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Grand Theft Auto 3 fans try to recreate the game’s pre-release version

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Original HUD, altered vehicle handling, and a different Claude are among the changes

Grand Theft Auto modders have taken on an unusual, but still fascinating project: Recreating Grand Theft Auto 3 according to what it showed and looked like in mothballed code and its pre-release marketing, way back at the turn of the century.

The project, in development for more than four years now, is an attempt to “recreate Portland in DMA’s original vision.” Portland being one of the map’s three islands and the first area of the game, and DMA being DMA Design, the original name of Rockstar North. Grand Theft Auto 3D’s current state is called “Public Build 1—Back to the Streets,” and is described as an “unfinished public beta test.” Modders released it Jan. 3. Kotaku stumbled across the project this morning.

But the developers’ commitment here taps the fun what-iffiness that’s woven throughout video game fandom. Usually this wonder is reserved for big canceled games like Star Wars Battlefront 3 but this shows that even released games — and released games that were among the most influential of all time — can still excite that kind of imagination.

Grand Theft Auto 3’s alpha and beta versions had all kinds of details later removed or altered, and fans have spent years combing through code and cataloging the differences. (The video above is a good example). Screenshots, marketing materials and other recollections of the game before its October 2001 launch are also found in abundance in forums and YouTube channels. Grand Theft Auto 3D’s makers acknowledge that a 2008 mod, called GTA3 BETA also served as an inspiration and guide, showing how far back this curiosity really goes.

Grand Theft Auto 3D uses “in-game leftovers, HD texture sources, and handmade assets” to remake Portland. It isn’t just a makeover of certain designs. (Cop cars, among other things, changed their appearance at the last minute, largely because 9/11 had happened less than two months prior to launch.) The 12-member mod team has also re-tuned the cars’ handling, among other gameplay changes that attempts to revert this portion of the game to its pre-release state. The original HUD is a notable inclusion; of course, many buildings fans may remember are gone altogether from the mod, replaced with a vacant lot or a smaller structure.

Here’s a gallery of side-by-side comparisons, the mod is at the left and the 2001 game is on the right.

Claude, the mute Luke Perry lookalike who is the game’s protagonist, also gets a makeover. In pre-release versions he was either paler, had a different hairstyle, a wider head, or all three. Here’s his appearance in the mod:

GTA 3D mod team/gtaforums.com

Rockstar Games, in this post seven years ago, said the final game was only “about 1% different” from the version planned up until the Sept. 11 attacks — “car details, a couple of [pedestrian] comments, lines of radio dialogue, etc.” Only one mission, which referenced terrorists, was removed.

Of course, GTA 3D isn’t limiting itself to just the 9/11-inspired changes. It’s still remarkable that, not only that there are a dozen people dedicated to reconstructing an unreleased work-in-progress based on promotional and other materials, but also that those materials survive from a time when games publicity, and what was publicized about them, was quite a different thing.