Grand Theft Auto III

By Shamus Posted Friday Jul 13, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 84 comments

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.

The Transformation

For the time, this was a LOT of detail.
For the time, this was a LOT of detail.

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.

For the time, this was pretty impressive damage modeling. (And it's still not bad by today's standards.)
For the time, this was pretty impressive damage modeling. (And it's still not bad by today's standards.)

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.


For the time, this was a HUGE draw distance.
For the time, this was a HUGE draw distance.

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.

Midtown Madness 2 isn't nearly as detailed. Or as large. As as reactive. Or varied.
Midtown Madness 2 isn't nearly as detailed. Or as large. As as reactive. Or varied.

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 “Story”

The motion blur effect used in the opening cutscene was really advanced for the time, although I always hated it.
The motion blur effect used in the opening cutscene was really advanced for the time, although I always hated it.

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.

Right: Portland. Middle: Staunton. Left: Shoreside.
Right: Portland. Middle: Staunton. Left: Shoreside.

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

For the time, this was a really well-animated scene with very detailed characters.
For the time, this was a really well-animated scene with very detailed characters.

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

Please wait until the flaming vehicle has come to a full and complete stop before unfastening your seatbelt.
Please wait until the flaming vehicle has come to a full and complete stop before unfastening your seatbelt.

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?!

Amusing emergent behavior: I beat people up, then the paramedics show up to revive them, then they resume trying to kill me.
Amusing emergent behavior: I beat people up, then the paramedics show up to revive them, then they resume trying to kill me.

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.



[1] At least, not a POSITIVE change.

[2] The company was still going by the name DMA Design Limited at this point in history.

[3] It might actually examine the heading of all cars. I can’t tell, and setting up a proper test is really difficult.

[4] 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.

[5] No pun intended.

From The Archives:

84 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto III

  1. Decius says:

    The easiest way I see to fix that particular bad emergent behavior would be to give pedestrians a much faster “dive out of the way” move and make them use it when you are much closer to hitting them.

    At “They teleport to the side of your car when an inch away from your bumper”, there’s no false positives where they jump in front of you. At some point further away, there are few enough false positives that they are equally as annoying as their Olympic tumbling abilities when you’re trying to run them down.

    1. Jabberwok says:

      In a game that’s mostly about going on killing sprees in a car, I prefer hilariously stupid pedestrians over prescient gymnasts that I can’t even hit.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Like Droid below, I intuited that the suicide dive was misfiring AI, but it did seem like a feature as much as it did a bug: making the pedestrians seem stupid/the cops overzealous made me feel a lot less bad about murdering them.
        Add in the fact that paramedics turn up and bring the dead pedestrian back to life, and it all come across as some kind of scam.

        Though the ‘prescient gymnasts’ approach does have its own appeal, at least to me. Just attach a ‘Got One!’ achievement for actually successfully running a civilian down.

        1. Luhrsen says:

          In Saints Row they had the same problem with NPCs committing suicide so simply lampshaded it by saying it WAS a scam for insurance.

        2. Mr. Wolf says:

          “Just attach a ‘Got One!’ achievement for actually successfully running a civilian down.”


      2. Decius says:

        Prescient? Because they can see when a car is about to hit them? LESS so than they were in release, when they could see a car coming towards them from further away.

        If they are too effective at diving out of the way, make them slower and/or the diving jump less than half a car width, although changing the animation distance might require animator work instead of just changing numbers.

    2. Xander77 says:

      That’s how pedestrians worked in L.A Noire, which made running them over quite difficult. As other replies note, that’s not the point of GTA.

  2. Droid says:

    I really hated that suicide jump, too, even though I immediately spotted/intuited that it’s a bug and its cause. Mainly in Vice City because I didn’t get to play III for a very long time (and of course they didn’t change that behaviour at all).

    For similar reasons, the Catalina/Claude Easter egg in SA also went completely over my head.

    But even after VC and SA, III turned out to be a lot of fun.

