Today if you were to say the name Grand Theft Auto you’d be conjuring images of detailed cities, fast cars, crime and destruction, all rendered in 3D that your character is able to run around in to your heart’s content. But that’s not how the series started. When it first came out, Grand Theft Auto was a simple two dmensional top down game that saw the payer driving around town causing havoc. Whilst the spirit of the series was there, the things people think of now were still absent.
This all changed in 2001, however, when Grand Theft Auto III arrived on the Playstation 2. To say that the game is a game changer is something of an understatement. The innovations introduced in this title would not only change the Grand Theft Auto franchise forever, but would influence other open world games to do similar things. It is perhaps not too much hyperbole to claim that Grand Theft Auto III quickly became one of the most influential video games ever made.
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Set in the fictional location of Liberty City, loosely based upon New York, players take control of Claude, a career criminal who is betrayed by his girlfriend and left for dead during a robbery. After being arrested, Claude is able to escape police custody during a prison transfer; releasing him onto the streets of Liberty City to try and rebuild his life. By befriending and working with different criminals across the city the player is able to transform Claude from a nobody into one of the biggest criminals in the city.
Thanks in part to the new freedoms allowed by the technical improvements of the Playstiation 2, the development team were able to push the game further than any previous entry in the series. Not only were they able to create large, interactive environments for the players to engage with, but they were able to incorporate thousands of lines of dialogue,, not just in pre-animated cut scenes, but across the game world where pedestrians would wander freely and interact with the player. Whilst pretty basic by today’s standards it was groundbreaking at the time, and the game soon won critical and public acclaim for the level of detail and care that developers had given it.
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Unfortunately, the game wasn’t loved by all, and thanks to the player freedoms to go wherever they wanted and to do whatever they wanted, the game was criticised for promoting violence and criminal tendencies. Even before the game hit shelves there were media outlets condemning its existence. Game Spy reportedly gave the game an award for being the ‘Most Offensive Game of the Year’, and claimed that it was not only ‘reprehensible’, but questioned if it deserved a place within the games industry. They weren’t the only ones, as complaints about the game found their way into several publications, including The Boston Globe, and The New York Times.
The outcry against the game didn’t hurt the sales of the game largely, and if anything it brought more attention to it and helped with sales. However, after initially being released in Australia the game was soon banned after being reevaluated, and Rockstar were forced to remove all copies from the continent. A more sanitised version was released there the following year, with the ability to sleep with sex workers being one of the key features removed. The original and unaltered game wouldn’t be released in Australia again until 2019.
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Despite all of these issues the game sold well upon release, and quickly became the highest selling game of 2001, and the second highest selling game of the next year, losing out to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Within a year of its release it had sold more than six million copies and made over $250 million. Grand Theft Auto was firmly established as a series to watch, and Grand Theft Auto III received numerous game of the year awards.
Two decades on it’s easy to see the influence the game went on to have on other open world games, and to find a lot of the criticism against it laughable, but when it first came out it was still a huge gamble for the developers; but a gamble that paid off. Now the game sits firmly on many lists of greatest games of all time, and recently it was announced that it was getting yet another re-release, this time as part of a remastered celebration of it’s 20th anniversary. Despite being an older game now, Grand Theft Auto III is one that’s going to be with us for many more years to come.
Grand Theft Auto III was first released in the USA on 22nd October 2001, and in the UK on 26th October 2001.