GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition Review: "Feels Like An Insult"
As we crumble into dust at the realisation Grand Theft Auto 3 turns 20 this year, Rockstar Games has decided to celebrate with yet another re-release of this classic title. Like last time, though, it's being released alongside Vice City and San Andreas - these three games have been known as The Trilogy for some time now. It might feel like Rockstar Games is trying to make a quick buck while we're waiting for the Expanded and Enhanced version of Grand Theft Auto 5, but this isn't just the same game on a new generation of consoles because the Definitive Edition release of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy promises "across-the-board enhancements", including new lighting techniques, high-resolution textures, and "Grand Theft Auto 5-style controls and targeting."
On paper, this sounds like a dream come true for fans of these classic open-world games; it's safe to say that the announcement generated a lot of hype, even from those who didn't play the originals. Grand Theft Auto V offers exceptional gunplay for a game that isn't a dedicated first-person shooter and it’s hard to complain about Grand Theft Auto III getting a facelift - the game is 20 years old, after all. The updated character models looked good in the promotional images shared ahead of release, too - Rockstar Games opted to lean into the cartoonish stylings of the early Grand Theft Auto games' artwork more than the modern realism we see in Grand Theft Auto V.
It's safe to say that this remaster does a lot right - it's hard to mess up such a classic formula - but also a lot wrong, which leads to a surreal experience. The technical improvements are there, but the gameplay still feels dated. Graphically, it has made huge strides in some areas, however the updated character models are often jarring and Rockstar Games has done little to improve the janky animations both in-game and during cutscenes.
As a complete experience, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Definitive Edition feels hollow. Rockstar Games has slapped a fresh coat of paint on these games, refined the controls, and made a few important improvements, but they’ve lost some of their charm in the process. If you’re looking for reasons to pick this up, there are plenty. With that in mind, there are also a few things you should know before you make your decision because the Definitive Edition isn’t exactly cheap.
Overhauled Visuals Feel Unfinished
The visual overhaul is the highlight of the Definitive Edition, but it isn’t a blanket improvement. All three titles are now on par with one another graphically and the changes made to Grand Theft Auto 3 are understandably the most impressive.
In particular, the lighting in all three games is a stand-out improvement. From the neon lights of Vice City’s nightlife to the Health pickups outside Liberty City’s Carson General Hospital, everything is a bright feast for the eyes. This isn’t always a good thing, though. Tiled floors are more reflective and the glass in-game looks a lot better. However, the cars still look like they’re made out of plastic and Liberty City in particular looks too clean. As a result, it changes the gloomy atmosphere the original was synonymous with.
Additionally, the textures throughout have been improved. They're a step up from what the originals offered, but they're still dated by modern standards and look woefully out of place when you throw the updated assets used in the Definitive Edition into the mix. We’re not just talking about updated environmental objects like trees and lampposts, either - the missteps in this visual overhaul are perhaps best represented by the updated character models.
There's something wrong with almost every character model in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Definitive Edition. Whether it's Claude's plastic-like hair or Tommy's unusually thick shirt, uncanniness is rife. CJ's animations are almost always unnatural, too. This decision to preserve the janky animations of the original games just doesn't seem to work with the updated character models. The attempt to recreate Grand Theft Auto's artwork in a 3D space has left us with a horror show that doesn't do justice to the source material.
The Definitive Edition feels like a poorly made mod for the original games. When you consider the fact that there are a lot of mods out there that look a lot better, it's nothing short of an embarrassment, as laughable as it is sad.
- If the GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition doesn't take your fancy, read up on everything we know about the GTA 6 release date
Refined But Not Necessarily Improved
The Definitive Edition looks bad, but there are a handful of changes implemented here that could be considered genuine improvements. The complete overhaul of the UI and menu system is one example of this. Navigation is a breeze with the new waypoint system and there's an automated checkpoint system that allows you to instantly restart failed missions, which comes in very useful when racing in Grand Theft Auto 3.
On top of this, the controls have also been modernised throughout. You can use a Selection Wheel to pick your weapons and change the radio station in your vehicles which are minor quality-of-life changes in the grand scheme of things, but gone are the days of having to scroll through all of your weapons. It makes everything that little bit easier.
