The original three PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games are some of the most fondly-remembered and revolutionary of the time, but they haven’t exactly been shown the care they deserve in subsequent remasters. There was a just-OK PS3 port back in 2012, a re-release of the PS2 originals on PS4 in 2015, and some middling-to-unplayable ports on mobile devices during the last decade as well. The Definitive Edition, released now on a range of platforms but reviewed on PlayStation 5, you would hope would finally be the best way to play these games on modern hardware. Unfortunately, while the trilogy itself still retains almost everything that made it fun two decades ago, this re-mastering has clearly encountered issues whether they be from scope, budget or time, which are pervasive enough to make you think twice about picking up Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition right away.
First, the good news, the trilogy includes Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and I still had a grand old time revisiting each of the games. GTA3 was a landmark title back in the day, retaining many of the mechanics from the earlier, top-down games, but expanding the vision to create a fully-explorable 3-dimensional Liberty City that essentially became a new kind of sandbox. Objectives are simple, and sometimes tedious – go here, kill him, crash into this car until it’s dead, steal that, etc. The simplicity of the objectives is actually a boon, especially compared to some of Rockstar’s later games, as you often have a great deal of freedom in how you choose to approach the mission, so long as you achieve the desired end result. There’s often nothing stopping you from finding a shortcut, or vehicle you shouldn’t be using, or getting creative with tactics, so long as the end result is the same, and that’s what makes GTA 3 still a lot of fun to replay.
Vice City improves on the formula with the Miami-inspired titular city featuring new types of vehicles like boats and motorcycles, as well as a lot of cute additions to gameplay like being able to play with radio-controlled vehicles or buy various businesses and follow questlines for each of them to start generating additional income (something Yakuza borrowed from that I quite enjoy). While the city feels smaller, it feels like there’s a lot more variety to in what you’re actually doing in missions, with a more engaging story with a colourful cast of characters including a new protagonist voiced by Ray Liotta.
San Andreas was a huge leap forward, increasing the map size significantly to encompass a whole state including multiple cities, forests, country roads etc, based on California. There’s also a lot more scope in terms of role-playing, with the player character CJ able to gain ‘respect’ to recruit gang members to help him out, get girlfriends, learn different kinds of martial arts, customise his apppearance and even gain weight by not exercising enough. CJ’s story also feels like a more epic journey around the state than the previous two games, and while that same purity and freedom in GTA 3 starts to diminish here, as you often find yourself having to make sure you’re in the correct place, not getting too far away from other characters, the expansion of everything else makes San Andreas feel massive for the console generation it was released for.
So look, the three games included are all great, and still fun to play today, even with so many newer open-world games available that have evolved in every way since 2004. However, it’s the remastering of these games in The Definitive Edition that leaves quite a lot to be desired. Fans have already flooded Twitter with a litany of complaints and GIFs of bugs and broken moments, and it’s all unfortunately true.
While the games all feature upgraded resolution and frame-rates on next-gen consoles, they aren’t able to hold at that higher frame-rate for long. The cities themselves have been polished with sharper models, textures and added details, which generally looks fine even if it loses a lot of the aesthetic the older games went for. For instance, the blue/green-tinted metro colouring of GTA 3 is absent, as is the motion blur that accompanied cutscenes and the light-smears that would appear over bright lights at night-time. The hazy orange atmosphere of Los Santos also seems to be lost in San Andreas. The result is a clearer image but one that doesn’t really match what you remember from the original trilogy, or which follows the original developers’ intent.
More disappointing are issues with rain, which is far too heavy and not only obstructs your view but appears to sit on a layer separate from the game’s world, resulting in some hideous artefacts. Textures often appear warped or misplaced, and not just in corners of the world where you’re unlikely to see them, we’re talking right outside Claude’s first safe house in GTA 3 where the player can’t help but notice them. Some models have been rigged in a way that gives them weird distorted necks, or bags which act as extensions of their arms while driving. Sometimes bugs happen during cutscenes, as gangs try to kill your character as if they were in the normal open world gameplay. While most of the time the technical issues don’t interfere with your ability to complete missions or the game, there is a cumulative effect that starts to take hold. Muffled dialogue affects how you understand the story, oddly-darkened scenes hamper your ability to see what’s happening, and bugs can occasionally rob you of a well-earned escape. The remaster job just feels half-finished, if even that.
However, on the plus side some aspects of the remaster actually work rather well. The new lighting engine casts shadows in real-time across the day, and actually can look rather good in some instances, like car headlights backlighting your player character. Reflections on cars themselves also look pretty decent, and I don’t hate the art style, generally, that the developers have worked with. Smoothing out the PS2 character models into exaggerated goofy cartoon/totem pole-esque figures actually doesn’t look too bad in my opinion, with characters like Claude and Tommy Vercetti looking fine.
Some improvements to the gameplay also work well, but it’s a mixed bag. Putting a fully controllable camera on the right-analogue stick is genuinely helpful, as is moving the car controls to the shoulder triggers. The new weapon wheel brought up via L1 works well enough, but combat still doesn’t feel great even with the new aiming controls. While the old save system that forces you to save at safe houses remains, a newly implemented checkpoint system is only mildly helpful, mostly returning you to the start of missions (no matter how long they are) except for some reason in San Andreas.
Rockstar has promised to address technical issues in an upcoming update, but for the time being this Definitive Edition really feels like anything but. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy revisiting Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas – I very much did, bugs aside. There’s an indomitable sense of freedom and scope that’s present in all three games that’s absolutely worth revisiting. But probably not in this collection – at least, not right at now. There’s no point picking this up until Rockstar finishes addressing the many issues present, as while there are three amazing games buried here, the Definitive Edition sadly needs a lot more time to actually make them shine.
-On a raw, fundamental level, these three games are still pure fun and in their own way near-indestructible -GTA 3 offers freedom in tackling basic objectives, Vice City changes up the formula in cute and memorable ways, and San Andreas expands both story and scope - presented as a trilogy, this is still a great package -Some of the dynamic lighting effects can look very nice, and small gameplay QOL improvements help
-While on the surface, this is a visual upgrade, there is a carelessness and lack of attention to detail that pervades through each game -Warped textures, muffled audio, bugs, strange modelling choices - and not rare, but frequent occurances -Aesthetic choices of the originals, particularly in colour palettes and lighting, have been disregarded and the games feel poorer for it