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Review: Grand Theft Auto III: 10th Anniversary Edition is faithfully executed on iPad

Image Credit: Rockstar Games

It’s been 10 years since Rockstar brought its seminal franchise, Grand Theft Auto III, to the PlayStation 2, the 3rd dimension, and the homes of a record number of gamers. GTA 3 earned quite a number of perfect review scores upon release, and continues to influence game design even now.

With Grand Theft Auto III: Tenth Anniversary Edition, Rockstar now brings this open world sandbox game to mobile platforms, complete and unabridged. This is the GTA 3 that took the gaming world by storm, the first to feature a 3rd person perspective, and the first to star Liberty City, the setting of many future games in the series. The game will play on smartphones and tablets, including iPad 1 and 2, the iPhone 4 and 4S, and a number of Android devices, including the Samsung Galaxy R, the Samsung Tab, and the Motorola Xoom.

I was able to review this version on an iPad 2, a high-end device that really allows the game to shine. Rockstar has spared nothing in this translation to the small screen – there wasn’t a single hitch in the game’s motion or control or fluidity of animation. The opening music, the story of a robbery gone bad, the escape from the prison van – all is identical to the original game. There’s a certain nostalgia factor at play here that I’m sure the developers are just fine with. A note for note port of this nature is both positive and negative, however. Let’s start with the good stuff.

First, the game’s voice talent is still amazing, even by present day standards. There’s a host of professional actors, some of them big names like Robert Loggia, Kyle Maclachlan, and Michael Madsen. While current generation gamers are used to high-end talent gracing their top tier gaming experiences, this was a bold move ten years ago. It paid off in spades, as the cut scenes between every mission are compelling and interesting enough on their own to keep me progressing through the sometimes repetitive or frustrating missions.

Another great thing about this game? The lip synch seems amazingly close to flawless. Compared to a more recent game like Oblivion, or even Skyrim, for that matter, this ten year old game shines. The lips of the characters move in ways we expect them to move. For me, this small fact helped sell me on the story a lot more than if I had been taken out of the moment with just plain puppet-like mouth movements. The character body models, however, are another story of puppetry, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The soundtrack garnered praise when GTA III was first released, and continues to be held up as a model to emulate. The music is top notch, both the composed-for-the-game original music as well as the licensed tracks included. These songs play whenever cars are entered and driving happens, along with some hilariously satirical commercials and DJ voice over work, e.g., “all the songs you were tired of 20 years ago: Flashback FM” captures the reality of the dumbing down of radio ten years ago, as do the frequent references to corporate ownership of the stations being played in the car. Simply brilliant. Playing it on the iPad made it super easy to plug in some headphones and chair dance my way around Liberty City.

Unfortunately, as with any authentic port, the things that were rough in the original are still present. Colors are drab, polygons are low, and the character animations, while praised by several reviewers upon the original game’s release, are severely limited in their variability and scope. These days, we expect stuff on the level of Infinity Blade, perhaps to our collective detriment. Even still, I found myself chuckling a little at the puppet-like movements of my own and other supporting characters’ heads, torsos and hands. In the first scene, the character who escapes the prison van along with me has bandaged hands and cannot drive. His hands look like cotton balls rather than bandaged hands, to be honest.

I don’t envy developers who need to adapt their control systems to touchscreens. Just a quick look at a service like OnLive shows there’s a lot of room for improvement when moving from the console to a mobile device, even when it’s a larger device like the iPad. Rockstar has done an admirable job giving players different control options here, and I was able to find one that didn’t completely suck.

First up, there’s the walking around and camera control. There’s a rudimentary AI camera control that tries to orient things in an intuitive way. If that’s not enough, players can touch and drag on the screen to move the camera around. Virtual onscreen buttons are available to have the main character jump, sprint, shoot, and get into cars. The virtual analog stick for movement appeared when I placed my thumb on the left hand side of the iPad screen, no matter where I set it.

