It’s easy to forget that Grand Theft Auto started life as a fairly simple top down experience which was fun for short bursts and offered something different, but ultimately lacked all the components to make it truly addictive (in my opinion anyway). However, the new millennium saw the franchise make the leap into glorious 3D, and introduce gamers to a whole new (and very controversial) world.
Despite arriving on the brand new and shiny PlayStation 2 console in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III took two further years to make it onto the Xbox. However, when it did arrive I remember the glorious triple pack it was part of, and the game itself was looking better than ever on Microsoft’s platform. In between console launches, the game found its way onto PC. It was something of a gradual rollout to say the least.
It’s difficult to convey just how much of a watershed moment the release of Grand Theft Auto III for video games. The open world felt huge yet densely populated with weird, wonderful and wacky characters. You were able to wander around the open world without shackles, working several missions simultaneously. The only limit imposed was the need to unlock new areas of the city as you progressed through the game’s main story.
The cinematic missions oozed personality, inspired by several gangster films. The action played out across road, water and in the air with numerous vehicles at your disposal. I remember several fantastic action set pieces, which saw your mute character Claude setting off bombs, mowing down ambulance passengers and even shooting down a helicopter. The blockbuster storyline gave you a chance to be an absolute badass at almost every turn. And it felt so good to be bad.
Grand Theft Auto III also pioneered the franchise’s famous radio stations. Each had its own original group of songs in the days before the series netted licensed tracks. It still sounded great though, along with the talk radio station “Chatterbox FM” which was a stroke of comic genius. A bonus for those players who owned the PC/Xbox versions of the game was that they could play their own music as they ripped up the streets of Liberty City. I remember this being absolutely mind blowing, and utterly joyous as I desperately tried to evade the police whilst listening to the James Bond theme. I’d never experienced anything quite like it in a video game before.
One of the other brilliant things about Grand Theft Auto III was the freedom to choose how you spent your time. You could totally abandon the main story for hours at a time, pursuing side missions, making a little extra cash or playing my favourite game of attempting to observe all the laws of the road like a normal citizen (including obeying traffic lights). There was something oddly addictive about that, despite my always giving up after around five minutes.
It was so much fun to spend hours moonlighting as a taxi driver, firefighter or paramedic to make a little extra cash. Or, you could go full vigilante to take down some bad guys to net yourself some big bucks. Of course, Grand Theft Auto III brought the “wanted” system bang up to date with a potential six stars to earn. I say earn because I remember getting thrills trying to survive whilst attracting the maximum amount of heat from the authorities. They weren’t interested in taking anyone alive either, hilariously speeding in to take me out but often overshooting, landing in water and exploding on impact for some unknown reason.
Of course, the franchise may have been breaking new ground but that didn’t come without controversy. A lot of controversy. The part which really caused an outcry was giving the player the power to solicit women for sex, and immediately murder them afterwards to reclaim their cash. The game poured fuel onto the fire, fanning the flames of the argument that virtual violence incited real life acts, especially as a couple of teenagers cited the game as inspiration for drive-by shootings they had carried out. This was pretty damning for some.
Despite all this, Grand Theft Auto III marked a major stride forwards for the franchise, turbo charging its success whilst attracting critical acclaim at the same time. With the rumour mill rife that a Grand Theft Auto VI announcement is due any day now, it looks set to happen all over again. In the meantime, Grand Theft Auto III remains incredibly playable to this day, so why not head back to Liberty City and see for yourself.
If you want to play Grand Theft Auto III, you can find it as part of the recently released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. It’s on the Xbox Store if you fancy it.