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How Does ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ Hold Up in 2021?

Twenty years after the release of ‘Grand Theft Auto III,’ an intrepid player travels back in time to experience Rockstar’s open-world opus for the first time

Rockstar Games/Ringer illustration

On October 22, 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, a game that transported the publisher’s trademark criminal mayhem to an unimaginably immersive 3-D Liberty City. GTA III became a bestselling sensation that defined the open-world genre, spawning several sequels, inspiring countless imitators, and causing a cultural uproar. Twenty years later, we’re taking a look at its legacy while we wait for the upcoming GTA trilogy remaster, prepare to purchase yet another version of GTA V, and read rumors about the still-unannounced GTA VI. Welcome to GTA Day.

You need to get around, so you steal a car. “What the dealio?” offers the driver as he’s being flung out of said car—the funniest possible reaction to being violently ripped from your vehicle in broad daylight. You’re tearing through the streets, and you pass a ringing pay phone. You get out and pick it up. You’re directed to the start of a street race, and you are not given the choice to opt out. During the race, your car bounces off concrete barriers, other cars, and the occasional pedestrian, and eventually catches fire. You hop out, and the car explodes. You steal another car and finish the race. Just another day in Liberty City.

“You,” in this instance, is the person playing Grand Theft Auto III, the game that inspired equal parts awe and ire upon its release 20 years ago today. More specifically, the “you” in this case is Claude, the wordless protagonist of the game. More on him later.

I recently played through GTA III for the first time, on the PlayStation 4. My introduction to the series was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and I experienced the rest of the sequels as they came out (particularly GTA V, a game I got into shortly after moving to Los Angeles, which made it a surreal ride). With current-gen remasters of the GTA trilogy confirmed to be coming later this year, this seemed like the right time to play the “original.” The idea was to see how it holds up, and to examine the DNA of GTA III, which inspired innumerable sandbox/open-world-style sequels, actual and spiritual.

Let’s start with what’s aged the best. From the opening credits, GTA III has an adult, cinematic feel that draws you in and differentiates itself from almost all of its contemporaries. While story-driven, cinematic console games were just starting to come into their own in 2001 (Max Payne, Silent Hill 2, and Metal Gear Solid 2, to name a few), none of those games offers the freedom or the believably lived-in world that Liberty City provides.

The radio stations go a long way toward establishing the game’s convincing setting. As soon as you hop in a car, you’re greeted by the sounds of fictional radio DJs hosting talk shows, salt-of-the-earth callers rambling hilariously, or a mishmash of genre-specific music as you turn the dial. The degree to which this soundtrack makes the world of the game come alive can’t be understated. It’s an element that would remain a constant through the rest of the series, evolving into a truly impressive selection of tracks and DJs by the time GTA V arrived.

The radio is also the main vehicle for much of the game’s social commentary. The chatter in GTA, another staple of the series, is well known for its mix of juvenile humor and biting satire, often delivered via talk radio station Chatterbox FM. At times, the juxtaposition of music and action can be jarring—you’ll be assaulting random citizens or mobsters, gleefully engaging in the series’ sometimes mortifying violence, while the radio blares some forgotten (or freshly composed) bubblegum pop song or righteous diatribe.

Much has been made of the ways in which GTA III’s gameplay was ahead of its time, but even developer DMA Design’s cultural critiques were often aimed at concepts that were just beginning to take root in the public consciousness or that remain relevant today. There are allusions to online activist culture (as represented by the protester who calls in but can’t quite remember what he’s protesting); toxic masculinity (the various testosterone-riddled commercials for an extremely large SUV); obsessive reality competition TV (the adverts for Liberty City Survivor, which sounds like Squid Game if it had grenade launchers and took place in public); and even white nationalism (via an incensed, self-described veteran of the “Australian-American War”). While the game’s regrettable racist tropes and aggressive misogyny undeniably undercut some of its legitimately intelligent social commentary, GTA III is in some respects smarter and more self-aware than its fiercest contemporary critics would have admitted. Violence in video games is another topic of satirical discussion on Chatterbox, and meta self-commentary wasn’t exactly common in this era of games.

The radio is just part of what makes the first fully three-dimensional GTA environment feel so vibrant. The number of random encounters with NPCs, and the ways in which those situations unfold, feel unique to GTA. The first time I walked in front of a cop car, the cop honked at Claude, and Claude immediately flipped him off. Pedestrians dive out of the way of your car and hurl insults your way when you get too close. Small touches like that, impressive in retrospect, impart the impression of actually living in this chaotic, crime-ridden digital city.

GTA III was one of the first virtual sandboxes where “playing the game” could, if one wanted, consist simply of wandering around and getting into trouble. The idea of ignoring the stated objectives in favor of causing havoc around Liberty City is always an appealing one, especially if you get stuck on a particularly frustrating mission. The game actually rewards you for bumping into cars, demolishing stuff, and other unsavory activities that landed publisher Rockstar Games in hot water with watchdog groups in the U.S. and ratings boards abroad. While some of the controversies surrounding GTA III’s violence seem almost quaint in light of subsequent game-related uproars—just within the Rockstar universe, Manhunt and the Hot Coffee mod come to mind—the first time you shoot someone’s head off (eliciting a Tarantino-esque spout of blood) or see your car rock back and forth in a dark alley remain eyebrow-raising moments, even in 2021.

GTA III’s world feels huge, even by current standards. Liberty City’s three distinct neighborhoods give the game a scope that can be intimidating at times, considering its limited map function. (The map can’t be expanded beyond the tiny corner of the screen that it occupies.) GTA III’s version of Liberty City is technically the smallest of the open-world areas in the series (see image below), but it’s still big enough that I found myself spending hours just running around, stealing cars, doing stunts, seeing what I could climb, and blowing things up. (You know, GTA stuff.) And while I wouldn’t necessarily criticize GTA III’s more expensive sequels for being too big or long, there is something refreshing about being able to finish the story of a game in 20 hours or so, while also feeling like the boundaries are big enough to encompass hours of extracurriculars.

via KeWiS, GTAForums

As alluded to earlier, some aspects of the game’s content and tone tread well over the acceptable line in 2021. Details about the remasters’ alterations to the originals are still scarce, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of the borderline or beyond-the-pale material in GTA III reworked or discretely removed, along the lines of the instances of sexist objectification that were cut from recent versions of Resident Evil 4 and Mass Effect 2. One imagines that the mission where you’re instructed to kill “‘Chunky’ Lee Chong,” an Asian character with zero agency and a caricatured accent, wouldn’t make the cut in its original form after 20 years. It does seem like Rockstar’s flagrant violations of good taste and societal standards have subsided over the years (though they’re definitely still lurking). Whether it’s a reflection of the company purposefully being less edgy or of increasing cultural desensitization and acceptance of mature games, Hillary Clinton and entire oceanic countries don’t seem to be weighing in anymore on Rockstar’s titles.

GTA III’s occasionally clunky controls are dated too. While certain mechanics (like driving) are intuitive and remain basically unchanged today (press triangle to steal a car!), the shooting mechanics are, to use a technical term, dogshit. Early 3-D GTA gunplay is so inelegant that some missions later in GTA III are strenuous and frustrating solely because it’s so hard to know where incoming fire is coming from, and because you can shoot at only what’s in front of you. (You can’t move the camera with the right stick.) There are also several sniping-based missions where the controls are automatically and permanently inverted, adding an unintentional layer of difficulty. These impediments will likely be fixed in the remaster, which reportedly features “GTA V–like controls.”

Also, water = death. I lost count of the number of times I watched Claude drown in 3 feet of water, flailing helplessly while I tried frantically to steer him back to land. My attempts to do car stunts often landed him in the drink, and while later GTA games allowed playable characters to exit cars and swim to safety, Claude could only sink below the surface, entombed in his waterlogged Cartel Cruiser.

But picking nits with 20-year-old game mechanics feels like a cheap shot. Given how many elements of GTA III would later be copied by basically every open-world game, I was willing to put up with or even laugh at its shortcomings in that department. What’s more, DMA Design (later to become Rockstar North) spins some of those shortcomings to the game’s benefit. Because you can’t expand the game’s minimap, you’re forced to learn your way around the city in an intimate way. You need to memorize the locations of your safehouses, the gun shops, and the garages to navigate Liberty City, heightening the illusion that you’re really a resident.

