Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review

Has there been a game released in the last 20 years that’s been more influential than Grand Theft Auto III? From its establishment of the open-world sandbox fundamentals to its critical role in reshaping videogames into a more attractive medium for mature audiences, GTA III’s shadow still looms large over almost every facet of the artform. If any game deserved a definitive edition that allowed fans to relive that revolution without squinting to ignore ancient graphics, it’s this. And yet, series creator Rockstar Games has decided to pay tribute to this modern gaming monolith and its two equally acclaimed PS2-era sequels, Vice City and San Andreas, by producing a collection of re-releases that cuts more corners than a Yakuza Stinger in a Liberty City street race. At best this trilogy is ill-conceived and half-finished; at worst it’s straight-up broken. If this half-baked Definitive Edition is anything to go by, I have to wonder if Rockstar reveres its own games as much as the rest of us do.

There are some positives, mind you, but almost every welcome addition is implemented at the cost of some sort of buzz-killing compromise. It seems so antiquated that my original playthroughs with each of these three games were done with a paper map unfurled across my lap, so it’s very convenient that you’re now able to just hit pause to scan the full map of each game world and drop waypoint markers to your destination, like modern gamers would expect. However, you can’t override waypoints that are automatically created during a mission, like if you wanted to take a detour across town to an Ammunation or a Pay ‘n’ Spray perhaps, and the pathfinding can often get confused as it continually recalculates over the course of a journey, at times resembling something closer to a hastily scribbled signature than the shortest possible route.

Similarly, the “GTAV-inspired modern controls” promised in this collection’s marketing have been applied somewhat unevenly over the three individual games. Weapon switching is improved across the board with the ability to use a shoulder button to bring up a weapon wheel, but auto-targeting feels far snappier in San Andreas than in GTA III and Vice City, and while you can circle-strafe while locked on to an enemy with a lighter weapon equipped, heavier machine guns and the like still root you to the spot and force you into a manually aimed first-person perspective regardless. The auto-targeting in GTA III and Vice City proved to be particularly sluggish whenever I found myself up close and personal with a group of enemies, which was fairly frequent given that enemy AI wasn't designed to use cover and just rushes you more often than not. Thus, in both games I found myself increasingly reliant on the use of sniper rifles to thin the herds from a distance rather than run headlong into yet another spasmodic shootout.

A mid-mission checkpointing system has been implemented to good effect in San Andreas, allowing you to restart with all your health and weapons and skip the early setup phase of certain missions. That resolves one of the great complaints of the early games in the 3D series. Yet in GTA III and Vice City, choosing the option to restart at a checkpoint just boots you back to the very start of the mission no matter how deep into it you were when you died. So if, like I did, you die a number of times trying to outrun the cops at the end of the ‘S.A.M.’ mission in the lead up to GTA III’s climax, you still have to drive from the construction site to the boat jetty, take the boat to the end of the airport runway, wait for the plane to arrive, shoot down the plane with the rocket launcher, collect all the packages, return to the mainland, and then try and escape the police, over and over again. It’s odd that one game allows you to literally cut to the chase while the other two force you to repeatedly bring the car around and warm up the engine first.

Grand Theft Autocorrect

The new cartoonish character designs have certainly been met with some controversy and mockery among fans, but while I wouldn’t say they look good I don’t have any real issue with them personally. Sure, they all look like a bunch of down and out Disney Infinity dolls, and yes, the Candy Suxxx character model well, kinda sucks, but the only time I ever felt really distracted by them was in the occasional cutscene where characters would be holding objects like pistols or cigarettes in the empty space where their blocky, fingerless fists used to be.

That’s largely the problem with the overhauled graphics in the Definitive Edition; they’re like a shiny new sheet of high-resolution stickers that have been slapped haphazardly on top of an aging LEGO set. They look cleaner on the surface, but there’s no real consistency in how they’ve been applied and everything is still pretty chunky underneath. I don’t pretend to fully understand the technical process involved with taking three games created on the Renderware engine a couple of decades ago and porting them to Unreal Engine 4 in 2021. However, I can only assume due to the comparatively small size of studio Grove Street Games (whose end game credits number at around 30 members of staff), that a lot of the work has been automated, and it shows in a suite of game worlds that are simultaneously sharper than you remember but also noticeably sloppier in terms of their artistic direction and lacking atmosphere. Given how effectively AI upscaling techniques were used to sharpen Mass Effect Legendary Edition’s textures earlier this year, it’s a bit of a shock to see how poorly it’s done here.

