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Grand Theft Auto trilogy’s Definitive Edition misses the point of a remaster

It is not an overstatement to say we live in a world that Grand Theft Auto has made for us.

Grand Theft Auto 3 popularized the action-oriented open worlds that dominate games today; Vice City injected an ironic ’80s sensibility and showed that, sometimes, a soundtrack can make a game; and San Andreas honed these strategies to create a lived-in story about CJ and his rise to power in the early ’90s. These games fused into the spine of the video game worlds that we play in here in 2021, and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition has brought them all together in one place, on modern consoles.

Your ability to enjoy them will rest firmly on your tolerance for 20-year-old game design ideas, the humor of the early 2000s, and the strange graphical updates that developer Grove Street Games have made to the Rockstar classics. At the core, each of the games are doing what they always did: asking you to do crime stuff mission-by-mission as you build a gangster empire. While GTA 3 borrowed from the crime movies of the ’90s and 2000s, Vice City and San Andreas pulled even more heavily from their inspirational media (coked-up ’80s Miami films and early ’90s American Black cinema, respectively) to the point of parody.

These things remain relatively unchanged. Having played both GTA 3 and Vice City, I can confidently say that the games “feel right,” in the sense that they are clearly designed and sometimes punishingly hard. You get in cars and drive around these miniature cities, shooting enemies or avoiding the police or trying to find all the secret items, much like I did when playing these games for the first time on PlayStation 2. In the realm of what you do and how you do it, the Definitive Edition games are mostly successful.

Image: Grove Street Games/Rockstar Games

They run full speed into a brick wall, however, when it comes to capturing what the games looked and sounded like. Social media has been ablaze with glitches, mismatched textures, and comparisons between the Definitive Edition assets and the originals. The best word for these gaps is “weird.” Definitive Edition Tommy Vercetti is a smooth, plastic hunk that looks less like an ex-con and more like a knockoff party-time variant of a G.I. Joe doll. GTA 3 is crammed full of bulbous denizens upscaled from the early 2000s. Everyone in 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 makes things too dark and too blown out in equal measure, meaning 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 of developers and property-rights holders not understanding that the magic is in the details. A slimy, gritty Liberty City, full of smeary textures and lights 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 those strengths.

More than anything else, playing this trilogy in 2021 forced me to consider what a “remaster” is on a fundamental level. Is is just juicing up the graphics and making the main characters a little more detailed? Or could there be something more to it? I’ve been living with these games since they were first released. They each fueled moral panics in their own way. GTA 3 and Vice City were at the center of a resurrected set of arguments about video game violence, and how it would turn kids into mass killers. The spectacular nature of these claims propelled lawyer Jack Thompson into the limelight, and turned him into a special kind of video game culture villain, the bogeyman who still gets invoked when people are afraid anyone is going to touch their video games. San Andreas’ Hot Coffee fiasco, produced when developers accidentally left the scripts for a sex minigame in the game files on release, ended with a class-action lawsuit settlement that allowed offended players to collect $35.

Image: Grove Street Games/Rockstar Games

These games were edgy when they were released. They knew that being able to splatter a granny with a van and leave a long, red mark from the tire would get people talking. The advertisements were all puns or dick jokes, and sometimes they were punny dick jokes. The radio station advertisements, hosts, and guests parodied and clowned on Bush-era republicans and censorious liberals alike. Religious hypocrites, self-help gurus, feminists, conspiracy theorists, and anyone else with an actual opinion about how the world should be shaped in any kind of way were painted as absolute idiots.

This is all to say that the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition is full of smartass comments and a kind of radical centrism-tending-toward-conservatism that feels cartoonishly naive from the vantage of 2021. It’s the tone that South Park was perfecting in the same era. It is all supported by load-bearing gay jokes, broad racial and ethnic stereotypes, titillating women, and eye-rolling levels of ironic detachment. It’s all a joke. Nothing means much of anything. Get a life.

For some reason, all of this content seems to be mostly untouchable. Car textures and character models are up for infinite revision, but in-game advertisements are sacrosanct. Rockstar is familiar with change and throwing its weight around. The company seems to have leveraged all of its power for this release, legally pushing out modders who have been working for years to update the visuals on these classic games. But there is a distinct lack of discussion about whether or not a remaster might need to take an additional swing at some jokes, or some missions, or some aesthetic choices, like naming a scooter after an anti-gay slur. Curiously, it appears that this version of the trilogy has removed the Confederate flag from a character’s t-shirt — meaning that there were definitely decisions being made on that level during the remasters’ development.

Image: Grove Street Games/Rockstar Games

Our cultural idea of a remaster doesn’t usually extend to those kinds of changes. But we treat the decisions made by visual teams, often skillfully accomplished within tight constraints, as things to be easily done away with as soon as technology improves. Why are some artistic decisions set in stone and others easily thrown under the bus? This seems like a strange imbalance in what it means to faithfully update a game series for a new audience. Rockstar has recently committed to addressing some of the issues in the 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 of this said, even in the chaos of the graphical glitches and the cringe-worthy 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 of the open-world games we have today. What’s more, they put pressure on the Far Crys of the world, because these 20-year-old games somehow feel more free and weird and open than the modern franchises that have been developed to deliver those feelings exclusively. Is this the best way to experience these three games? Probably not. You’ll have to break out a PS2 for that. Is this a strong facsimile that will (hopefully) be updated to be more palatable in the future? Absolutely.

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition was released on Nov. 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 influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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