Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - Definitive Edition Review
Needs more than a Pay 'n' Spray...
Please note: This review was written in advance of the 1.02 update issued by Rockstar Games. Patch notes and more can be found here.
I know the streets of Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas better than some places in the real world. I (mis)spent countless hours exploring these digital metropoles in my youth, but it’s been decades since I last paid any of them a visit. And whilst the streets of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy — Definitive Edition look familiar, not everything is as it should be.
I didn’t notice too many issues with the remasters at first. Overloaded with nostalgia, I undertook the opening missions of Grand Theft Auto III — a game which, it transpires, has no real story to speak of — before many of the issues that would plague my time with this game and its sequels reared their heads. The trigger for this slow realisation was the first time the heavens opened. Yes, the rain descended in an opaque sheet as I drove into oncoming traffic and smashed into walls in the dimly lit New York facsimile created by Rockstar Games twenty years ago. I parked my car and waited for it to subside before driving back to the mission marker for another small-time task. At which point, it was as if the rain had washed the rose-coloured tint from my glasses because now I could see everything and it didn’t look all that pretty.
Initially impressed by the new lighting engine and, although not completely convinced, I was on board with the new, very smooth, almost animated art style that defines this ‘Definitive Edition’. A closer look, however, showed that not everything (or everyone) had been treated with due care and attention. PlayStation 2-era textures abound, the frame rates are less than solid across the board, and elements will occasionally disappear. Maybe the map will just swallow you whole? Still, the biggest of the many red flags were the side characters. Speaking in tinny, low quality, voices — doing a massive disservice to some excellent performances from the likes of Ray Liotta and Michael Madsen — through unanimated mouths attached to faces that are somehow both lacking in and abundant with detail; their distended character models given a Playmobil-like sheen. They might be at their most grotesque in the first game, but they don’t get any better as the trilogy progresses.
From the East Coast inspired grit of GTA III, I moved (rather gleefully, as it’s my favourite) into the cocaine and neon of Vice City. Here, things seemed to get a little better. The bright 1980s aesthetic seems to gel best with this collection’s smoother artistic direction — although the Ken doll that replaced Tommy Vercetti cannot be ignored — and I found this to be the game where I felt the blight of the Definitive Edition the least. However, I’m fully willing to accept that the Vice City soundtrack may play a part in that. Rarely has licensed music ever become so synonymous with another medium as the likes of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ or The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ have with Vice City. There are a few key tracks missing across the three games, likely due to licensing issues, but the majority remain and make the radio one of the best features.
Vice City is also where this trilogy really comes into its own. Building on the foundations of Grand Theft Auto III, the second game in the trilogy immerses the player in an 80s gangster movie, expands your activities, and allows the series’ parodic character archetypes room to chew the scenery in the most wonderful way. For me, this is the trilogy’s sweet spot. Broad enough to feel like you have a whole world of opportunities, but with enough focus to be constantly entertaining. The extensive amount of upgrades and character freedom in San Andreas felt like a huge step up for video games when it was released, but Vice City holds up better.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to the definitive version too. The size of San Andreas is one of the game’s biggest features. However, one of the accidental drawbacks to playing it in this collection is that it can no longer hide behind the limitations of the hardware — or an ample layer of smog. No longer held back by the constraints of early 2000s hardware, the illusion of San Andreas as a huge landmass is lost when you can see buildings that are supposed to be miles away are, in fact, very close by. This issue is exacerbated when viewing from above, with the three areas of the game resembling a toy town more than a sprawling state. This is one of the funnier and more inadvertent side effects of the Definitive Edition, but it still goes to show the lack of consideration that was paid when putting this together.
Elsewhere, this 1990s Los Angeles replica still feels as expansive as it ever did. Not only in terms of the scope of the game, but the story and its characters. Whilst I found myself wincing at some of the writing and the language used, CJ’s story is still one I enjoyed playing through. More grounded and attempting to convey a deeper message than either of its predecessors, it definitely feels the most modern in this regard.
The game does get away from itself at times though; packed with systems and mini-games that feel more like poorly implemented distractions by today's standards. Its size may also be its downfall when it comes to the Definitive Edition. Given that Grand Theft Auto III struggled so much with bugs, it’s no surprise that San Andreas is hit hard. In one of the game’s opening sequences I experienced an incredible amount of screen tearing and some of the Definitive Edition’s most horrific character models can be found here too.
San Andreas may be the game to suffer the worst from the poorly implemented HDR support as well. The game's brightest areas can be incredibly blown out and the darkest are almost pitch black. Perhaps most concerning, however, is how it affects the features of characters with darker skin tones. None of the games fare particularly well when it comes to HDR, with Grand Theft Auto III also suffering from being incredibly dark. No amount of messing with the brightness and contrast in the settings will help and you can’t turn it off and it’s just another ‘feature’ that made me want to stop playing.