    1. Droid says:

      Oh, and the main thing I remember from this game is that you start out neutral with every gang in the game (~8 total, I think) and you do so many insanely, stupidly destructive missions to get to Catalina, that you end up pissing off EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM (except the Yakuza never turn hostile towards you, despite the mission where you assassinate their leader, but apparently you were never recognized, and no one is suspicious of that new guy who blows up everyone in town AS THE FIRST PRIME SUSPECT).

    2. Cubic says:

      There is also the initial Maria/Salvatore meet-cute in SA. And of course Ken Rosenberg and Kent Paul turn up in the same, and (chronologically) later in Vice City.

      1. Droid says:

        Yeah, and Shooty-Mc-Shootface, um, I mean, Phil Cassidy, loses his arm in VC in the most stupid way possible after he was introduced in III as a war veteran who lost said arm in ‘Nam. I can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but there were tons of such small callbacks, including in those strange talkshow-radio-thingies that I always switched away from. And of course, VCS and LCS are, as I understand it (never played them for lack of consoles) all one gigantic shoutout/nostalgia trip/easter egg instead of a full game.

        1. Cubic says:

          Lol, Phil Cassidy cleaned himself up a bit after Vice City. No more boomshine, I guess.

          LCS and VCS were originally for some handheld platform or something, but were ported to the PS2 and later on elsewhere. I recently played through LCS again, which I thought was pretty good. Missions were quite good and the engine modern, basically SA level. A smoother version of GTAIII really, even if GTAIII undeniably was fresher. Toni Cipriani is the main character, not smart though not quite as dumb as in GTAIII, but then maybe he took a few too many hits to the head in this game.

          No strong memories of VCS though I know I did finish it once in the distant past. Am I crazy or was the main character named Vince Vance (Lance’s big brother)? It was basically built on the same principles as LCS but in Vice City. Rockstar should port it to some new platforms (iOS).

          All in all, I liked those games where they reused the setting.

  3. DB says:

    Hmm I think you are assuming a larger technical jump for GTA 2 to III than DMA Design (Rockstar North these days) actually did.

    DMA had been doing a number of full 3D games after GTA. The two that stick out for me were “Wild Metal Country”, a sci-fi vehicle combat game, with large out door environments and Tanktics a weird RTS. GTA2 was also largely 3D as well. I seem to remember at the time GTA2 was meant to be 3rd person but they were required to ship it on the original Playstation. That was never going to have the processing power to run it as reasonable frame rates, so the view shifted back to the viewpoint of the original with the 3D vehicles rendered to sprints and 3rd person had to wait for the PS2.

    1. NoOne says:

      Rockstar North (DMA at the time) also did Body Harvest on the N64 in 1998 3 years before GTA 3

    2. shoeboxjeddy says:

      Yeah, the missing link in this retrospective is Body Harvest for the N64. This is a 3D game that came out in 1998 (GTA 3 came out in 2001) by the exact team behind GTA. In Body Harvest, your character shoots guns from the third perspective and can drive any vehicle they find. There are tanks and fire trucks that you can shoot water out of and even a helicopter or airplane at one point as I recall. GTA 3 comes off as polished because Body Harvest was a YEARS long debacle (intended for release in 1996, made it out finally in 1998).

      1. Shamus says:

        Thanks. That is indeed the missing link. This detail is so important it really needs to be added to the post.

        I even read up on DMA design / Rockstar on the Wiki, but I was looking for titles between GTA 2 and GTA III. Didn’t think to look earlier in the timeline.

  4. Kathryn says:

    Who needs a cup holder when you have Velcro? You can just stick your cup (or bag with a straw in it) anywhere.

    1. Decius says:

      Up to and including “In the middle of the air”, although the air isn’t as stationary with respect to the hull as you might like, and it’s literally impossible to release something and give it the same rotation as the hull.

    2. Philadelphus says:

      Indeed, unless your cup is completely sealed your drink is going to exit it pretty quickly in the Space Shuttle.

  5. Karma The Alligator says:

    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

    Isn’t that how it works in every GTA (or even every game similar to GTA)? Trees might as well be made of diamond.

    1. Viktor says:

      That has some(not a lot but some) basis in reality. Light poles and stop signs are designed to break if a car runs into them, since it’s safer that way. Trees, of course, have roots. It’s not the don’t notice/concrete pillar binary that a lot of video games from that era had, but you’d generally rather hit a metal pole than a wood tree IRL.

