Wednesday, April 30, 2008

America Gets Torn A New One: Grand Theft Auto III (2001) - Part 1 of 6

To commemorate the release of Grand Theft Auto IV yesterday, and knowing full well that it's going to be a long time before I play it ($400 for a PS3? See you in 2010, GTA IV!), I've decided to finally kick off my blog of various media reviews by doing a series on the GTA games, starting with the third one. (My technological hindsight may be too snobbish, but after playing GTA III for several months, my brother got the second comparison.)

Naturally, this means I'll cover Vice City (2002) and San Andreas (2004), but I'll also do Liberty City Stories (2005), The Godfather: The Game from 2006 (in my mind the best of the GTA clones, and there's a lot of those...), and another game by the same makers of GTA, Bully (2007).

Grand Theft Auto III
The third installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise marked a new era for gaming. Its predecessors were rendered harmless cartoons upon the release of GTA III in October 2001. Gone was the bird's-eye view, replaced with the third person perspective. Gone was the premise of the game being in the dystopian future, instead taking place in modern times.

What came out was an interactive movie, where you became the character, interacting with a living, breathing metropolis: Liberty City. Based mainly off New York City, with elements of other cities from the American Northeast, the city is divided up into three distinct sections. The easternmost is Portland, where the main character starts, an island marked by its industrial zone, an L-train, and both Chinatown and Little Italy. The real-life equivalent of Portland is Brooklyn and/or Queens.

The central island is Staunton Island. Its name suggests Staten Island, but it is in fact a send-up of Manhattan, with its financial district, skyscrapers, and even a park in the central section of the island. (Get it?) West of Staunton is Shoreside Vale, featuring warehouses, factories and an airport in its southern half, while a residential area ranging from projects to luxurious homes are in the north. Shoreside is a mix of New Jersey and Staten Island.

Each of the islands of the city are isolated from one another at the game's start, something that occurs in each of the Grand Theft Auto games for one reason or another (they actually get more clever as time goes on.) This time around, a bomb severely damages the bridge connecting Portland to Staunton, while the lift bridge between Staunton and Shoreside is stuck due to a faulty mechanism. These "problems" work themselves out right in time for the game's focus to shift towards the newly opened islands.

The story's main character is unique in that he neither talks nor is he named proper. (He is eventually, but that's another game.) Most of the characters in the game simply call him "Kid," though one character referring to him as the Mafia Don's lapdog calls him "Fido," which consequently became his nickname among fans. Bearing a curious resemblance to Jackass star Johnny Knoxville (see PS for a picture), Fido is betrayed by his girlfriend Catalina during a bank robbery. The police convoy carrying Fido is stopped by members of the Colombian Cartel, who plant a bomb after acquiring their target. Fido and a fellow prisoner known as 8-Ball escape before the detonation.

In exchange for saving his life, 8-Ball offers Fido work with a Mafia hustler. The storyline goes from there, involving the introduction of a dangerous drug called Spank by the Colombians, betrayals left and right, corrupt cops, and a morally bankrupt media and real estate mogul named Donald. The game's story is a brilliant lampoon on contemporary American culture, done with a darkly cynical brand of humor where the "bad guys" in the story don't necessarily pay for their sins. It is this brand of humor that makes GTA III what it is, never taking itself too seriously.

The Mafia element of the storyline is heavily influenced by The Godfather and The Sopranos. Scorsese film regular Frank Vincent (who would later find himself on The Sopranos, oddly enough) voices the portly, mustachioed Mafia patriarch Salvatore Leone, while Reservoir Dogs star Michael Madsen plays Leone's caporegime Toni Cipriani. Both characters are affectionate parodies, respectively, of Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano, both in physical appearance and mannerisms. Other notable members of the cast include Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet, Sex & The City) as corporate bigwig Donald Love, Debi Mazar (GoodFellas, Be Cool) as Salvatore's mistress Maria, and rapper Guru as 8-Ball.

