It's not often that I get excited by much, least of all a computer game. Ever since the early days of Atari 2600 and Pong, I've never found myself enthused by a screen full of bouncing green squares and flashing red... squares, even if they were pretending to be monkeys and space craft.
And although my friends had the early Atari and Pong type home arcade games I never owned such a thing until the Sinclair Spectrum 48 turned up some years later. And strictly speaking, I don't think it was even mine - it was my brother's. Although I used it for a bit of gaming, my brother really liked the computer side of things and programming in Basic. He evolved onto the Spectrum 128, a computer with even more power and better graphics than anything that came before it! Once again, I used it as a game machine (Ghostbusters) whilst my brother took advantage of the computer's extra power for programming, both in Basic and some other language the 128k had introduced him to. I'm not sure what he ever programmed as I never saw a finished product.
As time moved on, my brother with his love of all things pixel, moved onto Sega and eventually his first PC.
I was given the gift of Playstation one Christmas in the late 90's and my gaming interest picked up a little. I spent my time playing the first Colin McRae Rally game, finding it to be quite addictive and something I could master over time. This was the first time a computer game had such an effect on me. Ghostbusters on the Spectrum came close in the wonderful 80's, providing a similar feeling, but it really was the Playstation and Colin McRae Rally that got me hungry for more of the same. And that's why I bought Colin McRae Rally 2.
It's also the reason I bought computer game magazines and played the demo's on the free discs. These lead me to buy other games like Command and Conquer, Medievil and Tomb Raider.
I never experienced the early GTA games on the PS1. I'd seen them in the stores, picked up the case, looked at the back, read the writing, saw the pictures... put it back on the shelf.
I think it was the top down aspect that really put me off trying these games out. I'd seen my brother playing various top down view games on his Sega console, and whilst he couldn't get enough of these RPG quest type games, I found them to be slow and boring, and thought that almost anything top down was going to be the same. Only Command and Conquer held me as a top down. And that was still quite a slow game, if not a little boring at times. Other games were early 3D, like Medievil and Tomb Raider. I sucked at these games, but Medievil had a charm of it's own and I've never forgotten it. I still own Medievil 1 and 2 on original disc, having given away all my other PS1 games including my first PS1 love, Colin McRae Rally.
Fast forward a few years to Christmas 2001, and I received a Playstation 2. That was surprise. I hadn't asked for one and I don't think I'd been wanting anything new for my old grey PS1 either. It also seemed a bit odd that my brother was the true gamer and tech head in the family, yet it was I who received the last two gaming machines. My parents were/are weird.
Bundled with this new console in it's shiny blue box were the new Dualshock 2 joy pad, a memory card and three games - Time Splitters, Lotus Challenge (if I remember correctly), and Grand Theft Auto 3.
I played all three games during the course of Christmas morning. I remember sucking at Time Splitters, trying really hard, and getting better, at Lotus Challenge, and being totally caught by surprise with GTA.
After the introduction and the first gripping cutscene had ended, I found myself being told to get in a car and drive. That's odd. I'm a standing in the road, 6 feet from the car. I'm a pedestrian, I move like a pedestrian, like Lara Croft or Medievil's Daniel Fortesque. 3D characters can't get into cars. In car games the player does not leave the car. Colin McRae says so, Driver says so, Lotus Challenge says so... "Press 'TRIANGLE' to enter a vehicle." So I press the designated button. Without a glitch or hesitation my pedestrian butt walks over to the car, opens the door and gets in. That's insane! "Press 'X' to accelerate." Again, I do what I'm told to do and the car takes off down the road. I'm now a driver. Excellent!
Steering the car proved a little tricky and navigating took some time to get used to. I don't know how long it took me to find my first destination, but on the way I noticed the changing scenery whizzing past as I sped down roads and alleys and lurched and drifted round corners. Using the hand brake whilst steering at speed proved to be a very instinctive thing to do from the outset. Other things proved less instinctive. Tooting the Horn, for example. Mission 3, "Drive Misty For Me" took me a while to complete. When I arrived at Misty's flat, as instructed by a goon, the game told me to press the 'L3' button to sound the horn. What the Hell is an L3 button? Until that day, I'd only ever used a PS1 joy pad with analogue sticks. Apart from the colour I thought the new joy pad was the same as the old. Consequently it took me some time to complete mission number 3.
Instead I went driving, walking, running, gunning, jumping, drowning, exploring this new game and the amazing world it had introduced me to.
I was mesmerised, I was taken, I was hooked! That was it. No other game could compare now. I liked to drive, but forget about Colin McRae or Driver. I also liked to run and shoot, but forget Tomb Raider or Medievil.
Why play any of those games, when this new game had all of my favourite elements from those games, and more besides?
Not only was I able to do all the things I liked, I could do it all in an environment that would let me go anywhere at any time. I was no longer stuck to just doing one mission at a time, following a set path until completion. I was free to roam within the city limits, even when playing a mission.
I loved how the city landscape changed from district to district - Chinatown to the docks, grassy slopes of the junk yard to the mansion on the hill. Every part of the city had a distinct feel. And this was before I'd even found L3 and progressed in the game.
Of course I did find L3 eventually and managed to slowly work my way through the game, unlocking the next two islands as I went along. I never was any good, and getting stuck so often just made me explore more of the city, finding it's secrets, it's insane jumps, hidden packages and police bribes. Not to mention, side missions; Taxi, Vigilante and rampages, to name a few. How could one game have so much? How is it that one game has managed to turn a very casual gamer into a die hard fan? No other game before it has garnered so much interest from me. No other game has had me talking about it (at length) with friends, sharing the odd tip or secret. No other game at the time had gotten me, this hard to please console owner, so excited to finally feel a part of a gaming community, be part of something that was, and still is truly special.
GTA III is rightly classed as a phenomenon in gaming circles, being a game that broke the mould for sandbox adventure style gaming. So it's eight years old now, and it might seem a bit dated or rough around the edges by today's standards. But without GTA III today's standards might not have been reached (yet), and without GTA's first outing in 3D we might never have had the sequel that followed a mere year later.
Could you imagine the excitement I felt when I saw the first glossy magazine pictures of the yet to be released Vice City?
More on that in my next GTA blog.