Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Review (PS5)

The Original Gangstas Return

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy Review

 

For those who weren’t there, it’s hard to describe how mind-blowing the first 3D iterations of Grand Theft Auto were. GTA 1 and 2 were simple top-down affairs that were immensely entertaining but felt distant from reality. Booting up a title from The Trilogy for the first time, though, was like stepping into a living, breathing world. From the cinematic cutscenes to the vast variety of vehicles, all the way to the gigantic maps full of sidequests and activities, each new title was inevitably greeted with, “well, there goes my social life for the next few months.”

These games went beyond quality vehicular-based crime simulators to becoming true cultural touchstones of the early noughties, which practically any game-playing millennial will remember with great fondness. It’s a tall order to remaster them without souring those perfect memories so many of us have. Now we finally get to find out: is Rockstar up to the task of polishing up these vintage pieces and making them accessible to a whole new generation?

 

The Real Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

Claude is stony-faced as always.

 

Grand Theft Auto III was released all the way back in 2001, and it absolutely typified the edgy humour that was the style at the time. 

Set in a parodic version of New York, Liberty City, the mute protagonist Claude is betrayed by his psychopathic girlfriend during a heist and subsequently gets sent down for the robbery. In a stroke of luck, he ends up escaping jail and is out on the streets again, finding new illicit work and ultimately moving towards getting revenge on his deranged ex-lover. 

Switch on the radio and it’s immediately full of venal, self-obsessed DJs and commercials advertising absurd products that’ll likely do more harm to the buyer than good. The characters who give you missions are a colourful mix, including a crooked cop who meets you in a park bathroom, a Tony Soprano-esque Mafiosi boss who is constantly being berated by his mother and a bisexual Yakuza woman with a penchant for bondage. 

The simplistic satire, shock humour and goofily cynical storylines can feel a little dated by today’s standards. Though I enjoyed the blast from the past from my adolescent years, the game’s comedy mileage for newcomers may vary.

But it’s GTA3’s gameplay that feels the worst for wear. There are many missions where you have to chase down cars and trucks, which can often be frustrating as you’re only able to shoot from your car in a straight line from the passenger side. Battering the other vehicle into submission is an option, but GTA3 has a very severe car damage system – that is, after taking a certain amount of bumps or bullets, your vehicle will abruptly burst into flames, explode and kill you instantly if you don’t escape in a matter of seconds. Since there’s no way to do locational damage to cars, e.g. shooting tyres out, car chases often turn into a game of explosive bumper cars.

NPC AI is extremely chaotic. It’s perfectly possible to be doing well in a mission only for a random car to careen into you at full speed, or to get caught in the middle of one of the constant firefights between opposing gangs.

Success or failure in missions is often as much up to happenstance as it is to player skill, which may amuse some players but irritate others. GTA3 was very much a transitional game for the series, as it was the first title in glorious 3D – I love it like an old friend, but old friends can sometimes drive you up the wall.

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

Hopping on the train is one way to escape the cops.

 

One welcome relief is how the mini radar on the bottom left of the screen now features a GPS system, to guide you down the right roads to your destination. Given that Liberty City has several bridges and docklands, with multiple levels to navigate, this makes things much easier. This GPS system is included in San Andreas and Vice City as well, and it’s particularly handy in navigating the twisty-turny elevated highways of Los Santos.

Another improvement I noticed was that progress is auto-saved at the start of every mission. In the original release, if you failed a mission, you’d find yourself back at a nearby hospital or police station with all your weapons gone, making it a slog to retry failed jobs. Now if you fail a mission, you’re offered the chance to simply restart it with the gear you had intact. This is definitely a godsend if you’re looking to relax back into GTA3. Fortunately the auto-saving feature is included in Vice City and San Andreas too, and definitely makes things more streamlined.

In terms of remastering, GTA3 seems to get the short end of the stick compared to the other two titles. Surprisingly, there are genuine, bonafide crashes that took me back to the PS5 menu screen right in the middle of the action. Fortunately, because of the auto-save, I never lost much progress from this, but it’s still rather shocking that such a high-profile release from Rockstar suffers from such a fundamental issue.

Also, the rain effects look absolutely horrible: it’s this dazzling mass of opaque white streaks covering your screen, obscuring most of the action whenever it happens. This issue affects all the titles in the trilogy but it’s especially bad in GTA3.

 

The Last Dance For Lance Vance

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

Not everyone will like Tommy’s new look.

