Prior to Grand Theft Auto III I’d say I had fun messing around in Grand Theft Auto games, but never really enjoyed myself. The top-down view felt incredibly claustrophobic, and, at least for me, made getting immersed into the game world incredibly difficult. I don’t think it’s hyperbole at all to say that GTA 3 changed everything.
Originally released in 2001 as a Playstation 2 exclusive, Grand Theft Auto III featured a full 3D game engine for the first time in the game series. At least for me, this transformed a silly and entirely too controversial set of video games into a living and breathing universe. It’s debatable how well the game has aged in ten years, but in 2001, after the initial cut scene rolls and you’re driving through the beginnings of Liberty City, there was no way your jaw wasn’t on the floor.
This magic is alive and well in the iOS port of Grand Theft Auto III. There have been a number of open world crime games, most notably Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and Gameloft’s highly “inspired" Gangstar games released on the App Store but neither game holds a candle to the original GTA3 The level of immersion that’s possible in the full 3D Liberty City, especially as you become familiar with the cast of characters you’ll spend your time taking missions from, feels downright incredible. In games like this, that very same level of immersion is what has kept me sucked in for potentially hundreds of hours, as when you feel like you’re actually playing your part in a virtual world, your role in it becomes that much more compelling.
Gameplay in GTA3 is typical of other open world crime games, which would make sense since Rockstar essentially wrote the book on the subject. Your time in Liberty City will be spent doing whatever is asked of you by various gangsters, drug lords, and other unsavories. Often times you’ll be doing jobs for multiple people, and between missions will have the choice of which story line you want to continue, and which you’ll revisit later.
Alternatively, you can immediately abandon the storyline of the game and instead focus on side missions (such as stealing a taxi and ferrying passengers around the city), looking for secret (and some not so secret) ramps to get ridiculous amount of air off of, or really, anything else you feel like doing. I’ve always been partial for stocking up on weapons, and seeing just how long I can survive from the police.
I think I’ve provided a sufficient recap of what GTA3 is for the half a dozen people out there who somehow haven’t played it, so the real question is, how does it translate to iOS devices?
I’m happy to say that the game plays surprisingly well. I’ve found myself preferring the large screen of the iPad 2, but GTA3 is just as much fun on the iPhone. If you think back to actually playing the game on the PS2 (or other console ports), you’ll remember that nearly every button on the controller did something. Sadly, the only way GTA3 can work on iOS devices is by replicating all of these functions as virtual buttons.
This results in buttons galore. On foot you’ll have a virtual joystick for running around, along with individual virtual buttons for running, jumping, attacking, stealing cars, changing the camera angle, and pausing. Inside of a car, the virtual joystick changes to a set of buttons to steer, along with buttons for the gas, brakes, hand brake, shooting, honking the horn, starting secondary missions (such as the previously mentioned taxi missions), and getting out of the car. Moving the camera involves dragging your finger around in the middle, and viewing the minimap as well as changing weapons involve hitting the top corners of the screen.
These controls are workable, and are easy enough to manage while doing simple missions or just tooling around Liberty City. Unfortunately, things get crazy as soon as you get involved in actual combat. GTA3 uses a zany lock on system for shooting, and it seems like more often than not when you get into an actual firefight you’re fighting the camera, the lock on system, and your character’s diminishing health supply more than you’re fighting the enemies themselves. Things get better as you get more accustomed to the virtual controls, but it never feels like you have the same precision as you would with an actual controller.
Still, it’s Grand Theft Auto III on your iPhone (or iPad), and given both the overall quality and depth of the actual gameplay content of GTA3, it’s really easy to get over the clunky controls. The performance is great on recent iOS devices, although pop-in on the game’s horizon can be pretty noticeable if you let it get to you– Looking at videos from the PS2 version of the game, it seems like this pop-in was mostly hidden by the relative low-resolution of the game. The retina display, however, makes it really clear.
Picking up GTA3 seems like a no-brainer, especially at the launch price of $4.99. Regardless of the less than ideal control scheme, you’ll get five dollars worth of entertainment out of this game, even if all you do is drive around Liberty City listening to the fantastic in-game radio stations. (My favorite is the talk station.) As you become more accustomed with the splattering of virtual buttons all over the screen, you’ll find hours upon hours of content to plow through.
Having played GTA3 to completion many times in the past, I’m incredibly happy to be able to take it anywhere with me on my phone of all things.