      1. Mintskittle says:

        It also helps that light poles are thin walled hollow tubes while trees are generally solid all the way through.

        1. Decius says:

          Light poles are held in place by four mild steel bolts at ground level, and the power cable. Those bolts will shear cleanly.

          Trees are held in place by an extensive root network interlaced with soil. Nothing about them is going break cleanly.

          Hitting either of them at high speed is going to disable any civilian personal transport vehicle, and hitting anything at high speed that makes the vehicle stop is going to likely incapacitate anyone inside. Physics has to be secondary to gameplay.

      2. Guest says:

        Yes, but try driving with a stop sign through your radiator, you won’t get far, the same design principle that says make the poles crumple also says the front of your car should collapse to save your life when you hit that pole.

        They’re both unrealistic, and having a difference causes awkward crashes. The worst version of this was shrubs in mafia 3, some you seemed sure you’d get through and CLUNK.

      3. Karma The Alligator says:

        While that’s true, my comment was more out of surprise that Shamus didn’t know it happened so much in open world games (or that he counted it against the game, but maybe he included that because it’s what started the trend?).

  6. Hal says:

    I’m curious, will this retrospective cover any of the controversies around the games? Beating hookers, Hot Coffee, etc.

    That might diverge closer to the forbidden topics than you prefer, but it was such a big aura surrounding the game(s) it seems like one of those things where you can’t completely ignore it.

    1. Shamus says:

      Yes, we’ll cover that stuff.

  7. Rack says:

    GTA3 had one great feature that later got tossed out the window. Missions existed in the same world as the open game. You could steal someone’s car before they went on a car chase sequence. If you took a supercar with you you wouldn’t need to chase them in the cement mixer the game provided.Or you could cause a pileup and force them to go a different way. Sabotage their car and you wouldn’t need to chase them at all.

    1. Chuk says:

      I’m playing GTA IV and that pisses me off — I’ll block off a parking lot with a car because I know my target is going to escape that way. I get to that point in the mission, my blocking car is gone and the target’s car is suddenly in the lot which was empty 30 seconds ago.

      1. Ironically enough, it was GTA IV that made me think of an example where I COULD use the open world to my advantage. There’s a mid/late game mission where you start a shootout in a Chinese restaurant in what I THINK is supposed to be an homage to…well chop sockey hong kong action films in general, but also I believe this scene in particular. Once you get to a certain point, your target escapes out the back door and drives off in his car. You’re expected to start a car chase, but his car is present before you enter the building and start the shootout, so you can actually plant a bomb on it beforehand if you have that perk, wait till he gets in and then click, BAM, thank ya ma’am.

        It’s not COMPLETELY open. You still have to trigger him escaping by finishing the shootout, and of course, ya need to grind for the perk to begin with. Hell, I only know about it because I recognized the car after failing the car chase a few times. I actually didn’t think it would work.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      Ah, but you’re not having the intended cinematic experience if you deviate from the script!
      Remember, you’re playing this game in order to have fun. That means you stay in the designated Fun Zone, doing the proper fun things way that we’ve set out for you.
      Don’t do it differently, or you won’t have the right kind of fun. And the story won’t make any sens – oh, wait.

      I like the Saints Row approach to this (GTA III seems similar/the same): The game seemed to expect you to prepare ahead of time and happy for you to fail if you didn’t.
      You were told to defend the costume store from waves of mascots, and you didn’t pack a rocket launcher? Well that’s why the people in bunny costumes shot you to death, genius.

      One of the final missions in SR2 (gather all your friends from around town while being pursued at maximum wanted level) was pretty much impossible for me until I turned up with a souped-up, bright pink APC beforehand.

