Grand Theft Auto 3: 10 Year Anniversary Review
With GTA 4 ten years ago, Rockstar changed gaming forever.
Grand Theft Auto 3 arrived to minimal fanfare compared to the frenzy the fifth outing’s reveal recently whipped up, a sequel to Rockstar’s popular top-down comedy crime romps which embraced the third dimension as only the relatively untapped power of PlayStation 2 would allow.
Liberty City was no longer a toy car playmat filmed from above – it had become a real city that players were free to explore on their own terms, at their own pace and most important of all, in their own way.
Sandbox gaming had been done before but with a contemporary urban setting and rib-tickling blend of cutting satire and dark humour, it was GTA 3 that made it relevant for the first time.
But beyond the novelty value of being able to run a seminal gaming milestone on the same device you use to order pizza and chuck birds at pigs, is this a game that can still claim to be relevant in a world where both Rockstar and its imitators have improved on the formula time and time again? The answer, we’re afraid, is a dangerously non-committal ‘yes-and-no’.
While Liberty City’s colourful radio stations and edgy dialogue still flash teeth as sharp as they ever were, the same unfortunately cannot be said of mission structures that have been honed and improved upon countless times and controls that were designed to work with 20-odd buttons as opposed to… well, none.
And boy, will you ever miss those buttons. Early on, it seems like Rockstar might have made the transition to a touch screen control scheme far better than it actually has, though it doesn’t take long for astonishingly harsh mission failure criteria and strict time limits to rear their virtual heads and prove otherwise.
While as vague and sloppy as most 3D action games that try to get into the iOS Club with their console trainers on, there’s a clear shift towards the user-friendly in terms of how the myriad confusing on-screen buttons function and it’s this that makes it seem like this could actually work.
Driving can be awkward, especially keeping it in a straight line.
For general messing around, there’s an argument to be made for the fact that this new scheme does actually hold up. But under the strain of missions that are obviously over a decade old, touch control simply can’t offer the necessary precision.
There are a few control options to be tweaked, tried and toyed with, though accelerometer tilt steering and a floating analog stick offer little to relieve the potential expensive bursts of frustration that inevitably come with the later missions.
Even in the general flow of the game, it’s amazing how many improvements and features we’ve come to take for granted in the open world genre since Rockstar first took its bold steps into 3D.
The ability to swim; GPS navigation routes rather than just floating destination markers; firing easily from vehicles; shooting through windshields and blowing out tyres… these and many more are the things you won’t be doing on the mean streets of Liberty City.
For all its aging, though, there’s an antiquated charm to this still-exciting open world once you learn to let go of ten years’ worth of tightened bolts and additions – things may have come on a hell of a lot but it’s impossible to imagine where we’d be had Rockstar not paved the way for open world gaming to grow as we know it to have done.
Surrounded by games like Infinity Blade and Assassin’s Creed Recollection that work around the shortcomings of mobile platforms, however, GTA 3 does feel somewhat out of place on iOS.
The small screen of the iPhone allows its early PS2 visuals to enjoy at least a little dignity but on iPad, even the smudgy Vaseline filter can’t disguise models that all seem to have trotters and horrible animations where melee attacks happen before you’ve even pressed a non-existent button and apparently sexy women strut awkwardly as though they’ve just soiled themselves.
It doesn’t look quite as good on the iPad’s larger screen.
It’s far harder to take seriously than it once was (not that taking GTA seriously was ever really the point) and what was once the first indication that gaming could offer a world as convincing as the one outside our windows now finds itself as more history lesson than video game, albeit one here translated somewhat clumsily into a new language.
That Rockstar saw fit to release its developmental turning point as a piece of history is commendable, then, though this in itself only begs the question of why mobile over console – few games have defined a console in the same way that GTA 3 defined Sony’s PlayStation 2 hardware, and as such, a faithful digital release would surely be the best way in which to honour so decorated, so revered and so utterly crucial a game.
Herein lies the problem. Controller in hand, we and many others would surely revel in the chance to mess up Liberty City in a rose-tinted haze. But with an ill-fitting new control scheme only serving to highlight fundamental problems with the game and show just how far gaming has come, this anniversary release becomes more cultural artefact and geek power trip curio than genuine celebration of one of the most important games of our time.
Just because your phone can run GTA 3 doesn’t necessarily mean that it should, and the simple truth is that our memories and, on a somewhat more pretentious level, gaming heritage deserve better than this.