I’ve been noticing (though many of you who wrote chose to use the word whining, which I wholly object to) that a slew or recent games (SOF2, GTA3, and JK2 to a lesser extent) have been requiring more oomph than my admittedly somewhat aged P3/500 could manage. A couple of people said they believe that I gave SOF2 a lower score than it deserved simply because my computer couldn’t run it as it was meant to be run. My response to that continues to be A) graphics are a small part of the overall score and B) my machine is over the minimum specs so I should be able to play it. Unrealistic system requirements on the side of the box lead people to buy a game that they can’t play, are often unable to return, and generally pisses me off at the game companies. That said, I have replaced my machine, which was going on 30 months old, with a P4/2.2Ghz, 512MB, and an MSI Ge4 Ti4600 graphics card. I now run SOF2 at the highest possible resolution and detail levels, while burning a CD, and running Dungeon Siege in the background just to keep the CPU from getting bored, and I have yet to stutter a single frame. It’s nice and speedy, but I think it might put me a little out of touch with the many people who don’t have 2.2 billion horsepower under the hood. GTA3 is a perfect case in point, because while I think it is one of the best-finished games I’ve played in a long time and is a boatload of fun, it was also entirely, and I mean completely, unplayable on my old machine. I was literally logging frame rates of less than one FPS when several cars were visible. True, my computer pretty much defined the bottom of the system requirements, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying tweaking shit to figure out why it was so slow, but there you are. On the new machine I have all the bells and whistles turned on, and maintain frame rates aplenty, and you won’t be hearing any more about system requirements from me hopefully for at least a year. Reader beware.
The first GTA was kind of a cult hit as far as I know, but GTA2 was a wide seller and had a version that ran on just about every platform in existence at the time. Why I personally never got into any of the GTA games is sort of a mystery. I like stealing cars. I like ramming things and shooting people. I like doing freelance work for the criminal underworld. I guess there was just always something else I wanted to play more. So the GTA series had to come to a threequel before it caught my interest, and now, like a sexaholic surfing the Internet with shaking hands and a sticky keyboard, baby, I am hooked!
You play, uh, as I think about it now I have no idea who you play. Do you even have a name? I know you don’t have any dialog, so evidently whoever you are, you’re the strong, silent type. You’re shot (I think in the head) during a very stylish, MTV-like robbery by your girlfriend, which I guess proves once and for all that she has been faking it. Then there’s prison, and the inevitable jailbreak during a prisoner transfer to keep the story moving along. You end up going to ground, taking small driving or killing jobs to earn cash, and working your way up in the criminal underworld. It’s a living. It also happens to be GTA3 in a nutshell.
The game takes places in a well-rendered and pretty complete city by videogame standards. There are pedestrians and other traffic, weather effects, police, fire trucks, and ambulances. The traffic flows, but it just kind of drives around aimlessly, and if there is an accident, say, a car lying on its side, they line up behind it and honk their horns like it should move. OK, so they’re not that bright. The cops aren’t that bright either. I’ve been chased by a cop, ditched my car, and run through an automobile barrier, and the cop doesn’t get out of his car – he just keeps smashing it against the barrier, and I’ve made my escape. People you get in gunfights with just kind of shoot in your general direction – this isn’t a FPS, and they don’t have nearly the AI level of even Doom.
But you know what? None of that stuff matters, because the game is just so much damned fun. At any given time there are three or four missions for you to choose from. Drive this hooker to that location, steal that car, kill this guy, join in a road race; the world is your oyster. Or you can choose not to do any of that stuff. You can steal a police car and play vigilante, steal a cab and play cab driver, steal a fire truck or ambulance and try those roles on for size (a fire truck is really hard to drive at high speeds). Or you can just enjoy the day, go out and take in the sunshine, and beat people you meet on the street to death with a baseball bat. You can do whatever you want to, but eventually (and I personally think the threshold for this is set kind of high) if you break the law, the cops will come looking for you. Small-time crime, like killing just a couple of people on the street, or smashing your car into a police car just a few times, won’t do it. But if you go on a killing spree or ram around in traffic indiscriminately, eventually a little gold star will show up on the screen, indicating the cops want you. Run when they see you, or run over a cop who tries to pull you over, and you’ll move to two stars. The sliding scale of “wantedness” goes up to 6 stars, but by three I had a helicopter overhead shooting at me and roadblocks at nearly every intersection, so I can’t imagine how bad it could get. Getting caught by the cops, getting shot to death, or getting killed in a massive car accident isn’t that big a deal. The game just deducts some of your cash and leaves you standing on the street corner either outside the hospital or the police station, whichever applies.
There are some really nice touches to this game. Cutscene movies where you pick up missions are well animated, the characters faces by and large are brutish and disturbing, and though all the voice actors seem to have terminal cases of Godfather or Rocky syndrome, it works. Dialog is snappy, for what other game has dared to ask the question: “Honey, I’m bored. When are you going to drill me?” The cars; SUVs, trucks, vans, pickups, station wagons, sports cars, sedans, compacts, and others, all drive and handle differently. Far and away the greatest thing about this game is the radio. There are maybe ten stations available, and I only wish real radio were as entertaining. I generally listen to Flashback 96.5 (their tag line is “music for people who can’t let go of the 80’s” or something to that effect). They have a deep-voiced female DJ who sounds just like that chick who was on WNEW in NY before Scott Muni. Radio jocks Opie and Anthony, who yours truly listens to every weekday between 4:45 and 5:15 during my commute home, lent their talents to another radio channel that I think is called Head Radio. There’s talk radio (Chatterbox FM), an opera station, classical, rap, metal, punk. I’ve spent some time just driving around the city listening to the radio. It’s great! I think there’s something like ten minutes of audio per channel, and it does eventually repeat, but as background noise to a car chase you can’t beat listening to Chatterbox FM with some caller ranting about how being naked is his right and you can’t stop him.
Is there a plot to this thing? I have no idea. I’ve been playing for maybe fifteen hours, I have a couple of hundred thousand in the bank, and I have no idea what happened to the women who shot me in the face, nor do I really care. I love stealing police cars. I love running over fire hydrants with the fire truck and watching the water spray into the air. I love rolling a car, crawling out through the window, and running away as it blows up. This attracts a crowd of gawkers. I then steal a car and run them all down, my tires spinning in their guts. I steal the ambulance when it shows up, and take off before the cops arrive. Whaaaahooo!
The swell thing about GTA3 is its flexibility. I can run the missions, or just cruise around the town. I can play for five minutes or over three hours (and I’ve done both). It’s more or less an arcade game, but there’s enough stuff going on to hold your interest. It’s not deep and it’s not teaching our children good things about being productive members of society, but it’s fun, and personally that’s all I expect a game to be.