It is not an exaggeration to say that we live in a world like Grand Theft Auto has made for us.
Grand Theft Auto 3 popularized the action-oriented open worlds that dominate gaming today; Viceby injected an ironic 80s sensibility and showed that sometimes a soundtrack can create a game; and San Andreas refined these strategies to create an empathetic story about CJ and his takeover in the early 90s. These games merged with the backbone of the video game worlds we are playing here in 2021, and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition have gathered them all in one place, on modern consoles.
Your ability to enjoy them will rest on your tolerance of 20-year-old game design ideas, the humor of the early 2000s, and the bizarre graphic updates that developer Grove Street Games has made to the Rockstar classics. At its core, each of the games does what they have always done: ask you to do crime mission by mission while building a gangster empire. While GTA 3 borrowed from the crime movies of the 90s and 2000s, Viceby and San Andreas drawn even more powerfully from their inspiring media (cooked 80s Miami movies and early 90s American Black cinemas, respectively) to parody.
These things remain relatively unchanged. Have played both GTA 3 and Viceby, I can safely say that the games “feel right”, in the sense that they are clearly designed and sometimes punishing harsh. You get in cars and drive around these miniature cities, shoot enemies or avoid the police or try to find all the secret objects, just like I did when I first played these games on PlayStation 2. Within what you do and how you do it Final edition games are mostly successful.
However, they run at full speed into a brick wall when it comes to capturing how the games looked and sounded. Social media has burned with flaws, inconsistent textures and comparisons between Final edition assets and the originals. The best word for these holes is “weird”. Final edition Tommy Vercetti is a sleek plastic squat that looks less like an ex-con-con and more like a knockoff party-time variant of a GI Joe doll. GTA 3 is crammed full of bulbous residents upscale from the early 2000s. All ind San Andreas looks like a caricature of a caricature of someone trying to remake Boyz n the Hood. The “remastered” lighting systems in all three titles make things too dark and too blown out to an equal degree, which means that sometimes (especially in San Andreas) I ended up seeing some high quality HDR blobs on the screen.
This is, I guess, the price of “progress”. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition is another victim that developers and property rights owners do not understand that the magic lies in the details. A slimy, gritty Liberty City, full of smudged textures and candles that seem to drip light, is where the magic really happens. These games live and die on their aesthetic qualities, and these remasters have torpedoed these strengths.
More than anything else, playing this trilogy in 2021 forced me to consider what a “remaster” is at a basic level. Is it just to screw up the graphics and make the main characters a little more detailed? Or could there be something more in it? I have been living with these games since they were first released. They nurtured moral panic in their own way. GTA 3 and Viceby was at the center of a resurgent set of arguments about video game violence and how it would turn children into mass murderers. The spectacular nature of these allegations propelled lawyer Jack Thompson into the limelight, turning him into a special kind of video game culture villain, the bogeyman, who is still called upon when people are afraid that someone will touch their video games. San Andreas‘Hot Coffee failure, produced when developers accidentally left scripts for a sex mini-game in the game files at release, ended in a class action lawsuit that allowed aggrieved players to collect $ 35.
These games were edgy when they were released. They knew it would make people talk if you could spray a grandmother with a van and leave a long, red mark from the tire. The ads were all puns or cock-jokes, and sometimes they were punny cock-jokes. The radio station’s commercials, hosts, and guests parodied and clowned both Bush-era Republicans and censorship liberals. Religious hypocrites, self-help gurus, feminists, conspiracy theorists and everyone else with a real opinion on how the world should be shaped in any way were painted as absolute idiots.
This is all to say that Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition is full of clever comments and a kind of radical centrism-tendency-towards-conservatism that feels cartoonishly naive from the prospect of 2021. It’s the tone that South Park was perfected in the same era. It is all supported by bearing homosexual jokes, broad racial and ethnic stereotypes, arousing women, and conspicuous levels of ironic detachment. It’s all a joke. Nothing means much of anything. Get a life.
For some reason, all this content seems to be mostly immobile. Car textures and character models are for endless revision, but commercials in the game are sacred. Rockstar is familiar with change and throwing itself out. The company seems to have harnessed all its power for this release and legally pushing out modders who have been working for years to update the visuals on these classic games. But there is a clear lack of discussion about whether a remaster might need to take an extra turn on some jokes, or some missions, or some aesthetic choices, like naming a scooter after an anti-gay sur. Oddly enough, it seems that this version of the trilogy has removed the Confederate flag from a character’s t-shirt – which means that decisions were certainly made at that level during the development of the remasters.
Our cultural idea of a remaster does not usually extend to such changes. But we treat decisions made by visual teams, often skillfully executed within tight limits, as things that can be easily done away with as soon as technology improves. Why are some artistic decisions carved in stone and others easily thrown under the bus? This seems like a strange imbalance in what it means to update a game series faithfully for a new audience. Rockstar has recently committed to solving some of the issues in Remastered trilogy, as well as making the original PC releases available again for purchase and play. These original visions will still be preserved no matter what.
All this said, even in the chaos of the graphic errors and the scary jokes, these games still do some special work. You can play them and feel why they were popular. You can see the DNA in all the open games we have today. What’s more, they’re putting pressure on Far Crys of the world because these 20 year old games somehow feel more free and weird and open than the modern franchises designed to solely deliver those emotions. Is this the best way to experience these three games? Probably not. You’ll have to break a PS2 next to it. Is this a strong facsimile that will (hopefully) be updated to be more tasty in the future? Absolutely.
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition was released on November 11 on Windows PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by Rockstar Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find further information on Polygon’s ethical policy here.
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