I’ll be frank. Given the obscene amounts of money the series pulls in, the state in which the recently released Grand Theft Auto – The Trilogy: The Definitive Edition is embarrassing. What should have been a high definition home run of the three titles that defined both GTA and the fate of open-world sandbox titles has been a disastrous blight since launch. You’ve seen the GIFs, screenshots, and videos that have been mocked to hell and back across social media. It’ll be hard to provide too much of a new perspective when the discussion over their flaws has been so exhausted. With the upcoming physical release of the Nintendo Switch version on the horizon, I felt it was about time to give up waiting for a patch to magically fix all the flaws.
Included in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition are self-proclaimed HD remakes of Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The only one of the bunch I had never played before now was GTA III, but its legacy is undeniable. If you forgo all warnings, I’d recommend playing the games in order of release. They build on GTA III’s simple, yet open-ended, foundation with a developing focus on realism and life simulation. I respect GTA III a lot, but think it was a bit too simple and open for me. A certain timed assassination mission stumped me for a far longer than it should have by not informing me I needed a specific gun, expecting me to rely on trial and error. That’s charming, yet this has aged the worst of these three games.
Gameplay-wise I feel like they improve with each entry, but there’s a sweet spot they achieve with GTA: Vice City that makes it stand out. Aesthetic drowning in neon, gameplay that isn’t too simple or complicated, and the best setting of the three. GTA: San Andreas is the better game, but GTA: Vice City was my first so I admittedly have a bit of a bias.
I don’t find the stories of each too interesting, but they’re entertaining crime dramas and don’t try to be much else. These are gameplay-focused titles, and they’re still fun to play. I think Rockstar Games exaggerated the improvements to the gameplay, because they still feel like old PS2 games. Aiming feels a bit too snappy, but I got used to it fast enough. Turn your brain off, indulge in the chaos of the open world, and you’ll be sure to have a great time… in the original versions, that is. The amount of glitches, bugs, and visual hideousness is so staggering that naming them all would waste both of our time. I think the most heinous crime is the blatant dismissal of the original in-game visual aesthetics.
Grand Theft Auto III – The Definitive Edition butchers the grimey, gray look that was utilized to establish the crime-ridden streets of Liberty City. The setting felt like an authentic city, but all that has been dashed. The skies are bright blue and the lighting highlights the new garish models. The skyboxes in all three games are integral to their visual design, and they’ve now been hampered in a variety of ways. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – The Definitive Edition is the most accurate of the bunch across the board, but even that still feels off in spots. GTA III character models were never lookers, but they’re charming for an early PS2 game. While the new ones seem to be trying to replicate the character art more, I think this achieved decent at best and terribly at worst. The clash created by this tone-deaf “improvement” makes Liberty City come across as painfully generic, which is a shame.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – The Definitive Edition, the largest and most ambitious game in the trilogy, was arguably the most broken on launch. The numerous patches that dropped in the last two months haven’t fixed the fact that it’s easily the ugliest of the three now. With more cutscenes that means you’ll see the character models far more often. Since this was the last of the PS2 GTA games they were able to use their knowledge of the hardware to expand the explorable area while making the models look as real as possible. I don’t know what happened, because now they seem laughably cartoonish.
The worst part about the remakes is that it feels like everything was run through an AI upscaler. I’m not sure about what exactly was done behind the scenes, I can only speculate, and it’s clear that not everything was AI upscaled. You can’t really upscale models like this, but it definitely seems like 2D textures were slapped into an upscaler in bulk without the care needed to accurately replicate them. The problem is that the character models feel so lazily made that it seems as if they were AI upscaled. It seems like a computer, with no emotional attachment or artistic understanding of the character designs just processed them all to be “HD”.
The gameplay loop remains as strong as ever, but the soul has been effectively robbed of all three games. I could easily transition this to hyperbolically complain about the removal of numerous beloved radio songs. You spend most of your time coasting the city seats in your stolen car of choice, flipping between radio stations. It added a sense of realism by creating an emotional attachment between the game world and real-world car trips. So obviously people were going to be mad about songs being removed.
I’m not as mad as many others since I can always just listen to my own music while playing these games. Despite this it’s hard to not wonder… with how much income the GTA series makes re-releasing Grand Theft Auto V every few years, and how much money they’re still making with Shark Card microtransactions, why did they not have the money to renew the licenses? We can never really know, but the low effort and low-budget vibe this trilogy give off made this question ring through my mind constantly.
So these remakes aren’t good, but they’re unoptimized disasters on Nintendo Switch. Digital Foundry has released videos on the collection that break down their issues, and if you’re used to Switch ports I’m sure you’re used to hearing these two words: resolution and framerate. The resolution makes things not too clear regardless of your play mode, but I didn’t mind it too much. Unfortunately, the framerate is an inconsistent mess. I’ve checked back occasionally when they put out patches and it’s still far from acceptable. Every time the camera turns while driving the framerate will quickly drop hard, it looks awful. If you really want to play these remakes, at least try to do so on any other platform if you can.
These are all great games, some of the most influential AAA sandbox games of all time. I cannot in good conscience recommend you play this version, especially if you wanted to check out the Nintendo Switch version. It’s quite ironic that unnecessary and ugly visual overhauls make these ports of PS2 games almost unplayable on this system. I hate to be cynical, but I don’t think you could salvage these things without redesigning everything from the ground up. Grand Theft Auto deserved better, and you deserve better than to waste your money on this.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo
4 stars out 4. I want to say this is the best way I have ever been able to play gta. They have made a game where you can jump back and forth between games and I don’t know what people were expecting but this is a remaster not a remake. People keep ignoring it instead of enjoying for what it is.