This game is a technological miracle. It’s a miracle not just for what it can do, but also for the fact that the team was able to build it at all.
I don’t think any franchise has ever gone through a more drastic change in such a short timeAt least, not a POSITIVE change.. In 1999 Grand Theft Auto 2 was a technological throwback, a stale mid-90s game with dated visuals and clunky gameplay. And then just two years later we get GTA III, a cutting-edge game with motion-capped cutscenes, solid voice acting, an immense 3D world with a stunning draw distance, tons of content, rock-solid car physics, a huge soundtrack of fictional radio channels, hours of cutscenes, varied gameplay, a working day/night cycle, serviceable shooting mechanics, and all the impressive pedestrian, law enforcement, and traffic simulation the previous games were known for, only now operating in a 3D space.
Even more amazing than the monumental leap in technology and production values is the fact that the developers absolutely nailed it.
I can’t think of another game series that’s evolved so much in such a short time. You might point to the jump from Super Mario World to Super Mario 64 as an example of a game that underwent a drastic transformation in the jump from 2D to 3D. But Mario went from being the premiere 2D platformer to being the premiere 3D platformer. Its visuals and mechanics were already top-notch. Nintendo simply retained their standard of quality when making the jump to 3D. GTA had to make the jump from lame to fame while also reinventing their game for 3D. Also, it was six years between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64, while GTA took just two years to complete its drastic transformation.
Think about the strain this puts on the structure and culture of a company. Who is going to audition, cast, and direct all those voice actors? Who will hire and manage this much larger team of artists? Who will design all these 3D character models, since our company didn’t do that before? Who will direct all of these motion-capture sessions, since that’s a new-ish technology and almost nobody has done that before? Who will stage, script, light, animate, and direct these hours of in-game, in-engine cutscenes? I can’t find any records indicating the size of the development team, but the company must have needed to do quite a bit of hiring to make this technological leap.
This company went from being a small team using well-established technology to using cutting-edge tech. This industry is filled with tragic tales of companies that ruined themselves trying to make this sort of transition. Rapid changes in staff and technology are disruptive to the creative process.
But somehow RockstarThe company was still going by the name DMA Design Limited at this point in history. pulled it off and produced one of the most critically-acclaimed games of the era, and they did it without getting stuck in development hell or producing a wonky, unfinished game. In fact, they made it look easy. By playing the game you’d never know this was their first attempt at a title with 3D visuals or gameplay.
It’s hard to see GTA III as a miracle of technology if you’re looking at it through modern-day eyes, but the jump in sophistication is really apparent if you compare the game to its contemporaries.
In Grand Theft Auto III, your character can get in and out of vehicles. The car door opens, and then the character drops themselves into the visible interior and takes the wheel. This works seamlessly with vehicles of drastically different sizes and shapes. As you manipulate the controls you can see your character moving the steering wheel in sync with the movement of the tires. As the car takes damage you can see the body panels crumple up. Parts can be torn off the car.
The pedestrians are complex characters with faces, costumes, and vocal barks. From the run-down industrial districts, to the affluent population center, to the winding roads in the hilly suburbs, the buildings, sidewalks, and streets are carefully detailed to give each area its own personality.
For contrast, Midtown Madness 2 (released just one year before GTA III) has opaque cars. You can’t get in or out. Damage is very simplistic. Pedestrians are faceless mannequins. The buildings are usually cubiod shapes with little or no surface detail. The lines on the road are simplistic. The sidewalk is a brute-force tiling texture that rarely matches what the polygons are doing.
These games were released within a year of each other, but you could be forgiven for thinking that GTA III looked an entire graphics generation ahead of MM2.
Sure, there were games that looked better than GTA III. Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec had sharper visuals and more detailed vehicles, but that game is built around circuit-based racetracks. It didn’t have any of the challenges of an open-world design. Gran Turismo 3 didn’t have pedestrian traffic, vehicle damage, complex intersections with signal infrastructure, ambient civilian traffic, animated drivers and vehicle interiors, a day / night cycle, detailed buildings, or sidewalk clutter. It didn’t have to path, animate, and render multiple levels of traffic from tunnels, overpasses, and elevated trains. GT3 looked fantastic, but their engine was solving a problem many times simpler than the one in GTA III.
