Remembering the majesty of Grand Theft Auto 3

Grand Theft Auto 4 is finally coming out in April. That's all the excuse Mark Oakley needed to get hold of GTA 3 again...

Bored, alone and with five pounds to my name, I wandered in to my local Game store last weekend and perused the budget PC games aisle. As my eyes drifted over an endless number of Sudoku-inspired titles, I suddenly froze.

Unable to contain my excitement, a tiny yelp emitted from my mouth, causing the shopkeeper to lift his eyes from the cash register and several small children to snigger at my expense. I cared not as, for less than a fiver, I had found a piece of history. Picking it up before anyone else had a chance, I hurriedly took it to the cash desk, avoided eye contact with the aforementioned retailer, handed over my five pounds and practically ran out of the store in anticipation of the unbridled joy that was about to be bestowed on me.

I used to own Grand Theft Auto 3 on the PS2 and my memories of it were a cornucopia of cars, guns, swearing and prostitutes, all wrapped up in one very smart looking package. Graphically, I remember being blown away by the stark departure from the first two, top-down GTA games and the level of involvement the gameplay provided was mind-blowing. It was a revolutionary title, a landmark if you will, introducing many gamers to a free flowing style of gameplay so well executed that the critical response, despite the blood-letting violence, was universally positive.

With these memories firmly in the back of my mind, I have to confess that while loading the PC version last weekend I had several very large butterflies in my stomach. Would I be served a crushing blow to my tender, brittle hopes? Would time have been a cruel mistress on the game? Would Lazlo just piss me off this time round?

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I needn’t have worried. GTA3 is as good now as it ever was. Times have moved on visually of course, but it remains a masterclass in ambience, wit and scope. Instantly, I was transported back to some of my very fondest memories of gaming. For posterity, here is my list of the top five reasons to buy, or hang on to, that copy of Grand Theft Auto 3.1)    Roam free my man, roam free

At the core of GTA3 are the missions, but it’s just as much fun to have a wander around Liberty City. Grab yourself a cool car (the Diablo Stallion is a good place to start), switch on your favourite radio station and go for a drive. I have spent far too many hours simply driving around, admiring the views and not even causing any injury-related panic to innocent passers-by. The city is a joy to view, particularly if you find yourself a good spot to stop, get out and take it all in. Bliss.

2)    You’re going down son

That bit I just wrote about not injuring people? I lied. As anyone who has ever played any of the GTA games will tell you, running people over elicits such deep pleasure that it could make a grown man weep. Or laugh. Or both. Some of the finest carnage to be caused in the game can be started by simply running over one old man. If you’re spotted by a police car, that’s one wanted star. Do it again and again and you’ll soon find yourself hounded by the cops. Better still, ram your car through their roadblocks and you’re quickly on the way to a five-star arrest rating, which is where it gets really fun. With helicopters and SWAT teams on your back, you might as well just go hell for leather. But what are you going to fight back with?

3)    Guns. Lots and lots of guns

The range of weapons in GTA3, while expanded on in later editions, was, quite simply, ace. From a baseball bat, to flame throwers, Molotov cocktails and rocket launchers, the choice isn’t over the top and gives another degree of difficulty to the gaming experience. For me, the baseball bat is still an underrated tool in the game, as you can cause a fair bit of damage to an old man’s face with that bad boy. Ahem

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4)    ModdingOne new thing the PC game has brought to my GTA3 experience is a shedload of mods and new additions, such as cars and amendments to original maps. I think my favourite has been adding the Statue of Liberty and a classic Ford Mustang Fastback 1968 to the mix. Daddy cool.5)    Voice talent

Michael Rappaport. Joe Pantaliano. Michael Madsen. Robert Loggia. All lend their voices to characters in the game and it really does lend a more authentic, cinematic feel to the whole affair. Beyond the stars though is a wider, equally talented vocal cast who provide the game with much of its wit, none more so than on the radio advertisements. Pets ring any bells? What about Liberty City Survivor?

Rockstar Games hit the ball out of the park when they released GTA3 and I can’t wait to see what number 4 will bring. For the meantime, I’ll just have to make do with Lazlo and his chums – and that’s no bad thing.