Genre: Action-Adventure
Year: 2001
Developed by: DMA Design
Published by: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PS2, PC, Xbox, Mac
Feeling Like: Turbo Shift

Grand Theft Auto 3 was awe inspiring the first time I saw it at Duncan W’s house. I literally couldn’t believe it. I’d heard about the Playstation 2 and seen it in action, but nothing I saw prepared me for what an open world could do, or be. The second I saw my buddy begin strutting about Liberty City I was hooked; cars were driving by him, honking if he got in their way. People walking by. He’d grab a car, drive a few minutes and stop somewhere completely different with no loading screen at all. He could do whatever he wanted. City noises drowned my ears. The world was alive. It was the first time I got a hint of what a “sandbox” game was. I’d never seen anything like it before.

Grand Theft Auto 3 was so revolutionary and influential that we still see the reverberations of its success more than 20 years later. It wasn’t just the free roam design of the “open world” style, it was the emerging technology that made it all possible and we all knew that with every subsequent console, it would only get better.

The marketing team behind it knew how big it would be. They leaned hard into the success of the emerging Sopranos TV show and highlighted that this was your own, customizable mob story. The TV commercial was brilliant. I eve recall some ludicrous video game blog debate about which was better, this commercial or the Godfather film. Still, it’s hard to blame those that wanted to heap meteoric praise on the game and anything associated with it. This was massive.

None of that matters of course, if the game isn’t fun to play. It mostly was.

I’ll be honest, I was so hypnotized by the newness of it all that I failed to notice how the aiming sort of sucked and the gameplay loop wasn’t all that fun if you didn’t have much of an imagination. I did like the cut scenes and story, though I’m sure playing it today would fail to elicit the same excitement.

I just loved driving around, being in Liberty City. Sometimes I’d just find a cool vista, park whatever car I’d just stolen and take it all in. I could go anywhere I could look at, and while that may be a meme in 2023, in 2001 it was a very enticing and original concept. We’d seen draw distance in previous games, but nothing like this. Between me and that building, there are dozens of city dwellers that could help, hinder or ignore my presence. I could run that guy over. I could try and be a goody-goody. I could indulge in activities that were…uh…let’s just say novel to a 16 year old.

The wild thing is, I’d actually played the previous Grand Theft Auto games and it’s hard to believe that this franchise started with a top down perspective. I guess the DNA was there, but nobody predicted that Grand Theft Auto 2’s sequel would become so profitable that Rockstar Games would be one of the most successful developers in video game history. I guess we all have to start somewhere, it’s just cool to see a team finally hit their stride out of the blue. From Software comes to mind.

With that kind of public attention and other unfortunate circumstances that would become mainstays in our lives, Grand Theft Auto 3 and games like it became a lightning rod for controversy, or blame for societal woes. No, kids shouldn’t be playing a game where you can murder prostitutes and hide them in a car. No, kids shouldn’t be playing a game that glorifies fighting the cops and running from them. But the game was never meant for anything but an adult audience. I’m certain since games were previously seen as a hobby for children only, or underdeveloped adults, we saw a very rough transition in this regard. We didn’t really get a bridge game on the Playstation 1 to prepare parents and other concerned entities that this was the kind of stuff younger gamers wanted to play, regardless if they should or not. You’d think after Mortal Kombat, everybody would have settled down but it only got worse as the games got better.

Grand Theft Auto 3 would be surpassed and then some by its sequels, but it has a rightful place in history as an incredible achievement. Regardless of what system you owned, or if you played games or not, you were aware of it. Even as a Nintendo guy, I couldn’t help but be spellbound by its casual attitude towards violence and its encouragement to act like a total psycho in a playground with no real world consequences.

I guess that last sentence is up for debate.

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