A superficial look at the re-release of Grand Theft Auto III, and its sequel, Vice City, would lead us to think Rockstar is trying to cash in on an already successful franchise. Critics tend not to like these re-releases that come months later. It makes us play the game again and even the most objective critic will have already seen or heard it all. Sometimes the time spent porting it to another platform defies logic; more time does not apparently equal a better game. It could be the same game with poorer controls or the same product with unnecessary portions added - or taken out.
Luckily for Grand Theft Auto fans, the Grand Theft Auto Double Pack appears to leverage on all the work put into the PC releases. Anyone who knows anything about what hums inside the Xbox will know that a PC release is literally synonymous to an Xbox release. The wait for Xbox owners might have been the longest but it certainly was well worth it.
The visuals stand out as the best in this game. With support for 16:9 and graphics optimized for the Xbox, the load times are quicker and the draw distance is significantly longer. I had the opportunity to play Grand Theft Auto III on the PC with a near state of the art computer then and I'm glad to say this title on the television screen is no compromise to what I saw then. When it came around to Vice City, the ante went up for system requirements but I was still stuck with the same PC. If you had to compromise to play Grand Theft Auto III or Vice City on your computer, you don't have to now. The Xbox does a marvelous job in giving you a look at Liberty City and its (Miami) Vice sibling.
Shadows and lighting effects look more realistic. The textures look sharper, making the landscape a whole head and shoulder less blurry than the graphics on the Playstation 2. You'll see the most improvement if you migrated from that platform. But for those who are new to the series, I can assure you that Liberty and Vice City haven't ever looked as vibrant as this. It all adds to the immersion of the game as you delve into these virtual cities that are teeming with everyday streetlights, buildings, pedestrians and ambient traffic.
The soundtrack that came with both Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City comes intact into the Xbox with an added twist. Everyone heard about the hyped up custom soundtrack features of the Xbox. You can rip your own music into your console and have the music played back during the course of the game. On the other hand, everyone has heard of the great music included in both these titles. The Double Pack will allow you to mix in your own music with the radio stations that are already built in the game.
It's a nice addition but that's like pouring gravy on top of an already great pot roast. I am one of those rare ones who liked the classical/operatic station from the original Grand Theft Auto III. So if I wanted the same Puccini music in Vice City's 1980s dominated soundtrack, I could rip a bunch of music CDs and play it while I'm cruising around alongside a beach.
What didn't change are the missions themselves. In light of Vice City's release, Rockstar didn't go back and enhance Grand Theft Auto III. As a result, those people who haven't played the original will find the original underwhelming if they finish Vice City first. Now that I can make a direct comparison without even lifting the disc out of the Xbox, Vice City is a more complete title. It took all the good fun things about Grand Theft Auto III and made more of it. There are fewer boring and monotonous crime spree missions. The set up in Vice City is more elaborate and the objectives are creative. Here's a good analogy. You can ride and operate a taxi cab in Grand Theft Auto III. You can ride and operate a whole taxi chain in Vice City.
The missions themselves are still linear. As I said, none of that has changed. Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City have always been linear titles that give you an illusion that you can do everything you ever want to do. They do so by including plenty of side-missions, smaller factions, optional storylines and of course some mini-games like driving an ambulance, police car or taxi. Heck, some other developers spend two or three years making a whole game about driving a police car and catching the bad guys. For the folks at Rockstar, it's like someone did this on the side because they had some extra time before hitting the sack at the end of the work day. And the tragic thing is Rockstar pulls it off even better.
At the end of the day, though, you'll have to go through the main missions or you won't be able to advance the plot. Both stories are worth working through and they feature stars like Joe Pantoliano, Michael Madsen, Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Tom Sizemore and more. Equipped with a convincing script, the Double Pack can serve as a nice mob story fix in between your next viewing of Goodfellas and the upcoming season of The Sopranos.
Overall, I enjoyed playing through Grand Theft Auto III. There wasn't much of a learning curve when it came to the controllers. The developers have done a great job in making the transition intuitive. I had only briefly touched on Vice City before encountering this product and I have to say I'm happy to wait until now to get the proper experience.
Many Xbox fans come from two camps: they either have a Playstation 2 or they migrated from the PC world. Those two platforms already have Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City so if I draw a mental Venn diagram from my school days, I can't honestly say there would be many new fans that Rockstar can aim for. Luckily, the Double Pack holds up to repeated play. A title of this size and scope can provide for hours of replay fun. And secondly, it tolls the bell hard for Rockstar to seriously consider the Xbox as a target platform for the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto.
Maybe I didn't toll hard enough so I'll toll again: the Xbox is a fine platform for the next Grand Theft Auto to show up on.