Grand Theft Auto III Review

Grand Theft Auto III is a faithful port of a truly exceptional game.

The Video Review

Executive Editor Greg Kasavin fills in for Erik Wolpaw to tell us about the third installment of the Grand Theft Auto series.

Since its release last October for the PlayStation 2, Grand Theft Auto III has become one of the most popular games ever made. Far superior to its predecessors, GTAIII let you go on a free-form crime spree in a surprisingly lifelike city. It was so successful that, even amidst stiff competition from games such as Halo and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, it earned GameSpot's Video Game of the Year award, both from GameSpot's editors and its readers alike--and the accolades didn't stop there. Now, publisher Rockstar Games has finally released a version for the PC. And while it has somewhat steep hardware requirements and doesn't offer any significant new content, it doesn't manage to screw anything up either. Six months after its initial release and in a relatively unchanged form, Grand Theft Auto III still remains a great, great game.

The basic appeal of GTAIII is the ageless fascination with using firecrackers to blow up model cars, staging horrific toy-train wrecks, and lighting plastic army men on fire. It sets you down in the middle of a detailed clockwork world, presents you with a physics model and a wide variety of interesting objects to interact with, and then gives you the freedom to smash them into each other and enjoy the resulting mayhem. Within this metasandbox mode, you're also presented with a series of missions, which tell the ongoing story of your life of crime among the game's cast of unsavory characters.

While these 73 missions provide a proper plot and a beginning, middle, and end to the game, you can attempt them at your leisure. In between the missions, you're free to do whatever you want, either on foot or in any number of vehicles, most of which you can relinquish from their owners at the touch of a button. Other than the always satisfying manufacture of general chaos, there are plenty of more-structured tasks to undertake. For instance, if you steal a cab, you can begin accepting fares in what amounts to a nearly complete re-creation of Crazy Taxi. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances also each have timed subgames associated with them. In addition, there are 20 mass-destruction challenges (called "rampages"), 100 hidden packages to find, and 20 cinematic superjumps hidden throughout the city. Completing these side tasks grants you various bonuses, ranging from access to extra weapons to cash bonuses.

The real star of the game, however, is the environment itself--a corrupt municipality called Liberty City. Scotland-based developer DMA Design (recently renamed Rockstar North) has done an amazing job of creating a living city dense with detail. The streets are busy with both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Time passes, the sun rises and sets, and different weather patterns move in and out. And unlike in most games, you can actually drive to the skyscrapers on the horizon several miles away. What's more amazing is that the huge city is presented as a virtually seamless world. There is a short one-to-two-second loading time (down from the PlayStation 2's five to seven seconds) between the city's three districts, but otherwise the only breaks for loading occur momentarily before mission cutscenes.

The PC version permits you to play the game in resolutions as high as 1600x1200, a huge leap over the relatively low-res PlayStation 2 version. In addition, the textures have been reworked and are now much sharper. Details, like some store signs, that were blurry on the PS2 are now clear enough to read easily. The polygon counts, on the other hand, are unchanged. The higher resolution makes the simple geometry stand out, especially on the character models. However, the impressive view distance and general amount of activity on the screen counter the somewhat chunky models. Pop-up is a more serious problem. The "bubble" in which active objects in the world exist ends long before the horizon does. On a long stretch of straight road, vehicles and people simply materialize in the distance. On the low-res, fuzzier PS2 version, this effect was much less noticeable. It would have been nice if the object draw distance had been made adjustable, but it's more of a minor visual distraction than something that actively interferes with gameplay.

It's worth noting that the enhanced graphics come at a price. We tested the game on the "recommended" system--a 700Mhz CPU with 128MB of RAM and a 32MB graphics card--and were required to turn every detail to its lowest setting to make the game playable. And even then, it stuttered enough that the PS2 version seemed like the better alternative. It's hard to imagine that Grand Theft Auto III would run at all on the so-called minimum specs. Fortunately, when we tested the game on a higher-end system, with a newer graphics card and a faster processor, we experienced significantly better results.

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