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History Lesson: Rockstar's first masterpiece, Grand Theft Auto III

The game that put the 'GTA' in 'GTA clone'

If you desperately wanted to exaggerate the impact of GTA III on the gaming landscape, you'd have to claim that it came out before Pong and invented wires. Not much else would do it.

One of the first, most complete, most staggeringly confident 3D open worlds, it inspired a whole sub-genre of 'GTA clones'. And 12 years on, you can play it on your phone. Progress is scary.

Obviously, GTA III had predecessors: well-liked but unassuming top-down runarounds from series kingpins DMA Design (rebranded Rockstar North soon after GTA III), not far removed in design document form but criminal underworlds apart in execution.

Core themes such as surviving in a dog-eat-dog world by scuttling between predatory gangs were laid out back in the first Grand Theft Auto on PC and PlayStation - as were the licentious hotbeds of Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, and their infectious local radio stations.

Then, during experiments with Criterion's RenderWare 3D engine, DMA hit on a strange backstreet alchemy that would make its last big hit Lemmings look like a game about a bunch of flaky halfwits walking into walls. Other open urban worlds such as Shenmue had come before, but aggravated crime and sandbox gameplay turned out to be a match made in hotwiring heaven.

Buzz for a new Grand Theft Auto game was slow to build in those days, before the series' solid gold track record. Hard to believe now, looking back at 2001's bestselling game with 15-million sales notched up across the globe.

GTA III was a revolution in what came to be slightly wankily known as emergent gameplay: a game largely steered by the player, full of vivid characters and passers-by with their own lives and one-liners, yet bold enough to leave its anti-hero nameless (until his retroactive tagging as Claude in GTA: San Andreas).

Gallery: Last year's iOS and Android re-release

It was also a game that courted controversy - banned and then censored in Australia, GTA III was blamed for 96% of society's ills by politicians, its buyers monitored like mobsters themselves by the Wal-Mart do-gooder brigade. Mind you, it did allow you to throw Molotovs at the cops and kick an endless parade of random people to death. Nobody said you should, but you could.

An aftershock of tribute acts followed the release of GTA III. True Crime, The Getaway, Mafia, Driv3r, Saints Row, even The Simpsons: Hit & Run. But Rockstar was already way out in front, neck-deep in the dark art of making it all bigger, bolder, badder. By the time we'd vamoosed to Vice City and swung through San Andreas while waiting for a next-gen numbered GTA, the revolutionary aspects of the third game had been diluted a little by time and iteration.

But its place in the annals of gaming and the hearts of bowled-over cynics on the scene in 2001 is assured, its spot in Most Influential lists a lifetime no-brainer. Proving that nobody knows the great cities and crime sagas of America better than those lads and lasses up in, er... Scotland.

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