Then there’s driving. Players spend a ton of time driving in this game – not surprisingly given the title, right? The iPad version of the game lets players choose either an analog or digital steering scheme as well as an accelerometer based steering control scheme, which can be available even while steering with the virtual analog stick, for example. I’m a big fan of NOT moving the screen around as I’m playing a game, so I stuck to the analog and digital schemes, more often choosing the non-analog controls simply because they worked best for me. But driving is still loose and tricky, regardless of the car chosen. And when I say chosen, I mean the car most likely to be nearby when I need one.

There are a ton of different cars to steal and drive, from cop cars to muscle cars, delivery trucks to soccer-mom mini vans, even fire engines, ambulances, taxis, and boats. Each car type has its own feel and unique driving characteristics. Unfortunately, they all are a fair bit on the super-touchy side. At best, driving a cop car let me drive fast and have a relative decent amount of control through turns. At worst, the minivan felt like a top heavy beast of ponderous weight, and the sedans felt like they were being driven across an ice field that had just gotten a little friction-eating dusting of powdery snow on top. I’ve played a couple of the other games in the GTA series (Liberty City Stories and San Andreas, if memory serves), and they had the same sort of loosy goosey feel for me, so I’m guessing this is the way it’s supposed to feel. That knowledge didn’t make it much more fun to play, but it certainly allowed me to get into the crashing, smashing, and running into walls, other cars and pedestrians with a certain elan.

And that’s just the thing, here. The joy of Grand Theft Auto III is stealing cars, maybe doing amission or three, but then hopping in a taxi and picking up rides, jumping firetrucks over the ramps and boards discretely placed all over town, and, yes, running over people as often as possible, especially police and pimps. Prostitutes I figure have enough problems, so I steered more toward escorting them to their various destinations as often as I could, and took great pains to not run them down. Unless of course my wanted level was high and I needed to get the heck out of the way quick.

But don’t get me started on the shooting controls. They’re horrible. Calling them controls gives them way more credit than is warranted. But that’s how they were in the original game – there’s an auto-aim system that isn’t automatic and doesn’t aim well. Run towards an enemy, tap the shoot button, and if lucky, hit the intended victim. More often than not, I hit bystanders or nearby walls, getting smacked by baseball bats or shot from impossible distances by the evidently cheating artificial intelligence character who obviously has a much better aiming system than I do.

So, while the game looks and plays like a Playstation 2 port, which it is, there’s something still fairly compelling about the gameplay itself, even after ten years. I found that I was still interested in playing through the character missions, racking up money and respect, earning my way to bigger and better jobs – regardless of the funky puppet-esque animations and repetitive, mostly frustrating missions where the car and shooting control systems weren’t up to the tasks I was being asked to perform. Even as I repeated missions three, four, five times, due to funky control issues (seriously, virtual buttons are hard to use regardless of the game in question), listening to the prostitute tell the made wise guy mechanic, “I’m bored, when ya gonna drill me,” kept me going. I continued to play the game past all mission frustration, just by driving around the city, jumping over ramps, and listening to the radio, hopping from carjacking to carjacking to change stations.

Being able to play this on my iPad is also a good thing. While it would be nicer to play with a physical controller, for five bucks, I can’t complain. I can take this with me wherever I go, dropping into the heady open spaces of a game that gave us all a glimpse of the future of gaming. GTA 3 is, after all, the spiritual ancestor of such current generation console hits as Red Dead Redemption and the like. Just think how far we’ve come in – really – just a blink of an eye. Ten years has come and gone, and we’re still playing games that are influenced by this specific one. I highly recommend grabbing this game for the simple pleasure of rolling down the streets of Liberty City, listening to the commercials on Head Radio, and trying to run over only the pedestrians that we choose to. Heck, we should steal a cop car and play vigilante while we’re at it. Overall, this one deserves an 85/100, for a solid port of a groundbreaking game to mobile devices for a fantastic price. While the controls and visual/graphics engine are feeling a bit long in the tooth, we’d be hard pressed to find anything for mobile devices that is as deeply compelling and console-like as Grand Theft Auto 3: Tenth Anniversary Edition for any price.


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