Why the GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition matters, even if the games are old as hell

No offense to the remaining games on 2021's release calendar, but the thing I'm most excited about playing on Christmas Day this year is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Rockstar Games' Definitive Edition will offer quality-of-life improvements to all three of GTA's PS2 entries, including better aiming and reworked visuals, while retaining the original essence of GTA 3, Vice City and San Andreas. The art style is drawing some mixed responses, and I think they've got Tommy Vercetti's hair all wrong, but generally my first reaction is positive. 

So, what is the essence of those PS2 games? Well, to be brutal, the first three 3D GTA entries were devoid of checkpoints, rife with difficulty spikes and weighed down by stiff driving and shooting controls, even for the time. To pick up and play now, they're a bumpy ride for anyone used to playing the far more comfortable GTA 5, which has better shooting, driving and pretty much everything else. That's why the Definitive Edition upgrade is so welcome. 

But the PS2 GTA games were more about the vibes than anything else. Anyone who endured the tough moments of those games, or failed a mission multiple times over, persisted so they could see more of the world or the story – or get their hands on tastier weapons. Each game was an odyssey across a vibrant pastiche of an American city: first, present day New York, then '80s Miami, and finally early '90s California, including Los Angeles. 

This part of GTA has never changed: Rockstar's games skewer parts of American culture, but clearly revere it at the same time. The thing that's different is that their ability to depict that city on-screen has improved dramatically since GTA 3 dropped in 2001, thanks to the evolution of gaming technology and a vast increase in people working on the games. They also take many years longer to make as a result. 

Nostalgia aside, though, I have a very specific reason for wanting to revisit the older GTA games in 2021: people don't really make open world games like this any more. 

Supply and demand

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy Vice City

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Yes, publishers definitely make open world games – we're drowning in gigantic games that take tens of hours to finish, with maps covered in icons and things to find, all of which can trace their origins back to GTA 3 in some way.

But what about games where you can steal cars and cause carnage, just for the sake of doing so? They're harder to find now. 

The fun was the point of the PS2 entries in the series. Yeah, you had a ticking money meter – but it wasn't a game about making constant deliveries so you could afford fancier cars, or make a progression bar tick up. You saw a fancy car you liked, and you put it in your garage, meaning it now belonged to you. You started a fight with the cops because it was fun. You stole a tank, because, why wouldn't you?

That basic ethos – the player-generated chaos of the GTA games on PS2 – is weirdly better embodied by Breath of the Wild right now than it is by other sandbox games. Blockbuster developers kept giving us big maps and filling them with objectives and side quests, but many of them lost the point of why you were actually there. 

Most open world games now are RPG-lite – whereas the simulation was sort of the point with GTA's first forays into 3D. Progression systems arguably shift too much focus away from purely having fun in this genre. This is why I want these games back in my hands this year, even if their fundamentals are old as hell. Let's stick a weapons cheat on and set fire to some FIB cars. 

These early GTA games, and their virtual cities, are also still beautiful. The other reason these games still have value now is that their worlds are gorgeous – if you've trekked across Los Santos too many times in GTA Online, old Los Santos is still amazing to behold. I remember these cities like they're real places I love. 

At the time, Rockstar got some criticism for having cruder character models than you'd see in other games – but I would argue that its caricatured art style has dated beautifully. Whether it will feel like exactly the same world after the new art pass in the Definitive Edition remains to be seen. It looks more different to the original than I expected it to be, and I'm weirdly attached to the specific way Los Santos' orange sky looked on PS2, and the exact shade of light blue that I expect from Vice City's water. 

If it can approximate the way I remember GTA looking on PS2, that might be enough – but the Definitive Edition may be too radical a change for that. Either way, having an excuse to go back to these three cities is welcome: just because they're old, it doesn't mean they lack a specific atmosphere and identity as fictional locations. Rockstar was better at bringing these virtual places to life than any of its competitors. 

Publicity tour

GTA is bigger now than it's ever been. Powered by GTA Online, GTA 5 has sold 150 million copies and counting – which is over 10 times the total GTA 3 sold. Everything that blockbuster games are right now were shaped by these games, even if developers didn't always learn the best lessons from them. 

If you weren't there, it's hard to emphasize just how important GTA 3 was 20 years ago. It's not something you can really understand in retrospect if you came to the series with GTA 5 – the top-down 2D GTA and GTA 2 were more minor hits, popular in the UK but not dominant elsewhere. 

In the PSone days, a 3D GTA was something I dreamed about, but would struggle to envision being done well. So many series failed to make that leap with the same consistency they had on earlier platforms. 

The shock of GTA 3 when it landed in 2001 was how complete it felt. Liberty City – the highlights of New York boiled down into three massive islands – was far and away the most impressive location ever put in a game. I'd drive to the side of Portland, the game's first island, and just drink in the city sounds: the pedestrian dialogue, the trains going past, the radio stations, and the other ambient noises of what felt like a real place. 

To see 3D games make that kind of leap overnight was extraordinary. It's not something you'll ever see in the same way again, as graphical fidelity has become more incremental with each new generation. At the time, it seemed like a magic trick.

But, truthfully, these games have become a bit too tricky to find in their optimal form, and slightly too annoying for the vast majority of people to enjoy in 2021. What they represent as genre trailblazers, though, is still important, embodying the raw, chaotic potential of sandbox games that arguably got a little lost down the line. 

These games are important enough that they deserved special treatment. When this Definitive Edition arrives on November 11, hopefully we'll all agree that Rockstar gave it to them.

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