It’s hard to explain to younger gamers how much “Grand Theft Auto” games reshaped the landscape in the 2000s. “Grand Theft Auto” was originally released in 1997 and was instantly controversial for the way it embraced a violent world. Sure, it was a cartoonish embrace, but there’s a reason that Guinness claims this series holds the record as the most controversial in gaming history (with over 4,000 articles written about its various transgressions). The series really took hold of the public in the 2000s with four main series games released that all sold millions, along with spin-offs, expansion packs, and even mobile games. The 2010s were much quieter, and there hasn’t even been a game since “Grand Theft Auto V” in 2013. Perhaps the creators of this series don’t quite know how to bring it back in a more sensitive era that won't take to some of the violence and stereotypes of the original series, but they’re more than willing to remind gamers of how much it used to rule the world in “Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition,” which collects the trio of rule-breaking smash hits “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” and “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and is now available for consoles and PC.
Playing these 20-year-old games in 2021 can make for a slightly unusual, almost disconnected experience. They have been remastered, but still feel extremely visually clunky in places. And the random acts of violence do stand out a bit given how much gaming has gotten away from that selling point. However, it’s remarkable to see the foundation that was laid here for the open-world experience and how much Rockstar shaped the future of games. There are so many open world games, like all of those in the "Mafia," "Saints Row" and "Watch Dogs" series, among many others, that don't exist without "GTA." They really are to video games what "The Godfather" is to mob movies. I don’t think we will ever see a game that’s equally as popular and ultra-violent as these “GTA” games any time soon but you have to admire how much ground was broken here and how incredibly playable they remain two decades later just in terms of pure structure.
Grove Street Games and Rockstar went back to the original codes for these three games and remastered them both in terms of graphics and even some gameplay changes, but those as old as myself will be initially struck by how familiar they feel. Even though I hadn't played it in a generation, I couldn’t believe how much I instantly remembered the maps for “GTA III” and “San Andreas,” for example, ones I spent dozens of hours driving around so long ago. It’s also fun to revisit the stellar voice work in this series, including a great turn by Ray Liotta as “Vice City” protagonist Tommy Vercetti or the incredible cast that dots “San Andreas,” including Samuel L. Jackson, Clifton Collins Jr., Peter Fonda, William Fichtner, and James Woods, among many more. (It's arguably the best "GTA" game overall.) I wish more modern games shelled out for the voice talent like Rockstar used to. It makes a game like this so much more cinematic.
As for how they actually play in 2021, that's a bit of a different story. The upgrades to textures and gameplay have kind of dragged these games into something of an uncanny valley wherein they don’t seem new but also aren’t quite what they used to be either. And it feels like the games have been remastered somewhat half-heartedly. Some have reported that they have been remastered from the mobile ports of these games, which includes some unique bugs like rain you can’t even see through, and a loss of the sharp art direction from the original console editions that didn't make the jump to mobile. There are also times when the games feel like movies that have been overly polished in a 4K remaster, taking away a lot of their personality. (Look to the right for what I mean, courtesy of GameSpot. The top one looks old, the bottom one looks dead.). They looked rough in the early 2000s, but they somehow looked less dead-eyed and carbon copied than they do here. The gameplay upgrades feel more notable than the visual ones, like the weapon wheel from “GTA V” being incorporated into all three and checkpoints in missions instead of being sent back to the damn hospital every time you’re about to finish one.
In the end, “Grand Theft Auto III,” “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” are definitive games even if this edition, right now, doesn’t feel definitive itself. Losing a lot of the charisma that they had when they were released, this repackaging feels like a quickie way to remind people of why these games mattered and to play to a nostalgic fan base that still has Google Alerts for any possible morsel of news about “Grand Theft Auto VI.” Will they be happy? I used to love the “GTA” games, even the handheld ones like “Vice City Stories” and “Chinatown Wars,” but I'll admit that I hadn't thought of them much in the years since as gaming has moved on in so many ways. As any good criminal would tell you, maybe some things are better left in the past.
Rockstar provided a review copy of this title.