What’s the appeal of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games? For gamers who love the freedom to explore and experiment without a fixed order in playing, GTA games are ground-breaking for at its time for being an open-world game where you are free to wander and pick which missions to complete, in the order you prefer.
Of course, its rebelliousness, lawlessness, crime laden gameplay and blatant mistreatment of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) was also a huge part of the appeal.
Although there were GTA I and II games, the series didn’t really take off until GTA III. GTA III is played from a third person perspective, as opposed to the top-down perspective of its predecessors.
In addition, GTA III combined many aspects of gameplay, including car-jacking, driving, shooting, multitudes of side quests, collectibles, challenges, stunts and achievements into a fun-filled package that felt way ahead of its time.
Subsequent GTA games – GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas – expanded on the scope to add even more gameplay elements but keeping to the spirit of the game. Set in the 80’s and early 90’s, the GTA Trilogy is diverse in its locations and protagonists, featuring locales inspired by New York city, Miami, and Los Angeles.
For those playing these games for the first time without having experienced the original, they might wonder what the big deal was.
Back then, there weren’t as many great open world games, or games with so much focus on the gamer’s experience and so much effort to make the whole experience immersive and impressive, within the limits of the technology that existed then.
Three games, GTA III, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas comprise the GTA Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. This remastering effort is undertaken by Grove Street Games, a third-party developer who had lots of experience adapting Rockstar’s games for different platforms.
Being a huge fan of the GTA games since GTA III, I was eagerly waiting for the Definitive Edition to be released so that I have an excuse to replay all three games again.
You’re Out of Touch, I’m Out of Time
It was an emotional reunion for me with the games as well as the locations and protagonists from the three games with whom I had spent so much time. Expectations were high, but the first-day release was a disappointment, with many issues seen early in the games.
I held out playing it for a bit, hoping that the developers could patch more of the game before I played more of it. Thankfully, a major fix in early December managed to fix some of that. It makes one wonder, would things have been better if they had held out from rushing to release it for the holidays when it wasn’t ready and breaking all GTA fans’ collective hearts?
But it doesn’t change the fact that GTA games are still so much fun. Back in the day, GTA games were a breath of fresh air, where repressed rebels and curious “what if” experimenters can play out lawless activities that are impossible in real-life, with a dash of humour and insane reactions from NPCs .
In the Definitive Edition, the games are formatted to fit modern wide-screen monitors better in terms of aspect ratio, since the original games are at 4:3 for the square monitors in the past. This is a huge plus and it feels like you can suddenly see so much more of the game.
There is also a huge upgrade in terms of how the games look – no more jagged anti-aliasing, one-dimensional looking buildings, or cars that look like they are made from cardboard. Details are much finer and sophisticated, with car surfaces reflecting the lights around them, and buildings looking less like a flat painting.
My favourite part of the games, which are still mostly intact are the parody radio stations with their sarcastic talkshows, with insulting dialogue that mocks society, and hilarious politically-incorrect advertisements.
Sure, some people will get offended by them today, as they had been offended back in the day. Some of the licensed music in Vice City and San Andreas have been removed, but thankfully GTA III kept all of its music intact.
To compare the Definitive Edition with the previous releases, I played through a few missions of the original games that I purchased previously on Steam, and compared them with the same ones in the Definitive Edition on PC.
If you are hoping that the remastered games can look as good as GTA V or even IV, don’t hold your breath.
As I played through both versions of the games, I noticed quite clearly that there’s much sloppiness in the remastering of the games. In spite of the poor remastering efforts, the games are still fun to play, if their glaring flaws can be overlooked and tolerated.
Originally released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, and a year later for the PC, GTA III is probably the first GTA title that most people are familiar with. GTA III is set in Liberty City, which is inspired by New York City, and features a protagonist named Claude Speed, a strong silent guy with a resigned expression on his face who doesn’t speak at all.
Since GTA III’s gameplay is much less complex than the other two, the remaster does help in terms of modernising the look of the game.
The original game, when played on modern PCs, looks very flat, with one-dimensional textures and distractingly bad anti-aliasing.
With the upgrade of the Definitive Edition, the textures look much better, the character models less grotesque, the lighting of the streets at night is prettier and the visuals of vehicles are improved, with reflective surfaces and more realistic looking glass.
The faces are still expressionless though, and Claude now has a perpetually pained derpy look, when you could still imagine him as being somewhat dreamy in low resolution back in the original.
Despite the fact that graphics are a lot crisper and sharper in the Definitive Edition, some aspects did not bear the enhancements well. For instance, the replacement font for shop signs makes them feel unnatural and artificial compared to the original, which has charming and authentic imperfections.
When I first launched GTA III’s Definitive Edition, the opening cutscene already showed how wrong the game was. The rain was as thick as kway teow (Hokkien for a thick and flat rice noodle), such that the action of the prison convoy escape was obscured. A bug also caused the rain to fall indoors. A patch released by the developer in early December managed to fix the ugly and buggy rain.
Despite the major December patch, strange glitches still remain. I got Claude to take the L-train in Portland near the safehouse and all the NPCs who tried to board died on the spot, leaving dead bodies and pools of blood on the platform. Who would have thought missing the train would have such serious consequences?
Looking past the bugs, GTA III is still fun to play, with the original music still intact. The soundtrack, which draws heavy influence from the movie “Scarface”, brings back lovely memories of outrunning the cops or being chased by gang members in Liberty City.
GTA: Vice City
GTA: Vice City was released in 2002 and set in Vice City, which bears a strong resemblance to real-life Miami. The games’ protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, is the baddest boy among the three, and is the typical wise-cracking chao ah beng (derogatory Singlish term for hooligan or gangster). Unlike Claude in GTA III, Tommy is able to speak his mind and hence injects more dialogue and expletives into the game.