Thanks to the technology of the time, the characters’ facial expressions and movements are rudimentary, so the cutscenes and “acting” portions are short, but I found that a welcome reprieve from some of the bloated, interminable cutscenes of later epics like Red Dead Redemption 2. For reference, developers estimated that there were somewhere between 8,000 and 18,000 lines of dialogue in GTA III, compared to roughly 500,000 in Red Dead 2.

Let’s briefly return to Claude, our wordless and hydrophobic protagonist. The developers apparently preferred to make the character a blank slate—an avatar for players to map themselves onto—though their decision was also influenced by technological constraints. (The most generous way to describe the faces in this game would be “stoic.”) Little is given in the way of backstory, motivation, or emotion for Claude, whose name wasn’t even revealed until San Andreas.

This didn’t bother me, though. While the playable protagonists of later GTA games—including Tommy, CJ, Niko, Michael, Franklin, and Trevor—are fully realized characters with complex story lines, the narratives are not why I play these games. I actually liked running around as this wordless drifter who lives in one of the worst apartments I’ve ever seen. It was a reminder that sophisticated character development in games is largely a recent phenomenon. The pendulum has swung so far in the narrative direction (as represented by Red Dead 2’s aforementioned astronomical quantity of dialogue, or The Last of Us’s brand of cinema-as-gaming-experience) that it’s hard to remember the era when game protagonists barely spoke. Unlike its sequels, GTA III is an artifact of an era when there wasn’t any conflict between a character’s scripted aspirations to morality or respectability and a player’s compulsion to watch the world burn (or personally set it on fire). And while immersive, story-driven games are often my favorites to play, GTA III feels like an admirably economical relic of a time when developers were forced to do a lot with a little.

On the subject of simplicity: Almost every mission is some variation on a mobster or otherwise seedy underworld figure telling Claude to go there, murder that person, grab this thing, and come back. But within that simplistic framework, there’s a ton of leeway in how you execute the appointed tasks. The game does not give you an exact route to get to any destination, even when that destination might be several neighborhoods away. Nor does it tell you the specific place you need to stand to pick off snipers from a rooftop; you have to take the lay of the land yourself and find a good vantage point. You must figure out on your own how to operate the boats, how to shoot a rocket launcher, and how much gunfire a car can take before exploding. For me, that laissez-faire, more emergent structure led to a greater feeling of accomplishment once I completed a mission, sometimes in a way that might not have occurred to other players.

That’s not to say the more recent Rockstar games don’t boast some welcome updates. In-mission saves (any save system post-GTA III was an improvement), not losing all your weapons when you die, and more opportunities to make money in the game that aren’t as tedious as, say, the taxi missions in GTA III, are all positive changes. But the absence of those conveniences in GTA III heightened the stakes and made me approach certain missions more cautiously. Making sure I had full body armor, plenty of cash, and weapons, and that I had saved somewhere close to the starting point of any difficult mission, became necessities. While the flawless combat mechanics and readily available superweapons in GTA V can make you feel like an invincible Angeleno demigod (which is fun in its own way), playing as Claude makes you value virtual life because death awaits around every corner (or wherever there’s water).

Playing GTA III for the first time in 2021, it’s impossible not to see the seeds of subsequent generations of open-world games, culminating in GTA V, which is not only the highest-grossing game of all time but also the highest-grossing entertainment product of all time. (Its still-swelling revenue is estimated to be well north of Avatar’s measly $2.8 billion haul.) In that sense, it might be easier to point to corners of culture and entertainment that haven’t been pulled in GTA’s blood-soaked direction. It’s hard to say what playing GTA III for the first time in 2001 would have been like for 11-year-old me, other than “mind-blowing,” and it’s equally hard to evaluate a game that you know was revolutionary when it came out but is showing its age in more than one way 20 years later. That said, the direct line you can draw from GTA III to so many modern games is as bright and obvious as ever. While there may be fewer and fewer reasons to return to the source material as newer, improved versions roll out, if you do find yourself riding around the original GTA III’s Liberty City, you’ll see hints of where we are now everywhere you look.