Great moments in PC gaming: Driving a tank in GTA

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

Grand Theft Auto 3

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Developer: DMA Design
Publisher: Rockstar
Year: 2002

When Grand Theft Auto 3 came out there was much furor on the news over how it was violent and crass and probably going to end Western civilization. I was a bit younger than the target audience at the time. But you always had that one friend with permissive parents who was willing to let you come over and play, keeping it on the down-low. I still won't betray their trust to this day.If you're reading this, you're welcome.

While I wouldn't necessarily recommend letting 12 year olds play GTA today (especially if Trevor is involved), what it really represented back when I first gave it a spin was the ultimate action playset. For years I'd been building city blocks out of LEGO and speeding Hot Wheels cars through them, occasionally causing epic wrecks and knocking over structures with dramatic, a capella sound effects. GTA let you do that in a huge (for the time) simulated Liberty City where all the work of preparing the playground was done for you.

And just as those play pretend games were at their best when you introduced some kind of crazy twist, like Godzilla or the Millennium Falcon, GTA rose to another level of awesome when you learned about the cheat code to spawn a Rhino tank. Suddenly, you weren’t just playing cops and robbers. You were cruising down the highway in 60 tons of military hardware with near immunity to retaliation and the ability to make anything you pointed at explode.

With all the pressure of school, homework, chores, and extracurricular activities, a lot of the escapism I enjoyed in GTA was simply being free to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Inside a tank, there really aren't a lot of rules you have to follow aside from the ones you make for yourself. The principal can't stop you. The cops can’t stop you. Your parents might be able to stop you if they catch you playing that hooker-killing game they saw on the news, but luckily I avoided that particular five-star wanted level. A kid who often feels powerless in their own life deserves to feel invincible every now and then.

I continued this armored tradition in Vice City, San Andreas, and all the GTAs that came after (with the exception of IV, in which the Rhino was heartbreakingly absent). Getting maximum heat and then competing to see which of my friends could stay alive the longest under assault by SWAT teams and military helicopters got us many more hours of shared enjoyment than the story missions.

At the end of the day, GTA has never really been about being transgressive or edgy for me—at least not beyond those first few preteen play sessions when I thought it was so hardcore that they were allowed to make sex jokes and say the F-word in a video game. It’s been about that glorious sandbox feeling that started with blocks and Tonka trucks and eventually moved into the digital realm. It's about freedom. The kind of freedom that is best served from the barrel of a 120mm high explosive cannon.