The fact that the Grand Theft Auto III team was able to hit such a technological high-water mark from their first foray into 3D is (and I realize I’m at risk for wearing this word out but it’s the only one that really fits) miraculous.
The world of GTA III is divided into three islands. The first is Portland, which is designed to evoke Brooklyn and Queens. The second is Staunton Island, which is roughly analogous to Manhattan. The final island is Shoreside Vale, which is supposed to be New Jersey-ish. The islands can only be unlocked in this order, and only as a result of doing story missions. The old GTA paradigm of “unlock more content by getting a high score” in now replaced with a system tied to story progress. Whether the designers intended it or not, this changes the focus of the game from its mechanics to its story.
The game opens with the then-nameless silent protagonist robbing a bank. (The fanbase later named him Claude, and that name was made canon by Rockstar a few years later in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.) His accomplice Catalina betrays him and shoots him just outside the bank, leaving him for dead. While being transported to prison via van, he’s inadvertently freed by some gangsters busting their boss out of jail. He ends up working for the local crime family, steadily moving up the chain of command. He does some missions for the small-time Luigi, then for the dim-witted but higher-ranking Toni Cipriani, and then finally for head honcho Salvatore Leone.
After that, Claude has to flee Staunton because of some drama with Salvatore’s wife. Next he ends up working for the Yakuza. After that he meets with a corrupt police detective in a public restroom to help the detective cover up all of his dirty dealings. He also works for billionaire Donald Love (certainly a riff on you-know-who) for a few missions.
Hey. I thought I was trying to get revenge for Catalina’s betrayal in the opening cutscene! How does any of this get me closer to that goal? Don’t the Yakuza already, you know, employ people to do jobs for them? And the Italian Mob, what was all of that screwing around for? What does this cop have to offer me? Is all of this building towards something?
Eventually the writer manages to grasp onto a couple of plot threads and holds onto them for long enough to steer the story back to the idea of getting revenge on Catalina. There’s a big showdown at the dam and the player shoots down Catalina’s helicopter. Roll credits.
The Personality of GTA
While GTA III was the first of many steps in increasing graphical fidelity and production values, from this point on the company did very little with their storytelling techniques. The 3D GTA titles began as a loose collection of disjointed, shapeless, and tonally schizophrenic stories, and they pretty much stayed there. The player migrates from one boss to the next, embracing or betraying parties with little motivation beyond moving the plot forward. Characters don’t have arcs. The player character usually has only the most paper-thin excuse for undertaking the current job. The opening of the game will set up a conflict and then the story will ignore that conflict for the next 20 hours of gameplay, only to return to it right at the end with little reason or fanfare. Story threads begin and end on a whim and without following any sort of pattern of rising action. The games do a lot of talking but rarely have anything coherent to say on a thematic level.
My guess is that writer Dan Houser (and later in the series, Rupert Humphries) aren’t trying to tell a story so much as imitate specific movie scenes and vignettes that they admire. They wear their influences on their sleeve. Sopranos. Goodfellas. Heat. Casino. The cutscenes have Hollywood-style camera work and dialog that makes them feel like a slice of (say) a Martin Scorsese film. But when you string the cutscenes together they don’t really add up to a Martin Scorsese story. The imitation is entirely stylistic and mechanical.
This directionless approach to storytelling became a problem in later entries. As the visuals got closer to looking like Hollywood, the disconnect between what the game looked like and what it really was became really apparent. But here in GTA III the “all style, no substance” approach to story served the game admirably. With the silent protagonist and short cutscenes it was fine for setting the mood for the next few minutes of driving and shooting.
Oddities And Imperfections
It’s a miraculous game, but not a perfect one. If you come back to GTA III after playing the later entries you’re likely to shocked / annoyed at how odd the controls are and how many basic conveniences are missing.
