How GRAND THEFT AUTO III's Open-World Changed Gaming Forever

A look at the groundbreaking third game in Rockstar's influential Grand Theft Auto series and how it changed gaming forever.

Many games have been considered as groundbreaking; often defining an entire generation. In the last ten years, no game has been as influential or trendsetting as Grand Theft Auto III was in 2001. Playing it for the first time was a moment of significance for many gamers, with most still able to fondly remember their first few hours playing the game. It was an immense thrill to explore the vast open-world of Liberty City; a exaggerated and stylised recreation of New York. Unprecedented in its scope and ambition, gamers who had become accustomed to linear mission structures and a lack of freedom now found themselves playing a game which encouraged exploration, giving its players the choice to do whatever they wanted. Grand Theft Auto III remains the moment the popular and controversial series introduced a particular style of open-world gameplay. In the years that followed, its influence could be felt in almost every genre and redefining simple gameplay mechanics that we now consider the norm. Grand Theft Auto III wasn't the first open-world game, not even by a long shot. 1984€™s Elite, a space trading simulation for BBC Micro computers, is still considered as one of the earliest examples of an open-world videogame. Other games followed in its footsteps such as Nintendo€™s Legend Of Zelda In 1986 and driving simulation Turbo Esprit for the Spectrum. The latter developed by Durrell Software is itself seen as a huge influence on GTA, becoming the first free-roaming driving game, featuring wide open cities populated with pedestrians. Open-world gameplay continued to evolve into the 1990's, with Nintendo being one of the companies at the forefront. Thier N64 console was the home of two titles which would become two of the most revolutionary games of the 1990's ; Super Mario 64 and the Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. The innovations of these games and many others all led to the genesis of the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. Designed by Edinburgh based DMA Games (later becoming Rockstar North) the first Grand Theft Auto was a 2D action game, with an aerial perspective viewing the player as they roam an open city, as a criminal in search of jobs to boost your notoriety. The conventions of the series were already being established in this first game, many of which would be evolved and expanded in later entries. The player could explore at their own free will, drive any vehicle and take on multiple missions including assassinations and drug deals by answering payphones around the city. By integrating such possibilities into a game which on first glance looked simplistic and somewhat retro (it could almost be mistaken for Frogger) it established its own unique and different formula to many other action games at the time. While other games like Tomb Raider II and GoldenEye 007 from 1997 were also influential, GTA€™s controversial adult content and emphasis on freedom helped it grow into the critically acclaimed and award-winning series that it is today. 1999€™s GTA 2 while not a significant jump ahead of GTA, continued the successful formula and introduced some new mechanics. This included the ability to work for several different gang factions, with the players decisions and allegiance effecting how the gangs would behave towards the player. Whilst the game was still incredibly addictive and fun, GTA 2€™s top-down view and basic graphics were already becoming dated. Several games were breaking new ground in terms of what was possible with current technology and an open world structure. Two games in particular can be seen as instrumental towards the creation of Grand Theft Auto III. 1998€™s Driver from fellow U.K based Reflections Interactive and Sega€™s groundbreaking but ultimately doomed Shenmue in 1999. Driver, with its 70€™s aesthetic and Bullet style car chases, featured four open cities including Miami and New York. Players would frequently be on the run from police, much like in GTA, with the open city structure allowing for intense and exciting car chases involving back alley chases and swerving through city streets. Shenmue on the other hand, took huge leaps forward by offering players the most realistic open world ever seen in a videogame at the time. Pioneering such features as real time weather effects and day and night cycles, the game allowed players to explore a virtual recreation of Yokosuka in Japan, complete with shops, homes and even arcades with working cabinets of games like Hang-on and Afterburner. While the game is often overshadowed by its reputation of disappointing sales, it undoubtedly paved the way for many games to feature more realistic and interactive worlds. Shenmue€™s influence can still seen today, most recently in Rockstar€™s LA Noire. These two games, along with DMA€™s own free-roaming title Body Harvest, were clear influences for the company to create what would become the benchmark title in its open-world crime series. Mixing the exciting urban car chases of Driver, with the immersive world, realistic weather and on-foot exploration of Shenmue, Grand Theft Auto III took the 2D gameplay of the first two games and almost effortlessly translated the formula to a brand new 3D engine. Managing to successfully blend all of the industry trends of the time, the game offered one of the most ambitious open worlds ever seen in a game. While the