It's a steal.
We've all grown somewhat used to the idea that nothing is sacred when it comes to video game design. Very few subjects are considered taboo, and those that are often lead to cheap games that function more like snuff films than viable pieces of interactive art.
So when Rockstar and DMA's Grand Theft Auto 3 made its way into the office, we weren't entirely sure what to expect. Sure, I've played earlier builds and wrote a preview. Sure, it looked technically amazing and fun as hell. Sure, it was easily the most mature game we've seen for any console system released in America. But none of that automatically means that the final retail product is as good as the early builds indicate.
Except in this case, it is that good. Better, even. In fact, Grand Theft Auto 3 is just about the best game yet released on the system and one of the most impressive console titles we've ever seen. And I ain't blowing smoke up your tailpipe.
The game takes place in the wonderfully corrupt world of Liberty City, armpit of America. You take on the role of a criminal who was recently framed by your girlfriend during a bank heist. Luckily, your transportation to prison doesn't go as smoothly as the authorities would prefer, and you wind up freed from your chains with only 8-ball, a demolitions expert, to give you some hope. He hooks you up with a local mob bigwig named Luigi, giving you a chance to make some bread, earn some respect, and eventually track down the bitch who turned traitor in the first place.
Sound brutal? You have no idea. Grand Theft Auto 3 is as mature as a video game comes, filled with foul language, ruthless violence and very adult subject matter. So for the record, kids shouldn't be playing this game. And for perhaps the first time ever, I sincerely mean that.
But the rest of you should be playing this game, because it's incredibly fun. Liberty City is a technological marvel, a living, breathing environment that captures the essence of gritty city life in amazing detail. The game is all about freedom, and I don't just mean that in the First Amendment sense.
You can go anywhere and do anything. Though the game comes with a whopping 73 missions, you can play the game for hours without ever attempting one. Instead, you can fill your time by carjacking vehicles and running amuck. Hop into a cab and you can toggle mini-game missions where you pick up and drop off passengers in Crazy Taxi fashion for money. Nab an ambulance and save the injured for dough. Grab a firetruck and put out blazes to earn some quick cash. Or if you're ballsy enough, you can even grab a cop car and run some very hard vigilante missions where you catch other crooks.
The combination of on-foot and in-car action is unrivaled - this is the game Driver 2 was supposed to be. The car physics change for the different vehicles (and there are TONS of cars), but control remains tight and responsive the whole way through. It's a seamless transition from foot to car; simply stop a car by walking in front of it and jack the poor sod driving it.
But Grand Theft Auto 3 provides you with more ways to travel than Marvin K. Mooney. You can hop a train at the various train stations, at which point the camera cuts to a cool cinematic view of you riding through the massive city. You can eventually take the scary subway as well, though you better be packing heat. Very nice.
People complained about the top-down cheapo graphics in past Grand Theft Auto games. Well, rejoice as this version is in full 3D glory. Played from a third-person angle, things look much better than the past, though occasional clipping errors and weird character models stand out from time to time. Considering the enormity of the programming, however (there are millions of people in the city, as well as tons of moving vehicles), it's really not a big deal. The damage modeling on the cars is great and the framerate is rock solid. The game looks fine.
It also sounds terrific. Grand Theft Auto 3 features 9 preset radio stations that you can listen to while you drive. Reggae fan? Try K-JAH. Want some local talk radio? Try the Chatterbox. In a mellow mood? Then Double Clef FM is your classical answer. The variety is great, the quality is top-notch and there's really no reason any other driving game should ever not do this.
Rockstar went all out hiring superb voice-talent. The game features stars like Michael Rappaport, Kyle MacLachlan and even Joe Pantoliano from The Sopranos. Might not be a REAL mafioso, but he plays one on tv, which is pretty cool.
I can't stress enough how open-ended this game feels. While it's necessary to carry out certain missions to keep the story moving and to open up two other parts of the enormous city, it's really not at all required, and you can have all sorts of sick fun just wreaking havoc. You don't really die in GTA 3 - you simply respawn at either the hospital or the police station (depending on if you die or get busted) minus some cash. The game ends up playing like these short, twisted vignettes, these mini-stories that begin when you respawn and end when you finally get shot by a gaggle of cops in the middle of a massive firefight.
Speaking of the fuzz, they're very determined. You have a little arrest meter that starts to go up as you break the law. I have yet to actually see the thing get over 4 (there are 6 slots)...and at 4, I was being chased by about 6 cops and a helicopter.
There are a few mildly annoying issues, such as a generally difficult aiming device for shooting guns. The targeting is a little wily and it makes running and gunning a bit hard, which can spell certain death in the middle of a gunfight. Better auto-targeting would have done wonders.
But for the most part, this is about as cool of a game as I've ever played and earns the first Game Revolution PS2 'A' with flying colors. I could go on and on trying to explain the plethora of intricate details - the realistic gang rivalries, the things you can do with prostitutes, the hysterical 'Rampages' that allow you to go on mass killing sprees - but I simply don't have the words nor the space to convey the fun. Just go drop 50 bucks on this gem and cherish your inner criminal.