A lot of these changes feel superficial though, when you consider the core gameplay remains largely the same. The cutscene animations are as clunky as those in-game and this remaster certainly feels far more similar to the original releases than it arguably should. There has been a marginal improvement to the driving mechanics, with steering feeling more responsive, however braking is still an issue and the handbrake does little to help you in cornering.
When you look at successful remasters of games from this era - like the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy or the Spyro Reignited Trilogy - you see a series of games that have been visually overhauled and improved with modern mechanics and controls. That is what would be expected from the Definitive Edition of these Grand Theft Auto games but is unfortunately not what we've been given.
With that in mind though, if that's exactly what you're after then you can't go wrong. All three titles are wonderfully nostalgic, but we already had re-releases for nostalgia purposes. To say that this Definitive Edition is an upgrade would be an overstatement. It has refined the originals, mechanically anyway, but done little to offer any real improvement. This is especially true for the “Grand Theft Auto 5-style controls and targeting” that was promised.
Uniformity, But Not With Grand Theft Auto 5
All three games feel the same when you're playing, which is a uniformity that simply wasn't there before. Jumping from one to another is a breeze and the modernised controls are a welcome change. San Andreas does feel a little smoother than Grand Theft Auto III, but this could be the Mandela effect - a phenomenon where people collectively remember something that isn't true. Grand Theft Auto 5 was used to describe numerous updates made to the Definitive Edition but your guess is as good as ours when it comes to figuring out where the inspiration has come from. The updated targeting, in particular, doesn't feel anything it does in like Grand Theft Auto 5.
Visually, the targeting has changed. When you lock onto someone, they're highlighted and easily identifiable as your target in a crowd. You can move your reticle to fine-tune your aim but it's effectively pointless because a headshot doesn't do much more damage than a body shot - if you have a weapon that deals enough damage to one-shot someone, they're dying wherever you shoot them. You can also free aim by applying a lighter pressure to the aiming trigger on console - this is how we imagine they've justified using Grand Theft Auto 5 to reference their improved mechanics when in reality, they're nothing alike.
The gunplay feels exactly the same as it did the first time around. The targeting auto-lock is as aggressive as it has always been and there's no weight or recoil to any of the weapons you can use in-game. It's the same simplistic arcade-style shooter you know and love, just with a brighter UI.
Everything new in the Definitive Edition release of these games is a disappointment. The visual overhaul feels incomplete and amateurish, the gameplay feels almost identical, and the new features are superficial and don’t justify the price tag that has been slapped onto this strange experience. The content of the games remains unchanged and that is the only saving grace of this remastered re-release. The stories being told and the characters you meet - as strange as they look now - make this worth playing if you haven’t played these games before.
It's The Same Experience - For Better Or Worse
Grand Theft Auto 3 is easily one of the most important games of all time - Rockstar Games pioneered open-world gameplay and its influence is still felt to this day. Grand Theft Auto Vice City continued this trend, improving on its predecessor with a better story and an expanded look at what an open-world game could become. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, widely regarded as the best of the three, took this yet another step further and is regarded as one of the best games of all time. To have this Definitive Edition as the legacy of these games feels like an insult.
It feels like a cheap remake, a cash-grab that rides on the innovation and legacy of the originals. As we’ve said before, it feels hollow. The characters are there and the stories are being told - as controversial as some of them might be - but there’s no spark. Everything about the Definitive Edition either feels too clean or rushed - it’s a slapdash job that doesn’t deserve your money in its current state.
CJ’s return to Grove Street in the opening sequences of San Andreas feels like a metaphorical foretelling. You’re returning home, much like he is, but things feel different. There’s an uncanniness to it all. You know the places and the faces, but they’re not the same. Rockstar Games has swooped in like Officer Tenpenny and taken your money from you, too, so you’re bitter about it all. To make matters worse, you’re stuck with what you’ve got. The Definitive Edition of these games is all we have now.
Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto San Andreas are worth playing if you can - but we’d find it hard to recommend the Definitive Edition versions over hunting down an old PlayStation 2 and booting up the originals. The improvements just aren’t worth the price.
Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.