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.