      1. JBC31187 says:

        The great thing about Saints Row 2 and on is: yes, if you don’t prepare ahead of time, you’re screwed. But the game acknowledges this, and won’t punish you for it. So, you can start the mission completely over with everything you had. You can start at the last checkpoint. You can not take the mission right now. And for the most part, it’s unscripted. You pick the weapons and the cars, and there are no stupid scripted events. The car will never always pull out just in time to fuck up your motorcycle chase.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Yep. All my favorite moments in the Saints Row series were completely unscripted.
          Once in SR3 a pair of gang members burst into the clothes shop I was in and interrupted me choosing a bra for my (female) character: I was forced to fight back wearing nothing but shorts and a foam animal head. Eventually I fled to another shop, tried to buy something but got interrupted again at the last second…
          It took three tries in three different shops for me to get hold of a damned top to wear before someone interrupted me with bullets.

          It was glorious, memorable, and I sadly I can’t picture it happening to me in a GTA game.

          1. JBC31187 says:

            Even the missions where you just had to play by the developer’s script had their charm. The first katana fight? I stopped by a clothing store to get that sweet Ronin-style leather jacket (white and purple trim, of course), then strolled up to the sushi joint. I shot the first guard in the head, grabbed his sword, and skewered the second guard in one blow. Then I walked into the scripted fight and completed it without taking any damage, for the first time ever.

            You can go into any weapons store and access your armory. You can walk into any clothing store and access your wardrobe. You can call up the garage and have your favorite car repaired and delivered to your location, within reason. You can play a side mission like FUZZ or Septic Avenger, and the game saves your progress. Compare it to San Andreas, where the dedication to “realism” makes clothes shopping a chore, every ambulance and police mission is interminable, and you can’t take your favorite car out for a ride without losing it forever.

      2. Asdasd says:

        The thing is, for all their design issues and over-indulgences, I want to play in Dan Houser’s cool, cynical, gangster flick-inspired ball pit. Saints Row, with its second-rate Whedonisms, dual-wieldable dildos and weirdly dissonant positivity leaves me completely cold.

        If we could stick both series in the machine from The Fly we’d be set. Although the law of karmic irony suggests that I’d probably end up buying the game which was all parts I hate instead of parts I like.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Have to agree. While I love the irreverence of the SR games, the freedom, the bizarre situations I ended up in and the fact that they remembered that they were games, not films
          …I was never in danger of liking any of the characters in it or caring about the things they did. My Boss spent a lot of time being hit by cars in that Insurance Fraud mini-game, and deserved every single second of it.

          Meanwhile, I remember actually giving a shit about what happened to Tommy Vercetti in GTA: Vice City. Those railroading missions could eat a dick, but still, there was a story there.

          So yeah, a takes-itself-less-seriously GTA with the gameplay of a Saints Row game would be pretty damn awesome.

    3. Asdasd says:

      Aha, yes. I remember a late chase or race mission in Vice City that I could *only* clear by blocking off the street with stolen cars at the beginning.

  8. Naota says:

    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.

    As someone on the witnessing end of playtests and open world engine shenanigans, I can tell you this is still a major issue for crowd and traffic simulation today.

    It’s 2018, and on different games and occasions I’m seeing some mighty leaps from innocuous pedestrians on corners, directly into bumpers and windshields, so often that it feels like they should just have the poor saps jump the opposite way. At least players driving right at them might want to acquire a new hood ornament!

  9. Syal says:

    it’s easier to depict this quirk using the 2D overhead view:

    I’m pretty sure GTA 3 has an overhead view option.

    1. Shamus says:

      It does. (I used it in the flaming car screenshot.) But that overhead view was a little too tight and wasn’t really good for the shot I needed, and it was effortless in GTA1.

  10. Cubic says:

    My main technical annoyance with GTAIII was how looking around was handled, by getting into first-person. That was pretty clunky, though you did get used to it.

    The wasted/busted mechanisms of all the III-series were pretty broken too, since they just made you (well, me) do a lot of extra saving and extra driving. But modern releases have thankfully streamlined that.

    In retrospect, the story was kind of confusing but I thought the collection of missions was great. As someone said above, much more sandbox and thinking out of the (sand-?)box than later games. Lots of mission variation too, something which I think the IV- and V-series haven’t quite managed to replicate. Perhaps because better rendering makes games too serious.

  11. omer says:

    There really is no economy. I assumed they stayed with the money=score approach in this game, even if it no longer opens the map.

