Grand Theft Auto III (PS2) / Grand Theft Auto III: Definitive Edition (PS4) Review

Well, as promised last year I’m now going to look at the PS2 era of Grand Theft Auto games here and there, starting with GTA III. Now, the elephant in the room: the poor reception of the Definitive Edition, which I used for my fresh play through here. Thankfully the PS4 Pro version of GTA III was a very fun and pleasant experience for me, it seems like most of the issues stem from the later two games (San Andreas especially) so if you’re expecting me to roast the Definitive Edition you’ll be let down… well, at least for now, by the sounds of it. So let’s look at one of those rare games that you just can’t deny revolutionised the whole game industry…

Background:

Getting missions the old fashioned way! (PS4)

Grand Theft Auto III released on the PS2 on October 23rd 2001 in the US and three days later in Europe. A PC release came on May 21st/24th 2002 and a port to the original XBOX arrived on October 31st 2003 in America and January 2nd 2004 in the PAL Territories. It was also ported to MAC and various Android and iOS phones and tablets. Versions of the mobile port were also popped onto the PS3 and PS4’s digital store, though in the case of the latter, it was nearly unplayable due to completely unstable frame rate…

The “Definitive Edition” was released on PS4, PS5, XBOX One, XBOX Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC on November 11th 2021. It’s safe to say the Definitive Edition launch was rough, especially Vice City and San Andreas, though patches have improved SOME things about those games, a lot of people still aren’t happy. I myself was very happy with GTA III Definitive Edition but maybe that because it was less complex than later games so had less to go wrong. I guess I’ll see when I eventually get round to the two sequels down the road…

Gameplay:

Dealing with the police, also the old fashioned way! (PS2… I think? Not sure why the HUD is yellow…)

What blew me away at the time was that gameplay was very much like the previous GTA games, just in a 3D space. You can walk, run, jump and punch freely in an open world environment, something we take for granted nowadays but at the time the very idea of freely walking around a 3D city with no actual funnelled direction was mind-blowing. Sadly retrospectively the controls show how it was among the first of its kind because they’re, erm, rather rough. Walking, running and especially punching is very stilted and awkwardly animated, driving is done with the face buttons rather than the now-traditional shoulder buttons and the steering is not very responsive, and man-oh-man, the aiming. When you have a gun you can aim at hostiles and it will sort-of aim you in the right direction but otherwise it freely moves and its not accurate. Bearing in mind this is pre-cover system so often you have to just stand in the open or hope to stand and fire in front of a box when shooting, because you can’t run and shoot, so… It’s one of those things where I didn’t think anything of it at the time but going back to it was … not very fun. It also has to be said that while there are boats you can’t swim so falling into water is instant death, and there are no flying vehicles, beyond one that’s barely able to get off the ground. This is early days stuff, don’t forget!

The Definitive Edition fixes a lot of these issues. Driving is now done with the left and right bumper buttons, the aiming snap auto-aims on foes and stays there until you let go of the aim button and they’ve added a weapon wheel to switch between weapons on the fly, which is a modern convenience that I didn’t realise how much I used. Obviously you still die from falling in water and there are no flying vehicles as that kind of addition would break the gameplay completely… They also added a feature to the mini-map on the HUD where you can now access a map on the pause menu and have the ability to put markers that will give you a GPS-like path to get to it, something added to Vice City but was absent in this original game and a VERY welcome new feature to this version. To me though my favourite addition is that when you die or otherwise fail a mission a screen pops up asking if you want to retry and then you’re right back at the start of the mission. So no cheap checkpoints that didn’t exist previously, but also you get to try the mission again with the weapons, armour and vehicle you started it with, rather than have to recollect all of that and head to the mission marker to give it a second go like in the original version.

You know it’s been a good mission when there’s a pile of (weirdly identical) bodies on the floor! (PS4)

Speaking of missions, GTA III still feels like the older games in mission structure as you take jobs from various different crime organisations as a mute character with very little in the way of an overarching plot (see below for what little there is!) The missions are accessed on the open world map by little letters signifying where to go and you activate them by walking into a glowing ring of light, watch a cutscene and then off you go! They range from killing a certain person / group of people, driving to somewhere and/or picking something up and delivering it somewhere, or occasionally something a bit different to that. Occasionally. Like I said, it’s clear the effort went into making the first true open world and all the controls rather than revolutionising the story mode with greater variety at the same time. That’ll come in Vice City! There are also classic side missions like Kill Frenzies, street racing, missions where you play as a vigilante, ambulance driver and fireman, and collecting Hidden Packages, with every 10 packages giving you a free weapon outside your safehouses. That’s another thing actually, you get a safehouse to save your game progress on each of the three islands, so no auto-save feature (apart from the Definitive Edition, which auto-saves at the start of each mission) but at least a manual save that’s easy to access.

