Grand Theft Auto III: Throwing Mercury Fulminate on Troubled Waters

by Protagonist X

First, for those interested, the following disclaimers:

o My only experience is with the PS2 version, when I was house-sitting for a friend. I have no real opinions on the PC port, save that putting in an MP3 playlist sounds like a really cool feature.

o My total knowledge, background, and love for games is less than many other people's by an order of magnitude. In ICJ's case, perhaps even more. I dally with games. I mess around with them occasionally. There are others, many of them here, who really, truly, love this stuff.

So, then: I didn't react as poorly to it as Jonsey did. And yet I agree with most all of his points, which helped me to finally sum up the problems I had with it that I couldn't voice. Similarly, it took me six months after reading Adam Cadre's Ready, Okay! to figure out why I felt something was missing from it. But that's another thread, another rant.

1.) I didn't notice the "can't save anywhere" problem as much, only when I was on a mission that I had to repeat a dozen times. Best example is the end of Chapter one, where you snipe the cartel members to allow eight-ball to plant the bomb. Had to repeat that one well over ten times, nearly threw the controller through the screen in frustration, because each time eight-ball bought it, I had to restore, drive to the bomb shop, pick his ass up, drive to the docks, and screw it up all over again.

It seemed pointless to have to go through all of that YET AGAIN, but I was actually more pissed at myself. As noted in Disclaimer #2, I lacks the m4d l33t skillz. I was convinced that better players breezed through this after one or two tries, and that because I have some sort of deficiency at this particular subset of gaming that I was to blame. Seeing others who had similar woes opened my eyes to the idea that maybe the design wasn't all it could be.

2.) There's too many damn timed missions, and while some of them have a rationale, others feel tacked on and artificial. Where Kenji maketh you dewiver the sportth carth for hith aththothiate, becauthe hith honor mutht be pwetherved [sorry, couldn't resist] -- it's an interesting idea, but the time limit feels like it was just wedged in there. Incidentally, I could never complete that mission, and I put it off as long as I could. I was actually relieved when the opportunity came to assassinate Kenji, although I was damn curious about the other missions he might have given.

3.) The Water Factor: I tuned it out mostly. Mostly. It seemed stupid that after rolling a convertible off a cliff, totaling it in the process, I was just fine, but walking off a beach into the waves was instant doom. This is a subset of my biggest judgment on the game; see the summary below.

Can I see a design reason for having the city surrounded by water rather then in the middle of Kansas? Absolutely. Same reason New Haz or Skara Brae are more-or-less walled in, or that the Black Mesa Research Compound is underground. The only other option is to loop the world around King's Quest- or Dragon Wars-style, and while this appeals to the part of me that likes Magritte paintings and total-mindfuck surreality, DMA probably made the better of two choices here.

I wonder if it would have been possible to code a "swim" routine, where the character had 30 seconds to make it to a shore or slow down and eventually perish. Maybe they were at the limit of code that the PS2's ram can hold. Maybe not.

Oh, and I too completed a mission, and despite taking massive pains, managed to fall in the water while getting off the boat and drown. I screamed bloody murder at the unfairness of the cosmos robbing me of my victory. Other times I tried jumping in the water off the pier to test it, and it would deposit me back on land. But the way it did it wasn't smooth, felt like a rush job of coding after beta and QA weighed in on the thing.

4.) The map of the city, mazes, 3-dimensionality, etc: Again, I tuned it out, but not entirely. It was a little confusing at times, but eventually I got to know the neighborhoods, the alleys and shops, the location of things. It took a while -- in Real Life, I've driven past my own house more than once. I can get lost on my way to the kitchen, so I'm probably not an objective party.

As a side note on the 3-dimensionality of Staunton -- I actually liked it most times. It was interesting that it didn't feel like it was a bunch of blocks on graph paper, it felt realer and substantial. The streets on any island are seldom well-laid-out straightways for very long -- they twist around and slide under each other, and I thought it was a good imitation of a real city, with different strata.

On the other hand, it was a pisser when I was told to get to a location in a certain neighborhood and I had to navigate by the radar, glancing occasionally at the road to make sure I didn't rear-end a cop. And yeah, I had to restart a bunch of them and learn-by-doing to get to a place on time, which was annoying. See note 2 on timed missions, above.

What It All Boils Down To:

I liked it in several places. And it at its best when you're running around, exploring one of the hugest and best-detailed worlds I've seen on a console game. Some moments are sublime. And there's so many details to make it seem real to the player (that's REAL, not REALISTIC -- it's not a sim game, but it tries for verisimilitude). Think of the physics on the vehicles so that the Esperanto handles differently than the Stinger or the Cheetah. Or all those intricate street maps. There's a big list here, we could cite all sorts of examples.

But the work as a whole suffers from the eventual intrusion of the awareness that you're playing a game into the immersive atmosphere, ruining the vivid and uninterrupted dream that you're starring in a gangster movie.

The preponderance of Time Limit missions. The way that arrests interrupt you but slide off in 12 hours, your rap sheet forgotten. The "Every fucking cop in town plus the FBI are gunning for your blood, so you need to get the Cop Badge Tokens to bump down the Wanted Meter." The disappearance of cars when we go into a brief cutscene (yeah, I tried something similar and then was pissed when it didn't work out). The way that after the mission is completed, the wanted meter zings! right to zero in an instant, and every cop who was shooting to kill is suddenly sharing a donut and trying to bum a smoke or something. All the little things add up and break the spell.

Robb has probably the best example: where the Cartel -- after you've been on a building a half-block away with a sniper rifle's scope set to "Hubble Fucking Telescope" and then KILLED every fucking witness -- the Cartel can pick you out in a car with tinted windows, but Kenji and the Yakuza, who've sat DOWN with you and talked face-to-face, can't ID you when you're three yards away firing an Uzi from the window.

The IF community beats on "mimesis" constantly, but it's true, kids, it's true. And GTA3 is so damned good at mimesis in places that the flaws are thrown into sharp relief. Much in the way that most of Kubrick's films are so good that his mediocre stuff (which presented against the work of a Renny Harlin or a Michael Bay look fucking well sublime in comparison) sticks out like a sore thumb. Jonsey mentioned "consistency," and this consistency is HARD WORK -- the proverbial "last 20% takes 80% of the effort" thing in little details.

I've apparently come down with diarrhea of the word processor, so I'll try to wrap up this little 60,000 word novella with something a bit shorter:

GTA3 aggravates precisely because it's so good in other places -- if it had lived up to its potential, it could have rivaled the all-time greats. The flaws are all the worse because they were surmountable. It's like watching your football team of choice play a flawless game all through the Super Bowl, then completely piss it away in the 4th quarter by a bunch of stupid, easily avoidable interceptions.

GTA3 fails in the exactly the same places that Half-Life shone the most.

All right. Gentlemen, you may commence your flame attacks.


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