Even the new lighting system brings mixed results. The neon facades of Vice City’s Ocean Beach district really pop and reflections on cars and puddles are appealing, but elsewhere the overly intense shadows would cast characters into darkness no matter how much I fiddled with the brightness and contrast settings. Although squinting to make out detail in dark areas was still less of a strain on my eyes than the truly torturous rain effect, which made me feel I was being waterboarded with a can of silly string.

The truly torturous rain effect, which made me feel I was being waterboarded with a can of silly string. 

Meanwhile, an improved draw distance – which was likely intended to make each environment seem bigger – has actually had the opposite effect. This is particularly glaring in San Andreas where, coupled with the removal of the Los Angeles-inspired orange smog haze that once concealed the PS2’s technical limitations, you can stand out front of a cabin in Flint County and see the San Fierro skyline looming in the very immediate distance. It completely shatters the convincing illusion of scale that the map was previously able to conjure, and it now feels like wandering around Disney’s Frontierland while having an unobstructed view of Space Mountain. This improved draw distance may also contribute to this collection’s constantly wavering framerate on PS5, which is prone to frequent stuttering whether you opt for fidelity or performance modes. Why you’re even forced to make that choice on a modern console in a collection of games that are each old enough to vote and still don’t look all that good is beyond me. And if you’re playing on Switch (which I have not but others at IGN have) there’s no avoiding the terrible performance.

Then there are the bugs, which were waiting to ambush me around every corner like a bunch of game-breaking gangbangers. (For the sake of transparency, I completed every main mission in GTA III and Vice City, and all the main missions in San Andreas up until San Fierro for the purposes of this review.) Hard crashes, frozen cutscenes, NPCs getting caught running in circles, bridges and building exteriors disappearing, and a particularly bizarre morphing texture glitch that has permanently left my CJ in San Andreas resembling Watchmen’s Rorschach are just a few examples of the many rough edges I’ve been exposed to in all three games. All this, I might add, was on PS5 – by the sounds of it, audiences on PC and Nintendo Switch have had it even worse. I’m assuming that the developer is frantically preparing bug-fixing patches as we speak, but it’s a bit like barring the stable door after the horse has glitched through the wall and exploded.

Bless This Mess

However, it’s a testament to just how brilliant these games remain, that I still found myself smiling during my replays of the three stories in spite of the many issues. There’s no doubt that the mission design has aged, particularly in GTA III, and creaky limitations like the lack of swimming in both it and Vice City can be tough to reconcile with. But elsewhere, these are video game playgrounds packed with personality and invention and accompanied by incredible soundtracks, even despite a few notable licensed omissions from Vice City and San Andreas that Rockstar has long since lost the rights to include. And they’re just so dense with exceedingly quotable humour, much of which has stayed with me in the years since I first played them. I can’t come home from a night out without telling my wife “Yep, I’ve been drinking again.” Oftentimes I can’t get the wah-wahing Giggle Cream jingle out of my head. And I still don’t know why men have nipples.

Not only did I enjoy reabsorbing all the hilarious writing, but it was also quite fascinating to sit and play through the three games back to back and relive the rapid evolution of a series (and genre) that would soon become all-conquering. GTA III establishes the blueprint, Vice City refines it and adds weaponised ‘80s nostalgia to its arsenal, and San Andreas expands it in every direction and arguably perfects it, at least given the technology available at the time. There’s no denying the seemingly never-ending commercial success of GTAV, but as far as purely single-player GTA games go, I personally feel that San Andreas might still be the pinnacle.

That’s what makes these re-releases such a bitter adrenaline pill to swallow. While these games may have aged too much to be attractive to new players, they are still fun to revisit for existing fans… but this is just far from being the ideal way to experience them. It’s akin to Martin Scorcese announcing a new director’s cut of Goodfellas, but palming off the actual editing work to McG. You’re still getting three iconic GTA games and they’re certainly still playable, but they’re not delivered with anywhere near the level of exacting craftsmanship we’ve grown to expect from Rockstar. I can’t help but wonder how different this re-released collection could have been had the publisher issued talented members of the GTA modding community employment contracts rather than cease and desist letters.

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