Grrrrrand Theft Auto!! …. Oh wait…. Vvvvvvvvigilante! That’s better. (PS2)

The police wanted level system is also present, complete with six levels (three levels of police, fourth level: SWAT, fifth level: FBI and sixth level: Army) that goes up the more crimes you commit and goes down naturally when in hiding, if you collect police bribes that are scattered about or get your car sprayed a different colour at a “Pay and Spray”. You start off with just one island unlocked and the other two slowly become available as you progress the story. If you read my review of GTA2 you saw how much I praised the gang system, where the more you worked for one gang your trust with them rose and the opinion of the other gangs sour, well GTA III has a similar system… except it’s really poorly implemented. As you do the main missions and some of the side quests via the classic ringing public phone, you’ll end up on the outs with each of the game’s various crime organisations and street gangs and this time there is literally nothing you can do about it. So by the time you leave the first island it’s a hell hole full of people just shooting you, running up to you with baseball bats or blowing up your car with a shotgun blast. The same goes with island two as you leave it, and so on. That means free roaming at the end of the game isn’t actually very fun as this is still the era of “when you die you lose all your weapons as well as a chunk of money” so you’re be fully equipped and out to have a laugh and then get killed by a bunch of random gun-totting mafia men and there goes all your weapons! This was unsurprisingly removed in later games. Now there are also cheats you can input, so post-game messing about was still fun as you could just give yourself all the weapons you wanted after you die, but still… annoying system in general!

*Sigh* All I wanted to do was walk down the bloody street!! (PS4)

The game is quite difficult at times, especially the original. In fact I’ll put my hand up and say I never completed GTA III at the time, I got to the mission “Espresso 2 Go” and couldn’t do it, at least not in time before GTA Vice City released less than a year later. Admittedly being the first true open world I was having far too much fun just driving around and getting into shoot outs, but still. I did complete it via the Definitive Edition a couple of weeks ago, but with the improved mini-map and the advent of the easier accessible internet with a map of where the mission objectives are located “Espresso 2 Go” was a breeze, and the two missions that followed were comparatively easy… It’s amazing the difference a few little changes can make!

Graphics and Sound:

Jeez, was that small plane I just shot down carrying a nuke or something?! (PS4)

In terms of the PS2 era GTA III obviously everything is a bit plain, undetailed and very jagged, with an INTENTIONAL comedic look to the over-the-top characters seen in cutscenes. As I keep saying though at the time I was blown away by being able to just walk around, randomly punch civilians and pop into a nearby car to drive around where ever I want to in a 3D space, and the graphics at the time in general were great.

The Definitive Edition has high rez textures (though a lot of them have been automatically upscaled so look wrong or have incorrect spelling on them…), a great modern lighting system and improved draw distance. They’ve thankfully kept the INTENTIONAL cartoony nature of the characters to go along with their OTT personalities, though I will admit some of them look a little bit too plastic in appearance.

Sound-wise across both editions is great, and was once again really something else in 2001. The voice acting is great, the sound effects and random pedestrian comments fun (even the gay stereotype randomly quoting Village People songs as you bump into him still gets a chuckle, you wouldn’t get away with that nowadays!) and the radio is full of genuinely funny sketches framed as talk radio segments and a good selection of music. GTA III’s soundtrack is so comparatively smaller and lacking in major licensed tracks that the Definitive Edition didn’t have to drop any of it due to changes in licensing like it sadly did for Vice City and San Andreas, so it gets an even score across the board there.

Story:

Claude considers a new way to steal money, then realises it isn’t as violent, so moves on (PS2 via the PS4 port of the mobile version! Yes, this was the only screenshot I took before I gave up…)

Claude is a regular low-tier criminal who had been teaming with his girlfriend Catalina for years when she betrayed and shot him in the middle of a bank job. A while later and Claude escapes from a prison van and enters the criminal underworld of Liberty City, soon working for the Leone family against the Triads, then against the Leone family as a member of the Yakuza, then working for rich business man Donald Love during which he frames the Columbian Cartel for the death of a high ranking Yakuza member and then finally by himself while he takes out the Cartel, which was led by Catalina, therefore getting revenge. So basically in order to get his vengeance our mute protagonist kills damn near every high ranking criminal in the city, in fact if you do the bonus phone box missions you also anger the Yardies and some local street gangs by similarly killing a bunch of them, so… John Wick eat your heart out, I guess!

Thoughts Then:

I’m pretty sure this was one of the original promo shots. It certainly rings a bell with me! (PS2)

I vividly remember seeing a half-page article about GTA III in GamesMaster magazine and me and my friends saying “you can’t do a GTA game in full 3D! What are you going to do, walk around and steal cars in a big city? No way they’d be able to do that on a PS2!” and man was I ever happy to be wrong. I was blown away by GTA III, not just the open world-ness but it was also one of two games I got with my PS2 at Christmas 2001 (the other being WWF Smackdown! Just Bring It!, if you were wondering) so the graphical improvement was also amazing. I played it to death, but only for nine or ten months because when Vice City came out in Autumn 2002 I brought it straight away, and it immediately made this obsolete. Still, it can’t be understated how much this game blew me away, and how much it changed gaming as we know it…

Thoughts Now:

Look at that wet surface reflection! The PS2 wishes it could’ve done that! … and a lot of other things if it had access to two decades worth of tech development, to be fair… (PS4)

I enjoyed my trip back to GTA III with the Definitive Edition. It still had the over-the-top humour and parody aspect but with a few modern conveniences. It was nostalgic but less frustrating than it would be if I’d gone back to the PS2 version, which was the original idea a few years ago (seriously, I brought the PS2 Classics digital version for the PS4 then it barely ran so I gave up, assuming I’d just have to run the PS2 version via original hardware, or an emulator. Which ever would’ve been easier) It still has to be said though that the game has issues even in 2022 even with the new version, mostly the gun mechanics which while better that the PS2 still miss things like ducking and taking cover, plus aspects of the driving and general poor animations make sure you know that at its core it’s still very much a 20 year old game. So I won’t really be going back to it, though I will say the humour is still on point, so at least there is still some fun to be had!

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