Grand Theft Auto 3’s Design Inspires Open-world Games Decades Later

As a rule of thumb, it seems like every decade welcomes at least one game that impacts all future titles. A game that challenges the status quo and adjusts our expectations; a game like Grand Theft Auto 3.

1986 saw the release of The Legend of Zelda. Instead of following a linear path, you could go wherever you please, uncover dungeons, treasure and secrets, or stumble upon exceptionally powerful monsters.

In 1999, Shenmue allowed you to explore an authentic recreation of Yokosuka. You could converse with just about anyone, visit shops, cafes, arcades and even get employed as a forklift driver.

For their time, these games offered an unprecedented amount of interactivity. They were moving away from the confines of hardware limitations and upping the ante for everyone else.

Like many, growing up I fantasized about a game that wouldn’t limit me to a single location, single story or single course of action. I wanted a game that would give me the means to create my own stories.

Thankfully, in September of 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 granted my wish.

Welcome to Liberty City

Grand Theft Auto 3 surpassed every predecessor by providing you with an entire 3D city as your playground. It consisted of three fully explorable portions: Portland, Staunton Island and Shoreside Vale.

Each location possessed a distinct vibe, presiding gangs and available missions. More importantly, after taking 8-Ball, your partner in crime, to a safe place, you were free to go and do whatever you please.

For one, you could steal the nearest car, wreak havoc on the citizens of Liberty City and start a war with the law enforcement. If you got into a police car, you could temporarily cosplay as the law enforcement.

Alternatively, you could just drive around and relax to one of the game’s many radio stations. For a sudden booty call, you could stop by the roadside, pick up an hourly madam and take her to a secluded spot.

Every location added more activities and challenges, such as flying. With enough practice, you could even fly the infamous Dodo from Shoreside Vale to Staunton Island. Crashing into cliffs still counts, right?

That’s the beauty of Grand Theft Auto 3: you could play however you want. It wasn’t mandatory to progress the story or follow a set of superficial rules established by developers of the game.

There was no fast-travel or GPS to make life easier. Grand Theft Auto 3 incentivized you to acquaint yourself with the game’s surroundings. It actively encouraged you to take the untrodden path, the obscure alleyway.

With this freedom of action and exploration — this freedom of decision — Grand Theft Auto 3 revolutionized the gaming landscape. It created a blueprint for years to come.

Cyberpunk Dogs of the Wild

Grand Theft Auto 3’s earth-shattering success spawned numerous copycats. But while many seemed like mere clones, some managed to improve upon its core mechanics.

Set in 1930s America, Mafia severely lacked in terms of optional activities. But unlike Grand Theft Auto 3, it told a film-worthy story about the unforgiving life of the Italian mob.

Similarly light on pastimes and gameplay mechanics, PlayStation’s exclusive The Getaway brought gritty action to modern-day London. Mind you, it featured a near photo-realistic depiction of UK’s capital city.

Both games focused on realistic interaction with traffic and law enforcement. Contrary to Grand Theft Auto 3, driving recklessly, speeding, even failing to indicate a turn could lead to problems with the police.

Later, in 2006, the video game adaptation of Scarface not only surpassed Grand Theft Auto 3 in terms of available activities, but also proved a worthwhile sequel to Brian De Palma’s 1983 movie.

Modern open-world games differ from Grand Theft Auto 3. They’re bigger, more refined, with far more options to drive narrative and exploration. But if you look beneath the surface, they’re also significantly similar.

Sleeping Dogs puts emphasis on martial arts and hand-to-hand combat; Cyberpunk 2077 plays from an entirely different first-person perspective. And yet, both could find their roots in Grand Theft Auto 3.

Even games like Breath of the Wild, Far Cry and The Witcher, while visually and mechanically different, rely on fundamentals established by Grand Theft Auto 3 decades ago.

Swords and spears replace assault rifles; horses and other mounts replace cars. But underneath those changes, all games follow a similar progression system, a similar freedom to go wherever, do whatever you please.

A Ticket to Vice City

It’s safe to say that the gaming scene of today would be much different without Grand Theft Auto 3. Regardless of any missteps, each new entry brings with it an astoundingly high level of polish.

Each entry sells in numbers that most triple-A publishers only dream to achieve.

Rockstar Games’ own variations on Grand Theft Auto, such as Bully, L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption have become immensely successful in their own right.

It all started with but a humble step forward. It all started with Grand Theft Auto 3.

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