Monday, May 22, 2017

Retroulette Special: Grand Theft Auto III

I know what you're thinking.

(Or probably not, but for the sake of this next sentence I'm going to suppose that this is the case.)

Grand Theft Auto III? Isn't that a little too new for Retroulette?

The short answer is no. Because this is my site and I make the rules.

The long answer is an answer that is really more of a question. Or more accurately all of a question, because it has a question mark at the end and everything.

What defines a retro game?

Is it based on an amount of time? Does a game become retro when it celebrates a certain birthday? Or is it based on console generations? Is a game from three generations back "retro", while one from two generations is merely old? Is it a graphics thing? Does simply being pixelated make something retro?

These are the questions that have haunted me since starting the Retroulette experiment. And I still don't really have a satisfying answer. When I started this website in 2012, it was pretty well agreed that games on the NES, SNES or Genesis were definitely retro. So I mostly stuck to that era. But what about PlayStation and Nintendo 64 games? Those definitely seemed too new to me, even though the PlayStation was, by then, 17 years old. That's a long ass time. Especially in the gaming industry. Even now, when the PlayStation is 22 years old, the games seem somehow less retro. Yet I've reviewed games for Retroulette that were much newer than that. Roswell Conspiracies: Aliens, Myths & Legends was, at the time of review, merely 11 years old. But look at that game. It's old and shitty looking, though it probably came out old and shitty looking.

Consider this.

In the above example, Metal Gear for the NES was definitely retro by the time Metal Gear Solid 2 was released. Grand Theft Auto III is now quite a bit older than that was. Hell, some Xbox 360 games are almost as old as that.

 So, while I'm not quite ready to ready to call Gears of War a retro game, I think I'll just have to admit to myself that I'm aging quickly and so is everything I love and all of this is meaningless in the end.

On to the game. This is the original PlayStation 2 release. This game plays on damn phones now, something I can't imagine the creators could have predicted.

The game boots immediately into the Matrix.

Oh damn I guess this game is more retro than I thought.

Rockstar Games sure has come a long way since this. When this game came out, Rockstar Games was most notable for publishing Jim Henson's Muppets on Game Boy Color. After this, they were treated like......well.....well, like rock stars, I guess.

The game then moves into a jazzy intro movie, done in a cinematic style that games just weren't really doing at the time. Games booted up and played a montage of dragon punches before asking you to insert coins or some shit. This looks like the opening of a French crime drama from the late 1970s.

After this, the game goes into a loading screen that can could most mercifully be described as interminable. But the game doesn't load much after that, so as long as you boot it up you could get a few errands done before coming back to a relatively load free experience.

The game opens with a bank robbery. A trio of thieves runs out of the bank. Suddenly...BETRAYAL!

Meanwhile, the man says nothing, which will become a trend. One wonders if perhaps a lack of communication had something to do with the failing of this relationship. If you can't trust bank robbers though, who can you trust?

She shoots him and leaves him for dead. Unsurprisingly, with the bear-sized meat claws in which she's clumsily attempting to grapple her guns into, she manages to not land a killing blow. She escapes, having only damaged the part of his brain that controls speech (which he wasn't using anyway).

Frankly I'm surprised she managed to find the firing mechanism at all.

He gets arrested, and takes the fall for the whole operation.

It must have been a long, uneventful interrogation.

On the way to prison, a gang blows up part of the bridge with the police convoy in transit, and charges in with guns to break out another inmate. Our plucky hero (let's just call him...Claude) and another prisoner use this opportunity to escape. The police are wholly unprepared for this scenario, apparently having not seen the 1997 Chris Tucker classic Money Talks, where this exact thing happens.

The other guy happens to know a place where they can lay low, which is about 15 seconds away from where you busted out of police custody. I wonder how this mastermind got caught the first time.

His idea of "laying low" is to meet a guy named Luigi, and immediately start taking on other criminal activities.

Poor Claude. He desperately wants to say no, but he just bring himself to say the words.
 So less than a minute after breaking out of prison, a DAY after being busted for bank robbery, you're taking punk-ass jobs from the mafia. Missions in this game consist of a few things.

A) Driving somewhere and killing somebody.
B) Driving somewhere and not killing somebody.

You pick up missions from all around town, making contacts everywhere very quickly for a man who says nothing. Including missions at random payphones that start ringing.

