Remasters are tricky especially when there is a huge reputation to uphold like in the case of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition.
It’s the “definitive edition” of one of the greatest game trilogies of all time. Rockstar has tapped into some serious nostalgia millions of people with this remaster, which makes it more important than most.
Plus, as we’ve heard from Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, the company doesn’t just “port titles over.” In his own words: “we actually take the time to do the very best job we can making the title different for the new release, for the new technology that we’re launching it on.”
But going in to this release, there have been two glaring red lights: there were no gameplay trailers on the run-up to launch (just a 59-second advert using deliberately selected cutscenes) and nobody received an embargoed review copy. Regardless, I went in with an open mind. Let’s see how definitive this edition of GTA is.
Ah sh*t. Here we go again
Before I start dragging this game through the mud (spoiler alert: it’s bad), let’s get the good news out of the way. That classic GTA formula hasn’t changed too much.
If you played the old games, you’ll feel right at home with the arcade controls and appreciate the small quality-of-life adjustments. From auto-saving progress and the chance to immediately restart a failed mission (albeit with no mid-mission checkpoints), to the weapon and radio station wheels, alongside the highlighted mini-map route to your next destination, all of this is appreciated.
Going back to these worlds helps you realise just how ahead of its time the core gameplay in these titles was. Sure, some cracks are starting to show -- shooting in Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City is still cumbersome and swimming still feels like steering a small boat in San Andreas. The promise of “GTA V style controls” is not fulfilled anywhere near as much as Rockstar’s promotional material claims.
The team created something special 20 years ago, and going back to play these three classic GTA titles helps you realise that— for about 10 minutes.
Grand Theft Auto: Glitch City
“Did the QA team even get to touch this game before it was released to the public?” That’s the question I found myself asking on numerous occasions.
In the first hour of each of these games, I watched Tommy (and his sausage fingers that would make even Prince Charles blush) get yeeted across Vice City by a lamppost; Cesar channel his inner Salad Fingers with some nightmare fuel-level digita along with Ryder’s mutilated skeleton in San Andreas; and Claude go through some kind of “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” adventure as he emerged from a safehouse at half the size.
These and hundreds of other glitches and bugs have been identified by the community, which would be more acceptable if this wasn't a $59.99 game. This trilogy definitely came out of the oven too soon, which leads to an altogether bigger problem: frame rate issues.
Bear in mind these games first arrived in 2001, 2002 and 2004, and are now running in Unreal Engine 4. In 2021, they struggle to maintain stable frame rates. The fact you have a choice between quality or performance modes is downright baffling on a remaster, and certain moments of increased on-screen chaos can reduce the frames-per-second to a crawl.
And no, I’m not even talking about the Nintendo Switch version. I’ve not tested the Switch port, but given the results other people are seeing, I would steer clear of it. These observations are based on PS5 and Xbox Series S playtime.
False advertising killed the radio star
I watched the trailer, read all of the marketing spiel, and got just as excited as you —but what did we really get?
We’ve already covered the glitches that can be fixed with updates and continual QA testing to find and squash other bugs, but let’s talk about something all the more problematic. This is supposed to be the “definitive edition” of the classic Grand Theft Auto trilogy, but that claim, along with Zelnick's comments earlier this year, wouldn’t even pass Maury’s lie detector test from the The Maury Show.
Let’s test Zelnik’s “take the time to do the very best job we can” line, as it’s become more and more apparent that the visual upgrades have been run through some AI upscaling without any human interaction to double-check its work. Character models vary from contorted monstrosities to downright hilarious-looking NPCs, and texture upgrades come with a tonne of spelling mistakes. I don’t need to list these issues, as the GTA subreddit is already doing a great job of cataloging everything.
There are also moments where the original trilogy vastly outperforms these remasters. The three most prominent examples are its personality, rain physics and draw distance. Everything about the updated visuals feels too polished. San Andreas does not have that classic orange hue to it, GTA III lacks any of its grittiness like dirt on the cars, and Vice City is missing its vivid liveliness in this remaster, which is a shame given the existence of HDR.
Whenever the weather changes and the heavens open, the games become unplayable, as Grove Street Games did not add transparency to the rain effects. Not only that, but it rains in places where it shouldn’t, like in a garage, under a bridge or below a boardwalk.
As for draw distance, the strange decision has been made to eliminate all the distance fog, so you can see the entire map from wherever you are. In the original games, fog was utilised to mask the older consoles’ technical limitations, but at the time, Rockstar went the extra mile and designed its maps around the fog. It all helped each game feel bigger in scale, but once removed in this remaster, the illusion is broken. With the multiple biomes of San Andreas, it feels like you’re exploring a glorified battle royale map. It also covered up some minimal shapes and textures in the distance, which are obvious now.
Plus, you’ll find numerous subtle cut corners in development, which still hurt a helluva lot. For example, hedges are now solid objects, which cut off a lot of the shortcuts I used as a kid, and when falling into water from a great height in this newer version of San Andreas, you don’t sink then submerge (as you do in the original game) but just land on the surface. Interestingly, this happens in one other re-release: the mobile version. Could it be that Grove Street Games just remastered the mobile version of the game and called it a day?
And finally, the soundtrack. I played Vice City when I was far too young, and keenly remember that first moped after dropping off the lawyer and driving to the sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” That, amongst other key songs sure to spark your nostalgia, is MIA. Our sister site PC Gamer has the full list of songs that were removed.
Licensing music for games is a minefield, but through the sheer force of a $4.9 billion company like Take-Two, I'd like to think these missing songs could have been licensed. It may only be a small portion of the overall tracklist, but some of these are crucial to the nostalgia and make the “Definitive Edition” moniker feel like false advertising.
There are a lot of people trying to figure out who to blame between Take-Two, Rockstar and Grove Street Games. Allow me to throw in my two cents and say they are all to blame. This is the epitome of “we know you’ll buy it anyway” laziness.
In a world where Mafia: Definitive Edition exists (from the same publisher, no less), Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition is unforgivable.
Rockstar’s commitment to squeezing as much money out of as many players as possible in GTA Online rather than working GTA 6 is nothing short of legendary, and with Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, that legacy continues in the worst way possible.
Remasters are tricky and this rushed revival is a half-baked cash-in that feels lazy at best, and downright deceptive at worst.
The only saving grace is that the original formula is still fun to play after 20 years, and has been strengthened by a couple of gameplay tweaks. But I cannot in good conscience recommend this game, especially at full price.