons and the bad targeting really rears its ugly head, but finally getting it done is all the more satisfying. There were too many technical flaws, but when you just consider the scope of it and what it did for gaming as a whole, Grand Theft Auto III was a masterpiece.