[The PS2 is now officially discontinued! We wanted to give this mighty system a proper farewell so we're dedicating an entire week to it.]
In the late 90′s, I had taken a bit of a break from gaming partly due to traveling around quite a bit and partly due to being a little freaked out and intimidated by the switch to 3D. I always maintained a level of interest in what was going on however, and when I saw the PS2 in action, I was back to gaming in full force.
Some of the earlier games on that system, such as Twisted Metal Black and Devil May Cry, impressed me on a technical level, but it was a good year before I really felt compelled to buy a system for myself. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first game I bought for it and it was amazing. It wasn’t something my friends were really into though, because it was so story heavy and it wasn’t something we could experience together. Oddly, the true showstopper that sealed the deal on my PS2 was actually a single-player game that won us over and became a weekly staple of our fun times together.
Grand Theft Auto III.
I’m of the mind that the first GTA game you played (aside from the first two because let’s face it, they’re not very good) is the one that you look most fondly upon. While GTA III is by far the smallest of the modern series in terms of world size, story, and side missions, for me it was the greatest leap forward. For a lot of younger people who weren’t really around at the time, it’s hard to adequately express how…cataclysmic Grand Theft Auto III was when it first came out. The concept of an open world is such an integral part of modern games that it’s hard to imagine there being a time it was considered revolutionary.
Spending nights taking turns doing street races, missions, and full on war declarations against the police were truly magical. I’ll never forget the first time I got into my Banshee, told my friends “Watch this!”, and barreled down the street running over pedestrians. The sound they made was the perfect combination between a gasp of horror and a shriek of maniacal glee. Every accomplishment in this game — completing a mission, getting to a Pay and Spray with a four-star rating, crossing over to a new island, and finding the ever-elusive ‘Mr. Whoopee’ ice cream truck — was punctuated by a collective “Wow”.
Grand Theft Auto III might be the first game I’ve ever played where I felt 100% immersed into its world. It was a masterstroke for Rockstar to have ‘Claude’ as a silent protagonist. One issue with subsequent installments has always been the disconnect between the character’s motivations versus the player’s. This was never an issue with Claude because he was a total blank slate, which allowed you to really explore the dark side of a video game guilt-free. For weeks, maybe months, my friends and I would be walking down the street in real life; pointing out cars that resembled their in-game counterparts and referring to my apartment as ‘the safehouse’.
One time (*ahem* in the game), I was standing on top of a building sniping pedestrians while one friend was talking about how the realistic graphics were creating an uncomfortable situation for player agency and in-game morality. As she was going on about this, one of my targets started to make a break for it. She suddenly screamed mid-sentence, “SHE’S RUNNING! GET HER!” Even while discussing the larger ramifications of the modern era in video games, the sheer fun and playability of this game could not be resisted. The best description of the…experience…of this game I ever heard was from an acquaintance at the time; “This isn’t just a game. It’s a lifestyle!”
Grand Theft Auto III ended up making its way to the XBox and the series became multiplatform as the years wore on. Ultimately, I’m a big fan of multiplatform because it means more people get to experience more great games. For a year or so however, it was only PS2 owners who got to experience this game. People like to talk about ‘the Citizen Kane of video games’, which is something I avoid discussing because it ultimately sells games short by making them inherently inferior to another art from. With GTA III as a specific moment in the zeitgeist where everybody is talking about it, the only real comparison I could make is with a movie because it’s the only other time in my life where I felt the same way.
Grand Theft Auto III, in the Fall of 2001, was the Pulp Fiction of video games.
We’re going to be talking about our favorite PS2 memories all week. Please leave a comment about your favorite games from that fine, fine console.