Similar to GTA III, Tommy advances the plot through completing key story missions while doing quests for other characters. The story isn’t as strong as GTA San Andreas, and the game winds up as doing a bunch of errands or favours for many different people in the hope of recovering lost money and cleaning up his reputation.
But what makes the game fun is the beach holiday vibe and balmy nights, as well as the opportunity to invest in property.
In terms of visuals, GTA Vice City looks the best among the three. The improved lighting looks great as the game’s bright and open environment has much fewer problematic scenery plaguing the dense cityscape of GTA III and San Andreas.
The building interiors and character faces also look so much better compared to the older game. However, prior to the patch, there were some spelling errors on shop signs that looked like it was enhanced automatically and not checked by human eyes.
Another sign that the developers have taken a shortcut is simply turning some shop windows opaque instead of making them look realistic with a window display, and also removing paper and leaves littered on the streets that made the original game look more dynamic when the wind blows them around.
One complaint I have is that the map, which is so important for route checking, cannot be zoomed out fully to see the whole picture. Instead, you have to pull it around to check your route, unlike the original game that lets you zoom out fully.
Some licensed music tracks are also noticeably absent from the Definitive Edition of Vice City, such as Billie Jean and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ by Michael Jackson, and Wow by Kate Bush, but what remains of the soundtrack still captures the 80s mood beautifully.
Overall, GTA: Vice City Definitive Edition looks and works the best among the three games in the Definitive Edition trilogy with much fewer issues than the rest, which is a redeeming factor for this trilogy. It also helps not to look too closely at the details or try to compare it to what it once was.
GTA: San Andreas
In GTA San Andreas, Carl Johnson returns to his ‘hood in San Andreas to avenge his mother’s murder, and finds himself pulled into a web of deceit, betrayal and gang wars.
Released in 2004, San Andreas is the biggest game of the trilogy, spreading over Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Ventura, which mirrors Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in real life.
Probably the most complex game to remaster due to the complexity of the game and a wide variety of activities, such as dating, dancing, bodybuilding, skills upgrading and wardrobe customisation, San Andreas is also the most disappointing remaster of the trilogy.
Granted, the original game wasn’t that great looking, and the Definitive Edition has improved the overall look of the game. Shrubs no longer look like two-dimensional origami, car surfaces show reflections with more details and finer looking textures overall.
However, the improvements are not consistent, and some of the textures look unrealistically flat in certain places. For instance, visual details on walls in the darker areas under freeways and bridges are completely lost.
Apart from inconsistent visuals on the textures, it is also abundantly clear that some aspects are dealt with sloppily, carelessly and somehow made it pass quality control.
For instance, in Carl’s home, where he goes in to save the game, the interior is seen flooded in full daylight no matter the time of the day. This was not the case in the original, as the screenshots of both versions show.
On top of that, some gameplay elements have also taken a turn for the worse. The “Dance Dance Revolution” type of dancing challenges are poorly executed – the movements are no longer timed to the music, which makes the whole sequence rather meaningless.
Although the cars and buildings look much better, it is the character modelling that seemed to have taken a step back. The best example is how Denise, Carl’s first girlfriend looks in the cutscenes.
You can still see the bandana-wearing girl in the action scenes, but in the cutscenes when she is on a date with Carl, she suddenly sports a strange, flat hairdo that looks suspiciously like the developers didn’t want to deal with her bandana and simply coloured over it in an attempt to “enhance” the model.
If the trilogy could be split up, I would definitely not invest in GTA San Andreas Definitive Edition but stick to the original edition instead. Prettier graphics aside, the sloppy remaster, callous treatment of details and disregard for the game’s soul just isn’t worth it..
I struggle to recommend purchasing the GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition at full price with so many compromises but Rockstar has promised to work on improvements, and have also included the three original titles if you purchase the Definitive Edition Trilogy to sweeten the deal.
The original games run fine on modern PCs. but it is hard to get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio as well as the very dated graphics, especially for GTA III.
Although the graphics have improved in the visual aspect, Definitive Edition failed to preserve holistically what made them special. No, it’s not just Denise’s ugly hair, shop signs that lost their charm, sloppy spelling mistakes, or the occasional shocking NPC bugs – it’s all of them together and the callousness in adapting them which failed the great trilogy.
Despite them being developed by Grove Street Games who should have plenty of experience with Rockstar’s games, we would have expected some inputs from Rockstar. It’s unimaginable that the company which had created these beloved games that set such a high bar decades ago could have allowed them to be released in this state.
The GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition just doesn’t seem to match the reputation and high quality standards of Rockstar, who has so far been putting out excellent games like Red Dead Redemption II and the still-enjoyable Grand Theft Auto V.
If you are desperate to play the old GTA games and are willing to look past the flaws, try and grab them during a sale, which is happening at the moment.
We can also hope that the developers will keep rolling out the improvements eventually, as they had promised. But go in with the knowledge that the faces and places that we used to know may never look the same again.
The digital version of the GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition is available for PC, Xbox and PlayStation from their respective stores. At the moment, the Rockstar Store offers 20% off the GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition (S$63.99) as well as a free Rockstar game or in-game currency to be claimed by 5 January. Check it out here.
For consoles, it is available at the Xbox Store and the PlayStation Store at S$67.92. The Nintendo Switch digital version has been released in other regions but is not yet available in Singapore, while the physical editions for all games are slated to be released in “early 2022”. Hopefully, the worst bits of the games can be fixed by then.