Grand Theft Auto 3 is a benchmark game in perhaps all our lives. From the moment Claude and 8-Ball break out of the prison van, get into their car, and ‘Stripe Summer’ blares on Head Radio, what transpires in the next 30 or so odd hours is burned into the memory of almost everyone who was lucky enough to own a PS2 at that time.
In fact, Grand Theft Auto 3 was the game that single handidly justified the purchase of a PS2. The dopamine hits it consistently gave the player with its sheer (And almost instant) euphoric feeling of freedom, is one of the seminal moments in gaming history for a reason. Everyone heard ecstatic water-cooler talk, at school or in workplaces of its ‘anything goes’ approach, and jaws dropped across the world when people popped the disc on their home system and found it not to be hearsay. It was all true.
Now to be fair, there had been open world games before it, but there was never one that made the world such an integral part of the experience. Liberty City in GTA 3 felt like an immersive simulation, except on a much larger scale than ever before. With different systems interacting with each other and giving the sense of traversing around a living, breathing environment. It was mind-blowing when you first stepped inside a taxi, and realised that there was actually an in-built version of Crazy Taxi you could play. The stuff that SEGA charged players full price for, was a mini-game in Grand Theft Auto 3.
People talk about losing yourself and ‘messing around’ in Grand Theft Auto 3 to this day because truth be told, it was the only way to play it. Whilst it had a fantastic story-line campaign, plenty of creative missions and oddball characters , most players remember moments when they first completed their first stunt jump whilst listening to a particular track, when they finally completed a tough mission by losing the cops via the many shortcuts/ Pay N’ Sprays they memorized, when the cops first came to take them out , or if you’re like me, just travelling from one end of the map to other on foot. (Something that genuinely felt like exploration, instead of a chore)
One of the most ecstatic discoveries came for most players (including myself) at a point in the final third of the game, where once you wander deep into the isolated airfield, and discover a mysterious red plane called ‘Dodo’ that to your utter aghast-ment, you realized you can actually bloody fly. Not only could you fly planes in Grand Theft Auto 3, you could fly them to an obscure area of the map where some unfinished game-world was dumped (aka ‘Ghost Town’). That the game was intent on keeping this an ultra-obscure secret that 99.999% of people will never discover, is a testament to the ultra-focused purist vision that went into it’s creation. Rockstar wanted it to be an experience that people will tell their kids about, and it was most certainly that (whether the kids will be allowed to play it, was another matter).
The real star of the show though, was no doubt Liberty City itself. A rough approximation of New York, this didn’t feel like a copy/paste 3D construct. It felt a step beyond most other games because everything had a sense of weight and momentum. Every type of vehicle had its’ own handling, .All of us at that point of time were used to playing games in which vehicles felt like plastic constructs floating on plastic surfaces, here was a game that actually had visible vehicle damage, different handling for each vehicle, which meant that there actually was a skill ceiling. You actually got better at driving as the game went along ( Which is also thanks to the deviously escalating difficulty curve). GTA 3 was the sort of game where driving was it’s own reward. All three districts of the city (Portland, Staunton Island, Shoreside Vale) felt handcrafted and it was fun to just drive around and explore what ultra-detailed nook and cranny Rockstar had crafted. Often times, the dynamic weather would change to the evening rains and the correct track would play on the radio (Mostly, the SCARFACE tracks on Flashback FM) and going towards the mission marker became less of an important task, than say enjoying the feeling.
GTA 3 kicked off the open world phenomenon that that turned the entire industry over its’ head. Leading to many mediocre open world games, a few great ones and industry-wide ramifications that are being still debated to this day. Since then ,Rockstar (to their credit) were somehow able to always stay ahead of the curve and maintain their freshness with their later games. Their titles still make all the noise world over, but the seismic shift that they created (by design or by choice) can perhaps never be replicated and truth be told,they’ll probably be the first ones to tell you that.