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GTA3: A New Direction for Mobile Gaming?

Can the triple-A titles of yesteryear find a new lease of life on iOS and Android?

Last week's release of a tenth anniversary edition of Grand Theft Auto 3 on mobile devices presents developers and publishers with brand new opportunities in exercising the power of their back catalogues, and demonstrates just how far portable technology has progressed. But can the classic games of yesteryear work effectively on the touchscreen-driven interfaces that have defined the new mobile era? And to put it bluntly, are these titles good enough to compete with current mobile games?

The response to Rockstar's mobile GTA3 offering has mostly been positive, but its release has generated some controversy. Some view it as a straightforward port that in no way challenges the best that portable gaming currently offers, and yet still struggles to maintain graphical integrity. Alternatively it's been viewed as conclusive affirmation that mobile gaming is slowly growing up - that the divide between home and mobile gaming is blurring, and that with small tweaks, complex content is perfectly at home on devices geared towards casual gaming.

Publishers and developers will be looking at what Rockstar has achieved with GTA3 on mobile, and wondering which of their own classics they can exhume from the archives.

Both assessments are equally valid: in many ways, the conversion is a little rough around the edges and the introduction of various shadow glitches, depth-sorting issues and ugly pop-in artifacts that we never saw on the decade-old versions are disappointing. But it's equally important to point out that this is more than just a PC conversion, featuring many of the enhancements Rockstar Vienna added to the original Xbox version of the game which appeared two years after the original release in October 2001.

Think about that for a second: an Xbox in your pocket, with a catalogue of potential games spanning an entire console generation. The ability to run games of that quality and complexity - and in high definition too, no less - is a compelling proposition, and all made possible through what we would assume is a relatively straightforward porting process. Also intriguing is that the developers appear to have used the flexibility of the original PC version of the GTA3 engine combined with their own modifications to make the game work on a variety of iOS and Android devices, with specific profiles in play that kick in according to the level of hardware you are using.

The Xbox version of GTA3, released in October 2003 outstripped the original PS2 and PC versions with new textures, more detailed models and superior effects. Many of the enhancements have made their way across to the new mobile version.

On the Android side of things, a user with a full-on Tegra 2-powered tablet gets a significantly superior level of visuals compared to, say, an Xperia Play gamer. With iOS, additional levels of detail are deployed on iPad 2 compared to the iPhone 4. It's an interesting example of how the effort developers put into making their PC games playable on varying levels of hardware continues to pay off with a whole new generation of hardware a decade later.

How do we know this? Well, remarkably, the core assets are mostly unchanged from the PC original, leading to many erstwhile GTA3 modders to come out of retirement to try their luck at improving Rockstar's work. A jailbroken iOS device is needed for this level of tweakery, but it seems that modifications to the game can be carried out on Android platforms without any kind of hacking. Industrious modders are already hard at work enabling features only iPad 2 owners get to see on their more lowly phones, and the settings they're adjusting are the ones they've been working with for years. Impressive work is appearing just days after the game's release.

Many developers will be looking at what Rockstar has achieved with GTA3 and wondering which of their own classics they can exhume from the archives. After all, the phenomenon of the HD remake is already providing plenty of revenue from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, so why not bring mobile into the equation? GTA3 demonstrates that games can't just be ported across with little thought given to the way in which they will be played on the mobile platforms. In this respect, the conversion has both its strengths and weaknesses.

If you look at the comparison movie above you'll see that the most striking difference between the mobile game and the circa-2003 Xbox conversion is the radically altered colour scheme. The hazy look to the visuals has been dispensed with, the development team coming up with a deeper, stronger and brighter colour scheme that better suits varying mobile configurations (screens, specifically). It's also an acknowledgement that these devices are used in a variety of environments; the original look simply wouldn't play particularly well outdoors, for example.

Richard Leadbetter avatar
Richard Leadbetter: Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.