Skip to main content

Grand Theft Auto 3 mobile hands-on preview

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Rockstar Games‘ groundbreaking open-world crime adventure, Grand Theft Auto 3. To celebrate, the developer is taking what was at one time the most marvelous technological wonder in the gaming world and breaking new ground with it once again by delivering a console-quality exerience to a mobile audience.

I stopped into Rockstar’s New York offices this week to take a peek at how the tablet and smartphone ports of GTA3 are progressing. The game was playable in tablet form at New York Comic Con a couple of weekends ago, but that’s not always an ideal place for a media preview. This was just me in a quiet room with some Rockstar reps on hand to demo three versions of the game, running on NVIDIA’s as-yet-unreleased “Project Kal-El” tablet, an iPad 2 and an iPhone 4S.

The Android-powered Kal-El tablet was the first contender, running the game through a TV-Out connection. The frame rates are still being perfected, but it’s immediately clear that this is a much better looking version of the game than most people played on their PS2s.

The visual boost comes as a result of Rockstar using a combination of newly created textures — particularly in the case of signs and vehicles (which now feature fully 3D-modeled engines) — and the higher resolution assets from the game’s PC release. Character models are more complex as well, sporting a higher poly count. The changes might not be immediately noticeable when we’re 10 years past the original game’s release, but they’re clear enough once you start looking back.

The Kal-El tablet also brought out another surprise: A wired Xbox 360 controller used to control the game via the device’s USB port. That’s right: GTA3‘s mobile release will support USB controllers on devices that can handle it. Apple’s tablets and smartphones won’t officially support the feature since they have no USB port, though Rockstar admits that such functionality isn’t out of the question with the help of a Camera Connection Kit.

The iPad 2 demo came next, and I can report that the game runs beautifully on the tablet’s A5 chip. The big challenge in porting a game like GTA comes from streaming in the surrounding open world as you explore it.

The supported device list is still being finalized (despite what was originally announced) but Rockstar admits that such a feat would not have been possible — or would have at least been considerably scaled back — using last generation mobile CPU and GPU technologies. And yes, since you’re probably wondering: It would be a “technical challenge” to deliver mobile ports of Vice City and San Andreas, but it is “very possible.”

Speaking of scaling, GTA3‘s mobile release is being designed to do just that. Much like GTA 4‘s PC release, there’s a certain amount of future-proofing in place that means a tablet released next year with beefier tech powering it will deliver an improved experience over what you’ll be able to install the game on when it launches later this year. There’s even the possibility that a future patch will add PC-like graphics sliders to the game, at least on the Android side.

In terms of straight-up gameplay, the controls are still in the process of being tweaked and refined. What I saw and played this week differed from what was offered at Comic Con. It’s more than just the basic controls too; things like virtual button sensitivty are still being tweaked as well. Case in point: hitting the tiny on-screen buttons in the iPhone 4S version of the game is a challenge, though the game runs beautifully on that small-screen platform.

However the final button scheme turns out, players will have the option of adjusting how they appear in the HUD. Everything from the minimap to the control buttons can be moved around and resized to suit a variety of players and grip styles. If you played Conduit on the Wii then you have a good idea of what to expect; there’s total flexibility here.

Beyond the technical stuff, the game is largely unchanged. The parameters for some of the game’s timed missions hae been tweaked, to account for the touchscreen-focused platform’s unusual control scheme needs. Similarly, the overall difficulty will be toned down from what console players might remember.

All of the content is there, however, even potentially controversial bits like being able to… errr… solicit the services of a lady of the night. Rockstar contends that there’s a place for both mature content and console-like gaming experiences in the mobile market, and GTA 3 is meant to address both.

The radio will also be returning in the same form it was when it first appeared in GTA 3. The plan had originally been to add some new radio stations and include support for user-made playlists, but those features were put aside in favor of tightening up the play experience. You can probably expect to see custom playlist support added by patch at some point, but it won’t be a supported feature at launch.

Those who read the news of a mobile port for GTA 3 and scoffed at what seemed like a quick and easy cash grab are in for a surprise. Rockstar is bringing the same level of effort and focus on quality to this port that it does to any of its console or dedicated gaming handheld releases. After all, it’s not every day that a bona fide gaming classic gets the chance to make history twice.

Editors' Recommendations

Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
Grand Theft Auto 6 trailer: when it’s coming and how to watch
A man drives away in a boat with stolen money in Grand Theft Auto 5 art.

Rockstar has confirmed exactly when it will drop the first trailer for the next mainline Grand Theft Auto game. It has been over a decade since the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, so excitement and hype surrounding the next GTA installment is at an all-time high. The release of Grand Theft Auto 6 Trailer 1 will be the biggest game reveal of 2023, so you don't want to miss it. Here's everything we know about when it'll air and how you can watch it.

When will Rockstar post GTA 6 Trailer 1?
Rockstar has confirmed that it will post "Trailer 1" for the next GTA game at 9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT on December 5. Make sure you don't oversleep Tuesday morning if you want to see the trailer right when it drops.
How to watch GTA 6 Trailer 1
Watch Trailer 1: Tuesday, December 5 at 9AM ET

Read more
Three classic Grand Theft Auto games are coming to Netflix next month
Key art for GTA: The Trilogy on Netflix

Netflix and Rockstar Games revealed that Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition will come to the services game catalog in December.

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition is a package that features remasters of Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It was first released for PC and consoles in late 2021. Although the ports were derided for having a plethora of technical problems at launch, they have improved since then. Now, Netflix is making a major play by bringing these remastered GTA games to the service around the same time a Grand Theft Auto 6 trailer is expected to drop.

Read more
We need to see these 3 things in Grand Theft Auto 6’s first trailer
gta 6 first trailer speculation v

It’s almost time. After over a decade of waiting, we’ll finally get our first look at the next Grand Theft Auto game sometime this December. When it arrives, the Grand Theft Auto 6 reveal will be one of the biggest video game industry announcements of the year, regardless of what Rockstar Games shows. Despite that, there are specific things that the GTA 6 reveal trailer needs to tell us to live up to its hype.

Although Rockstar has said little about the project before now, GTA 6 might be one of the most anticipated games ever, and it’s following up one of the most successful individual video games of all time. Speculation on where this game will be set, what it will be about, and what innovations it will bring to the medium have been rampant for years. I know this because I’ve played a part in this hype cycle myself -- and this very article is adding to it right now.

Read more