Rockstar brings back a gaming classic in Grand Theft Auto 3: 10th Anniversary Edition for capable iOS and Android devices. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of mobile sandbox games, mostly thanks to Gameloft and their clones, but apart from a port of the DS classic Chinatown Wars, the App Store has remained free of the genuine article until now. Make no mistake – this is definitely Grand Theft Auto III in all its violent and unrepentant, uncensored glory. Every mission is here, every radio station, and every controversy-causing scene and situation that helped propel it to become one of the most (in)famous games ever made is present and accounted for. Yes, the GTA brand would improve and get better over the years, ironing out many of its wrinkles with each subsequent release, but you never forget your first time.
Unfortunately, as great as the updated visuals are and the ability to (finally) bring GTA3 with you everywhere, some wonky controls keep the game from being the true celebration that such a gaming milestone deserves.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, GTA3 puts you in the role of Claude, a criminal recently betrayed by his bank robbing buddies while out on a heist. After being shot, left for dead, and escaping from prison some time later, it’s up to you to help him work his way to the top of the criminal food chain by running missions for local mob bosses to establish himself and – with any luck – get revenge on those who left him to rot. Of course, this being the granddaddy sandbox games, you can do plenty of other things between your missions, such as beating up or killing people for cash, drive and wreck cars, and even take on the police and military just for kicks. And don’t forget the prostitutes – those life meters won’t raise themselves.
To get around, there’s a virtual joystick in the bottom left corner, while jumping, shooting / fighting, and enter a vehicle button are over to the right corner. Driving plays out in a similar fashion, as once you enter a car there’s a right and left icon to the left side, with gas, brake, horn, emergency brake, and exit buttons to the right. If you have a gun, some drive-by shooting buttons will appear for you take out whom you see fit. The camera is controlled by swiping your finger around the center of the screen, while there’s also a spot on-screen where you can swipe through all the radio stations, which are surprisingly all intact here.
While it’s great that Rockstar was able to port every bit of content to the mobile versions, trying to wrestle the PlayStation 2’s DualShock controls onto a touchscreen is a whole other story. More often than not, they’re a bit over-sensitive, making for unintended crashes or running over people while driving, running into stuff while chasing or being chased on foot, and not being able to aim your weapons properly (there is a lock-on option, but it seldom locks onto the right target), which leads to a lot of failed missions. This will probably make or break the game for a lot of folks, though I’m leaning more towards people breaking their devices in frustration; you know the controls are bad when even changing weapons is more difficult than it need be. Android users get a lucky break with the ability to use a controller, which should make things a little more bearable.
Luckily for those without a controller, when you fail a mission (which are all here and intact), an option appears to let you restart from the beginning of that particular one. Gone are the days of being taken back to a hospital or jail and having to walk or drive your way back to a mission. This is a nice addition for those who abhor backtracking, but you have to wonder if they added this option because they knew the controls would make most fail easily.
One positive is that GTA3 has seldom looked better, especially if you’ve got the right hardware. For Apple fans that means A5 devices like the iPad 2 (which is what this review is based on) and iPhone 4S, though it still runs well on devices like the 4th Gen iPhone and iPod Touch, though with lower framerates and occasional crashes. Android users will want to check to make sure they’ve got the right device before investing, but most report the game running just fine on dual-core devices.
While the graphics don’t push any boundaries, they’ve been cleaned up since the 2001 release. There’s a bit of slowdown when lots of things appear on screen, and there’s plenty of pop-in with the buildings and scenery, but none of these issues take away from the gameplay as much as the controls do.
Even more impressive is that every sound and radio station from the original game is here for your listening pleasure, which will definitely bring back memories when listening to in-game soundtracks was still a treat. I almost got misty eyed when I heard one of my favorites tunes, “Fade Away” playing on Head radio as I attempted to drive around town, and all of the funny D.J. chatter and fake ads were like old friends. If you were friends were borderline racists, bigots, and other colorful bottom feeders of society.
It’s awesome that Rockstar is celebrating the first decade of their landmark sandbox by releasing Grand Theft Auto 3: 10th Anniversary Edition for iOS and Android users, but I can’t help thinking an XBLA or PSN release might have been more appropriate. While just about everything you loved about the decade-old masterpiece is here – minus the cheat codes – with improved visuals (on the right hardware) and radio stations intact, but wonky touchscreen controls may be too much for purists to get over. Android users get full controller support for precision play, but Apple users have to make due with well-intentioned, yet still disappointing virtual controls that are a poor substitute for a DualShock, making driving, shooting, and wrecking havoc in Liberty City difficult. A true classic deserves better than this.