When I was around 10 or maybe 12, I played the demo of the very first GTA. This will sound like something out of a 'games kill people' article, but yes, the bit I enjoyed the most was beating up people, killing them and driving over them and then running from the cops in a fast car. All of you who played this game back in the day probably had the same preferences. And most of you were probably around my age, or maybe a bit older, or maybe a bit younger. At any rate, GTA was something new and fresh - even then I knew it, despite not having much experience with video games at that point.
The series was dead for me for many years. I had a very passing experience of GTA 2 at some point, and then a year ago I downloaded both GTA and GTA 2 (they're both free to download, by the way). The second part didn't appeal to me in the slightest. The first brought back memories, but after fiddling about, I decided to let it go - it just wasn't fun because of the missions. And then I found GTA 3 at an entertainment exchange, and got it, and tries it out. Lo and behold, it actually ran on my laptop. I looked like crap, but hey, I'll take whatever small successes I get. I got to around half the game, when it stopped working all of the sudden and it took me replaying it from the start right after I got here (Poland) to come to some conclusions.
First of those is: GTA 3 is a good game. It's not perfect. It's not outstanding. It's good. It has a lot going for it. Enjoyable (although quite blocky by today's standards, especially the character models) graphics, good (though limited) soundtrack and some of that nice twisted humour, not to mention good voiceovers (some of them celebrities) and the general gameplay. I have to point out some stuff though, which made the game a fun, but very frustrating experience.
GTA 3 borrows from the gameplay of the first part almost exactly. Instead of payphones with missions, you've got characters which issue them to you (and you've got payphone missions as well, so the tradition is maintained), but what changes is how they are played out. The mission goals are more complex now, and it is easier to navigate the city (though not easy enough, wait for it). But, at the same time, the game is as punishingly unfair as it was before.
Some missions have arbitrary time limits which make it nigh impossible to complete them. Others have the police suddenly appear out of nowhere and make your life miserable. Others have to be played through several times to memorize a certain path, or to come up with a system which will allow you to complete them. All that would be fair, if not for the fact that in some instances, I just didn't care. I haven't finished the game - I got to one of the final obligatory missions and resigned after failing it several times and then having a peak of what awaited me further on. A mission can be difficult, but in a game when you can actually save during the mission - not in GTA when saving is limited to when you have completed a mission, but hasn't taken a new one on yet. One small mistake, even at the very end of a mission, and you're done, you have to do the whole thing again. No autosaves, no 'outside help', just repetition. And frankly, I don't have time for this. I can attempt to do a mission twice, three time, or four times at most. After that I just lose interest. The biggest offenders here had me pulling my hair and cursing like a madman after another failure.
Secondly, Liberty City is designed in a very unintuitive way. To find your way around the city, you have to memorize every single lane and street. The map is of very little help, as it only shows you where to go, not how to get there. You lose time looking for a street which will lead you to the single bridge during some island hopping, or you can get lost trying to figure out where the tunnel is. I found that quite troublesome for most of the game. But this is a minor gripe.
I'm playing Vice City now, and I like that game a lot more than I liked GTA 3. One of the reasons is the theme. The theme of Vice City makes me care. You've got the pink and pastel '80's, complete with original music from the period, and character stereotypes which just work. GTA 3 is as bland as they come: the Mafia, the Yakuza, Latino, afro-american and jamaican gangs... The music is ok, but there is only a handful of tracks on each radiostation, so they get boring pretty fast. Plus, how come there are two techno stations, a hip-hop station, a reggae station, but no rock music? There are two pop/rock stations which are kind of listenable, a classic music station which is fun to listen to and a 'Flashback', '80's one. So the variety is there, but no rock/metal? Seriously? Plus, none of the tracks (other than the classical music) are licensed tracks, which kind of shows, even though they're generally quite alright.
For those of you who haven't played GTA 3, go for it, but don't expect a perfect game. It has issues with steering as well - some cars feel like they are made of lightweight plastic but have weights attached to the front and back, so when you take a sharp turn, it's impossible to straighten your run unless you stop and go again. If you're going fast, and you get hit by one of the cars, or just nudge a lamp post or wall, all hell breaks loose. You will spiral out of control, or end up on the car's back, and may not have the chance to get out of the car and run. Also, what is it with water insta-killing the character? He doesn't have to know how to swim, but come on, give him a chance! Liberty City is located on islands, so there's water all around, and there are several locations where it is extremely easy to get bumped into water, or take a sharp turn and fall into it. And that means you'll have to lose all the weapons you had on you and start with no armour and without any car you had at that point...
GTA 3 is a 6,5/10. It doesn't quite get the 7/10 which I reserve for games which are good and enjoyable, but not great because of its various issues. I did enjoy it, but I just don't see myself getting back to it at this point. I'll always take Vice City over GTA 3 in almost every department. But, if you missed out the same way I did, go for it and see the game which was a big hit in 2002 and which is a good example of how to successfully convert a 2D franchise into a 3D franchise. Not that anyone will have to do this at this point...