October 22, 2001, was the day that Rockstar Games fired off the shot heard round the video-game world. It was the day that Grand Theft Auto III was released in North America. The freestyle crime-themed game absolutely exploded onto the scene, and the game industry simply hasn't been the same since. A little over a year later, Rockstar followed up on its runaway success with the release of another game from the same universe, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which took the criminal antics from GTAIII, expanded upon them, and set the whole thing in a highly stylized version of 1986. Vice City delivered more of what made GTAIII so impressive, and the series became even more successful. The effects of these two releases are still being felt today. The developers pulled no punches and made the M rating more meaningful than ever, but what really set the games apart from the pack was the feeling of being in a real, living world. Your actions have meaning here, and there are tons of intricate interactions that make the game feel larger and freer than the games that came before it. And now both games have come to the Xbox in one incredible package.
It's taken a while to come to the Xbox, but it was definitely worth the wait.
Due to the extreme mainstream media attention that the games have received over the past two years, it's safe to assume that you've at least heard of the Grand Theft Auto series. For those of you familiar with it, let's cover the main points of this Xbox release right off the bat. For starters, it must be said up front that the Xbox versions of GTAIII and Vice City are the best versions of the game so far. The PlayStation 2 versions looked fantastic, given the relatively underpowered PS2 hardware, and the ports that appeared on the PC did a nice job of cleaning up and improving upon the original PS2 games. But the Xbox versions of the games go one step further than that. You'll immediately notice reflections coming off the cars, and the lighting in general is better. The texture quality and character models have been improved. The draw distance seems a little further out. And the frame rate remains pretty stable throughout. The games take advantage of the Xbox's audio prowess by playing in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and offering support for the custom soundtrack feature. The games' video will stretch to the 16:9 aspect ratio and will also play in 480p. The control in both games remains largely unchanged, using the same auto-lock-on feature found in the PlayStation 2 version rather than going with the standard third-person shooter setup found on the PC. The driving control has been revamped to use the Xbox's analog triggers, which works well. Overall, GTAIII and Vice City are the same games they were when they came out on other platforms--but the Xbox versions simply look and sound better while still playing just as well now as they did back when they were first released, and if you're itching to play either game again, do yourself a favor and play it on the Xbox this time through. But if you're new to the series, read on, and we'll dig a little deeper into some of the other aspects of the games.
The Grand Theft Auto series started out as a quaint 2D series seen from an overhead perspective. Many of the gameplay elements found in the 3D games, such as the free-roaming attitude and mission-based gameplay, were formulated and improved upon back in the first two GTA games. The older GTA games were certainly fantastic in their day but were easily shuffled under the rug in favor of more graphically impressive fare. GTAIII solved that problem by taking the series to 3D. Now you have a huge, realistic-looking city to drive around in, causing as much chaos as you see fit. Both games follow roughly the same format, though Vice City does it with a little more pizzazz. Missions show up on your map, and you can head over to those locations to start a mission at almost any time. These missions, which are usually assigned by your friendly neighborhood crime boss, might be as simple as giving a prostitute a ride across town. But some of the more complex missions--more of which surface in Vice City than in III--might have you manning the turret on or driving a speedboat, on the way to pick up some drugs, while taking fire from helicopters, or using a sniper rifle to cover a friend while he attempts to plant a bomb on a boat. Completing missions gives you cash and, in most cases, opens up the next mission in the story. Since most of what you're doing involves crime, various types of law enforcement will attempt to take you down along the way. If you get bored with the missions, you can drive around the city and attempt to find cash another way, such as by driving a taxi or a fire truck. Or maybe you might just want to beat up prostitutes and steal their money. It's your call, and you can play as neatly or as messily as you like.
The graphical improvements help what would otherwise be a two-year-old game stand up to modern releases.
That sort of freedom is really what sets these games apart from the pack. Sure, the games continue down a linear path, so you'll eventually have to complete specific missions to advance the plot. And other games may offer large worlds to play in. But the Grand Theft Auto games actually give you something to do in their large spaces. With plenty of optional missions and other things to do, you never feel like you're being forced down one story path. It's easy to spend hours just driving around and getting into trouble, then seeing how long you can avoid capture. The games' physics also have a lot to do with making them great. The driving in the game is nicely done, and the collisions are appropriately dramatic. The control takes some getting used to, especially if you're comfortable with another version of the game, but once you've warmed up to it, it works just as well as any other version of the game, which is to say, well enough to get the job done.
GTAIII places you in the role of a nameless, voiceless thug and 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 his girlfriend during a heist. You take the fall for the crime but manage to escape when a posse of thugs overtakes 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. As you proceed by completing these tasks, you'll bounce from crime boss to crime boss and play on various sides of a war between organized-crime families.
Two of the most value-packed games released this generation for the price of one? Sign us up.