It is Maria who ruins Fido's developing partnership with the Leone Family, albeit unintentionally (she develops a crush on the protagonist). By the story's end, Catalina has kidnapped Maria. After the inevitable pursuit and victory, Fido and Maria walk off into the horizon together. She begins complaining about breaking a nail as the screen fades to black, only to be silenced after a loud shotgun blast.
Subverting the traditional ending of boy gets girl by turning it into boy kills girl because she is really annoying is just one example of the humor in the series.

Impressive upon its debut, GTA III still holds up, with interactions among Fido's various allies and enemies creating a dense but well-constructed story: for example, Donald Love asks you to kill Yakuza boss Kenji during a meeting with the Colombians to stir a gang war. This has repercussions later on in the storyline, as Kenji's sister Asuka exacts revenge on Catalina's partner Miguel.

Plot aside, countless examples spoofing American society are rampant. One in-game radio station, Chatterbox FM, features a sardonic host facing call-ins from people advocating nudism and seeking to ban cell phones, to name but two. The host (real-life DJ Lazlow Jones) is told by the nudist that our ancestors didn't wear clothes, prompting his response that "Our ancestors also threw rocks at their own shadows and died of fear and old age at 25," while the anti-cell phone advocate also has her arse righteously handed to her. Her group, Citizens Raging Against Phones (CRAP), wants to return to a simpler time. Lazlow points out that she is using the very technology she hates to make her point. A radio ad for a car called the Maibatsu Monstrosity, despite its hyperbole, is not too far removed from ads for the Hummer.

The city itself is well done, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore whilst not doing missions. And on that subject, beyond the regular story for gameplay, assorted tasks can be found throughout the alleys of Liberty, from drag races to rampages, timed operations where Fido has to kill x number of gang members or pedestrians with a selected weapon. One drawback exists for me, and that is the island of Shoreside Vale. The most expansive region in the game, it also boasts the least to do. Its slopes and hairpin turns make it a bad locale for ancillary missions (which include working as a taxi driver, driving an ambulance, extinguishing fires in a firetruck, and stopping fellow criminals in a police vehicle).

Perhaps the most endearing quality of the game is the devilish good fun of being a miscreant. Fido's lack of personality makes him a wordless, car-jacking, killing machine. The game is still one of the greatest ways to vent out road rage by using the sidewalk as your own personal express lane, though such deeds do not go unpunished. Street cops, patrol cars, helicopters, SWAT trucks, the FBI, and eventually the Army will pursue you should you go on a crime spree.

Upon its initial release, Grand Theft Auto III topped all sorts of lists as the greatest game of the year, of all time, etc. Rockstar Games' new smash was unparalleled, though rival game-makers scrambled to outdo GTA III. The only game that was released in the year's time between Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City was Gathering Of Developers' Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. Despite the game's merits of being set in the 1930's, many details proved detrimental. The player can attract police attention for speeding, die upon impact while speeding, and the protagonist's enemies travel in pairs with concealed weapons. Further critiques of the artificial intelligence and the now-infamous racing level rendered Mafia a largely unpopular and disliked game.

Though Rockstar only had one legitimate competitor in Mafia, that didn't stop the developers from insisting they topped their past triumph with their 2002 release. But I'll save that for next time.

Graphics: A (For its time, though if released today it would earn a B- or a C+).
Sound: A (The use of dynamic echo effects, where atmospheric sounds echo while in a tunnel or under the L-train, is impressive.)
Gameplay: B+ (Even in its time, the constant grumble made about the game was that it had an unwieldy targeting system. That and the egregious violence...but that's another dissertation for another day.)
Storyline: A+ (Of all the games in the series, this one flows the smoothest, like a really good, long movie.)
Replayability: B- (While it will never get old, the increasingly dated interface of the targeting system and other little things that Vice City improved upon has unfortunately put this game into a category of being replayed if only for nostalgic reasons. At least with me.)



PS - I do have a set of criteria for ranking and grading films, books, albums, and video games. My next entry will detail all this and more.
Also, the protagonist of GTA III, resplendent in his uncanny resemblance to Johnny Knoxville: