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Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review

All you had to do was remaster the damn game, CJ

The 3D Grand Theft Auto games were awe inspiring as a youth. At a time when gaming technology was making massive leaps and bounds, they represented the best example of an open world that was filled to the brim with life – a world that would operate around you even if you stood still to observe it. And then when you did start to interact with these worlds, it was like sticking your youthful finger into the end of a running hose – the flow of activity wouldn’t stop, it would start to chaotically change direction with every effort on your part. For gamers, GTA represented the ultimate chaos simulator experience.

These are the memories I brought with me to the release of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, with only a slightly concerned thought as to how an older and arguably wiser player might find the titles. Tempered expectations are a smart move when revisiting anything with a dose of nostalgia, and I did have many suspicions that teenage me has different tastes to 30-something-year-old-also-now-a-dad me.

Oh! Oh! He said the thing!

What I found was mostly true – the titans of yesteryear are a great deal more humble by today’s standards. The bustling streets and congested roads in my mind are a little more mundane – and the sprawling cityscapes can be briskly navigated in a minute or two. But the experiences they offer? Still as accessible and engaging as you might expect – but arguably a hard sell for any newer generation of gamer that cut their teeth on a title like Grand Theft Auto V.

Grand Theft Auto III outlived its nostalgic welcome rapidly. Like a long-forgotten uncle, you were pleasantly surprised and somewhat foggy on why you don’t see each other much these days – and after only a few hours, you remember vividly why you don’t do family gatherings with him any more. A paltry amount of mission types with cruelly unforgiving AI overshadow the fun characters and unique storytelling – particularly when it’s coupled with a gut-wrenching lack of checkpoints.

You can 90% complete a mission, navigating every mechanical pitfall that comes with it, and immediately fail to something entirely outside of your control – to get immediately spat back to the mission brief cutscene that came before it. It sours the quirky voice acting and narrative detail because you come to resent that experience, even though it is technically an improvement.

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Exploding into cash confetti isn’t an admirable death

Originally a death or a mission failure would prompt a trip to the hospital, or a reload of a save. The checkpoints being marked on mission start does a lot to save backtracking and loss of progress, which would usually be cause for celebration – but the ball-bustingly difficult AI just finds such creative ways to crush your spirit that you can’t really whip out the party hats and balloons. And it’s not even an enemy-specific issue. Try watching the AI vehicle you are protecting damage itself via careening into a wall with zero provocation and tell me how you could have stopped that.

To its credit however, the other quality of life changes present are excellent. Gunplay is no longer a chore, with player settings to amend its behaviour to suit your needs. I became a sniper god, if only because I could finally aim the damn thing and become the reaper of life that I always dreamt of being back in the day. This, and the fact that the AI struggles to deal with any threat that is more than half a block away.

What a beautiful day – Let’s ruin it for every NPC we can find

Navigation is also a great deal better, with a slick minimap toggle (accessed by pressing down on the d-pad) allowing you to do a quick expand and zoom to show you more of the surrounding area. The racing-style missions of yesterday were always quick to bamboozle me by having unexpected waypoint locations – but with this godsend I could finally concentrate on driving well, instead of memorising a path. There is also a nice little suite of waypoint and GPS options to elevate your cityscape exploration, a real bonus when you rapidly need to find a Pay n’ Spray.

These changes are present across the entire suite of remastered games, and personally I feel they peak within Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Its brighter aesthetic better leverages the visual changes within the collection, and its position as an iterative sequel means that every pain point of GTA III is either long gone, or improved enough that it doesn’t weigh down your gameplay experience.

Tanks for the memories Rockstar

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It is these visuals that carry the most weight of the Definitive Edition improvements. Character models have more detail to them, textures are crisp and rendered in high definition – it’s a good look. Lighting in particular plays an important role in making the games look far more modern, particularly when you open a car door to see light spill out into the street around your feet. It’s genuinely impressive in places, which makes it all the more grating when you discover the places where it just…isn’t.

While the worlds have been polished, there is little to hide the fact that they were built over a decade ago. Careful consideration appears to have been taken with the decision to make the new aesthetic somewhat cartoony, as the lack of detail on some areas can come off as a stylistic choice, rather than a limitation of past hardware. The illusion is broken however, when you come across an area that clearly had great intentions behind it – and its current incarnation just spotlights issues that likely remained hidden in the muck and grime of yesteryear. Road intersections that don’t quite line up texture-wise, temporary props placed somewhere to restrict access to an area – they stand out like a cartoony sore thumb, and it’s really difficult to look past them.

Confusingly, there were also a number of issues that cropped up within my playthrough that were hard to place on whether it was the fault of old game code, or something new that had appeared in the ‘upgrade’ process. Missions that would not complete, or triggered events would perhaps not occur – it’s really hard trying to ambush someone who legitimately never turns up. How about defeating a wave of attackers that…never attack? The quirks raised an eyebrow, and in most cases restarting the game or deliberately failing a mission would snap things back to regular working order. The more baffling visual bugs have long since been fixed with rapid patches, however their hilarity will persist forever as memes for the truly initiated to enjoy however they please.

Name my boy band

In truth, the issues that permeated the games release often erred on the side of embarrassing, rather than entirely game breaking. I personally encountered only a handful of game-interrupting issues, and only one of them was entirely unavoidable/reproducible. It further realigned my expectations moving forward, prompting careful saving of progress and encouraged some careful planning on my part to avoid losing too much of my time to sillier bugs.  I will note, if you enter a mission marker and it does not instantly trigger – give it a second or two, for safety’s sake.

