Grand Theft Auto Advance is the fifth game in the Grand Theft Auto series (followed by Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was released the next day). Developed by Digital Eclipse, the game was originally meant to be a 2D recreation of Grand Theft Auto III for the Game Boy Advance, utilizing the overhead style of the first two GTA titles. The designers had difficulties translating many of the gameplay concepts and missions from GTA III into the new style, however, so the game ended up being a whole new story merely set in the same location.

You play as Mike, a criminal in Liberty City who works for the mafia at the behest of his father figure Vinnie. The two are just trying to earn up enough money to escape the crime-filled streets, but soon after the beginning of the game, Vinnie is killed by a car bomb and Mike swears revenge. Falling out with the mafia, Mike must work for a variety of other criminal groups, including the Yakuza from GTA III, in order to get his money and figure out who is responsible for Vinnie's death... but not everything is as it seems in Liberty City...

The gameplay here is pretty tight. Vehicle-based side missions like paramedic, vigilante, and taxi make a triumphant return. Some of them are a bit buggy -- the taxi mission, for instance, kept sending me to fares several blocks away, only to have me deliver the passenger a few feet to the left of where they were standing -- but the fact that they're there is a big plus in my book. The game's design is more similar to the newer 3D titles than it is to the arcade gameplay of the old GTAs -- there's no multiplier, and saving is done for free at your safehouse. The wanted level system is still a six-star meter with more or less the same rules, though it's a bit more lenient this time around to make up for the overhead perspective's difficulty; you can actually slam into a cop car a few times and get away with it, for instance.

The game is a prequel to the events of GTA III and actually has a better storyline, even though the Game Boy Advance's lack of cartridge space means that the cutscenes are all told through still images and text boxes. Considering what the developers had to work with, Grand Theft Auto Advance does an admirable job of sucking you into its story and city. Characters are relatively well developed.

The artificial intelligence is terrible, however. Police don't make any effort at all to arrest you, and will blindly fire at your car while standing right next to the door, even when you only have one star. It's nearly impossible to shoot anyone with the GBA's d-pad, but the enemies are extremely stupid and will stand in a straight line while you mow them down with your front bumper. Audio in general is quite limited, with only a few scattered soundbites of people yelling at you thrown into the game (along with sound effects, of course). The much-lauded licensed radio music from the 3D titles is gone, stripped down to a simple instrumental loop that plays in vehicles. For a GBA game, you can't expect anything more than that, but it's still a shame.

I'm torn on the graphical presentation. It's definitely the ugliest GTA game ever, to a degree where it starts to wear on your eyes and almost ruins the game. Frame rate chugs all the time; everything looks jittery, almost like an old NES game that has too many sprites on-screen. It's true that the handheld hardware doesn't normally support great graphics, but I feel like they could have been better than this if the game was programmed more tightly. My knowledge of the GBA's limitations is lacking compared to some other consoles, but this barely looks good enough to be on Game Boy Color. Even aside from the level of detail, I think the game could have been presented better in a different perspective -- the straight top-down camera angle of GTA II has never looked good, and I would have liked to see the city redesigned to accommodate a three-fourths perspective (such as the one used in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past).

Overall, GTA Advance is the black sheep of the franchise for a reason: being released on a console that was already nearly obsolete when it came out, with eye-burning graphics, and having to dip under the very high bar set by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It certainly didn't help that San Andreas, a game that is still often considered the best in the series even after the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, was released the day after. If the game had come out far, far earlier it might have found a niche -- but it just didn't happen.

In the end, all its flaws sort of balance out its other flaws until the game becomes sort of... playable. Not great, but okay. If you bought it when it came out, it might have kept you occupied as the only portable GTA title, but nowadays with the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable games, there's no point. Skip it.

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