Now that I have completely backed out of my support of Sega (sorry Peter, your apology letter didn’t help either!), I had to look elsewhere to find a title to make up for a decent replacement for Shenmue 2. Never did I realize that it was right in front of me all along. When I first got into Grand Theft Auto 3, I was immediately impressed with the complete freedom I had over the entire environment; even more so than I was when I played Shenmue last year. Granted my freedom was slightly limited by the storyline before, but it is not the case here, because Grand Theft Auto 3 can’t be held back by the already amazing storyline that it is based on.
And what a storyline it is. Liberty City is without a doubt the worst city in the world: a three-borough hellhole controlled by drugs, racketeering, prostitution, and corrupt police officers. After being betrayed by your girlfriend and left for dead after a midnight bank robbery, you are on your way to the slammer when the paddy wagon is hijacked by a Columbian drug cartel as it crosses the bridge between the Portland and Staunton Island districts. To make matters worse, the bridge is eventually destroyed by the same cartel attack. Fortunately some assistance comes in the form of a demolition expert named 8-Ball. He offers a safe house and gets you a connection with the Leone family Mafia.
While revenge against the tramp that set you up is the primary objective, there is a ton of things that can be done along the way to get there. As you move up the crime hierarchy, more contacts will approach you for newer missions such as rigging a car to blow up when someone enters it (a la Godfather) or perform a drive-by shooting. Major crime factions such as the Yakuza, the Chinese Triad, the Yardies (a Jamaican posse), and the aforementioned Columbian Cartel and Leone Mafia will partake in wars of their own, with you in the middle and even hiring you to play a pivotal role.
But if you don’t want to get right into the heart of the game, not to worry. Want to just take a car out for a joyride, then do so and get a feel of the whole city. Want to vent out a little anger on the world? Take a sniper rifle, locate a secluded area, and start picking off all those in sight. Need extra cash, but don’t want to risk a lot on a mission? Then boost a cab and take some fares in a grittier version of Crazy Taxi (only this time, the car can be damaged and passengers will flee in terror if too damaged). How about snatching a cop car (providing a policeman isn’t driving it. Trust me) and delivering a little vigilance, Chase HQ style? Or how about jacking an ambulance and delivering the sick and injured to the hospital? There is so much that GTA3 has to offer that it can’t be completely explained in a simple review.
As many people know, the first two GTA titles were presented in an overhead perspective, but this time it’s in full 3D, and the change is definitely for the better. As I said before, Liberty City is a full, living, breathing, virtual city. Tons of pedestrians, be them gangsters, students, whores, alternate lifestyles (Village People imitators), and normal city folk traverse the same streets loaded with 70 different types of cars. All of these cars can be hijacked, providing they are not locked (a few are, but not many), and as long as the cops don’t see you. The new ride can be operated almost instantly.
But if the cops do see you, expect a small chase. A Wanted meter displays your current felony level in six stages. Stage one will result in the minor chase mentioned earlier, but at two more cops will get in the act. Stage three introduces a police helicopter (complete with sharpshooter), and Stage four will have them setting up roadblocks. The heavy resistance comes at level five (usually reached after offing a few cops or nuking their cars), when the FBI will come after you in unmarked cars. But the more dire circumstances (at level 6) will feature full military intervention. As I mentioned, it’s easy to get away on a level one car, but at higher levels the police AI is not to be messed with. They are almost suicidal in their efforts to bring you in.
As for the 3D engine, it is very impressive, especially when the rain starts to fall. It might not be Gran Turismo 3 weather effects, but it is still a sight to behold. Even better, the game features a blur effect to enhance the appearance while driving. It does slow the game down a bit, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.
As for the sound, what can I say but possible soundtrack of the year? Let me start off with the voice acting. Do the names Michael Madsen, Michael Rappaort, Robert Loggia, and Debi Mazar sound familiar? If not, how about Joe Pantoliano (aka Ralphie Cifaretto, the Gladiator-loving, whore bashing, adulterating troublemaker from the Sopranos) playing the role he does best, as an owner of a Mafia-based sex club? All the voice acting is top notch.
The only thing that can top the voice acting is the music itself. With nine different radio stations and a combined length of 3 and a half hours, there is so much to listen to that doing so is a minigame in itself. Every genre of music is present in each of the stations: Head Radio (standard rock), Double Cleff FM (opera, perfect for those quiet Mafia whack jobs), Rise FM (techno music), K-Jah (reggae, again perfect for Jamaican posse hits), MSX (dance tracks), Lips 106 (commercial pop), Game Radio (rap), Flashback (80s soundtrack from the movie Scarface, a great choice), and my personal favorite, Chatterbox.
As the name says, Chatterbox is nothing but talk radio, but the take on talk radio is so perfectly lampooned. Where else can you hear a British guy wanting a nanny since he’s been "a very naughty boy" or learn about an organization called the Citizens Raging Against Phones (C.R.A.P.)? I only scratched the surface of what this station has, but it needs to be heard in its entirety to be believed. In addition, take a listen to all the commercials that are added as well. I would like to know who came up with some of these ads, because they definitely need to find a nice quiet room in a padded cell. They are definitely some of the most demented commercials I have ever heard, both real and fictional, and they need to be praised for adding to GTA3’s overall atmosphere.
Lastly it goes without saying (though it’s been said over and over again) that GTA3 is definitely NOT for the kiddies. It’s not just because of the violence (although there is tons of it), but the storyline is definitely adult as well, with plots involving the Mafia, drugs, prostitution rings, and everything that makes mob movies what they are.
My say is this: if you cannot tolerate movies such as Scarface, Goodfellas, Casino, or you cringe at HBO when The Sopranos are on, then you might want to stay away from GTA3.
However, for those who love mob films as much as I do (I’m still waiting for Sopranos Season 2 to come out on DVD), and for those who own both a Dreamcast and PS2 and feel screwed over by the cancellation of Shenmue 2, then GTA3 is definitely worth a look. All the free-roaming gameplay of Shenmue mixed with a violent storyline similar to the Sopranos are mixed into one amazing little package. No title exemplifies the qualities of a true 5-gem title like GTA3 does.