If you wanted to print money, then remastering Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, is the exact way you would go about it. Whether you’re looking to entice new players to try out three of the games that helped to define the open-world sandbox genre or simply looking to help original players relive fond memories across the streets of Liberty City, remastering and re-releasing these three games would be guaranteed money-spinners.
And after years of fans hoping for remasters of arguably the best GTA games made, they’re finally here. By the time you read this, you’ll have heard all the news already though, seen the videos, and shared the memes.
So the real question becomes, what on earth went wrong and who was asleep at the wheel when this was greenlit as good to go?
On the off-chance that you’ve been sleeping under a rock for say, the last twenty years, the Grand Theft Auto series of games put developer Rockstar on the map. Set in the seedy criminal underbelly of various fictional cities, the Grand Theft Auto series drops you into the shoes of criminals looking to make their mark in the underworld and become top dogs or just secure the biggest payday of their lives.
It’s hard to understate the importance of GTA 3 to modern open-world sandbox games. While it may be somewhat basic by today’s standards, on release it was a massive powerhouse of fun gameplay and game-changing design. Vice City built upon what Rockstar had created with GTA 3 by crafting a larger, more detailed world with more to do and threw in a great 1980’s Miami Vice aesthetic on the proceedings. San Andreas, considered by many to still be the best GTA, yet again built upon what came before with a larger world, more to do and some light RPG mechanics scattered on top.
While the GTA games have always had their issues, usually as a result of the ambition versus the hardware and some not quite evolving combat and controls, the games still sold truckloads and cemented Rockstar as a premiere developer that only released their titles when they were happy with it.
This makes the issues with the GTA remasters all the more galling.
To be fair, Rockstar didn’t handle the remasters. That job was left to Grove Street Games, who was previously responsible for the apparently problematic GTA mobile ports. Originally developed on the Renderware engine, Grove Studios chose to port the games over to Unreal Engine 4. Why the games weren’t ported to Rockstars propriety engine, I’m not sure, but it seems as though this was the first in a long line of strange design choices.
Hero characters have been remodelled and rerigged as well, which isn’t a problem in theory. GTA 3’s protagonist doesn’t look bad though and the new design fits very closely to the original model. But the quality isn’t the same across the board. Tommy from Vice City looks okay but the new rig sometimes doesn’t look great in animation and the axis for objects when characters are meant to be holding items in cut scenes is off, resulting in phones that are far away from ears, etc. CJ from San Andreas fares the worst. The new rigged model doesn’t always look great in animation but the character textures look incredibly low res and awful, even compared to the characters around him.
Secondary characters and NPC’s fare even worse with most of the new models looking incredibly ugly, the cartoon style of GTA 3 and Vice City aside. Limbs seem longer than they should be, arms bulge incorrectly in movement, etc.
Then there are the textures for objects in the world. The quality varies from good to poor while GTA 3 sees a lot of texture misalignment on buildings along with detail textures floating well above the area they’re supposed to be placed on. It seems that some form of A.I. texture upscaling has been used as well but the results, again, are mixed. Some look fine while others are misspelt. I don’t know what a bearbox is, but it clearly keeps GTA’s cars running. . .
Then there are the more extreme issues such as the infamous invisible bridge in San Andreas and collision meshes missing on world terrain so that you can fall through.
Vehicles in the game have been given a nice facelift though. The cars look good and benefit from new physics while the screen space and cube reflections that have been added add a nice, shiny reflective sheen to proceedings. However, and bearing in mind that it’s been years since I loaded up my GTA originals, the car handling just feels. . . off.
Visually, as with all things, the collection is a mixed bag yet again. There are moments when the games look good, especially in GTA 3 when it’s raining, though why it’s raining under bridges is another question all its own. These moments of relatively striking scenes happen across all three games. Though it’s usually followed up by a scene or area that makes you wonder where the development time was spent. GTA 3 really does look its age at times, with low polygon characters and environments while Vice City looks incredibly flat in the visual department. For many San Andreas fares the worse though all three games are poorer for the removing or changing of their overall visual aesthetic. Even if the original designs were to hide the hardware limitations, the overall blue hue and screen blur effect on everything in GTA 3 is inherently a part of its DNA while the colour changes to the games saturation and the removal of fog in San Andreas only highlight that we’re playing an old game that much more.
The biggest concern for me, however, is the games overall performance. It boggles the mind that something that looks so low poly in 2021 can run so poorly. All three games struggle to maintain a stable frame rate. It’s uncanny that even in GTA 3, whose lower amount of traffic for both NPC’s and vehicles, struggles to maintain a stable frame rate even when there’s nothing happening on screen. Whether on foot on in a car, even with no other vehicles or NPC’s are present, the game dips constantly to sub-par 30fps levels. Take a corner and watch the frame rate dip. Head out on foot and watch it dip. You get the idea. And this is on all three games. For my money, San Andreas fares the worst here as it’s a constant shuddery experience that left me with a migraine after an hour of play.
The worst frame rate offence I found came in Vice City during the Demolition Man mission. Once you’ve triggered the explosion cut scene to blow up the building, the frame rate tanked into a slideshow of single-frame images and broken up sound. At one point I thought my machine may have actually frozen but no, it was just running beyond poorly.
This remastered collection left me of two minds. On the one hand, the issues are incredible and yet, underneath all the problems, these are still fun games to play. While Rockstar has since released the equivalent of late Day One patches to fix the mission bugs and some of the more problematic issues such as the invisible bridge, I never encountered a section where the actual missions were broken. The caveat is that you have to put up with a lot to get to the enjoyment with the game doing its’ best to remind you that it’s a poor mimicry of the originals.
Rockstar has since come out to state that they will continue to patch the games to reach the level that it should have been at on launch, but the truth is that this should have been a no brainer win for both Rockstar and the fans. At the current state that these games are in, they don’t deserve the title of “Remaster” let alone to be considered “Definitive Editions” when the original up-to-twenty-year-old games are far more “Definitive” than these new versions.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Platform
Grand Theft Auto Trilogy: Definitive Edition is available on Xbox, Switch, PC and PlayStation
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