Friday, May 2, 2008

Console Game Review - Grand Theft Auto 3 Trilogy

Let's get this out of the way first thing - I haven't bought GTA 4. I want to get it so bad my teeth hurt, but sadly, I had to choose between that and cigars. And since I'm hopelessly addicted to nicotine, the cigars won. Again.

So instead of telling you how cool the new Grand Theft Auto is, I'm going to regale you with my views of the three games that came before. I've been thinking a lot about how much I loved those games, and what made them so fantastic, and so I thought I would pontificate about them a little, despite the fact that not only will it not get me any free games, but it will probably not actually persuade one single person to buy them. If you don't know if you'll like the GTA games by now, you probably never will.

For the completely uninitiated, GTA 3 was the second sequel to what was actually a pretty crappy game. I don't know how Rockstar managed to make the third after the first two - I really didn't like them. The top-down view was boring, the graphics blew chunks, and driving the cars got really irritating, really fast.

The same basic theory applied to all three games, though - you're a bad guy looking to work your way through various local criminal organizations. You sell drugs, knock off banks, blackmail city officials and (more often than not) kill a lot of people. The games are incredibly violent, to the point that that became a central argument for the anti-video game jackoffs who have nothing better to do than make sure people don't have fun.

GTA 3 was the first in the series to do a good third-person view. You actually saw your character, complete with leather jacket and hands like crab claws. When you drove cars, you looked over the back so you could see where you were going. When you aimed guns, you saw your guy (you didn't find out his name is Claude until San Andreas, so people took to calling him Fido), pull the weapon up and draw a bead. And you saw lots of people die, and when you felt like it, you could pick up a streetwalker, drive to a remote location, and watch the windows steam up and the car bounce. Then you lost some money, unless you decided to shoot the poor hooker and steal your money back. (In case you're wondering, yes, I did that. Not every time, but more than once.)

GTA: Vice City improved on the basic GTA 3 model in so many ways it would make your head spin. There were more vehicles - motorcycles, for instance, not to mention helicopters and an extraordinarily difficult plane. The city was bigger. The location was way more interesting, especially if you grew up watching Crockett and Tubbs wear pink suits and no socks while they battled crime from a sports car. Your character had a name now - Tommy Vercetti, voiced by Ray Liotta. But the best improvement, in my opinion, was the map.

The Grand Theft Auto games are HUGE. And what's more, they're not just a bunch of similar buildings. The alley where you first stay in GTA 3 is instantly recognizable at a glance, as are the bus station, the crappy office where you first start working for the mob, the airport and lots of other locations. The city crawls with action, so that you always feel like you're only the most important person in your own story, and all those other people have their own stories (which tend to end, more often than not, under the wheels of your latest stolen vehicle). But all that room means it's not hard to get lost, and I admit to getting frustrated with how hard it was sometimes to complete missions in GTA 3, just because I couldn't figure out where I was going. The map fixed all that, and made me love Vice City about a hundred times more than GTA 3.

Then came San Andreas. There are still lots of people who swear this was the best of the batch, but they're wrong. It was not a bad game - the central villain was voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, for one thing - but it had so much wrong with it. It's like the Rockstar guys forgot what made Vice City such an amazing game, and figured that if a little was good, a lot was better. And not only that, but what had been a campy mob game turned into a gritty ghetto punk game. Your character, CJ Johnson, is a lowlife thug, instead of an up-and-coming mobster who got screwed on a coke deal. You're not cruising around in a Ferrari any more, now you're riding a bicycle. You don't turn the station to hear Judas Priest or INXS, now you're listening to Snoop Doggy Dog and Ice-T. You're not staying in a beach-front hotel, you're in a run-down house in the worst part of town. The entire theme of the game had changed, and not for the better.

However, it was still a totally bad-ass game, even if you did end up wasting time trying to get your girlfriends to give you clothing (like the gun-nut country girl who would give you overalls if you won her heart). There were some monstrous improvements over Vice City - CJ can swim, for instance, and you can parachute out of a plane. But there was also way too much real estate for my liking, and for too much of the game you're relegated to battling endless waves of rival gang members to try to secure your gang turf. You did so much killing (often backed up by some of the most incompetent gunmen imaginable) that it actually got boring drilling holes in people who lacked the common sense to stay indoors. You didn't have to do that in Vice City, and that was very much better.

So the common thread in all three games would seem to be the endless violence and total commitment to criminal depravity. If that's all you see in the games, you have completely missed the point. The point is not to wallow in murder and mayhem. The point is complete freedom. Don't want that cop to pull you over? Shoot him. Don't like that guy who just cut you off? Run him off the road. Want to get a better car than the one you're driving? Stop in front of the other guy, get out, punch the driver in the face, and drive away in his ride while he lies on the sidewalk and bleeds out. You can do whatever you want.

