Grand Theft Auto 3 was a true game changer


Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today, Andy packs his bags for a holiday in old Liberty City.

The mean streets of Liberty City aren't quite as mean as I remember them. Where once I saw a brilliantly realised, detailed replica of New York City, I now see blocky polygons and muddy textures. Time has not been kind to Rockstar's influential open-world crime simulator, but it was the flashpoint for a series that became a phenomenon.

Grand Theft Auto 3 was the series' first foray into three dimensions. The original top-down game had been a commercial success, but GTA 3 was on a whole other level, shifting a dizzying 14.5 million copies. It's the game that put Rockstar on the minimap.

It starts with a jailbreak. Your character, who never speaks, escapes from a prison convoy with a little help from some Colombians, and makes his way to a safehouse in the Portland borough of Liberty City: a mishmash of Brooklyn and Queens. From here you get a job with a local mafia boss, Luigi Goterelli, and your climb to the top of the criminal ladder begins. It is, like most other Grand Theft Auto games, a rags-to-riches story, charting your rise from hired goon to trusted associate.

Portland is your home in the game's first hours. The bridge to the next island is under construction, penning you in for now. This gated progression was a staple of the series until GTA 5, which lets you travel to every corner of the map from the off. While staggering the locations like this limits your freedom, it does give you a chance to learn every corner of an island before you move onto the next. I could draw you a detailed map of Portland entirely from memory.

The mission design is, by today's standards, pretty primitive. There's a lot of driving from place to place, often with a time limit. Deliver this thing, kill this person. But there are sparks of imagination, like the early mission in which you steal a guy's car while he's eating in a restaurant, fit it with a bomb, then park it back where you found it. He gets in, twists the key, and boom. But compare this to the elaborate, multilayered missions of the newer games and you realise how far the series has come.

Yet in many ways, it hasn't advanced at all. Despite improvements in technology, bigger worlds, and vastly increased production values, Rockstar has stuck pretty closely to the formula laid out in GTA 3. You spend half your time doing jobs for a variety of crime bosses to advance the story, and the other half exploring, causing trouble, collecting stuff, and picking up side missions. There's a lot more to do between missions in GTA 5, and there's more to the story than just running errands for criminals, but the general structure is almost identical.

After Portland, our mute antihero heads to Staunton, Liberty City's equivalent of Manhattan. It's a dramatic change of scenery, skyscrapers and wide roads replacing Portland's tight, industrial sprawl. You find work with, among others, a Yakuza boss, a corrupt businessman, and a bent cop. The voice cast is impressive, featuring a host of genuinely great actors including Kyle MacLachlan as Donald Love, Robert Loggia as Ray Machowski, and Joe Pantoliano as Luigi Goterelli. Legendary rapper Guru, of Gang Starr fame, even makes an appearance as bomb expert 8-Ball.

One of GTA 3's greatest strengths is the different personalities of the three islands. We see the seeds of Rockstar's peerless world-building being planted here, and there's a distinct look and feel to each area. Portland is grimy, poor and crime-ridden; Staunton is bustling and vibrant; Shoreside Vale is a leafy suburban hideaway for the city's wealthiest citizens. Compared to GTA 5's Los Santos it's laughable, but at the time it was probably the most convincing 3D world I'd ever seen.

Returning years later, GTA 3 isn't that much fun to play. Twitchy combat, overly strict time limits, and a brutal difficulty spike towards the end make it an exercise in frustration. The series has done much in recent sequels to make life more enjoyable, such as checkpoints, and taxis to take you back to the mission start. I just can't go back to the dark days before this stuff was implemented. 

GTA 3 is more of a historical artefact than something I'd recommend going back and playing for fun. Everything that was great about it back then has been infinitely bettered, leaving it feeling like a rough prototype for the game it would eventually become. 

The impact GTA 3d on the culture and landscape of videogames is almost impossible to measure. Masses of open world games that shamelessly riffed on it were released in its wake. It defined the language and design staples of the genre, and they're still in use to this day. Everything from Assassin's Creed to Far Cry owes a debt to Rockstar. Should you play it today? Probably not. But, like watching the early audition tapes of an A-list Hollywood actor, it's a fascinating glimpse of the first steps of a game that would go on to take over the world.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.