Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition Review – Heist Expectations Not Met

My fellow GTA fans must be feeling like the “What Year Is It?” Jumanji meme today. Firstly, because it’s like we’re all laying virginal eyes on the cities of Liberty, Vice and the grand state of San Andreas again. Secondly, because these three iconic games seem to be hot button topics once more. Controversy, it seems, doesn’t have a used-by-date.

Fortunately, what’s being energetically debated isn’t too big a deal – nobody’s thinking of the children and yanking this Definitive Edition from store shelves. A hacker hasn’t discovered a Hot Coffee 2.0. [Edit: hilariously, this has come to pass since publishing the original in-progress review – Rockstar has reuploaded a sanitized version to servers]

GTA VC

That said, everybody seems to have a fiery opinion on a few other things. The rights of unofficial, currently being litigated modders is one. What’s to be visually and aurally expected from a “definitive” product being the other.

Frankly, we’re just going to have let the Ken Rosenbergs of the world figure out the former in court. I’d much rather spend what little space I have today dissecting the latter. More specifically: you’re getting an honest, opening hours appraisal from a middle-aged-cheese who lived and breathed these titles on day of release.

Grand Theft Auto III Definitive Edition

Straight off the (practically useless melee weapon that is the) bat, I can admit to feeling a sandbox load-in “wow” moment. 2001-me would’ve never dared to hope for this sort of to-the-horizon draw distance, object crispness, readable sign textures, dynamic lighting or frames per second.

If you gave him that back then, it’d be like handing fairy floss to a caveman. His mind would have exploded.

This will be taken for granted and lost on you younger gaming brethren, but watching stuff reflect off the duco of one’s Banshee is way more impressive than it should be. Grove Street Games has also massaged in some extra polygons here and there to make the car models less boxier than I recall. Don’t expect too much from that statement. I’m talking small degrees. Like transitioning from 1980s DUPLO to a modern LEGO set.

Like that first inhale of SPANK, I became hooked on the admittedly simplistic campaign of being a voiceless (and at the time nameless) criminal errand boy. While it’d be weird to call this “My First Mob Job” experience quaint, that’s exactly what it feels like now. Mission difficulty and complexity is low, to the point where over half the game feels like an extended tutorial mission.

Part of that is due to a lack of modern systems, though GSG has made a valiant effort to update that old, borderline unusable aiming system. You’re now getting a weapon wheel that slows time to allow tactical gun swaps, lock on aiming with better target outlining and free/strafe aiming that’s like a rudimentary version of how GTA V gets down. The downside: some heavy weapons still arbitrarily root you to the ground and throw you into a gun-less first-person mode.

While we’re on cameras: it feels amazing to have San Andreas-like free cam as you’re driving around Liberty. GTA III had this bloody awful “press a shoulder to look 90 degrees” solution that’s now gone the way of the dodo. (Note: I’m not referencing The Dodo here – that piece of crap, non-flying plane still features.)

GTA III

Is combat and driving vastly improved? Absolutely. Is it frustration free? Certainly not. Weapons are still incredibly short range, they sound like coughing typewriters, you have to tactically reload them by awkwardly flicking about the weapon wheel and “directional” drive-bys require a press of a face button. I’m still having way more fun than the OG version, but absolute newbies to these games had best curb their enthusiasm. There’s still some residual jank to forgive.

This is particularly true in the frame rate stakes (on PS5 at least). Early on, I had to swap from Fidelity to Performance mode to escape some jarring hitches. Even then I wasn’t free of the occasional chug when the screen was (literally) exploding in a heated car race, vigilante mission or desperate five star last stand.

GTA III

All of that — along with the odd floating car glitch — is pretty isolated, intermittent stuff that won’t really impede your grand thieving or autoing. However, GTG’s “new and enhanced” rain effect probably will — it’s distracting and sometimes clips weirdly through covered areas. Patch, please.

Last but not least, I would like to praise be to the person who thought to shoehorn a map into the pause screen. Back in the day, we had to unfold a physical paper one. Like some sort of clueless, Clark Griswold tourist.

GTA: Vice City Definitive Edition

Vice City is the entry in this trilogy that I have the fondest memories of. That lush, neon soaked ’80s aesthetic, the brilliant soundtrack, helis, motorcycles and an actual voiced protagonist (!!!) who waded into sexy, Scarface-esque adventures.

Mercifully, the look and feel of the era in question has not only been preserved, but chromatically enhanced. I love that GSG has gone a little nuts with the coloured lighting – cars, streets and peds wearing just as garishly coloured clothing get bathed in hot pinks and electric blues. But, once again, those low-level frame rate issues persist (though definitely not as bad as it is in GTA III).

GTA VC

Vice City is also noticeably more cutscene heavy compared to the previous title, which serves to bring these “improved” player models into more regular and closer proximity. Honestly, the results are pretty up and down. While polys have been added and textures have been improved – most notably in the now-fingered hands and slightly more expressive faces – more work was needed.

It’s also obvious that not all digital actors were recreated equal here. Main characters and secondary mission-giving folk look ok, albeit cartoonish – kinda like a bunch of Disney Infinity figurines come to life with criminal intent. However, the faces of tertiary characters, scene extras and peds can look like they’ve been run through some sort of Mii updater algorithm.

