5 Sandbox Games Before Grand Theft Auto III


Everyone knows how Grand Theft Auto III changed the gaming landscape forever, with its 3D open-world environments and penchant for over the top violence. What many of the younger generation may not know is that the formula that made Grand Theft Auto III famous has actually been around for quite some time. Grand Theft Auto III took all the best features from games of the past to create something altogether unique. Today we take a look back at five games that did the open-world before GTA and helped influence where the series is today.


Turbo Esprit



Released in 1986 for the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum, my British readers will know that name well, Turbo Esprit is considered by most the first open-world driving game. It has also been cited as being a major influence on the later Grand Theft Auto series of games. Esprit spanned four British cities and the player was allowed free access within each as they search out criminals. Several years ahead of its time, Esprit had civilian cars controlled by the games AI that obeyed basic speed laws, used blinkers, waited for pedestrians at crossings, and also made it so that you had to keep on eye on your fuel gauge so you didn’t run out before reaching a petrol/gas station. Enemies could be rammed into submission or mowed down with your special machine gun hidden inside your tricked out Lotus.






Hunter is a 3D open-world adventure game developed by Paul Holmes and released by Activision for the Amiga and Atari ST home computers way back in 1991. You guide a soldier freely around a series of islands via walking, swimming or using various vehicles such as cars, vans, tanks, and so on. Every vehicle in the game that you can jump into handles uniquely with its own set of properties. You also have the ability to enter many of the buildings that are scattered throughout the world to explore them. The game also offers a large array of weapons from small pistols to large rocket launchers as well as grenades and mines. One thing that made Hunter stand out, besides the 3D in 1991, was the enemy AI. Other soldiers would actively track you down, even jumping into vehicles to find/chase you. Not only that, but you could also use money to bribe guards to look the other way during your adventure.


Body Harvest



What many people may not know is that Grand Theft Auto III was not the first 3D open-world game developed by Rockstar, previously known as DMA designs. How surprising would it be if I told you they originally developed Body Harvest to be a launch title for the Nintendo 64. After Nintendo dropped the title due to its overabundance of blood and violence, it was later picked up and published by Gremlin in 1998. The player assumed the role of a soldier in possession of a time travel device jumping between erras trying to stop an alien invasion. The game was non-linear, so you had the freedom to accomplish your mission in any way you see fit. You could run freely around on foot but the game relied heavily on the use of vehicles to deal with your enemies. This 3D sandbox style of gameplay would go on to find it’s way into Grand Theft Auto III.


Driver & Driver 2



Released in 1999 on the original Playstation and developed by Reflections Interactive, Driver took place across four major U.S. cities Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and San Francisco which were all semi-faithfully represented in-game. Inspired by the famous car chase scenes from the 70’s, Driver allowed for complete open-world freedom within each city participating in Pursuit, Getaway, and Checkpoint game modes. The sequel, Driver 2, would further expand on the formula of the original by allowing the player to step out from behind the wheel and explore locations on foot and have the ability to take other vehicles. Driver and its sequel would set the standard for open-world driving games and go on to heavily influence Grand Theft Auto III in both its look and gameplay.






Shenmue, released in 1999 is an adventure game developed by the team at Sega AM2 and released for the doomed, but much loved, Dreamcast console. Directed and produced by Yu Suzuki, he was responsible for coining the fancy genre title for its gameplay style, “FREE” (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment). The game allows you to explore several Japanese locations in a third person over-the-shoulder view. You can interact with the world by talking with citizens, participating in various mini-games, quicktime events, and getting into fights. One thing Shenmue allowed was for the player to explore their current location and talk to locals without moving the games plot forward. Doing this would help you better understand the games plot and narrative. You can also choose to take part in several side-quests to mix things up as these quests are not required to progress in the game.