open-world game was nothing new, Grand Theft Auto III managed to take ideas and concepts that had come before and make something that felt fresh. The level of freedom was unprecedented, giving gamers the choice to not only play through the story missions, but simply explore and interact with the world. It introduced the idea of side-missions and other distractions, including a Crazy Taxi inspired mini-game when players jumped into a cab. With all this freedom, the already controversial series raised new concerns over violence in increasingly reaslistic videogames. The Daily Mail continued their usual shtick, bemoaning such harmless fun as having sex with prostitutes in the back of your car and then killing them. Pedestrians could be beheaded with sniper rifle gunshots, smashed into with vehicles and beaten to the ground. Yet, as always, controversy only served to increase sales of the game and raise exposure. It marked another turning point in the industry, with the game highlighting the rise of adult gamers, showing that games designed for a mature audience could be highly profitable and more importantly, taken seriously. The way in which Grand Theft Auto III successfully blended age old gameplay mechanics with different styles of gameplay immediately created shockwaves in the industry. Expectations were higher, and the pressure was suddenly on for developers to create games which could rival the immersive world and freedom of GTA. So much so, the term €˜GTA Clone€™ became its own genre, now frequently refered to instead as €˜sandbox games€˜, a term applied to any game which has since mixed Grand Theft Auto III€™s blend of driving and on-foot shooting. Early examples include most notably the ambitious The Getaway produced by Team Soho and Mafia, both released in 2002. These two games were both undoubtedly inspired by Grand Theft Auto III, featuring the same formula of an open-world with crime based missions and an array of stealable vehicles. Other examples have been as varied as 2003€™s The Simpsons: Hit and Run, and even as bizarre as 2006€™s Jaws Unleashed, in which players took control of the infamous great white shark in an underwater open-world. While it might seem disparaging that so many games have followed the formula in the years since Grand Theft Auto III€™s release in 2001, it€™s a testament to just how strong the game was and continues to be even when being closely emulated. Many of the sandbox games that have followed in the games template are now considered classics in their own right, such as the enjoyable Spider-Man 2 which put its own spin on the formula by having players websling through its very own version of New York. Rockstar themselves continued to outshine rivals with their own follow-ups, starting with the pastel suits and electro pop of 80€™s based Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and 90€™s Los Angeles gang culture in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Both games took the core experience and refined it, adding new features that would become influential in their own right, such as Vice City€™s inclusion of melee weapons and San Andreas€™ RPG mechanics. The two games also broke new ground with their licensed soundtracks and voice acting, including actors like Ray Liotta and Samuel L Jackson, raising another bar for games to follow. Grand Theft Auto IV, released in 2008 once again established the importance of the series. It took the exaggerated and stylised world of Liberty City and turned it into a detailed recreation of modern day New York, complete with accurate replications of landmarks like Grand Central Station and Central Park. After a host of games like Saints Row, which have tried to outdo the series in outrageousness, GTA IV reinvented the series as something gritty, mature and realistic. A decision which some have felt affected the fun nature of the series, but Rockstar€™s new approach made sure that the next instalment had its own character, making it as fresh and different as Grand Theft Auto III was in 2001. October marks the 10th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III and its presence remains as strong as ever. This year sees the release of THQ€™s Saints Row 3, a series which has gained popularity due to it€˜s similarity with Grand Theft Auto, but has managed to craft its own niche of being completely ridiculous while Rockstar have turned their focus towards realism and dramatic storylines in games like the stunning Red Dead Redemption. Whatever the future holds for not only Grand Theft Auto V, but the evolving sandbox genre itself, Grand Theft Auto III will always be the moment that open-world video games changed forever. __________________ The original Grand Theft Auto and its sequel GTA 2, can be downloaded for free by clicking here. Do you feel Grand Theft Auto III changed the history of gaming, or do you perhaps feel it€™s overrated ? If so, don€™t be shy !
Want to write about The Simpsons, Sega, Retrospectives, Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar North, driver, Saints Row: The Third, Grand Theft Auto V, n64, Grand Theft Auto III, DMA, Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Mafia, The Getaway, The Daily Mail and The Legend of Zelda? Get started below...

Create Content and Get Paid


Cult horror enthusiast and obsessive videogame fanatic. Stephen considers Jaws to be the single greatest film of all-time and is still pining over the demise of Sega's Dreamcast. As well regularly writing articles for WhatCulture, Stephen also contributes reviews and features to Ginx TV.