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      GTA III: Vice City had a half-decent economy where you spent your money to buy up businesses around town.

      GTA IV, as I remember it, took a step back towards the old “murder dozens of people for a few thousand dollars even though you already have a million dollars and nothing to spend it on” system.

  12. rabs says:

    I don’t know if anyone already mentioned the book “Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto” by David Kushner. I guess it’s more about people and society than technology, but maybe there are some information about this company evolution.

  13. VahnRPG says:

    My biggest issues with that game were 1) The nigh-omniscient AI for certain pedestrians. The second you pissed off one of the gangs, they would ALL come gunning for you. And no matter what you did, they’d always pick you out if you were driving and start blasting away at you. Cops you could elude by goin to a pay n spray, but not the gangs oh no.
    2) The structure of the missions and how they were dolled out. If I remember correctly, there were quite a few that had you kill the head members of organizations that also were giving you missions. If you killed the mission giver for the story before finishing all their missions? TS, you’ll never get to finish those again. Yeah, it makes sense from a real world perspective, but I wish they’d structured the missions so that didn’t happen. But, I think they did in later games, so learning experience!

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      The hostile gang problem was particularly bad if you didn’t do the street racing mission early on. If you put it off until you found some better sports cars, you’d find that the Mafia were now blasting you with shotguns while you were racing, often blowing up your car and killing you instantly.

  14. utzel says:

    Another game to compare is Mafia, which should have been released before GTA 3, but was delayed 3 months. I still remember being disappointed about that, as it should have been out around my birthday, so later I took that money and bought GTA3 while waiting.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      To this day,I am baffled why that game was open world when it had such a linear story,and nothing you did outside of it ultimately mattered at all.The story was nice however.

      1. Asdasd says:

        It’s a weird one – having a whole open world as the backdrop for your level-based game really ups the immersion factor… until you start to ask yourself ‘why did they need to make this an open world?’, at which point it sucks you right back out of the experience.

        Mind you, the music in that game is really all the excuse you’d ever need to go for an aimless drive around the city.

        1. utzel says:

          And now you remind me of LA Noire :D
          I loved driving around that city even more than in any GTA or Mafia, I don’t really know why.

  15. Galad says:

    “Do it again, stupid” missions.

    Nope, guess I don’t care about the game itself anymore. Just for Shamus’ comments :)

  16. Michael Godfrey says:

    At the start they aren’t breaking their boss out of jail, they are kidnapping Donald Loves… Master? friend? I can’t remember their relationship now. Just a little detail but one I like because it ends up being relevant to a mission right near the end of the game

  17. Eric Fletcher says:

    Someone (most likely Shamus) wrote that GTA 3 was in development from just after GTA 1 came out, and that they whipped up and released GTA 2 in between on an accelerated timeline just to pay the bills.

    1. blue_painted says:

      I heard that too but now I can’t find the source again. It certainly looks like it, and it is a sensible strategy.

  18. JBC31187 says:

    The driving missions handled pretty well. Everything aside from driving was… eesh.

    Boats were horrible, especially since you can’t swim (surprisingly, Vice City improved it even though you still can’t swim). Shooting was awful. I found it was easier to stay in the car and do drivebys rather than get out of the car. And it was really obnoxious how many areas were filled with enemies after completing gateway missions.

  19. Mr. Wolf says:

    Ah, the old GTA one-boss-after-another plot. At times I felt like GTA5 was parodying this. Most obvious was an early conversation with Lamar about Franklin falling out with and finding a new boss every month, but I think the best example was with Madrazzo. It’s a classic GTA setup: some criminal bigwig you met earlier in the game asks a favour with the clear implication that more would follow. You do the mission, it goes off without a hitch, and then gets screwed up at the very last minute because this plot is character-driven rather than gameplay-driven.

    1. Matthew Downie says:

      Is ‘character driven’ the right phrase? Most of the time events seem to happen purely for the sake of creating missions. You agree to work for the boss not because you need to but because if you didn’t there’d be no mission. After you’ve done your best for him, the boss betrays you, not because it serves his interests, or because he has a good reason to hate you, but because if he didn’t you wouldn’t get to survive an assassination attempt and then seek vengeance. The mission structure has decided what’s going to happen; the narrative attempts to justify it.