At least the narratives of the games remain uncompromised, and the voice acting and characterisation are precisely as I remember them. While it is awkward seeing these high definition models perform the awkward puppet-like animations of their low-detail ancestors, in most cases it comes off more comical than crapola. Across all three titles, the amount of story content and voiced interactions is still staggering even by today’s standard – only really challenged by something like Grand Theft Auto V in execution, for obvious reasons.

In some ways however, these stories are still a bit of a mixed bag. GTA III has a boilerplate plot of basic, mute revenge – it’s hard to critique because there is not a lot of meat on the bones, and it’s somewhat forgivable given the generation of the game. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a sprawling, oddball plot that visits so many different facets of human behaviour that again, it’s hard to properly critique – if only because the breadth of its story will offer at least SOMETHING to everyone. To me personally, San Andreas’ story was one that probably had too many beats that existed purely to fuel gameplay opportunities, and it suffered for it. But, the range of its content was a godsend for many a cross-legged kid parked in front of their PlayStation 2, so I can only imagine the real criticisms will finally come to light with the remaster.

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Then, there is Vice City.

Tommy is just taking his Uzi for a walk

The tale of Tommy Vercetti is still one that resonates well with me – the pulpy nature of its 80s crime boss rise-to-power story elevates the cartoonish brutality within the game. For some reason wearing a Hawaiian shirt is enough to take the edge off murdering someone with a chainsaw, distancing it from being needlessly edgy to instead feel like a parody of old crime action movies. The characters are interesting and interact with Tommy in believable ways, the music score is blissfully fun and tooling around the sun-kissed city never ceases to be enjoyable. If Rockstar ever manages to capture this kind of magic again, I will be amazed.

Out of all the GTA: Definitive Edition entries, Vice City wears the output of its improvements exceptionally well. I can’t quite put my finger on it – but the cartoonish proportions of the character models, the narrative beats, and the ebb and flow of 80s-era cocaine criminality manages to actually pick up what Rockstar and Grove Street Games were putting down. A big part of it may simply be the focused scope of what the game was trying to offer back in the day, as a huge improvement on what GTA III had attempted – before the scope was blown wide open, warts and all within San Andreas. While my time with the GTA: Definitive Edition has come to a close, I can absolutely see myself revisiting Vice City – and not trying to source an original copy.

While I did enjoy the experiences across all three games to varying degrees, it’s safe to say that portions of it have aged enormously badly. The original 3D era of Grand Theft Auto is a product of its time – dark, edgy tales of criminals and psychopaths and their rise to power, with the tales they tell making enough shallow sense to pass as fine, to good and maybe even great. However some smaller character beats come off as pretty gross by today’s standards. Killing an ex-lover because he might out your friend as having had a gay relationship felt deeply uncomfortable to me – even alongside the cartoonishly silly situations I would often find myself in. While I am not a front-rank advocate for changing content in games, some stuff just doesn’t feel all that salvageable, and I would argue it would not survive a proper remake of such a story.

It actually gave me pause to stop and consider the intent of these remasters. The original trilogy of games had received enough care and attention to remain playable after all these years, remaining available to purchase right up until the release of this apparently definitive option (edit: and then returning to storefronts once sufficient backlash had occurred). While the upgrades are noticeable, I questioned whether they were entirely necessary. Sure, it’s uniquely impressive to see the GTA trilogy running on a newer engine, but it comes across as a novelty. The older nature of the games’ core mechanics are still aggressively present, marginalising the more attractive veneer. At least when the games LOOKED dated, your personal expectations would be immediately tempered to expect some old school jank. In their current incarnation, I feel that many who are not established fans may see this release as putting lipstick on a pig. Maybe a proper remake would have been a true elevation of these beloved titles, a real display on what was achieved then and what the modern standard might equate to today – the option to truly see ‘then’ and ‘now’, rather than this weird stepchild of both.

As a celebration of what Rockstar achieved in ages past, these games stand as a clear example of pushing boundaries – both good and bad. To the modern player, I am concerned they do not offer a good glimpse into what joys were to be had in a time before open worlds sprawled for days in every conceivable direction, and to the long time fans I also lament that they perhaps do not let you relive that same joy you try to recall.

Except Vice City. Vice City is eternal.

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Sometimes the road less travelled aint a road at all

Final Thoughts

As the lines between remaster and remake are blurred and both options constantly redefined, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition manages to approach both and not quite nail either. While they may sate some open-world craving for chaos, it’s a trip down memory lane that feels disappointingly short-lived.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review
Not So Grand
A disappointing revisit to something fondly remembered, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition struggles to remind you of what made these games so memorable in the first place.
The Good
The original chaos simulators are back
The games can look downright pretty at times
Soundtracks are as epic as ever
Tommy Vercetti will always be incredible
The Bad
Older game mechanics can be abrasive and endlessly frustrating
The games can look downright questionable at times
Lacks the expected high standard of polish you’d expect from a Rockstar title
Some narrative elements and jokes have aged terribly
Probably warranted a more extensive remake, rather than a simple remaster
5.5
Glass Half Full
  • Rockstar Games, Grove Street Games
  • Rockstar Games
  • Xbox Series X and Series S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Android, Microsoft Windows, iOS
  • November 11, 2021

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review
Not So Grand
A disappointing revisit to something fondly remembered, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition struggles to remind you of what made these games so memorable in the first place.
The Good
The original chaos simulators are back
The games can look downright pretty at times
Soundtracks are as epic as ever
Tommy Vercetti will always be incredible
The Bad
Older game mechanics can be abrasive and endlessly frustrating
The games can look downright questionable at times
Lacks the expected high standard of polish you’d expect from a Rockstar title
Some narrative elements and jokes have aged terribly
Probably warranted a more extensive remake, rather than a simple remaster
5.5
Glass Half Full
Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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