Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition feels half-baked and under-executed. It’s currently getting review bombed on Metacritic, in part because it had to be pulled from the PC Rockstar Launcher as a result of including the “hot coffee” files that were taken out of San Andreas in 2005. Full of bugs and absent meaningful updates, these up-ressed ports are a poor representation of games as a medium and Grand Theft Auto as a franchise.
For the longest time, I’ve had a real problem with the recurring re-release of Grand Theft Auto V because it shows a lack of creativity and ingenuity from two game development companies that pride themselves on their creativity. But I’ve found a positive value: it isn’t necessarily true that everyone who wants to play these games has. If, when these games were originally released, you were too young to play them, or you weren’t born yet, this could be a completely novel experience. But this package is not the optimal version of this experience.
The obvious problem, which was clear in promotional materials, is visual. You eat with your eyes, and this collection’s outdated look contributes to its stale feeling. There is still drop-in for buildings and your character can walk through open car doors. It looks and feels old, and not in a charming way. There are contemporary games that use old-school art styles for constructive purposes; indie roguelike Children of Morta and action platformer Katana Zero use their aesthetic to impart something crucial about the environment’s tone. With the GTA Trilogy, it just feels like playing old games on new technology.
While San Andreas is appropriately lit, if you don’t turn the brightness way up and contrast way down for GTA III and Vice City, the games seem needlessly dark. It feels like the choice was made to poorly light things so that the game could hide its graphics, but that seems contradictory to choosing this art direction instead of updating it.
There are things that seemed immersive in the early aughts that look silly now; like a parking garage that has arrows painted on the ground to direct where to drive but no lines for the cars to park in, so they all look like they’re parked in the middle of an underground street. It shows a lack of attention to detail, or a confusion of purpose. It feels like a rush job no one demanded.
The way the women characters walk is embarrassing to watch. The way the cars handle might be better than it used to be, but your character can still walk through open doors. It’s impossible not to compare GTA: The Trilogy—The Definitive Edition to its studio contemporaries, and it does not come across favorably.
The cars handle better than they used to in GTA III, seemingly worse in Vice City, and about the same in San Andreas. They all still crumple easily. If you’ve only ever played the games made in the RAGE engine, this will be looser than you’re used to. If you don’t like the driving or shooting in GTA IV or V, you’re not going to like this either, because it’s markedly worse, as if it were designed in 2001, 2002, or 2004, with the limitations of that time’s technology, as if the games had just been dragged from the past and dropped onto today’s systems without any transformative upgrades.
San Andreas had the best shooting of the series when it came out, and it’s still the best of this trilogy, though the auto-aim is worse than it used to be. San Andreas originally had a precise reticle that shows the target’s health lowering—similar in feeling, if different in look than what we have in GTA IV and GTA V. Now, all three games use a highlighter outline for enemies with a generic round target that is supposed to evoke IV and V but doesn’t react to recoil or provide information in the same way.
Enemy combatants—cops and rival gang members—seem to be bullet sponges with bad tactical AI. I’ve bumped into a cop car and gotten no wanted stars. I’ve gunned down a gang member in front of his friends and gotten no response. If it was always like this, that further proves The Trilogy should have been improved to today’s standard.
There still isn’t at-will saving (you have to go to a safe house save point), but there is an autosave feature enabled. On Xbox Series X, the Trilogy also takes advantage of Quick Resume.
There are a few quality of life/general gameplay improvements. The textures on buildings and cars are prettier, the faces are a bit more detailed, the audio quality is also a little nicer, though it sounds to me like it’s more improved on the radio than in the regular game dialog. There aren’t any new songs or radio stations, but the ever faithful likes of Lazlo on Chatterbox and Maurice on WCPR remain alongside most of the original remarkable licensed soundtracks.
The menu is clean though the accessibility options are limited to text size and language selection.
Some of the new features don’t seem to work properly. If I’m chasing a guy down an alley on a motorbike, why would the GPS tell me to go to a main street out of the way to catch up to him when I’m right behind him?
Within my first three hours of Vice City, I had the GPS twice lock onto the first objective of a mission when I had proceeded to the second objective. I’ve had the game freeze but allow me access to the menu. I’ve had mouths stop moving in cutscenes; I’ve had dialog drop out of cutscenes. I had a weird dot of light on top of a building I was running on that acted as a solid pillar I could not move through.
The more time I spend with this project, the more convinced I am that it wasn’t necessary. It feels wrong. People were already crafting mods to update these games to current specs. Instead of shutting those projects down, Rockstar could have hired those modders and incorporated their work. Have you seen the “Vice City Remastered” mod for GTA V? It looks way better than The Definitive Edition. It’s beautiful.
The shock and novelty that each of these games originally brought forth can’t be replicated because they’ve been surpassed within the franchise. Seeing a broken remaster of old GTA games makes it easier to understand why they’ve always drawn ire by highlighting their crudeness and vulgarity. Without the top-notch execution and groundbreaking design that made these games a problematic fave when they came out, they’re just problematic. And since most triple-A studios have long since incorporated parts of what made these games so interesting, this package is easy to skip. I’ve felt a need to revisit the trilogy on PS2, or play GTA V on PS3, either of which are superior experiences.
The question a remaster answers is “what would this game look like with modern technology,” and especially in GTA, “what would this place look like with modern technology?” However, we more or less know the answer to that already. Grand Theft Auto IV gave us a high-res Liberty City that looked more like New York than the northeast/Midwest amalgam of GTA III. The Los Santos of GTA V much more closely interprets Los Angeles than San Andreas.
On the other hand, the games are still in circulation for old consoles that you can still get online for not that much money. More to the point, they were still available on online stores before being pulled down to make way for these new versions. So, as far as an archival project to hold onto gaming history, this isn’t exactly necessary either. There’s just a matter of enforced artificial scarcity.
I’ve seen this collection referred to as “unfinished,” and I suppose that’s technically true as far as bug testing goes. But I think Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy—Definitive Edition basically accomplished what it set out to do: bring the 3D Universe GTA trilogy to ninth generation consoles. I just don’t think there was sufficient desire to bring those games to today’s consoles well.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.