      1. Mr. Wolf says:

        Are we talking about the same game? Or the same mission? Now that I reread my post, I realise I was not clear. I was talking specifically about the mission in which Madrazzo enlists Michael and Trevor to perform an assassination. Then Trevor abducts his wife, preventing a classic GTA “work for the boss until you get a new one” plot.

  20. Mr. Wolf says:

    “rock-solid car physics”

    I agree, those cars handled like bricks.

  21. bruh says:

    >These games were both released on the Playstation 2, but you could be forgiven for thinking that GTA III looked an entire console generation ahead of MM2.
    fucking hell

  22. Nick Powell says:

    It’s interesting that the series seems to have decided on what it was going to be at this point and then made almost exclusively iterative changes since then. I think the scope increased quite significantly with San Andreas and the tone darkened a bit with 4 but it’s still fundamentally the same game at its core

  23. Sniffnoy says:

    Looking things up, it seems that “Claude” wasn’t a fan nickname but rather an internal name that was mined out of the data files.

  24. Christopher says:

    Was this the first big 3d open world crime game? It’s amazing how big that genre has gotten. Partially ’cause Ubisoft keeps pumping them out, sure, but it feels like every big dev out there that’s not first party has tried their hand at one.

    I can’t say I’m a big GTA fan personally, and I’m way too young for GTA3 to have even registered on my rader. I wasn’t conscious of them till GTA San Andreas came out and my kid brother went from being interested in Nintendo games to being interested in the game where you can run over pedestrians. But I can appreciate that the trends it popularized has given me a lot of games I love, like Saints Row 3 and 4, and Just Cause 2. This is an interesting series just for that historical aspect. I never considered that someone had to sit down and actually invent getting in and out of vehicles, which I feel like is something you get for free now in any game with cars in them.

    1. Asdasd says:

      Driver (1999) almost-sorta qualifies as a precursor. It had a mode where you could freely explore the cities, but progress was entirely mission-based, and the player was strictly vehicle-bound at all times.

      The common refrain around the time of release was ‘wouldn’t it be cool if you could get out of the car?’, to the point where playground rumours spread of a cheat that would let you do just that (they were only slightly less popular than the rumours about nude codes for Tomb Raider and finding Mew in Pokemon).

      GTA 3 would eventually come out and it was confirmed that it would indeed be cool if you could get out of the car.. a promise on which Driver’s own sequel struggled to make good.

  25. Matthew Downie says:

    “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.”
    In the situation pictured, I’d have thought they’d be more likely to jump into the road than the other way. You’re turning towards them, so the first time they’re in ‘danger’ from you, you’re pointing towards them only with the left side of your car. At this point, if they compare the two possible 90 degree jumps, they’ll see that jumping into the road will get them further away from your current straight-line trajectory than jumping the other way would. Later on, the other way looks better, but by then they’re probably already committed.

    I tried to write pedestrian AI for an open-world driving game once. It’s not easy.

  26. Asdasd says:

    Honestly I’m looking at that first screenshot and I still think it looks great.

    I remember reading previews in magazines (remember those?) and thinking DMA were selling dream dust. I knew what to expect from a GTA game: not much. The ambition was laudable but there were dozens of also-ran franchises making the great leap of faith from 2D to 3D and totally failing to stick the landing (not that it mattered when it was so exciting just to see them try. Talk about a heady time to be into gaming.)

    But they nailed it. It was gorgeous, it was exciting, it was emergent, and most importantly – somehow – it wasn’t a buggy heap of CTDs like every other game that aimed this high. This was a period in gaming where if you were playing a 3D game, it was not at all uncommon for your character to fall through the floor and into an eternity of skybox.

    Other series that made this big of a leap in this short of a time? I can only think of Duke Nukem, which went from an ugly and humdrum run and gun platformer to the first great post-Doom FPS in a shortish three years.

  27. evileeyore says:

    I don’t do twitter so can some one fill me in on what Rutskarns been up to? His presence has been missed.

