Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition Review – Great games that deserve a well-crafted remaster, but this isn’t it

It may not seem like it now, but when the original Grand Theft Auto III hit the PlayStation 2 the gaming world changed. Never before had we seen such a wide, open world, chock full of ridiculous things to do and see, and never before had we seen so much adult content packed into a game. It felt almost criminal to play GTA III like you were participating in something you shouldn’t be, but at the same time, it was incredibly fun.

Sure, looking back at the original now the cracks begin to show. The games’ controls are antiquated at best, the graphics – while serviceable – are pretty rough, and the gameplay – while imaginative – can become frustrating at parts. A remaster has been needed for a long time to bring GTA III back to life. There’s always been a great game hiding beneath the clunky controls and blocky graphics; a remaster was just what was necessary to keep the experience fresh. But this remaster isn’t it.

The same can be said about both Vice City and San Andreas. While both were arguably better than the original, they each have seen the years wear down their once shiny exteriors. So does Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition bring these three classic games into the modern age? Well, technically the answer is yes, but it’s too bad that Rockstar chose to simply remaster these games, and I’m using that term forgivingly, instead of completely remaking these classics. Depending on the system you are playing on the game may range anywhere from a slightly better looking collection of these games than previously available or outright not working at all.

Graphics, while upscaled and smoothed out around the edges, are still basic – especially with characters and NPCs, with GTA III being the worst culprit. The backgrounds and environment fare much better than the characters do, but overall the graphics are disappointing since players will definitely expect more of a visual overhaul than what they have been given. I’ve been reviewing on a PS5, but my co-reviewer is on Nintendo Switch and experiencing a host of graphical and frame rate issues, which I’ll allow him to explain in his section of this review.

That said, there are a few across the board improvements including one-button access to a weapon wheel and a radio wheel, GTA IV inspired controller layout, an updated mini-map which now allows you to place waypoints, and the ability to instantly restart failed missions – which saves a ton of time and prevents frustration, especially during the more challenging missions. There are also a few console-specific improvements, such as 4K resolution support and up to 60 FPS on the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, NVIDIA DLSS support on PC, and touch screen camera zooming and gyro aiming on the Nintendo Switch.

Of course, that is if you can get the games to launch at all. I’d like to state that I encountered no game-breaking bugs, slowdown, or other issues that players have on other consoles or PC, but I am reviewing from the PS5 version of the game, while my co-reviewer, David, had a completely different experience on the Nintendo Switch..

Let’s look at the games one at a time:

Grand Theft Auto 3:

GTA III is what started it all, and the first game that I tackled. Taking on the role of a small-time crook double-timed by his girlfriend, you play a character with no name or dialogue that gets arrested, freed, and then begins to earn a reputation in Liberty City by taking care of odd jobs for various mob bosses.

As soon as the game begins you can see the difference. The lighting is miles beyond what the original was capable of, creating a much better dynamic to the night and day cycle and helping to flesh out the rough edges of the graphics. The graphics, while still a bit blocky in nature, are smoothed out and are more vibrant, especially in the background and environment. Characters still look cartoonish and have very little detail, with many characters looking like their features were just drawn on with no depth. You’re not going to see an upgrade here like we did with Bluepoint’s remake of Demon’s Souls, but the HD upscaling certainly helps the game not feel as old as it actually is.

The missions are still fun, the voice acting – at least from the main cast – is better than expected, and the variety of things to do is still impressive. I was disappointed at the lack of buildings you can enter, especially after playing the more recent entries in the long-running series. This is just due to my nostalgia forgetting about how much I can and cannot do in Liberty City, rather than a fault of the game itself. Having a massive world is impressive on its own for the time that the game was released, I’m not sure why I falsely remembered being able to enter many of the various places I passed aside from ammunition shops, car shops, etc.

Shooting, in particular, has had an upgrade from the original and feels much more natural. You aim and shoot from a third-person perspective and the game has auto lock-on options which help with the more frantic shootouts. Melee is still a bit clunky but occurs so rarely it’s not really an issue.

The cars control better and still have a surprising amount of variety in differences between how they handle. After all, GTA is about the cars, and choosing the right car for your mission is still essential, although now picking up a clunkier car for a fast-paced mission doesn’t necessarily mean failure, as in general all cars are easier to control. The real hardships come from attempting to dodge all the traffic and pedestrians literally everywhere you go.

Overall, GTA III is still chaotic and hilarious. Simple missions can quickly turn to all-out chaos as cops chase you, cars explode, pedestrians scream, and gang members open fire. The amount of destruction, car damage, and world damage is impressive for a game of this age and frankly puts many newer games to shame. That said, this is basically just an upscaled HD version of the game, with little effort put into doing much else to bring the game into the modern age. GTA III works essentially just because the game is still fun despite this.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City:

Vice City’s aesthetic made it stand out nearly twenty years ago and does the same today. Set in   Liberty City in 1986, you play as Tommy Verceti, a small-time crook caught in a bad deal that leaves his friends dead and him owing money to Sonny, a ruthless criminal. Tommy takes on odd jobs with various powerful members of the city in hopes of finding those who attacked him and getting back his money.

While still not the modern update that the game deserves, Vice City has much better animation than GTA III. Facial features are a bit better, although the bodies are still extremely blocky and rough around the edges. Coming from the drab environments of GTA III, Vice City is far more interesting to look at. The environments are slightly better looking than III, but still lack detail, with back allies and many areas feeling barren. That said, many buildings now have more detail in their windows, helping the world feel a bit more lived in. The game is at its best when you’re in the middle of the city at night surrounded by neon lights. The world feels slightly more alive than III, as there are far more pedestrians and the people are a bit more detailed and move slightly more realistically. Of course, any of the NPCs, when under close scrutiny, certainly show their age.

