It has been 20 years since Grand Theft Auto III released… that’s 3 console generations ago, and 1 actual people generation too. What proved to be a watershed moment in the development of interactive story telling, open world design and all star casting, it’s a game that truly is worthy of the term “genre defining”. Not content with blowing away gamers with that gem, Rockstar released the follow up Vice City only 12 months down the line. It wasn’t a quick cash grab either and the logistics of developing and releasing that quickly beggars belief. Yet they were going to top it 2 years later with San Andreas which was a huge step on. All three titles have gone down in the history of gaming as some of the finest examples of world building and characterisation, as well as being phenomenally successful, and continue to be popular across the new hardware they’ve been ported to. Now it’s time for Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition to appear on the current and next gen machines with visual updates and quality of life improvements, but will that be enough to entice in players again, or are they going to be creaking a little with age?
I’ve not touched any of these games since their releases on the PS2, and 2005 was the last time I played San Andreas when I 100% completed it during a period I should have been writing a thesis and couldn’t work up the motivation. Exploring the cities, revelling in the crazy characters and just straight up causing mayhem was a wonderful antidote to a lot of games that were churned out at the time, and each of these instalments has a special place in my heart. It’s with a bit of trepidation then that I started playing all of them again, and not just because I’ve wondered if they could hold up. We can’t ignore the level of negative press surrounding Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition’s release, largely coming from the PC community where they’ve been complaining about the stability and quality of each, and the Rockstar Launcher having them inaccessible due to issues. At a lower volume, the console fan base has been critical of what’s been delivered by Grove Street Games, and many are not happy with a couple of the design decisions and the execution of the titles. If you’re expecting to read more about how “Rockstar have ruined my memories” then you’ll not get it here. There are a couple of issues with each of the games which I’m not ignoring, but there’s absolutely nothing that prevents them from being played (in my time with them at least). In fact, these are probably the most playable versions of each title that you’ll ever get your hands on.
Rather than treat this as a review of the individual games – that’s been done countless times over the years – replaying each feels more like examining them as a retrospective, yet through the lens of upscaled and higher performing versions. Each title in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy has been treated to a 4K makeover with updates to textures, character models, lighting effects, reflections and weather, though has kept the animations, voice acting and direction of the original versions. It’s a little bit like saying they’ve been reskinned with a prettier version, and if it’s next gen hardware, one that runs at a faster framerate too. Aside from the visual upgrades, there’s a reworking of the controls so that they play much more like GTA IV and GTA V do, especially with the weapon wheel selection and driving. That’s not say it feels like playing one of the newer games, and for those that really do want to experience the traditional games there are the options to switch control schemes and aiming back to the classic modes. In fact, I’d recommend it with the aiming at least because even though the gunplay gets refined over the course of the stories, they’re clearly not modern day third person shooters. With a change to the in-game map to place waypoints, that’s about it in terms of alterations. These are remasters, but with a very clear remit on not changing what the games were, or trying to modernise them too much.
What’s interesting when playing Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition in sequence is just how well crafted “III” was, and that it’s also the one that benefits the most from the tweaks. Experiencing Claude’s adventures in Liberty City is as engaging as it ever was, and even though some of the missions are a bit clunky, it’s surprising how well it holds up. Without a doubt the story helps move things along, and the authenticity brought with the likes of Michael Madsen, Joe Pantaliano and Michael Rappaport appearing in the first hour, it sets you off thinking just how groundbreaking this was in 2001. It’s a bit like coming home for returning players, with everything where it should be. Driving a car with a body in the trunk that gets revealed when the boot pops open shouldn’t be a moment to bring a smile to your face, but here it is as you remember that very few games had that type of detail in them before GTA III. For new visitors it might seem a bit sparsely populated with not a great deal to get sidetracked with, yet it still manages to make the map footprint count as it embeds that diverging/converging mission structure that lets players decide who to do missions for, before funnelling them down a main story progression route. Watch out for the roaming gangs though, they are absolutely brutal.
Vice City brings not only a change in location, but a change in time period that’s still regarded as one of the best in videogame history. Maybe it’s because we saw enough of Liberty City in the spin off games, and Los Santos was well covered in the generation spanning GTA V, that Vice City comes across as the most exotic of the bunch. Amongst the Codec Moments team it’s the one that we’ve wanted to play the most, and it’s telling that it’s also the only one that can’t be played in Definitive Edition form outside buying the full Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy. Tommy Vercetti’s rise from footsoldier to kingpin of a faux Miami is one of the greatest stories in the whole series, and balances the seriousness of warring crime factions against the ridiculous excess of the 80’s. The variation of missions and the wonderful characterisations make for a memorable game, and you never forget the likes of Lovefist (fronted by Kevin McKidd), Avery Carrington (the great Burt Reynolds), and Steve Scott (Dennis Hopper absolutely giving it his all). It’s well documented that Ray Liotta didn’t realise exactly what he was getting in to, and ended up asking for a bigger salary after the fact, and it’s clear that his performance is absolutely one of the draws of the game. That, and Danny Trejo of course… What you get here is a shinier, crisper version that rarely disappoints and is as compelling as it was back in 2002.
