Grand Theft Retrospective 3

(Grand Theft Retrospective is a series of Articles on the various games in the Grand Theft Auto 3 and 4 universes. All were played on PC, and were likely assisted by whatever weapon cheats there are, because while I object to removing important bits of the game, I feel 95% of the missions are more enjoyable with a rocket launcher.)

Grand Theft Auto 3 is an odd game for the modern palette. It was one of the first modern games, which is a good and bad thing for us going back to play it. On one hand, it’s still phenomenally fun when it gets into the swing of things. When the bullets fly, when the cars drive, it handles beautifully, and everything is fast and furious. On the other, the modern amenities that we now expect, no, demand are not present, which makes the experience an altogether frustrating one.

GTA 3 is the halfway point. It’s got one foot in the past, squarely with the two original games, and its other foot is jumping into the future, providing us with 2003’s version of what the future of gaming was. And it gets tantalizingly close, but in the end it fails to really offer a great experience to the modern player.

The reason for this is Claude. Blowing stuff up is as much fun as it is in any of the future games. It might even be more fun, given how absurdly everyone reacts, and how much fun it is to throw Molotov cocktails into a crowd of people. The game reacts how you think it should, and while the AI is pretty ridiculous, all the action is great. No, Claude is the problem. For one thing, he is straight out of the past: he doesn’t speak. He barely interacts, his most aggressive moment throughout the story being pointing a gun at Miguel in your first interaction with him.

And this is a problem. We only have the slimmest idea of what he’s doing in Liberty City, besides that he was accidentally broken out of prison. Sure, you know someone turned on him, but we don’t know how he knows she’s in Liberty City, or why this motivates him to take random quests from all the gangs in the city. In short, the big problem is that Claude is killing all these people for no reason. At times during your mission, people reference Claude’s path of revenge, but this is usually late, after a lot of killing has happened. People throw around the term murder simulator to mean a game where murders are committed for no reason, and while that’s usually not true, here Claude kills for nothing besides the promise of money. He kills his old associates, people who he has worked with and who trust him. He seems to have no problem with this. He has no aspirations outside of revenge, and the revenge is not even a tangible goal. The only goal is murder.

The game does hold interesting parallels to Grand Theft Auto IV, though. Both have essentially the same narrative: man gets screwed over by ally previous to the game, and spends the game hunting them down. Both have a bit of trouble sticking coherently to this narrative, and especially here Claude does a lot of random things before he finally gets at all on track.

GTA 3 reminds us of a simpler time, when games were fun because they were fun, not because of depth. It’s an old school game in modern clothing, a game where you kill space invaders because they’re invading your space. That’s it. Claude murders hundreds of people because they dare to get too close to him. He is a wrecking ball of destruction, an angel of death walking Liberty City.

And none of this makes the game less fun. None of it makes it a less enjoyable game. The plot is immaterial, some chance encounters that lead to you interacting with amusing individuals engaged in less than savory activities. The game’s the thing. GTA3 bears a striking similarity to Super Mario Brothers in that regard: Mario is fun because he jumps platforms because jumping platforms is fun. Grand Theft Auto 3 is a game where you kill people because Claude is a man who kills people and because killing people is fun.

Until the rope runs out, the game is fantastic. There’s always stuff to do, always more killing on the horizon, in the shape of little names. All your problems can always be solved by killing just one more time. And killing your way along the rope is fantastic. It’s a brilliant experience, and probably the most enthralling game there is. Because everything feels right. Sure, there’s no reason to kill anyone, but the game takes you on a ride and everything feels like you think it should.

The rope does run out, though. You get to the third island, and the game buckles, like many modern games do, under the weight of itself. Missions become long and difficult, and because checkpoints are the thing of the future, you often have to repeat upwards of fifteen minutes of gameplay just to get back to the same place where you die another stupid way. And the third island. The third island is where the lack of a map really comes back to shit on the game. The first island is self contained, and missions include, Go to the gun store to buy a gun. You figure out where things are. The second island, everything is in one little line, so it’s easy to find whatever you need.

The third island is a clusterfuck. The third island is filled with bridges and overpasses that lead back to where you just were, unexplained pits of water, and few long straight roads. Now, long straight roads aren’t difficult, but speed is the most important aspect of any chase in any GTA game. The third island lost that, because failing put you in the ocean that just so happened to have sprouted up inland, most places were twisty and turny, and finding your way off the island from the hospital was a chore that takes many minutes to figure out.

Couple that with the killing losing a bit of its edge, and you have a game that could have been significantly shorter. Not shorter, but smaller. The first two islands are an excellent balance of game design and realism. The third goes heavy on misguided game design, light on realism, and everything goes to hell.

But these are modern complaints, on a decidedly old school game. It’s like criticizing River City Ransom because waffles cost the same to make as pancakes. It’s like criticizing Mario for not having a dramatic storyline. They weren’t things that existed. They’re not complaints we can have, because they’re things that didn’t exist.

Grand Theft Auto 3 was a game worthy of hype, and it still stands up relatively tall today. It’s not the most brilliant game ever, but for someone who sees themselves as a student of gaming history, it is an unquestionably important game that helped define the trends gaming would follow for the next half decade. But, as important as it was, it could be argued its sequels were more important.


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  2. Fernando Cordeiro

    I read somewhere that Claude was killed at some point in the series’ canon. I wish I could be the one to do it. Claude (and you don’t actually know his name during the actual game, do you?) was a jerk. He dressed like a jerk, acted like a jerk and by seeing how the supreme bitch he dated betrayed him, I can only imagine he was a jerk in bed as well.

    Now compare him with Tommy Vercetti. Tommy was so a joyfully avenger! He was certainly having a blast with his “Mafia” fantasy – to the point of being permanently stuck in a bad Joe Pesci imitation. Both Tommy and Claude were angels of death, but Tommy gave the player a better justification for it and the result is ultimately a better experience. That, I believe, was the main improvement of the series.

    People think that a blank avatar is great because the player can transmit whatever he feels to the avatar and vice-versa, but that is only truth in a FPS – because, technically, in those cases there is NO avatar. Gordon Freeman is just a name, after all. Not a character. A visible avatar with a personality is much easier to immerse the gamer because we are already prone to role-playing. Now, a blank avatar not only requires more effort from us, but usually also gives us no reward because no matter what your MO is, the reactions of the NPCs are trapped inside cutscenes and remain usually the same!

    Who the hell that is not a Terminator uses a leather jacket to kill the Mafia’s boss anyways?