A Blast from the Past review

FBT has nothing to say as he goes back to where the GTA we all know and love began.

The Past

GTA III is another of those games I dutifully played then never went back to. I didn’t come to it the way most did, VC was actually my first GTA experience so all the adulation and amazement III garnered I experienced in VC. Still, I was excited to play it; once I’d taken over Miami I was up for New York next.

If VC was Scarface, III was supposedly Goodfellas; but from the perspective of a background extra? Why am I inhabiting a silent greaser who seems content to do everyone else’s chores? Thinking back I can’t remember a single mission, not one plot point, none of the characters. I remembered so little of it I didn’t even recognise Catalina let alone Claude’s cameo when I played GTA SA a few years later.

It wasn’t just that I came to III too late to be impressed. VC wasn’t a huge leap from III game-play wise, and being set in a grimy NY instead of neon Miami should have been a refreshing change but it felt underwhelming, like it was a GTA VC knock-off. But, I figured I should give III another shot. Let’s see what Claude has to say about all this.

Still a Blast?

It’s not ideal to start with a ranting tangent but … Claude? Aside from being the worst hero name ever, I hate playing as him. He’s not aged well at all. I never got why Claude was a silent (anti)hero. They were in vogue at the time, but this isn’t the character you expect to keep shtum. Criminals uses their words as much as their fists; they’re charming, dangerous, manipulative, belligerent, and that comes from their motivations and how they express them; desperation, desire, fear or anger, no matter how sociopathic they are, we’re interested in what they’re thinking, how they justify their actions. But Claude is none of that. Claude is boring as hell.

He's barely more than the chalk outlines he leaves behind. We have to just assume his motivations; he does anything he’s asked, including some very shady actions but he’s not even remotely proactive or reactionary. Catalina says she’s dumping / shooting him because he's small-fry and she’s exactly right. We should be playing as her instead.

So, having survived Catalina’s double-cross and escaped the cops, Claude is stuck in Liberty City where he has no choice but do chores for a local Mafia capo. I say he has no choice, but he's so placid I think he’d hoover my house if I asked.

I only just finished III but already most of the missions are forgotten. They’re so unremarkable, much like Claude; the whole game feels like it’s perpetually in tutorial mode. It might have been something special back in the day but this is the very definition of not aging well. Pick up a guy’s favourite prostitute, run this guy over, get a car resprayed. It’s not just that the missions are dated now - I don’t mind running errands but it doesn’t escalate, pick up any pace, get dangerous; you never really see a story emerge that has any drive; and driving is horrible.

And I thought the cars in V were delicate. Just smashing through glass windows can total a car. One bump or clip, which due to the lack of free-look and the basic physics happens every few seconds, and your car is totalled. It’s not cheap living in the city either. A respray costs a grand. Ouch. At least when you bump into cars you get a random bump of money too.

Liberty City isn’t bad looking, about the same as VC but that has the 80s to jazz it up. III is just a bit samey and doesn’t change enough to get a sense of where you are – because there’s no map only the HUD radar; and that doesn’t flag Ammunation or PnS so you’re endlessly lost, driving around. Well, endlessly escaping burning cars and finding another. So what's Claude up to? Or milling about in the background doing?

Claude is later betrayed by the mafia because Maria, the Don’s trophy wife took a liking to him; they get in with the Yakuza only for Claude to betray them in favour of a weird bloke who wants a street war between Columbians and the Yakuza so folks will move out and he can buy up property on the cheap; that sounds like an episode of The A-Team rather than The Sopranos. Amazingly, it then turns out Catalina is the head of the Colombian Cartel (so why the hell was she knocking off banks with Claude at the start?), so Claude has a good reason to provoke the gang war and flush her out, except he doesn’t do that; he just lamely does more tutorials and gets the piss taken out of him by everyone.

I can see why I never went back to III and again it’s Claude’s fault; he doesn’t rise up the criminal classes or take over the gangs, he’s not bothered about revenge against Catalina since she reappears by coincidence and instigated the final showdown – but then I realised mid-way through Claude is a psychopath; he shows no emotion, no allegiance, no pity; he kills anyone he’s asked to, double-crosses on a whim and in III’s most infamous moment, kills (off-screen) the only person who could link him to everything – Claude achieves nothing in the game; in fact, he's barely even in the cut-scenes. He’s a blank faced serial killer with no interest in anything other than harm. Actually, I think I’m giving him too much personality.

There is some fun to be had though. The AI of the pedestrians is basic so running them over for money and weaponry is easy and III’s layout arguably exceeds Vice City’s – the winding, close-quarter streets are the stuff of Bullitt - so long as you don’t hit anything. Some of the side missions, particularly the early Marty Chonks phone tasks where Claude disposes of bodies to aid in his insurance scams, and getting explosive RC cars to chase after and blow up gang cars (think that’s ripped off from The Dead Pool) are really great – shame the main missions didn’t have that out-there naughtiness.

But just because it didn’t resonate with me then or now doesn’t mean someone who loved it on release wouldn’t find themselves back in the zone. There’s equally dated games, such as Morrowind or Blood that I would give a pass to because I adored them so much on release; sometimes it’s not the game you’re playing, it’s the memories. if you loved III then, it's easy to see why you'd love it now. But if you're just curious, don't go further back than Vice City. Ultimately, GTA III is Wolfenstein to VC’s Doom. A dry run, a proof of concept, and we have III to thank for everything that came after. It feels wrong to put III down, but I have nothing more to say. Claude?

2001 | Developer; Rockstar North (DMA Design) | Publisher Rockstar Games/2K

Platforms; Win, PS2, Xbox