Far from definitive, the best-looking versions of the GTA Trilogy are spoiled by being rushed out the door with a 'that'll do' attitude.
In this, the year of remasters, remakes and re-releases, none tickled my fancy more than the long-awaited return of the most iconic gaming trilogy from my childhood – the reason I spent months cobbling together every cent I could muster to buy a second-hand PlayStation 2 in 2004 – and we didn’t even officially know it existed until a few weeks ago.
Unfortunately, upon release, the secrecy and sudden launch were evidently for good reason. Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas return with a much-needed coat of paint, but have clearly been rushed out without the full respect they deserve.
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition is a package of all-time classics returning with some improvements, but also some mystifying choices and an unusual lack of quality control, especially considering their legendary status. All three games look better than they ever have before, and there are some much appreciated quality of life improvements that modernise these old-timers just enough to appease your current-day gaming brain. Yet, there’s no sugarcoating that these are some of the weakest remasters we’ve played in a long time. That is what I am looking at here.
This isn’t a complete review of Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas played afresh in 2021. All three games are masterpieces of their time, each bringing something unique to a formula few others dare to touch nowadays, such is their prestige. They are a product of a three-year golden period on the PlayStation 2. It really is astonishing that three such ambitious and genre-defining games could be released within a single generation, across such a short timeframe from 2001 – 2004. But that has been well covered across the last two decades, and I have played these games many times on their original platform, PC, PS4 and even the compromised mobile ports. Here, I am simply considering the quality of the remastering of the GTA Trilogy as a package, as this is now the only version that Rockstar will permit you to buy.
First impressions are very much dependent on which of the three games you launch first – and being on Xbox Game Pass, for many I suspect that will be San Andreas. Across all three games, the environments do look much better, especially in motion. Developer Grove Street Games has done a commendable job of modernising these three worlds just enough to match your memories. They look like a relic from three generations ago, but bouncing between the Definitive Editions and the now delisted PS2 Classics range on PS4, the textures and key assets have been given a significant upgrade. Not to modernise them to 2021 standards, mind you, but to create something that looks decent on modern displays, akin to your exaggerated memories.
The increased draw distance, reduced pop-in, improved frame rate and slightly modernised controls form the bulk of improvements to gameplay. The originals only allowed you to see a couple of blocks – if that – ahead, and cars and pedestrians would often pop-in almost as you were on top of them. These three games have clearly gone to Specsavers, with it being far easier to navigate when you can actually see what lies ahead. Such clarity should allow for a more immersive world, but that is where the good starts to meet the unintended side effects.
The refinements to GTA The Definitive Edition balance improvements with diminishments. These games never intended for you to see everything, and now the rough edges are on full display. Much has been made of San Andreas losing its fog. Lifting the veil allows you to see the entire map from the sky, or even atop a tall building, which completely breaks the illusion of size. All of a sudden, it’s a very small world — that CJ falls into far more than I recall.
Worse is the new dynamic lighting, which in theory should revitalise these three worlds that many of us still know like the back of our hands. It’s a case of newer isn’t necessarily better, as the new lighting effects create substantial shadows, which make all three games, but especially GTA 3 and San Andreas, way too dark in outdoor scenes – and that’s most of the gameplay – at least playing with HDR.
I’ve had to dial the contrast slider down to zero just to see what I’m doing, and while that helps, it’s a solution to a problem that shouldn’t exist. Coupled with the lack of hazy fog and orange tones of the original, which is actually quite representative of Los Angeles, and these touted improvements disrupt the colour palette and dilute the atmosphere of San Andreas; GTA 3 and Vice City suffer a similar fate. These cities look better than ever before, but they don’t quite feel right.
It doesn’t help that while the main cast have had a decent session at hair and make-up, most of the quirky NPCs have lost their oddball appeal and now just look downright odd. They have all become more generic, and while they look crisper and more refined, some have become parodies of their original parodies, and come across like an unlicensed replica toy. They have been cleaned up, but character models haven’t been given as much attention as the environments and vehicles, so most look out of place while waving around their static mannequin fingers. It’s as if Grove Street was caught between updating the characters too much for their presumably limited time or too little and leaving them closer to how they originally appeared, forcing themselves to take the third of two options. It leaves the character designs not fitting with the vehicles and environments.
I am partial to the cartoon aesthetic, which leans into the original vibe of GTA 3 and Vice City and suits the remaster’s brief well – San Andreas I always thought started to move towards the style of GTA IV. But I did expect it to be done with the utmost care, and that’s what is missing from Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. It’s riddled with so many bugs, glitches and incomplete touch-ups that I can’t imagine anyone actually bothered to test it before putting it on-sale for a considerable mark-up over the original versions, which are no longer available. Everything about this game screams ‘that’ll do’. It’s missing the love.
It’s a strange combination of nice environments, clashing with misaligned roads and assets – of which there are way too many – or an odd looking character. Some of it does look so good now that I could almost overlook the regular clipping, mismatched roads or mangled storefronts, if I held hope these would be addressed soon. But with such a dearth of quality control, it’s hard to have faith that’s going to happen. The disastrous rain effect is the perfect example of this ‘that’ll do’ approach. It looks terrible and dominates the scene. I first saw it less than two minutes into GTA 3, so either nobody at Rockstar bothered to playtest that far, or they were happy to sign-off on tarnishing the GTA Trilogy’s legacy to make an easy buck. That says it all, really.