    1. MelfinatheBlue says:

      Um, he’s done some Spoiler Warning things (if you haven’t seen the Crusader Kings season, go watch it, it’s hysterical) lately, and I have no idea otherwise. Working?

  28. Guest says:

    My quick and cheap fix for the bad jump would be to take the position data of the car over the last second and calculate a normal, which should point radially away, and ensure the pedestrian dives that way.

    I think its mostly up to a coin toss which way they jump in vanilla, so doing that would at least make sure they tried to escape.

  29. Smejki says:

    GTA 3 doesn’t look as great as it could BTW. Case in point – Mafia 1. Developed concurrently, released about half a year later.
    It’s still a mindblowing jump they made between GTA2 and GTA3. And they certainly nailed down the open-world design way better than Mafia devs did. As the open living city is rather pointless in Mafia.

  30. I don’t think Donald Love is a parody of whom you think Shamus.

    Donald Love is a media mogul, the one you are thinking of focused on real estate.
    Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg are more likely inspirations (or a amalgamation of the three) for Donald Love.
    “He may be partially based on Michael Bloomberg, who was one of the ten wealthiest men in the world with $5 billion in 2001. Both men (Love and Bloomberg) also invested in becoming the mayors of their cities.”

  31. Zak McKracken says:

    That pedestrian thing is something I wondered about in real life, too. Except with small animals, mostly birds:

    They’d sit at the side of the road, wait until I’m almost there, and then try to cross right in front of me. That would seem like a pretty bad survival strategy, until you allow them a little more intelligence than the bots in GTA III.
    If my car was a predator and was going for the little bird, it would be likely to turn towards the bird when it’s close. In that case, the best way to evade me would be indeed to cross the road, because then I’d have to change the direction in which I’m turning. If I was a big bird, that would mean change the my banking angle and whatnot — that takes time.

    Or maybe, if we give the little bird even more credit, maybe it just really likes to surf the air wave created by the windshield, or use it to get a steeper take-off?

    That said, I think I know how I’d solve the problem in GTA: analyse which way the player car is currently turning (and how hard), extrapolate if there’s a chance it’ll hit you within some small amount of time, and if yes, dive the other way, out of the circle. Computationally relatively easy because most of those numbers are available already. The only difference is that you have a circle rather than a straight line for the pedestrian to check, and you now have an easier criterion for which way to go.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      The thing with birds can have another explanation.Its been suggested that not every animal processes external sensations at the same speed.So that bird actually might be experiencing your car coming at it slower than you,and thus would need less time to get out of the way.

      That,or they are just having bad eyes.

    2. Syal says:

      I’d say just make them never dive into the road. If their dive would take them into the road, either change it to a small step that keeps them on the sidewalk, or make them dive the other way. If that makes it too easy to run them over, put in some shopfront culdesacs they can hide in.

  32. Wiseman says:

    One thing you could’ve mentioned and that is apparent in your screen shots, is that although the game (and Vice City and San Andreas) supports widescreen, it does it through a vert- method, and stretches 2D assets such as the HUD, including the map, and most hilariously the moon.

  33. JDMM says:

    The 3D GTA titles began as a loose collection of disjointed, shapeless, and tonally schizophrenic stories, and they pretty much stayed there.

    Later stories I do feel became more than this but at the same time their turning points began to turn into something like right angles

    Like in Vice City at the start you make your way to take out a certain Drug Kingpin than once that’s done the PC decides he wants to become a Kingpin via doing side missions and hooray, oh whoops your boss from the start has decided to pick a fight, the boss whose impact on the story has been some ripoff text from Goodfellas or some such

    But I think San Andreas is the best example, you start by attempting to clean out your home neighborhood than it turns out to be impossible to be cleaned and you have to start over somewhere else so shunt regardless of how much power you might have accumulated. Then the PC creates his own successful empire in the north and has all the money and power he could want however all of a sudden you’re shunted back into the original neighborhood because that’s what the plot demands

    1. Cubic says:

      CJ had a lot of unfinished business in Los Santos so I didn’t see returning there as forced.