GTA VC

Interestingly, while old details can be depressingly lost on the textures wrapped around humanoids, a lot of the store signs look sharp as hell, but probably shouldn’t be. Now that we can actually read stuff, a number of typos are clear as day. The fact that they’re mostly in Comic Sans doesn’t really add much to the visual feast either.

Here’s a loose list of some other random things I took note of. Vice City is a larger playspace, so the trilogy-wide inclusion of a “restart mission” function saves a lot of backtracking hassle. I had a false memory that Tommy could swim a little – he (and Claude Speed) really, really can’t. So don’t get your hopes up there.

GTA VC

Basically, the biggest stand out thing for me is the alterations to the soundtrack. I’ve played the mobile versions and endured some painful cuts already, but it’s sad to know that my hope for the reinstatement of some key tracks has been in vain. Which piece of music you’ll miss is going to be subjective. But yeah, I think we can all agree that this package loses something iconic with the removal of Michael Jackson’s work.

Before we move on, I should say that I hit a number of weird bugs on the mean streets of VC. Genuinely amusing stuff like AI cars accelerating to ludicrous speeds, and one time a poor ped spawned inside a bridge instead of on top of it. Nothing truly game-breaking, but it sure wasn’t immersion-enhancing.

GTA: SAN ANDREAS DEFINITIVE EDITION

Let me be clear on this from the outset, the off the beaten track / wilderness areas in San Andreas Definitive look pretty amazing. Rockstar has done a noticeable amount of work on the old trees and lower lying vegetations. That aforementioned increase in draw distance can be fully appreciated so much more outside of those urban box factories.

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Some other things I immediately appreciated include the GTA V-style drive-by targeting. It’s a shame that GTA III and Vice City don’t share in said upgrade, though I daresay it’d be so effective in those games it’d destroy all challenge.

GTA SA

In no time at all, I renewed my vows and fell in love with the Boyz n the Hood love letter that is CJ’s story. Since playing this as an adolescent, I’ve managed to visit LA a bunch of times and now have a better appreciation of the tone Rockstar managed to capture in its Los Santos.

It’s great to get back to some RPG-lite elements that really should have featured in every subsequent sequel. Being able to get buff in the gym (or big-boned in your local Cluckin’ Bell) is such a cool little cosmetic wrinkle.

GTA SA

Much like it happened 17 years ago, I got fully invested in the Respect system that gives you prop boosts based on your hairstyle, tattoos and clothing. I also caught myself going out of my way to be rolling in a self-modified whip that boosts sex appeal stat. A player’s gotta play, after all.

Mind you, after meeting one of CJ’s early prospective girlfriends – Denise Robinson– I felt less than amorous. Sadly, she’s become a victim of the aforementioned “tertiary characters neglect”. Her endearing, bad-ass bitch style has been replaced by a bug-eyed, expression lacking stranger. Heart container: broken.

GA SA

As for downsides, there are a few. I don’t know who pulled the wrong lever during this reissuing, but for some reason the actor characters in a cutscene can get run over or beaten up by marauding AI who are not in the scene. It happened to me once, and caused a mission fail. I’ve also had mates comment on similar incidents as well.

THE PACKAGE SUMMED UP

I’m a diehard fan of the GTA series, but I’m of two minds about this up and down port to the Unreal 4 Engine. The initial wow-factor of the visual upgrade is undeniable, but the more you play it, the more cracks appear in that pretty veneer. Some of those are legacy fissures that have not been repaired. Others are eyesore imperfections wrought by a new team of less-than-master craftspeople.

Make no mistake: every game in this package remains a touchstone moment in gaming. These are time capsules which deserve to be experienced by a new audience, and I still think there’s more than enough merit for an open-minded modern gamer to do so. Likewise, they should obviously be revisited by older fans who yearn for a version that plays and looks like what they remember (or rather the visuals their brains half-filled in with imagination). There are reasons why these masterpieces were money-earning behemoths on the best-selling console gaming ever saw (PS2). Those reasons mostly persist in Definitive Edition, despite it being a tepid celebration of yesteryear.

If you do partake, know that you’ll have fun while also being nagged by a thought more persistent than any 6-star level SWAT team — this could have been done better. These GTAs not getting the full reverence they’re owed, ultimately, feels a little criminal

THE PS5 VERSION OF THIS GAME HAS BEEN TESTED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW.
Conclusion
I’m a diehard fan of the GTA series, but I’m of two minds about this up and down port to the Unreal 4 Engine. The initial wow-factor of the visual upgrade is undeniable, but the more you play it, the more cracks appear in that pretty veneer. Some of those are legacy fissures that have not been repaired. Others are eyesore imperfections wrought by a new team of less-than-master craftspeople.
Positives
Visual upgrades are (mostly) appreciated
Refreshed controls make this way more replayable
Tons of content for the asking price
Vice City’s soundtrack is boss
Negatives
Character model faces are hit and miss
Frame rate is slippy when you’re under duress
Old bugs persist as newer ones emerge
Those minor soundtrack chops cut deep
6.5
The Cheapest Copy

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