On to what was arguably the biggest surprise for gamers, and the moment that possibly defined Rockstar’s approach to future game development, GTA: San Andreas. A monster of a game from 2004 that amped up every element available, and pushed the hardware to the limits of their potential. It also brings the most intimate story to the series as well with the hero CJ simply wanting the best for his family whilst being cruelly framed and manipulated by the nefarious Officer Tenpenny (Samuel L. Jackson). Lampooing L.A. this time, the focus moved to putting us in the shoes of ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances and making the best of it for themselves, then killing everyone else to get to the top. It’s almost night and day between Vice City and San Andreas in terms of story telling and content with the latter going for longer cutscenes, more establishing motives, and a tonne more missions, characters and activities. Bringing in RPG mechanics altered the way you could play and drove fairly deep customisation options for a single player game. Then there’s the map moving away from locked off islands and giving you the run of a full state that encompassed three cities. Whilst we’ve seen the level of detail increase in subsequent titles, I don’t think we’ve seen the scale of ambition of San Andreas be beaten. For me it’s the best game in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy if only because it’s so brazen in its attempt to do everything.
Central to all three games are the themes of betrayal, greed and revenge, and because they’re presented from different viewpoints with wildly changing circumstances, they don’t feel repetitive – either against each other, or within their own runtime. They’re classic examples of building on solid foundations and bringing new pieces to every instalment that will surprise and delight. Just the shift to 3D in the GTA III was enough over the original games; adding property ownership and specific missions in Vice City made it feel more like an empire being built; and then gang warfare and territory ownership across San Andreas brought home becoming a true kingpin. Every other enhancement and improvement had been evaluated to whether it adds any depth to the gameplay, and in pretty much all instances they prove to be successful. With the exception of maybe a handful of missions across all the games there’s no real frustration, and that’s in a time where checkpointing wasn’t really a thing – you had to complete it or start all over again. Here, there is an inclusion of the option to restart a failed mission, so it cuts down the time of old spent reacquiring weapons after getting wasted or busted, but doesn’t remove the need to get things right to continue. That’s not to say these games are hard, they’re products of their time and so difficulty is balanced accordingly, and adjusting to that takes no time at all. If you’re looking for things missing, then the only area affected there is the soundtrack where licensing gets in the way. There aren’t many tracks omitted, and gameplay specific ones are fully intact, and fortunately the brilliantly subversive talk radio is present and correct. Resplendent with both their gritty drama and limit pushing crude humour, there’s lots to love in these games, and surprisingly they still have poignant social commentary. I can’t work out if it’s a very forwarding thinking view of where our sensibilities were heading, or if it’s simply we’re very slow as a global community to change. Even with technological advances and global reactions to pandemics that the developers wouldn’t have known about, the discourse is still insightful and relevant.
So what effect do the visual enhancements have on Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy? The way I see it is that it makes the games look like they were in my memory. The ropey textures, wonky shadows, jagged edges – all that has been smoothed away in my mind over the last 20 years, and so I think I’d be disappointed if I booted up one of them now on a PS2. Playing on the PS5 with the fidelity mode puts a 30 fps cap on the movement, runs at 4K and deliveries what my brain thinks are the same games. It’s this strange overlaying of remembered gameplay and new presentation that has given me a powerful nostalgia trip, yet let me enjoy them all over again. Retro gaming isn’t something I go in for because I’m always a bit let down by how what I played ages ago doesn’t “feel” the same. This does, and it really is meant as a compliment to the work done. Every now and then I spot something that I know is new and it pulls me out of that reminiscing haze, like interior car lights illuminating the road if a door swings open whilst driving, or objects reflecting in the paintwork; though by and large it’s all pretty seamless. Sure, it’s not perfect and there’s still things that pop in whilst moving at speed, and looking to the horizon whilst flying shows the edges of the game world instead of fog, but the decision to go for the visual style they have works for me, and clearly for them by reusing the huge amount of animation and dialogue. Pro tip for PS players: switching to performance mode simply removes the 30 fps cap – you’ll lose none of the fancy visual effects or resolution, and it runs at 60 fps pretty much all the time (drops are minimal and won’t impact gameplay either).
What I would say if you’re considering buying into Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition is take a moment to consider whether you’d get enraged by someone missing updating a few pixels of detail here and there. Or will have palpitations if an AI upscaler made a spelling mistake on an asset that you’re not likely to even see. Or the lack of smog in Los Santos would make your temples throb. If you relate to any of those then don’t get it, you’ll only shorten your life by stressing about things that don’t matter. However, if you enjoyed any of the games on their original release you’re pretty much guaranteed to have fun with a replay. If you weren’t old enough to play them at the time or they’ve passed you by, this is the perfect opportunity to find out why they are so highly regarded. You can’t hide the fact that the price is a little steep, and that they can’t be bought individually, so the thrifty may want to wait for a physical or digital sale, but disposable income is about the only reason to not take these for a spin. It’d be criminal not to.
A PS5 review copy of the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition was provided by Rockstar’s PR team, and the games are available now on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC and Switch digitally for around £55, and will be coming to retail on the 7th December 2021.
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