The PlayStation 2-era Grand Theft Auto trilogy is now available on modern gaming devices and comes with across-the-board aesthetic touch-ups. That should be good news. The series’ shift from top-down 2D to open-world 3D was a seismic event in the gaming industry, and despite showing their age, each of these games provides a fine amount of macabre criminal adventuring.
But while some parts of the trilogy’s re-release are easy to praise, others are less exciting. Shortly after the $60 GTA Definitive Trilogy went live on Thursday, I logged some time with the Nintendo Switch and Xbox Series X versions. I also spent a few hours staring at the game’s locked-up installation on my Windows 10 testing rig. I can now see why Rockstar wasn’t eager to make this collection available to the press ahead of launch—and also why the game maker didn’t want to break up this set into three $20 purchases. As Ryder might say in GTA San Andreas: This re-release is a buster. (And that’s not a good thing.)
That’s one way to encourage grand theft, Rockstar
The worst part of the release is the collection’s Windows 10 version, which is now exclusively available on the Rockstar Games Launcher. Ahead of this week’s launch, Rockstar removed the old versions of GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas from storefronts like Steam. You can still access these versions—along with years of community-driven mod support—if you’ve already purchased them, but they are no longer for sale.
As I write this, over 12 hours after the new collection’s retail launch on PC, I still cannot play the games. The Rockstar Games Launcher is currently undergoing “temporarily offline maintenance,” which started after I finished downloading each game. I have the entire GTA Definitive Trilogy on my computer, but the files are not launchable.
On Thursday morning, I started downloading the GTA Definitive Trilogy and stepped away from my computer. Upon my return 30 minutes later, I found that Rockstar’s launcher was offline, and there was a grayed-out “install now” box on each game. Each game fully downloaded, but the executable files redirected me to an unresponsive launcher.
While the games’ authentication process may return before long, the fact that the games need to check in online is maddening. These games include zero online functionality—not even friend leaderboards, let alone the two-player mode from San Andreas. This hobbling of the PC version is inexcusable.
A less awkward version of Sesame Street
Thankfully, both the Nintendo Switch and Xbox Series X/S versions of these games appear to function, whether or not they’re connected to the Internet. I’ll start with the Xbox versions I’ve tested, since they are somewhat easier to recommend.
On a visual level, every real-time cut scene conversation in the massive trilogy has been reanimated in a way that splits the difference between “adorably dated” and “tolerably touched up.” Character animations have been modified to look a bit better than they did on the original trilogy’s awkward Sesame Street muppets. The original games never had discrete hand animations, which is one reason why characters’ arms waved around so wildly. The animations now feel like they’ve been run through a “chill out a bit” filter, which is good news. As a bonus, characters now receive individually rendered fingers, which make their hands look less like tragic N64-era stumps.
Meanwhile, nearly every NPC’s face has been altered to improve on the original games’ lip syncs and facial expressions. The catch is that there has been an across-the-board restyling of characters’ eyes and mouths. Porting studio Grove Street Games has redrawn many of these features to fill in the original blurry-texture splotches on characters’ faces, and the results are cartoonier and much more expressive.
Any character who originally hid behind sunglasses is left largely unperturbed, but that’s cold comfort depending on the cut scene in question. If you don’t have the muddy originals to compare with the new touch-ups, I won’t blame you for being weirded out by some of the faces. I had a YouTube “let’s play” video handy to compare a ton of footage with, and while some of the restyled faces look pretty bad, they generally shine compared to Rockstar’s original artistic vision—which was more cartoonish than you may remember.
Shining a more attractive light on familiar environs
The best part of the GTA Definitive Trilogy is its entirely new lighting system, which mixes dynamic and pre-baked light sources. The lighting model appears to account for material properties and light bounces to give GTA‘s usual mix of smokily lit strip clubs and garish yacht parties an appropriate level of glitz. Combine all of that with a proper implementation of ambient occlusion, and the result is scenes with much more depth and far fewer “floaty” visual elements. This pipeline update is arguably on par with the modding community’s best lighting solutions.
The result doesn’t necessarily look “correct” compared to your memories of each game, however. The cartoony brightness of the original games included a certain palette wash: gray for GTA III, light blue and magenta-pink for Vice City, and dark green and sunset-orange for San Andreas. You’ll see these tones in the revised game’s skyboxes, and Vice City pops anew thanks to how its dynamic lighting system hums with neon-sign reflections. But it’s hard not to see the changes as out of line with the original artists’ intentions, even if the result is a world that looks more three-dimensional.
Seemingly every texture has been redrawn in one way or another, and depending on certain toggles, you can expect to see a mix of bump-mapped textures and fully rendered debris on the ground. This includes new rendering systems that control things like how waves crash onto the beach and how far draw distances extend when riding a helicopter. Nothing here is up to Grand Theft Auto V‘s standards, of course—or even GTA IV‘s. But it’s the exact kind of detail bump you’d hope for in a collection with “definitive” in the title.
The full trilogy’s reflections have been touched up with a mix of screen-space reflections, cube maps, and doubly rendered polygons. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for an atrociously low-resolution cube map to pop up in a street puddle or car hood, even on higher-powered consoles like Xbox Series X. Considering that PC fans have built superior across-the-board reflection mods, we’re disappointed to see Rockstar’s official effort fall short in comparison.