Back in my undergraduate days, I worked at a Sam Goody. Never heard of it? Well, that just goes to show that charging $5 more per CD than anyone else selling music doesn’t constitute a particularly solid business strategy. But in trying to make up for dropping sales in overpriced music, they tried selling video games. Shortly after remodeling the store, adding the demo consoles, and gussying up the place all nice and pretty, I began to notice trending video games, two of which pop into mind as phenomenally stronger than anything else I sold to unsuspecting customers. One of these, Madden games, tricked people into buying the same shitty game year after year, only to disregard it as soon as the next installment came out. But even more popular than games doomed to life as a second-rate coaster, Grand Theft Auto III simply would not stay on our shelves.
Of course I took note. “Why does everyone want this game?” I asked. “Should I play it to find out?” Well, I didn’t. But I did hear about it. Open-world. Free-ranging. And prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. Also, controversy. Controversy always makes for a good game, right? Well, I’d like to pose a question to any readers who may have played the game in the early 2000s–did you actually like Grand Theft Auto? Can you still pop in the disk and relive the good times? Or, like Goldeneye, do you look at it and puzzle over what the hell you ever saw in it?
Reading reviews, wikipedia articles, and the like make GTA III sound like the messiah of sandbox games. Freedom! Non-linear gameplay! Wide-open world! You can do anything you want! To a certain extent, I see how they can make those claims. GTA III gives the player complete freedom to steal any car and drive around any street and hit anyone you want! Some examples of the variety of things you can do here include: Steal a taxi and get paid to drive people to their destinations, steal an ambulance and get paid to drive people to the hospital, steal a police car and get paid to drive around looking for criminals, or steal a fire truck and get paid to drive around looking for fires. I don’t want to describe this game as stupid, but what it lacks in imagination, variety, and any enjoyment whatsoever, it more than makes up for in tedium, repetition, and boredom.
I went in expecting a crime spree game. Something like Scarface pointing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the Godfather while Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds, some L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction type stuff. Instead I get Cars, without the cute CGI or Pixar wit. GTA III basically reinvents the driving/racing genre. Imagine Mario Kart, if every so often Mario pulled Toad out of his car and stomped on his face. The game also uses the exact same driving physics and controls as every driving game ever. The challenge in driving under this system lies somewhere between “playing a 3D platformer while blindfolded” and “trying to steer a hockey puck with a leaf blower during a hurricane.” Despite the amount of time the game puts you in the driver’s seat, it does occasionally let you get out of the car and engage in a rudimentary form of good, old-fashioned gang violence, but the awkward interface makes aiming feel like target shooting during a grand mal seizure. Despite the contract you took out to assassinate…apparently a ramen vendor…the game’s target selection program generally assumes that the innocent bystanders pose a greater threat than the thugs charging at you with automatic rifles.
Odd as this may sound, GTA III feels less like a video game and more like a board game. I didn’t see much of a story line going on, other than the main character robbing a bank, his girlfriend shooting him, and then his friends busting him out of prison. From there, you look for work, and you visit certain bosses over and over, taking missions in a pre-determined, very non-non-linear fashion, until that boss has no work for you anymore. You can lose these missions in a number of ways, such as running out of time, getting shot, your car exploding, or getting caught by the police. These don’t really pose a threat so much as a minor inconvenience. Getting killed just makes you start over at the hospital, and despite your recent jailbreak, the police seem to have more of a catch-and-release program going on, and a string of murder, reckless driving and grand theft auto merit no more punishment than having to go slightly out of your way while running errands.
Also, veteran players may have noticed odd claims by now, so in full disclosure, I didn’t actually beat this game. In fact, I didn’t get very far in it at all, for a combination of two very good reasons. First of all, I didn’t find myself enjoying the game very much. Driving sims just don’t do it for me. I can barely stomach the thought of real driving. But I’ve finished boring games before. However, ramping up the difficulty to “harder than Charlie Sheen on a Viagra overdose” may not have endeared me to completion. After three days and roughly ten hours of gameplay, I had completed maybe seven or eight missions total. Maybe I just needed more practice, or more experience with driving games. Or maybe the damn game shouldn’t make you repeat absolutely everything every time something bad happens. Oh no! Ran out of time! Looks like I have to visit the boss again, watch the cut scene, go steal a car, look for the gun store, find a gun, look for the ramen stand, aim for the bad guys, shoot a few pedestrians by mistake, then get shot to death while the ramen noodle man hops in his car for a car chase that won’t happen. The sheer amount of time required for each individual mission, combined with the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the missions to begin with and the rage-inducing effect of the game’s shitty soundtrack of radio stations, indicated certain health benefits in walking away from this one.
Grand Theft Auto III which wins my coveted “Sarah Palin Award for Intelligence in Game Design,” cost me $2.99 at Savers. I think I paid too much. However, I also picked up a $2.99 copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So…I at least have to make a perfunctory attempt at that one in order to clear off my shelf full of games I bought and haven’t yet played. Joy.