Grand Theft Auto III: Back to Liberty City

If you were looking to find me 10 years ago, chance were you’d see me in the living room of my home, furiously mashing the buttons on my Playstation 2 while playing Grand Theft Auto III. I didn’t really like the series at first, but like many other gamers out there, I soon became hooked and the world of Grand Theft Auto became my addiction. I followed GTA III with Vice City, then San Andreas and on into the next wave of consoles. I love this series really, that’s the point I’m getting at here, so when I found out it was coming to the iPhone and iPad, I couldn’t have been more excited.

Then I downloaded the game, and it was all that I had hoped for. There it was, the full version of Grand Theft Auto III in my hands! But then I started playing it and well, let’s talk about it after the break.

The Game (For Those That Don’t Know)

If you’ve never played any of the games in the Grand Theft Auto (also known as GTA) universe, let me give you a quick primer. The original Grand Theft Auto and its sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, were top-down games that focused on driving, although there was some player interaction as well. These two were mostly forgettable projects, and only the hardcore fans really care about them so let’s just pretend they don’t exist, cool?

Wait — girlfriend? I thought it wasn't that serious?

Wait — girlfriend? I thought it wasn't that serious?

GTA III introduced us to a 3-D world with a nameless and mute main character who just broke out of prison. At the beginning, you’re just hustling to raise some cash to live your life, but as the game progresses, you’re drawn deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld until eventually, you’re the head man in town.

The Landscape

Grand Theft Auto III takes place in Liberty City, a town with obvious similarities to New York City, complete with its own group of boroughs and everything. You start off in Portland, and eventually travel to Staunton Island and then Shoreside Vale, with each additional section opening up after you complete certain tasks. Why are they closed in the first place? On your very first mission you’re caught up in a jailbreak that bombs the bridge between Portland and Staunton, ruining any and all access. Fancy.

The map is accessible by tapping the HUD in the top corner.

The map is accessible by tapping the HUD in the top corner.

This is the original sandbox environment, so there are lots of things that you can see and do on a regular basis. Wander around town in a taxi cab and pick up customers to earn cash, pick up a hooker and go to an alley to learn more about complex physics, or just mow down pedestrians with a car. You can do whatever you want really, and when it comes time to do a mission, just go ahead and do it on your own time. There’s lots to do here, including all of the hidden packages from the original, so have at it.

The Controls

It would be hard not to talk about this game without mentioning the control layout, because it’s quite a big part of the experience. There’s no gentle way to put this, so let’s just make it clear: playing with a joypad-esque controller on a flat glass screen is just complicated. You often slip and slide, and it just gets messy at times, particularly when you’re trying to drive a car or run away from the cops.

Buttons for left and right are in the bottom left corner to turn, or a joystick appears as it does here.

Buttons for left and right are in the bottom left corner to turn, or a joystick appears as it does here.

Rockstar probably knew this, so they made the configuration customizable right out of the gate. You can increase or decrease the size of buttons, adjust their placement and move them to wherever you want. So really, they made the best out of an awkward situation, and it translates OK.

If the controls weren't customizable, I don't know if the game would be quite as easy to play.

If the controls weren't customizable, I don't know if the game would be quite as easy to play.

I will say that the controls have been the main reasons for my frustration. Although there are many different ways to tweak and fine tune them, it’s just so frustrating when you’re close to making a turn but your finger slides away from the control area. I will say though that if you turn on analog steering, you get a joystick that repositions to your hand. It’s not perfect, but it can be easier to use.

In an ideal world, we’d have joysticks for our iPhones, but that’s just not the case today. I’ve thought often that a Joystick-it from Think Geek or a Fling Mini would be perfect in this scenario, but I don’t happen to have one, so I couldn’t test that out.

I should also mention that there is a lefty option for the game as well, which switches the controller settings from side to side. I’m not a lefty, but that’s a good option to have.

How it Plays

“But is it fun?” you’re wondering right now. Oh yes, it’s definitely fun, there’s no doubt about it. If you’re a fan of the series like I am, you’re going to enjoy playing it for sure. In my time playing the game, I found all of the little intricacies from the console version snuck into the iPhone game, just like it was a 1:1 transfer. I already mentioned the hidden packages, but for the uninitiated, these are 100 packages (which suspiciously look like taped-up bags of cocaine) hidden around the city. Collect them all and there’s usually some kind of bonus or achievement that comes with it, although I didn’t have time to find them all to do so.

See? A hidden package.

See? A hidden package.

Logistically, this is amazing to me. Just 10 years ago, I had to buy this on a CD and play it from my couch. Today, I can download it anywhere and play it wherever I want, and it’s not missing a thing. All the music is there, the special features, voiceovers — everything. That’s awesome.

The Dirty Side

So what’s the downside to this game? For me, it comes down to the controls 100%. On multiple occasions, I got so frustrated that I just put down the game and walked away, because were I playing it with a traditional joystick, I wouldn’t have had a problem.

I bet he does.

I bet he does.

Take shootouts, for example. The camera angle swings around all over the place, so sometimes you don’t have any idea who you’re shooting. And since you can’t quickly tap on a camera center button (I couldn’t find one, anyways) you’re just left to swing in the breeze. Targeting in general sucked, and doesn’t really work well for a handheld game like this. Driving was the same way, although eventually I found that flicking, instead of holding down the joystick worked best for me, but it still had its ups and downs.

Again, Rockstar made these controls customizable, so I don’t know if I can fault them for this one directly. It seems more of an equipment limitation instead of a software issue, but I’ll have to play around with some kind of add-on joystick until I can really say for sure. That said, it is substantially easier to control on the iPad for me, which is probably do to the larger screen real estate.

The Finale

I do love the GTA series, and I hope that in the coming months we’ll see both GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas make appearances on the iOS platform, because it seems like there’s no reason for them not to. But I think before I make my next purchase I’m going to buy some kind of stick-on joystick, because it’s just frustrating otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong, I still play it all the time, and in an App Store full of disposable games, that’s saying something. But knowing the game like I do, I wonder if I’ll eventually get used to the controls enough to be able to survive in the tougher levels, or if it’s almost necessary to have some kind of physical controller. Maybe practice makes perfect, maybe it doesn’t, and that’s really the holdup for me here. The fact that it’s 10 years old and already on a million platforms doesn’t bother me, I just want to enjoy it as much as I did in the past.

So should you buy it? I do recommend the game, because I figure that most of you will be able to get past the controller issue I’m having via one route or another. But if you’re not a fan of the series, go ahead and move on to the next game, because there’s too much here for the casual gamer. This is a hardcore game made for hours of play. Get ready to be immersed in a world of crime, or go back to playing Fruit Ninja.


Go rampant in the original sandbox game, all on your iPhone.