The fact that some of these are such basic things, issues that wouldn’t have made it out of the door in most top-tier games, never mind a Grand Theft Auto game on a major console, is so disappointing. Although I’m not sure what’s a bigger issue here: decades-old bugs not being fixed, or new bugs being generated by a poorly executed remaster. Some are more forgivable than others, but the fact remains that these games deserved better. To be able to revisit them in 2021 with the power of modern hardware should (and could) have been a triumph for Rockstar and developer Grove Street Games. Instead, the resulting product is an inconsistent shambles — the equivalent of driving a getaway car into a Pay 'n' Spray with the cops on your tail before making a quick escape: not much work has been done, but it’s pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.
Much like that getaway car though, the new coat of paint hasn’t changed anything under the hood — for the most part, anyway. All three games have been ported to Unreal Engine 4, which appears to have brought its own problems with it, and there’s more than a hint of the mobile ports in here too. However, the foundations of all three games remain mostly sound. There’s some obvious aging to the mission structure and some of the design choices seem peculiar by modern standards, particularly where GTA III is concerned, but they remain very fun to play for a returning player like myself. The soundtracks, one of the defining features of these games — especially where Vice City is concerned (I’d also make the argument for San Andreas too for what it’s worth) — remain mostly intact. There are some big hits missing, but that’s the trouble with licensing such a huge amount of music. It’s actually surprising just how much an incredible soundtrack can alleviate whatever issue I was having with the game at the time.
Driving around Vice City blasting 80s music was just as joyous here as it ever was, which shows me that the new facade doesn’t matter all that much when I can still feel the games I know and love underneath. Watching the series progress in front of me from a somewhat structured series of missions with a hint of a plot in Grand Theft Auto III, to stepping into the Hawaiian shirt of Tommy Vercetti and becoming the biggest kingpin Vice City had ever seen, and concluding with a flawed but genuine attempt to showcase the much deeper story of CJ in San Andreas is fascinating. However, not everything connects in the same way as it did in the mid-00s and much of the Rockstar edginess feels tacky through a modern lens, but it’s still possible to see just how special these games are and how the developer wanted to push video games as a medium — something they continue to do to this day.
This makes the disregard that these new versions have been treated with all the more frustrating. They’re still fun to play and the fundamentals of what made them great are still very much intact, but this is coming from someone who has played and experienced them before. A good remaster — never mind a ‘Definitive’ one — should not only appease existing fans, it should attempt to recapture that magic for a whole new audience to allow them to enjoy these games without the hindrance of dated visuals or mechanics.
Inconsistent character models aside, the visuals are where Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy — Definitive Edition may actually succeed. Low-poly textures are still all too prevalent, however the overall look of the three main cities is impressive. Exploring them again with this increase in resolution was undoubtedly my favourite part of this whole experience. When properly implemented, the new lighting system works really well adding a level of dynamism to otherwise flat textures. Simple reflections and the glow of neon lights are small additions, but they can make a big difference. This just goes to show the kind of surface-level remaster this is, however. The shiny veneer slips away under even the slightest scrutiny.
In fairness, some small quality of life improvements have also been made to all three games, but even these are inconsistent. The control scheme has been made more contemporary which is a big plus, alongside the implementation of Grand Theft Auto V-style aiming which works fairly well. The weapon wheel from the most recent GTA has also been added to all three games to make selecting weapons less of a chore. Outside of this, the biggest change is likely the addition of waypoints. Although you can never predict if they’ll work and they can be erratic. Grand Theft Auto III also has a larger map in the menu and elsewhere the HUD itself feels clean. All solid additions. A checkpoint system has also been implemented, allowing you to restart missions immediately if you fail. This is helpful when the AI decides to get marksman accurate or, as happened to me on more than one occasion, seemingly break the sound barrier to run me over. Quite why the mid-mission checkpoints from San Andreas weren’t implemented throughout, stopping the need for some of the more of the game’s repetitive driving sections, is just another ding on a car that’s already on fire.
At this point, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy — Definitive Edition is camped up somewhere high, with a six-star wanted level. Unfortunately, the police choppers are circling and it's running out of ammo. For every moment the neon beams across the hood of your car, or you catch a reflection in a puddle on the rain-slicked roads, or the soundtrack pulls you back in just as you thought you were out, there are ten things that made me question why I was persevering with this mess.
This is a scrap of nostalgia thrown to a starving audience; a cheap, lacklustre and frustrating collection of ports that feels more like an easy cash grab than anything else. This was a golden opportunity to craft a love letter to a trilogy that shaped the way we play games and established Rockstar as one of the premiere names in video games. And whilst I somehow still managed to have a fairly good time, in spite of their quality, these games and the fans deserved better and I’m shocked that Rockstar would want to put their otherwise stellar reputation on the line for this.
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