The Grand Theft Auto series has always been about taking the good with the bad. On one hand, the open-ended nature of the games and the huge city environments make the games a sheer joy to play. On the downside, the previous incarnations of the game were cursed with poor mission design that never really made you feel like you were working toward any sort of greater goal. You merely drove around, causing trouble, occasionally doing odd jobs for the local criminal masterminds until you had collected enough cash to proceed. Rockstar's latest entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto III, reinvents the series, updates it for a new generation of consoles, and manages to keep every single positive aspect from the two previous games. Or, to put it another way, GTA3 is one of the most amazing PlayStation 2 games to be released this year.
Before we go any further, there's one thing everyone should know about Grand Theft Auto III before purchasing it. It is easily the most "mature" M-rated game on the market today. More often than not, its storyline revolves around rather violent acts of crime, and if you stray from the storyline and just go on a crime spree of your own, the game becomes an absolute bloodbath. On top of that, the game contains adult language and situations, including drugs, prostitution, and a heaping helping of sexual innuendo. If R-rated crime sagas such as Goodfellas or Heat are too much for you, then this isn't the game for you. The game and its dialogue have been written specifically for an adult audience, and it definitely isn't for kids.
GTA3 takes place in a fictional metropolis known as Liberty City. Liberty City is a largely corrupt place, with several warring criminal factions spread throughout its boroughs. You're a small-time crook who gets set up by your girlfriend during a heist. You take the fall for the crime but manage to escape when a posse of thugs overtake the paddy wagon that you, along with a few other prisoners, are traveling in. This is where you hook up with the demolitions expert known as 8-Ball, who takes you to meet a friend in the early portion of the game, which also serves as a tutorial of sorts to help you get acclimated to the rules of the world. That friend is involved with the Mafia, of course, and he gives you tasks of increasing difficulty. Each mission starts with a cutscene that sets up your challenge nicely, explaining why it needs to be done to help "the family" and giving your missions--which include such tasks as delivering an item, tailing a suspected security leak, and wiping out the leaders of opposing gangs--a real sense of purpose. As you progress, you'll meet other people in the business of breaking the law, who will also have jobs for you. This gives you options, as you can either do every available mission from each of your contacts or skip around from boss to boss and do the jobs in whatever order you please. Since certain missions trigger plot points, it's entirely possible to miss some missions throughout the course of the game. As you proceed, other portions of the city will open up, giving you access to new missions, cars, and terrain.
While the missions in GTA3 are fun and sometimes wickedly challenging, there's also a great deal of fun to be had by simply exploring the world around you. Rockstar and DMA Design have obviously spent a lot of time adding tons of little touches to the game that, while almost completely unnecessary, make the world seem like a living, breathing place. Lots of little side missions are included, triggered by jumping into a specific vehicle. Stealing a taxi will let you pick up passengers and deliver them for cash. Jacking a cop car lets you embark on vigilante missions to clean up the streets by killing specific criminals. Fire trucks and ambulances also have their own specific missions. Other little touches are graphical; your character will flip the bird to any car that gets too close to you while crossing a street. If you jump into a car and take off immediately, your character won't have time to shut the driver's-side door, leaving it flapping open until you take your finger off the gas for a second to give him time to yank the door shut. Cars dismantle in spectacular ways as they get more and more banged up, losing hoods, trunks, doors, and bumpers as you go. Some cars have special features, including sirens on emergency vehicles, working water hoses on fire trucks, and working hydraulics on a specific gang's make of lowrider that let you hit switches to make the car hop or roll around on three wheels. The game keeps track of any spectacular stunts you pull off in a car and grades them. Finally, while you can't go into most of the stores and buildings in the area, they have a realistic look that really adds to the atmosphere of the game.
In addition to those touches, ignoring the missions also gives you time to go on crime sprees of your own. This sort of freestyle element isn't exactly rewarded in the game, but it's definitely one of the coolest things about GTA3. As you commit crimes, the police will pick up your trail. Hitting someone with a bat while a cop is watching is a sure way to get them on your tail; stealing a car and putting it up on the sidewalk to mow down a corner full of prostitutes is another. The game keeps track of your status with an arrest meter. Small offenses, such as rear-ending a cop car, will get you one star on your six-star meter. While cops will pursue you if they see you in this state, you can hide and eventually the star will go away. Continue to live life outside the law, and you'll get two stars, and so on. With each level comes a more severe response from "The Man." At three stars you'll have cop cars flying at you out of nowhere. At four, they'll all but give up on trying to bust you and instead simply attempt to gun you down. Helicopters will also be dispatched to your location, ensuring that you won't get away easily. At higher levels, the FBI will respond to your crime scene, and at the highest level, the military will get involved. There's really only one way to get your arrest level up that high: shooting cops. Running over innocents and blowing up a few cars might get you three or four stars, but to truly anger the law, you have to take a few of them down. The AI for police vehicles is pretty rough--they tend to practically destroy their own cars while chasing you into walls and other impassible obstacles. Outside of the car, the law fares a bit better, but there are a few instances where cops get stuck because they can't seem to understand how to use a flight of steps to get to you and simply run into a wall repeatedly, giving you all the time in the world to dispose of them.