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Grand Theft Auto 3 vs. Privateer

NOTE: A slightly different version of this post has gone up on my GameSpot journal.

Many moons ago, back when I bought Grand Theft Auto III, I promised that I’d give a report on my impressions. Well, it’s been – what, three four months? – since I bought it, and I’ve clocked up ten hours on the game in total, if that. Frankly, while I was impressed at first, I round up rather… blah about the game quite quickly.

I think my problem with the game is that it’s so open-ended that, most of the time, I find myself doing pretty much the same tasks over and over again for seemingly little reward. Sure, I can jack a car, drive it around, do missions, drop the car, hoof it for a while, pick up a taxi and do jobs – but aside from maybe pulling off stunts on generally-located ramps, there was no sense that I was really doing anything worthwhile.

I kept contrasting the experience with probably one of the first “open-ended” game experiences out there, Wing Commander: Privateer (itself the spiritual successor to the original space trading sim, Elite), which I played and enjoyed almost eleven years ago. Fair enough, it’s a science fiction game, and we all know that I loves me my SF in spades. The core gameplay of Privateer and GTA3 are similar: Tour around a space (sector/city), do missions (cargo, bounty hunt or crime/chauffeur, murder or jacking) or your own thing, get paid.

I liked Privateer because not only did the missions have an in-built risk/reward system – risk damage to your ship (or death and utter loss of cargo) for the reward of money and more lucrative missions – both risk and reward actually meant something. If my ship took damage, I’d have to decide on how much I wanted to spend on repairs (Can I hold together with a beaten-up shield generator until I can afford to fix it?), which of the components of your complex ship I should fix (Am I all right with a beaten up shield generator, or should I fix it and leave off reloading my missiles?) and whether I ought to sell of some of I precious components to repair others.

When I got my reward, I had options: I could either save it up for a ship upgrade (or future repair costs) or, and this was my favourite part of the game, speculate some of it on the commodities market: buying stuff at one stop and trying to sell it for a profit elsewhere. As the prices fluctuated all the time, I was rarely guaranteed a profit, and I’d have to weigh up whether to just dump the goods and recoup not just some money, but also ever-precious cargo space, if the planet/station I’d arrived at had a potentially more lucrative cargo for sale. (Frankly, I think that’s all the heir to Privateer, Microsoft’s semi-successful Freelancer, needed to do to remain addictive: make the fixed commodity prices fluctuate.)

Basically, even though I was probably playing the same few mission types over and over, there was always a reward to gee me on.

I couldn’t find that risk/reward system in GTA3. I didn’t feel as though I was being particularly encouraged to do my own thing. Hijacking vehicles got old quickly, the missions rapidly descended into what felt like repetition, running from the police was more annoying than thrilling and the “money” I earned ended up being a fairly meaningless score system; I couldn’t spend it on vehicle upgrades or new cars, just maybe on some new personal weaponry and (I think) paying off the cops.

Privateer also had a fairly interesting story to it. The voice-over may have been occasionally hammy (especially with the bartenders and ship merchants all having the same voice), but the characters had character, especially the storyline ones. Although the ending was rather ho-hum, the storyline missions were varied and the overall plot intriguing. It added even more variety to the changing ships, cargoes and opponents of those same basic mission types.

What I saw of GTA3’s story… wasn’t one, really. I just kept doing missions for various (fairly interesting) mobsters, rewarded only by the continuing experience of cruising around the city. Yawn. Speaking of which, while Liberty City was touted as a “living” city, it never really felt alive. You’d drive around the same districts, hear the same voices saying similar things; my crook avatar rarely interacted with anyone. Even the mission characters just gave (interestingly-delivered) orders to my strong, silent thug. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’ve mentioned the upgrade options in Privateer, which allowed me to look at the universe every so often from within a new cockpit (and behind a new set of guns). GTA3’s avatar never changes either appearance or capabilities (well, except in terms of weaponry), and neither do the cars; although the performances between the models vary, there’s not really that much you can do besides just drive ‘em around.

The environments of Privateer were static and somewhat repetitive, but even now I remember them well; ironically enough, they actually made the game’s sector of space feel like a real place. Every destination had its own name, and those fluctuating cargo prices made each one seem a little different. I’d want to head back to the special locations and check out their hangar bays and central hubs, not to mention the odd special location or two. (That’s another thing: GTA3 doesn’t, strictly speaking, have destinations; you can’t enter any of the buildings and do things inside. You’re restricted to the city streets only.) Although many of the characters you’d run into (i.e. the above-mentioned bartenders and ship merchants) had the same problem as GTA3’s major story characters, the dialogue for the principals in the story was lively, with quite a lot of banter. And, as said above, changes to your ship (or even purchasing a new one) often meant a fundamental change in your gameplay choices, so much so that spaceflight never got old, even after the end of the Privateer campaign.

I think, when it comes down to it, I have a problem with “sandbox” universes: I find that there’s only so much that can be done with sand.

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