"Grand Theft Auto III" embodies the best and worst of modern video games.
Taken purely in terms of play, the game for Sony PlayStation 2 delivers varied challenges across sprawling environments detailed with painstaking care.
But that's a little like admiring the cinematography of a snuff film.
Purists may argue that "It's just a game, man," but "GTA III" is a game so suffused with sadism that its considerable technical attributes are lost in a nihilistic realm that gives the finger to any sense of propriety or responsibility.
That a game like "GTA III" got made is not nearly as disturbing as the fact that gamers who praise its "depth" and "variety" have made it enormously popular.
Or that a number of recognizable Hollywood actors--including Kyle MacLachlan, Robert Loggia, Joe Pantoliano and Michael Rapaport--lent their voices to its characters.
Had designers considered even a tiny bit of mature self-censoring, the game could have been an exquisite display of PS2's power and refinement.
Instead, "GTA III" does a disservice to the interactive entertainment industry by playing into the hands of those who crusade against violence in games without ever bothering to play them. Titles such as "GTA III" hinder the industry's drive for mainstream respect--something an $8-billion-plus industry surely deserves.
Be forewarned: Its "Mature" rating doesn't begin to describe its contents, or, by necessity, some of our descriptions below.
The premise behind "GTA III" is simple enough. Players assume the role of errand boy for the mob. Taking care of business--you know, things like picking up the boss' girlfriend, whacking a pimp, destroying evidence--requires a set of wheels. And there are plenty of cars sitting around Liberty City just begging to be swiped, whether they're occupied or not.
Police cruisers. Ambulances. Family minivans. Hot rods. If someone is inside, players pull them out, push them to the ground and slip behind the wheel. Or shoot them. Or bludgeon them. Whatever it takes to get the car.
Once mobile, players speed through the streets of a fully realized city, complete with three distinct boroughs. Liberty City sparkles with virtual life. Pedestrians stroll the sidewalks. Other cars cruise the streets. Over the course of two dozen or so missions, players explore every corner of Liberty City--from suburban Shoreside Vale to industrial Portland.
It is impressive.
As with other titles in the "GTA" series, much of the game is spent driving. But unlike most driving games, "GTA III" imbues its cars with personalities.
When a car is jacked, the radio remains tuned to whatever station the original driver had selected: talk radio, rock, hip-hop, whatever. Players can then switch between them. It's a great detail.
Missions range from a few minutes to a few hours. They are challenging and varied and ooze with a Mafioso attitude. A player might be wasting a reporter one minute and escorting an associate to a meeting the next. In between are high-quality cut scenes voiced by actors such as MacLachlan and Loggia.
So what's the problem? After all, shows such as "The Sopranos" deal with similar themes and win critical and public praise. Such movies as "Pulp Fiction" dwell on violence and are deemed art.
But there's a big difference between filmed entertainment and interactive entertainment.
Like movies, video games are about fantasy. Unlike movies, video games allow players to experience that fantasy firsthand by giving them--not the director--control over their actions. Players who could never fit their Frito-fed behinds into the cockpit of a real F-16 can be the finest computer fighter jocks. Or those who long for more chivalrous days can crawl through digital dungeons in search of adventure.
Violence and video games often have gone hand in hand, whether it's the cartoonish Pooka-bashing of "Mario" or the double-barreled grimness of "Max Payne." But "GTA III" takes random violence to new soul-sapping degrees.
For instance, players can revive their flagging health by picking up a prostitute at one of the many street corners in Liberty City. Take her to a secluded spot. Have sex with her. Money goes down. Health goes up. The whole scenario is juvenile. A case could be made that it's also demeaning and degrading.
But that's not nearly as disgusting as what happens next. After the hooker gets out of the car, the player can follow her, beat her to death and take back his money. It's not just a quick hit. It's a bloody bludgeoning with a baseball bat that players can feel in their hands thanks to the force-feedback feature in the PS2 controller.
To be sure, the game is rated "Mature" by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which means it contains content inappropriate for children under 17.
Parents who buy "GTA III" for their kids--and, yes, lots of kids want it--frankly deserve the felons-in-training they get.
The real question is whether a game that finds entertainment in murdering hookers, killing cops and carjacking soccer moms is appropriate for anyone older than 17 either.
Sure, it's just a game.
So was the Roman Circus.
Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times. He can be reached at aaron.curtiss @latimes.com.
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Grand Theft Auto III
Genre: Mafia errand boy simulator
Platform: Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher: Rockstar Games
ESRB* rating: Mature
The good: Technically flawless
The bad: Soul-sapping violence
Bottom line: Squandered virtuosity
*Entertainment Software Ratings Board