Your character can’t swim, so entering the water is instant death. You can’t bail out of vehicles, so you have to come to a full and complete stop before you can exit your going-to-explode-any-second vehicle. You can’t swing the camera around while driving. You can’t intuit the durability of objects based on their appearance, so steel light poles break away like balsa wood while tiny saplings can bring your 100MPH chase to a dead stop without so much as having their leaves ruffled. The inter-island loading screens – while understandable from a technology perspective – are a real killjoy, particularly if you run into them during a high-speed chase. The missions feature a great deal of Do It Again, Stupid. The economy is broken by the second mission, to the point where it would be infeasible to go broke because the in-game expenses are so trivial compared to the payout for successful missions.
But of all the tiny nitpicks that aren’t worth picking, there was one in particular that always rubbed me the wrong way…
Why Do People Keep Jumping Under My Wheels?!
This happened a lot. You’d be darting through traffic on your way to the mission objective. You’re trying to keep it off the sidewalk because you’re nearly done with this mission and you don’t want to risk pissing off the police and derailing everything. But then you turn a corner and suddenly – for no reason at all – a pedestrian deliberately dives right in front of your car. Pow! A cop sees this, and now you’re dealing with exactly the situation you were trying to avoid.
This isn’t my fault! Why am I getting blamed for some idiot jumping in front of my car? There’s no way I could have evaded that in time. This is so unfair.
Sometimes pedestrians even engage in this suicidal behavior in pairs. For a long time I just assumed this was some jackass developer’s half-witted idea to make the game “more interesting”. I thought they just programed pedestrians to randomly throw themselves in front of you to create police chases and stop the player from getting bored.
But years later I came back to the game and realized these occasionally irritating moments weren’t scripted by a sadistic designer, they were simply an unintended consequence of a cool feature and some skittish AI.
It would feel sort of sad and lame if pedestrians just stood still and let themselves get run over if you began driving down the sidewalk. Instead they turn, become alarmed, and attempt to leap out of the way. This makes them more interesting and makes the world seem a little more “alive”.
The problem is that their AI was just a little too clever for its own good. The AI looks at the player’s headingIt might actually examine the heading of all cars. I can’t tell, and setting up a proper test is really difficult. and reacts if the player’s vehicle is aimed directly at them.
To illustrate how it works, let me use a screenshot from the original GTA. I don’t think this was actually a problem in that game, but it’s easier to depict this quirk using the 2D overhead view:
I’m going around a bend, following the green arrow. However, halfway through the turn I’m momentarily pointed at the pedestrian. Rather than doing the complex and fiddly task of analyzing my turn radius and seeing where I’m going to end up, the pedestrian simply assumes I’m traveling in a straight line, following the red arrow. The best thing to do if someone is headed directly at you is to jump perpendicular to their approach, so that’s what it does. It jumps along the blue arrow, landing itself right in front of me as I complete the turnIt could also jump in the opposite direction of the blue arrow and land to the left of its current position. It’s a coin flip, really..
It’s tough to know what’s going on under the hoodNo pun intended., here. It looks like peds don’t understand sidewalks and roads. In a more sophisticated setup you might have the AI ignore the motion of cars unless the car is on the sidewalk. Or perhaps it could consider the current turn when evaluating incoming cars. Or it could look at the two possible landing positions and choose whichever one isn’t in the street.
To a certain extent, complaining about this feel like complaining that there aren’t cupholders on the space shuttle. It’s a small feature in a big game and I doubt most people gave it much thought. Given all the other innovations in this game, it’s hardly a great sin that the AI misbehaves in certain edge-case situations.
But it really did bug me at the time.
EDIT: As some pointed out in the comments below, part of the explanation for this huge jump in technology was Body Harvest, a 3D open-world game that featured shooting a driving. It didn’t LOOK like GTA, but it used a lot of the same gameplay technologies. This is where they cooked up the technology that would later form the backbone of GTA III.
 At least, not a POSITIVE change.
 The company was still going by the name DMA Design Limited at this point in history.
 It might actually examine the heading of all cars. I can’t tell, and setting up a proper test is really difficult.
 It could also jump in the opposite direction of the blue arrow and land to the left of its current position. It’s a coin flip, really.
 No pun intended.
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