Dec 24, 2011

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Grand Theft Auto III iOS Review

The later installments of Rockstar Games’ storied Grand Theft Auto franchise may have legitimized the series from a narrative and artistic standpoint, but all of the innovations (controversial and otherwise) can be traced back to 2001 and a single game on the newly-minted PlayStation 2. Grand Theft Auto III has stood the test of time by reminding gamers where open-world sandbox adventures got their start, and in honor of the game’s tenth anniversary, Rockstar has seen fit to remaster this classic for tablet and smartphone platforms. GTA III may be a bonafide classic, but adapting a twin-stick console controller to a touchscreen has rarely ended well. Thankfully, Rockstar mostly succeeds where others have failed. Responsive controls and generous customization help GTA III stand up as a perfectly playable port of the original. Unfortunately, a few elements of this gaming experience are lost in translation.

Grand Theft Auto III was the first 3D game in the series, and introduced players to silent protagonist Claude Speed (Claude goes unnamed in-game). A story of betrayal and a meteoric rise through the criminal underworld of Liberty City complements a well-realized game world brimming with character. Personalities abound amongst the game’s leading stars, and Claude’s silence during cutscenes and gameplay (while an antiquated idea) gives players the chance to judge and react to these goofballs on their own terms. The narrative isn’t spotless; major shifts in the storyline often occur without great context given, and many of the required missions feel irrelevant to the story at large. Still, when things go down, they go down big, and there are moments when GTA III perfectly captures the scope and drama of the best Hollywood crime sagas.

Having recently played the original PS2 version of GTA III, the visual attention given by Rockstar to this port is immediately apparent. Cutscenes look great, and increased brightness, color contrast, and anti-aliasing help smooth over many of the rough edges that the original suffered. The small screen you’ll likely be playing on helps hide some of the rough spots, but you definitely won’t be disappointed regardless – GTA III stands among the best-looking mobile 3D games. As a longtime fan, I can also appreciate the things Rockstar chose to let be. Animations may be awkward by today’s standards, but quirky movements and funny NPC behavior has always been a charming component of the PS2-era GTA games. The infamous “lobster hand” is here in full force, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thankfully, this tenth anniversary port also bears the fantastic sound design of the original. Random NPC outcries are among the funniest things you’ll hear in-game, and the collection of both original music and licensed tracks spread between a variety of radio stations will definitely keep you entertained. Voice acting remains superb, with each man and woman involved positively influencing their characters’ personalities. Gun and vehicle effects are less impressive; these sounds weren’t top-of-the-line in 2001; however, they have always been competent, and remain so in this mobile version. I was disappointed to find that GTA III bucks the trend of many iOS games and doesn’t allow you to listen to iPod music or tunes from other sources while playing. It’s not a dealbreaker, but I would have appreciated a custom radio station or similar feature.

Many gamers are already familiar with the idea and context of the Grand Theft Auto series. You’re set loose in a massive persistent city and may pursue just about any pleasure. Wreaking havoc is the name of the game, and the freedom to violently proclaim your dominance with a car to the face of every pedestrian you pass has always been the franchise’s sticking point. The most important question with this port is whether the game’s twin-stick scheme has been successfully adapted to touchscreens. With some confidence (and a bit of trepidation), I can say that it has. Rockstar took playability to heart and crafted an interface that allows you to seamlessly pull off almost every one of GTA III’s tricks. A virtual analog stick appears wherever you set your thumb down, and a gathering of virtual buttons for everything from firing weapons to handbraking appears on the right in context-sensitive situations. The screen is never cluttered as a result, and gamers will relish the ability to remap the location of any virtual button to their liking. I’ve played several virtual analog games on my iPhone 4, and GTA III is definitely the most responsive and accurate of them.

Unfortunately, the transition to mobile platforms has not been without its problems. Camera control is performed by swiping your finger across the middle of the screen. This addition is definitely appreciated, but the sensitivity is obnoxiously high and takes a little getting use to. Driving precision suffers a bit as well; steering is relegated to left-right arrow buttons by default. This option is convenient and easy-to-use, but makes tiny adjustments a bit difficult to pull off. You can opt to use analog steering, but you won’t want to – analog steering is atrocious. Gunfights are another very important element of the GTA experience, and they’ve been streamlined by an auto-targeting system that focuses on the nearest threat when the fire button is pressed. This works well enough, but it’s the necessary change that I lament the most. You’ll definitely want to approach combat situations with a bit more strategy and caution, because the game’s harder sections are made more difficult by your inability to keep the camera locked on a chosen enemy. These control tweaks makes the mobile version of GTA III a harder game than the one you remember from 2001.

On mobile platforms, Grand Theft Auto III is a must-buy. It’s one of the best games I’ve played on my iOS device. Those who fondly remember rip-roaring through the Red Light District to the sultry tones of Lazlow on Chatterbox FM will fall in love with the action-packed gameplay and  freedom all over again. Huge credit should be given to Rockstar for crafting an intuitive and responsive control scheme that actually manages to turn your touchscreen into a legitimate user interface for 3D gaming. Unfortunately, a few quirks and inconveniences are made more apparent as a result. Those with only a passing interest might consider playing the PS2 or PC version instead, as games of this magnitude and complexity simply play better with a gamepad. The hardware may not fit, but this tenth anniversary port remains an admirable successor to the 2001 classic. After all this time, Grand Theft Auto III is still one hell of a game, and Rockstar’s loving attention to this remaster makes GTA III an easy recommendation.

Grand Theft Auto III iOS
Platform: iPhone 4 (reviewed) & 4S, iPad 1 & 2, iPod 4th Gen, Android devices
Genre: Sandbox
Release Date: December 15, 2011
Developer: War Drum Studios
Publisher: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: 17+
MSRP: $4.99


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About Kyle Prahl

You can friend him on PSN (geist226) and follow him on Twitter: @PaybackPrahl