  34. marty says:

    I liked GTA 3 when it came out but the only thing that I clearly remember about it is a mission I had to replay a bunch of times. The mission is the one where you have to drive a van around picking up donkey-porn within a certain time-limit, kill a guy, and drive to some point with the van intact. It’s a terrible mission–maybe the worst in the game–but I don’t think it’s an aberration.

    The sandbox mechanics (open-world city setting, pedestrians, traffic, npc gangs, police force, variety of vehicles, guns, etc.) are passable enough to allow for the fun, chaotic moments but fail when relied upon for structured missions. Getting from point A to point B is something the mechanics reasonably allow for, and adding a timer to that seems fine. But having to travel from point A to point B, using a specific route, under a timer limit, using a vehicle that isn’t designed for speed or handling, on sloped streets, is far more than what the actual mechanics can reliably handle let alone having to deal with random traffic, cops, and npc gangs that shoot at you on sight.

    The game seems like it should be more than the sum of its parts–but then the game asks you to do that math and… nope, some of those parts are actually not that great and, when added together, don’t make the game better. I remember reading 4 had ~30% story completion rate but it’s hard to know exactly what that means for a super popular series. I’ve never replayed any of the GTA games. Maybe, for me, part of the GTA experience is hoping for future fun but once the credits roll, more of the same is far less appealing.

    1. marty says:

      missed the edit on this one but, after re-watching Shamus’s “Do it again” video a minute ago, I’m totally crediting Shamus for linking the word “aberration” to bad GTA missions in my mind as well as the 30% completion stat. Hilariously, my initial thought was a panicked “HOW is Shamus saying what I just wrote?!!.” I hadn’t watched the video in a while but it obviously had an impact.

    2. Cubic says:

      I’m sure you’ll be happy to learn the donkey porn is an optional mission …

      1. marty says:

        Didn’t remember if it was optional or not but that kind of reinforces my impression–my critique is that none of the mechanics really work together and this problem is etched in my mind by one particular mission. The mission being optional doesn’t change anything about the mechanics that the mission integrates. The way to fix it isn’t by making it optional, or giving the player more time or an easier route or better vehicle, but by fixing the camera so you can look around for the next checkpoint, reworking the physics so vehicles handle better won’t roll so easily, modifying the gang AI so they don’t shoot you because they would realistically have no idea it’s you driving the van around, modify traffic systems so you cars don’t just turn right in front of you. The systems that are tuned to create random chaos are not capable of handling a simple mission with a few fail conditions. That’s the lasting impression I have of GTA 3.

    3. Taxi says:

      I know I’m super late but that’s the mission that made me quit GTA3 when I was playing it after it came out.

      Just horrible driving physics. Yes later I realized it was optional (I replayed GTA3 a few years ago and fortunately never bumped into that mission) but honestly the entire game was like that.

      One might argue that a game can’t do everything right, but at the same time, why would I play an abomination of a shooting and driving game when I could play such solid shooters like Max Payne, Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament, and actually enjoyable driving games like NFS5? So I just went back to those.

  35. Redrock says:

    The imitation is entirely stylistic and mechanical.

    Oh my god, it’s porn, isn’t it? GTA is gangster movie porn. This explains so goddamn much.

  36. Taxi says:

    I hated GTA 3 when it came out. I was a fan of the 2D GTAs and therefore obviously excited for a 3D variant, but it was horrid. Controls and physics were abysmal, the PC version ran like crap and didn’t look all that great.

    Yea sure some technical aspects were impressive, as well as the entire concept of an open world driving/shooting game, but again, I found the experience to be so horrible it literally put me off of the entire genre for ages. It took my friend YEARS to convince me to try out Mafia because it looked so similar. And Mafia, that came out a year after GTA 3, blew it out of the water so hard it’s beyond belief. In Mafia, you can leave dozens of cars and wrecks somewhere, drive to the other side of the city, then back and they’ll still be there. Plus the driving and damage models are actually truly realistic.

    After spending hundreds of hours with GTA 4, 5 and online, I went to try out the older titles. SA still holds up in many areas (except again, controls and physics) and is still fun and impressive. The older ones I found to be completely unplayable. At least 3’s intro made me shed some nostalgia tears.

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