In December of 2001, one of my friends from law school came back to Minneapolis because his girlfriend (also a law school classmate) was in a wedding. Who gets married in Minneapolis in December is another question, but the important thing was, my friend wasn't in the wedding, and didn't know these people. So, he was free from obligations, whereas his girlfriend was the maid of honor. He planned to spend the time catching up with his friends in the Twin Cities, and I was lucky enough that he started by visiting me. The rest of his friends didn't end up getting so lucky...
When John showed up at my apartment, he had two things with him that I hadn't seen before: a PS2 and a copy of GTA 3. What happened over the next four days was both awesome and really depressing. John didn't spend time catching up with his many friends back in the Twin Cities. Because he and I sat in the living room and played GTA 3. For four days straight. Just passing the controller back and forth when we died, and taking turns running missions and killing people and playing taxi and baseball batting hookers and laughing when the people in Chinatown said "is it dragon breath?" And it's not like we were two stoned college sophomores. We were 25 year old adult lawyers who had real jobs.
Several months ago, I was thrilled to find out that Rockstar released GTA 3 as an Ipad game (hint hint), and spent a few hours playing it (some controls customization is needed, otherwise the game works great). It then dawned on me that, since I have a PS2 and a copy of the game, I could just play the game for real. Which I did. Blending my reflections from those snowy days in my apartment living room with my recent views on the game, here's what I've come up with.
First, you really can't overstate the impact GTA 3 had when it first came out. I bought a PS2 the day after John left. Just to I could play the game. Maybe there were other quasi-sandbox games that came out first, but GTA 3 was the first time general, non-hard-core gamers like me saw a game where you could just do....whatever the hell you wanted to do. AND PEOPLE DID. There were people who just played freaking taxi. People rode the subway just to stare out the window at the animated city flashing by. And if you find someone who says they never stood on the balcony at Kenji's Casino and sniped people until the helicopter showed up, and then RPG'd helicopters until the army showed up, well...they're either lying or they've never truly lived. Here's the thing: us mere civilians never even knew a game could be this way. All the games we knew had a point. Hell, the point for most games we've played was either Go Right or Go Up. When the bad guys steal your girlfriend at the beginning of Double Dragon, it had never occurred to us that the right reaction might be to go into the store next door and steal some shit, then jump down into the sewers and see how many rats we could kill. No. The Game Was A Mission. You Played The Game By Doing the Mission. Now you get GTA 3. And, like the world's nicest dungeon master, GTA 3 just said: what do you want to do today? Mind = blown.
Second, GTA 3 gets something really basic and fundamental right that so many games spend so much money getting wrong: I am not looking for realistic physics in my shoot-em-up game. If you have the ability, go spend a half-hour playing GTA 3. And pay attention to how the fast cars handle (the Yakuza Stinger is my favorite go-to car for missions, because it's fast as hell and it can take a LOT of abuse). Put mildly, the physics engine for car performance isn't realistic at all. But it IS awesome as hell. The only way you can screw up when driving is if you try to drive like a normal human being. You'll turn right into the wall on the inside of that curve. But, if you floor it, wait for the last minute, then jam on the parking break and slam into the turn, you'll breeze right through. Worst case scenario, you'll smack the rear panel on the outside of the turn, which will help you complete the turn properly. If I wanted realistic driving physics, I'd go with GT 3 (or 5 or 7 or whatever). Not a game where you lob molotov cocktails at drug-addicted maniacs who are running towards you with bombs strapped to their chests.
Third, music. Music. Oh man. Jump in a car, and the first thing you check is: what's on the radio? Ain't listening to that Double Clef FM classical music bullshit. Where's Game FM? GTA 3 has Royce da 5-9 rapping on it. It's not just that the music became such an imbedded part of the game, it's that (once again) the notion that you were in control of a full musical palate and could choose how the game sounded was....just....not something we had ever considered before. It's not that I hated the music to Super Mario Bros. (even after Dane Cook pointed out that the lyrics to the World 1-2 music are "Penis penis penis......penis penis penis....") (also, admit that you just sang that in your head in turn). But choice itself is a powerful aphrodisiac. And it led to this: you would get in your car HOPING that the radio was set for a particular station, and HOPING that a particular song would be on. In a fake car. In a fake world. In a fucking shooing game. Developers talk about immersion. How's that for immersion?
Now, GTA 3 also features some of the most embarassingly performed voice overs in history. By talented artists! Michael Madsen has to physically wince when he hears some of his lines as Tony. Joe Pantoliano does a solid job. Kyle MacLaughlin does an awesome job. And Robert Logia is Robert Logia.
Look, I'd stick around and write more, but I gotta go. It's been almost an hour since I last played GTA 3, and my hands are shaking. Stay cool.