The first thing that strikes me when let free into the open world is just how Grand Theft Auto this is. The series has come a long way since GTA III came out and fundamentally changed the industry from the ground up, but all the pieces are right here. Just in a less polished or slightly broken state. You hijack cars and drive around a 3D open world filled with missions and side jobs and hidden packages while listening to fake in-game radio stations that play music and satirize American culture. Unlike later games though, where well curated licensed music on the radio stations is one of the highlights, the stations in this game are filled with a mix of who Rockstar could afford at the time. That means a bunch of songs from bands no one has heard from before or since. The station I listened to almost the whole game was just 5 or so songs from the Scarface soundtrack, on loop, forever.

Driving in this game is a challenge in itself. The cars seem absolutely insistent that they be upside down at any moment, and they are very persuasive. The problem with this, other than the obvious, is that for some bizarre reason cars fucking explode after a few seconds of being flipped over.

Hot Wheels are as good as grenades in this universe.

After you get out of your car and have to shoot some fools, things get even worse. The shooting in this game is, to put it mildly, abysmal. Shooting is primarily done via a lock on system that only occasionally and probably accidentally aims at the person you want to shoot. The camera is a disgrace. There is no direct control of the camera, even though the PlayStation 2 has a perfectly serviceable right analog stick that the game seems almost scared to use. The only way to move the camera is to press L1 to center it behind your character. It will nevertheless get caught up on every piece of geometry in the game. Some guns can be aimed manually in first person, but never the ones you want, and the aiming sensitivity is terrible. It took sometimes 10 seconds just to line up a shot as I swung wildly in every direction. And to somehow make lining up a target even more of a headache, the aiming is inverted. And there's no option to change it.



This inverted vs normal debate has been going on for decades now. And it will be going on long after the Sun explodes and swallows this entire planet. But I would be remiss if I did not use this opportunity to tell you that if you use inverted controls, and aren't even a little sorry for being who you are, that you're everything that's wrong with society and humanity as a whole.

The game is also just very hard in general. I ain't no punk-ass newbie who just stepped off the gaming boat. I've been at this thing for a while. But a great deal of the missions have the added challenge of being timed, or charging you with protecting a vehicle that, if you so much as stare at its steering wheel, rolls over faster than a well trained puppy.

After you fail a mission for the fiftieth time, you're left stranded wherever you ended up. If you want to retry the mission, you've got to find your way back to whoever gave it to you in the first place. And finding your way can be more difficult than it sounds, as there isn't a map of the city to look at. You're given a minimap in the corner of the screen, but if an icon is on the edge of that thing, it could be 10 seconds or 10 minutes away and you wouldn't know until you get there. In some missions (that will be timed of course), you see objective markers on the map. So you head in that direction only to find that it's actually two islands over and you have to turn around to find a bridge.

At least you'll have all of that cash to dry your tears. Making money in this game is easy. Ludicrously so. A few hours after breaking out of prison with nothing to your name, Claude becomes a multimillionaire. And yet you'll still spend your time doing dirty work for people and living in squalor.

I'm sure he's got a swimming pool filled with gold coins in there somewhere.
There's ultimately nothing to spend your millions on anyway, beyond ammo for your guns which runs a few hundred dollars at most. Your only real reward for doing missions is the satisfaction of a job well done.

This game, when viewed in the context of 2017, has a lot of problems. And yet, at the same time, it's very hard to still not be wowed by what this game accomplished. Small and flat as it may be by today's standards, Grand Theft Auto III presents the player with a living open world and gives the freedom to do a lot of crazy shit. This game inspired so many others, it would be easy to play it today and wonder what the big deal was. But it still feels fun, in the way that sandbox games will always be fun. It also feels important.


  1. I still want to know who's paying him for extinguishing fires. It's a world where you can be a vigilante and wanted by the cops at the same time.

    Some of the other radio stations are good, not Flashback FM good, but still good. Lips 106 and Chatterbox FM represent!

  2. So... What made you go back to gta3 of all games?
    Anyways, perfect write up as always.

  3. teh bekka and I just decided to play through the series out of nowhere really. Have beaten GTA3 and Vice City (review forthcoming) and am 2/3 through San Andreas right now.

    1. San Andreas is too hard. The game really peaked at the best mission, Life's a Beach by OG Loc.

  4. Wow, you guys rock!!(star) i habe never completed a single game. Excited to see what differences each game gave, and how it shaped gta today!

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