Aside from the new look, the modern control scheme is the selling point for why a refresh is long overdue. While far from a comprehensive reform, it does make the GTA Trilogy more intuitive to play. The weapon wheel from Grand Theft Auto V has been implemented across all three games, and is easily the best change, followed closely by accelerating and breaking being mapped to the triggers.
The GTA V-inspired shooting controls are better — I use “GTA V-inspired” loosely — with a lock-on system that makes it easier to hit targets, rather than Tommy and CJ flailing around wildly, but it’s still very clunky. The first mission after obtaining a gun in GTA 3 has you chase a car and kill its occupants, but it took me four attempts because the lock-on kept selecting random passers-by, allowing the goons ample time to pump-action Claude. In the end, I just ran them over. Shooting has been moderately improved, but it could be better, and certainly isn’t the promised GTA V-style controls. It’s very loosely inspired by them, but it’s really just the PS2 shooting with a lock-on system that’s still hit-and-miss.
Outside of gunplay, Grand Theft Auto 3 and San Andreas play very faithfully to their original counterparts. The janky animations remain, as we expect from a remaster, and are assisted by better camera controls. In these two games, vehicles handle almost identically, and I didn’t notice any major changes to the physics.
Enter Vice City, where it has all gone wrong. What in tarnation happened here? The vehicles control nothing like the PS2 Classics version, where they had some gentle body roll and gripped tightly to the roads. Vice City Definitive Edition is all over the place, with reckless driving worthy of a marquee slot on Dash Cams Australia. Cars and bikes slide around all over the place, like a dog on roller-skates. It’s as if the roads have been glazed in oil, making it needlessly difficult to control vehicles at high speed when even the hint of a corner enters the mix. The body roll has also been inexplicably dialled up, with the bodywork smashing into, and clipping through, the streets like a rapidly capsizing ship.
I’m not sure where to start with the collision physics, but prepare to see bikini girls and blokes in budgie smugglers go flying from the slightest impact to their trundling scooters or motorbikes. For all its flaws, I am enjoying the nostalgic return to GTA 3 and San Andreas, but Vice City’s vehicle handling is just atrocious. As a result, it’s the only game of the three that isn’t considerably easily to play from a control standpoint. Perhaps that is why the other two games are split between Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Now, leaving Vice City locked to the full purchase.
The performance has seen a boost, and yes, it goes without saying that it’s in another league to the PS2 versions, but it’s still not as good as it should be. The default fidelity mode is rubbish, and while performance mode increases the frame rate without sacrificing much, it is still a problem at times on current-gen consoles, as is pop-in, which is reduced but still fairly prevalent. I dare not even contemplate how it runs on Switch or the base last-gen hardware, which I haven’t tested. It’s not good enough. Games ranging from 17 to 20-years-old, which offer a choice between fidelity and performance, shouldn’t have any noticeable frame rate issues when the latter mode is engaged, but here we are – that’ll do, says Rockstar.
The audio follows the same mantra. It’s okay, but sounds its age and there aren’t any discernible differences from the PS2 Classics. Was it remastered at all? The voice acting is all clean enough, so perhaps it didn’t need any work, but the background noises, sound effects and NPC chatter sounds echoey and jarring. While it’s a shame some iconic songs have been removed without replacements, I can accept that as it’s been the case for years, and what remains is still a playlist of bangers. But it’s more than just the music. Grand Theft Auto’s atmosphere came from its looks, its soundtrack and its sound, so leaving the latter largely untouched only compounds its issues in recreating that original feel.
It’s a shame that the GTA Trilogy – Definitive Edition has launched with such a lack of care. The foundations of a good remaster are here, with improved environments and updates to controls and performance. From there, it feels like nobody thoroughly tested the games, or there was no desire to fully honour their legacy or deliver true definitive editions. I’m not sure why they had to be rushed out this year, as most of these glaring issues could have been solved with more time or resources, and such is their reputation, Rockstar would have easily recouped that added investment.
It’s severely lacking the care and dedication applied to contemporary remasters like the Mass Effect Legendary Edition, and more comparatively, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Tony Hawk 1+2. Those PS1 games retained their original essence and were spruced up with the greatest of care. I didn’t expect such a large re-skin with GTA, as these games are far bigger in scope and much more complicated, but I did expect the same level of polish, commitment and care; that’s what is missing.
It’s not that I’m mad, I am just disappointed. These three PS2 games remain iconic, and I have enjoyed returning to Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas, but as a remaster, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition is lacking the care and respect such highly regarded games deserve. It doesn’t have the quality we have come to expect from remasters recently. Yet, such is their quality, the underlying games, which deserved better, still hold up as a product of their time. They are worth returning to if the PS2 GTA Trilogy holds a special place in your heart, so long as you can temper expectations and accept the good, the bad and the downright ugly from a ‘that’ll do’ remaster. If not, you’re better off persevering them with those rose-tinted memories.
GTA The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
11 November 2021
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