Vice City Immediately feels far more open than GTA III. The game is more story-focused, featuring longer cutscenes, a more fleshed-out storyline, and more dialogue. This time around you play as a character with a personality of their own who actually speaks, a welcome change from the silent protagonist in III. 

For the time period that this game was released, it was incredibly ambitious. You can ride almost any vehicle you encounter: motorcycles, cars, scooters, boats, golf carts, etc. You now have the ability to change your clothes, and often do to fit in with the mission you are currently attempting and now you can purchase property to make a passive income.

For all of its ambition, Vice City still has problems. While there is a ton of variety in the missions, you’ll also hit a few duds like the relatively early mission involving flying a helicopter drone, which is more frustrating than fun. Like GTA III, nearly every aspect of the gameplay has been overhauled for a more user-friendly experience, but the game still has its share of issues, including a weird lack of sound in many instances despite what is occurring on the screen.

I enjoy Vice City and replaying it was a fun nostalgia trip — even if by today’s standards some of the missions and structure are dated.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas:

San Andreas has long been considered the Grand Theft Auto poster child for what the series can be. Beloved by most gamers, San Andreas took what fans loved about GTA III and Vice City and created the most ambitious open-world game ever (at least when it was released). Set in Liberty City in 1992, players take the reins of the most fleshed-out character yet, CJ, as he moves back to his old home after the death of his mother and becomes intertwined in a war between gangs.

Dealing with racism, gang war, cop abuse, and poverty, San Andreas showed us a different side to Liberty City. Far from the flashy lights of Vice City or the rich lifestyles of mob bosses in GTA III, San Andreas instead focused on a group of friends who functioned more as a family, as they fought to reclaim their home.

Take everything I spoke about with the previous entries and multiply it by ten, and you start to get a picture of what San Andreas has in store for you. Far more ambitious than even Vice City, San Andreas throws people into a fully fleshed-out playground with a ton of options to kill time with if you get tired of the basic game structure. San Andreas also introduced RPG-like mechanics that affect your respect, stamina, muscle, fat, and sex appeal meters, meaning nearly everything you do in-game rewards or punishes you.

For the time it was released, this game was a revelation. Eat too much and become fat, avoid food and become too weak to accomplish goals. Ride your bike a lot and gain muscle, leading to more stamina and the ability to ride faster. Get a fresh haircut and raise your sex appeal. Complete missions and cover up graffiti tags to earn respect, which in turn allows you to recruit more gang members to your side. By today’s standards, it may seem simple, but this game blew many people’s minds upon release.

Compared to the vibrant neon glow of Vice City, San Andreas provides a much more drab environment to explore, but with better details, especially in grass and trees. Character models are about on par with Vice City, with a few looking worse somehow. The blockiness from the previous entry is on full display here, with little detail in the clothes or faces to help offset the unrealistic body proportions.

Gripes about lack of updates aside, San Andreas is still enjoyable, although maybe not the revelation it once was and is almost overwhelmingly bleak due to its constant gang war struggle.

David’s Thoughts:

So I’ve never played a GTA game. Sure, I’ve loved Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, but Rockstar’s more modern setting hasn’t really appealed to me before. With the release of the remastered PS2 trilogy, I figured this was a good time to give it a shot. This was a poor decision. I expected some jank going in, they’re old games after all, but on Switch at least I would have expected as big a company as Rockstar to put in a modicum of effort or care in re-releasing these classic games.

I spent most of my time in San Andreas, but let’s talk about III and Vice City first. Grand Theft Auto III probably fared the best out of these simple upscales. The new lighting looks decent, but it’s still far too oversaturated than I would like or expect. This saturation actually works a bit better in Vice City given the aesthetic it’s going for — however, it still feels overpowering. As you’ll see in all three games, performance is absolutely horrendous. With bloom on, frame rates seem to never get anywhere near the presumed 30 fps target. With it off, well, it’s a little better, but not by much, so expect to be sub 20 at all times. Since these games take place in big cities, for the most part get used to wildly varying performance.

San Andreas probably has the best performance out of the three, but it’s far and away from the most glitchy. In cutscenes, sometimes CJ just has his eyes closed the whole time or, more horrifyingly, an NPC might make wild gestures with freakishly long fingers. It’s clear that not a whole lot of effort went into these “Definitive Editions” visually; only the lighting seems to have improved, at least in a vacuum, and textures appear to simply be AI upscales of their original counterparts. The normally gorgeous, 2D art in loading screens look pixelated and menus would feel more at home in a cheap mobile game than a big console release.

While I have a lot of complaints about these releases, I can’t say I didn’t have fun playing them. The controls can feel clunky and driving feels like piloting a brick around street corners, but being thrown into all these wacky scenarios is simply enjoyable. I definitely want to go back and experience these games at some point, but this is for sure not the way I would want to do that.

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Richard Allen is a freelance writer and contributing editor for various publications. While he enjoys modern gaming, he is a retro gamer at heart, having been raised on a steady diet of Contra, Mario, and Dragon's Lair.  Chat with him via @thricetheartist on Twitter.

David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.



Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition

Review Guidelines

The Grand Theft Auto series will always be seen as a cultural milestone in video gaming which led to the open world games that we cherish now, but the years have been a bit harsh on the trilogy and the complete lack of care put into what is essentially an afterthought of a remaster doesn’t help matters much. The few updates made with controls, shooting, and lighting are nice, but not enough to justify the $60 price tag. The games are still worth revisiting, especially if you’ve never played the original releases, but only if you aren’t playing on PC or the Switch as those versions seem to share the bulk of issues the game is currently experiencing. So far PS5 is the way to go for a hassle-free trip into Liberty City, just maybe wait for a price cut first.

Richard Allen and David Flynn

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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