Some readers might say, 'yeah, you can do whatever you want, as long as it's bad.' But that's not true. Of course, you weren't going to get the full experience if you never shot anyone, but every one of the three games has a huge amount of stuff going on outside the story. You could race remote control cars in the sand dunes of Vice City, or take a four-wheeler off the side of a mountain and parachute into the lakes of San Andreas. You could drive an ambulance and save lives, or drive a cop car and stop wanted criminals. Sure, you were supposed to be the bad guy, but there's way more to the GTA games than wanting to kill people. Hell, you could deliver pizza - and it was really fun.

Another key to the success of the Grand Theft Auto games was the incredibly believable and enormously explorable cities. You could spend hours just walking the city streets, exploring back alleys, jumping ditches in muscle cars or dodging through gardens. The term 'sandbox game' was invented to describe the way you could seriously do whatever you wanted. You could play for ten hours in a row, never even approach the story, and still have a hell of a good time.

Other games have tried to emulate the model of the GTA games, with varying degrees of success. There are games like Gun, which could have been called Grand Theft Horse, where you were a gunfighter in the Old West. Sadly, it was way too short, and way too small, and the final boss fight was outright retarded. Oblivion and Morrowind also had huge explorable environments (and the Elder Scrolls series predates Grand Theft Auto), but they weren't nearly as interesting, and didn't have all the cool stuff to do on the side. Crackdown was like GTA with the main character as a super-hero cop, but it was also too short and just lacked the brilliance of the Grand Theft Auto games. Yeah, you could jump a car over the whole carnival and land in the ferris wheel, but it wasn't as diverting as trying to win a race with remote-piloted airplanes around the city park.

Some games just wanted to revel in the violence that they perceived as the reason for the success of Rockstar's big winners. Saints Row tries to ratchet the violence up a notch, but only succeeds in being a wannabe stunted step-child of the GTA games, because the creators didn't understand why the GTA trilogy was so great. Violence alone does not make a good game. It just makes a body count.

And that brings me, full circle, to the part so many people condemn about Grand Theft Auto - the celebration of heinous criminal behavior. I won't lie - this game should absolutely not be played by children. It's not just disturbing (OK, I was never disturbed - I mostly laughed until I peed myself as I ran over pedestrians and drove my tank through the shopping mall). The problem is that it glorifies the life of a sociopathic, murderous criminal. I want GTA 4 more than I can say right now, and wish I could give up smoking so I could reward myself with the game. But that doesn't change the fact that the main character has no redeeming virtues, and if he existed in modern society, would deserve nothing more than a swift execution. Possibly in public. Possibly with cattle prods and old Ricki Lake videos.

But at the same time, perhaps Grand Theft Auto is the most honest game you've ever played. Think about games in general, starting with Doom and working up to Halo 3 and the Rainbow Six games. What do they have in common? Incredible amounts of violence. So much death that, after a successful mission, you could carpet the White House with the bodies of your slain enemies. And yet in nearly every game, you're not just the hero, you're usually the savior of humanity.

At least GTA doesn't pretend. You're a killer, and you're good at it, and that's not a good thing. You can revel in the bloodshed, even laugh as you murder hundreds of policemen, FBI agents, and soldiers just to get the tank in your garage, but the fact remains - you're bad, and that's not good. It's fun, but in order to enjoy the game, you have to accept the fact that you're a villain. And in that, the Grand Theft Auto games not only made a huge statement, but they came right out and said, 'I call BS - killing people is what bad guys do.'

Unfortunately, like much of the other brilliance of Grand Theft Auto, this point seems to have been completely missed by Rockstar's opponents. Jack Thompson, possibly the biggest chrome-plated douche nozzle on the planet, whines incessantly about how depraved the games are, never realizing that they are a brilliant parody of nearly every video game ever made. They force their players to face the fact that rampant violence is not the mark of polite society, and that mass murderers are, in fact, bad people.

But the greatest thing about the Grand Theft Auto games that seems to go completely unnoticed by everyone who isn't a fan is that they are ridiculously fun. They're campy, and funny, and hilarious, and action-packed, and suspenseful, and exciting and just plain more fun than I've ever had with any other video game. You can have your Saints Row thug crap and your Hillary-Clinton-wants-me-to-play-Viva-Pinata and your Medal of Honor desecration of the memory of the finest war this nation has ever fought. I'll take Grand Theft Auto any day.


Enormous and detailed environments
Great action
Fantastic developing stories
Amazing supporting characters
Holy fruit salad, Batman, these games are fun

None. If Jack Thompson hates it this much, there can be no cons

You should never let your kids play these games (though way too many parents still do). If you want them for yourself, you can get them at Amazon. If you need a link, you're an idiot.

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