 

Vice City marked a much more cinematic direction for GTA, with the first speaking protagonist for the series: Tommy Vercetti, voiced by none other than Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta. This iteration adds new vehicles like helicopters to the mix, and allows the player to spend their hard-earned cash on buying up real estate around Vice City, some of which can be used to gain passive income to build up a criminal empire. The period setting of the game was really its star quality, immersing players in a unique place and time more than ever before. In this hyper-violent, coked-up, avaricious fusion of Miami Vice and Scarface, hardened ex-con Tommy has to navigate a world of double-cross deals and crooks in shiny suits to become the new criminal overlord of Vice City. And while he was doing that, the game’s unforgettable soundtrack, drip-fed through the radio stations, was getting a whole generation of early noughties teens hooked on new wave, synthpop and hair metal.

Vercetti’s face has been noticeably changed for the remaster, and he looks a bit more detailed and realistic, though other characters, such as cowboy-hat-wearing tycoon Avery (and his weirdly tall, slender nose) have had their cartoonish features enhanced, creating an awkward clash of styles when they interact. This dissonance plagues all the remasters, and although I personally wasn’t too bothered by it, every time I go on Twitter I can see plenty of people who are.

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

Cue the Miami Vice music…

 

Vice City does suffer from dumb AI just as much as GTA3. Your adversaries will stand still and do nothing while you pick them off with a rifle from a distance, and sometimes police will struggle to chase you around a couple blocks without the pathfinding AI fouling up. Playing Vice City did particularly highlight the awkward and dated gunfights too. The shotgun is an absurdly good weapon, as you can auto-aim and hit targets perfectly from a hundred metres away and knock them over. Still, since auto-aiming takes a second to lock on and switch between targets, and you’re unable to take cover behind the scenery when you’re getting blasted, these gunfights become a clumsy battle of attrition when you’re caught in a bad spot.

Vice City is arguably the sparkliest jewel in the remastered Trilogy’s crown. The bright colours of the city really pop and look incredibly sharp while still honouring the visual style of the original game. When driving along the beachfront at night, I was really wowed by just how great the neon hotel signage looked. Vice City also seems to suffer from the fewest visual glitches and oddities – I seldom noticed any.

 

Aw Shit, Here We Go Again

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

CJ is down for the homies, but are the homies still down for him?

 

San Andreas feels like an improvement on its predecessors in practically every sense. San Andreas was life-swallowingly vast in scope when it was released, and it’s just as much so even today. There’s an array of minigames to enjoy, like dancing contests on the beach, illegal street races and arcade games. Protagonist CJ can work out at the gym to improve his stamina and musculature, making him look like a chiselled Greek God, or he can pig out at the local fast food joint and end up a portly fellow. CJ’s physique also helps him to attract six different women whom he can take out to restaurants and date, for the ultimate goal of being invited in for some “hot coffee”. Choices for clothing and customization were vastly improved too, allowing you to tattoo, bejewel and barber CJ exactly to your preference. Not only that, but there’s rolling countryside and two entire cities beyond Los Santos to explore as well. Even by today’s high standard for open-world games, San Andreas is an experience you can still truly lose yourself in.

San Andreas also attempted to tell a much more in-depth and heartfelt story than its predecessors. Returning to Los Santos (Los Angeles) after five years away in Liberty City after hearing about the death of his mother, Carl Johnson struggles to reintegrate with his family and friends, and rebuild his old gang: Grove Street Families. This story plays out against the backdrop of (pseudo-) LA in 1992 – a turbulent period remembered by many for the explosion of West Coast gangsta rap and violent altercations between gangs, racial groups and the police. The story captures the flavour of the period perfectly, as corrupt cop Tenpenny (played superbly by Samuel L Jackson) tries to keep CJ under his thumb, seemingly putting CJ on course for a short life defined by poverty and violence.

Gunfights were certainly improved for San Andreas, with CJ being able to duck behind cover and roll to the side to evade shots, and better reticule mechanics for determining the accuracy of each weapon. There’s even a rudimentary stealth system where CJ can sneak up behind adversaries and execute a silent but violent knife takedown.

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

Drive-bys are a daily reality in Los Santos.

 

Rather maddeningly, when Carl is strafing around, firing at his foes, he’ll point his gun straight up in the air while running backwards. It blows my mind that this annoyance I would sometimes encounter in 2004 still hasn’t been fixed. Even though San Andreas has the best combat mechanics of all the trilogy, it’s frustrating that all the original blips are still there.

Likewise, though the remaster offers some visual improvements  (including improved interiors for buildings and office windows you can actually see inside) there are still some jarring texturing problems. Once, while driving, several bright green squares began appearing on the road, as if the textures there had been corrupted. The draw distance limit has been removed in all the remasters, and this definitely makes things look better from ground level, as you can now see more detailed horizons. However, the decision to remove the fog when flying in a plane or helicopter has the unintended consequence of making the map look much smaller, like a theme park, spoiling the illusion of vastness the original game created.

Like Vice City before it, San Andreas has a brilliant soundtrack chock-full of the heavyweight hits one might have heard on the radio circa 1992. Sadly though, due to licenses expiring, 16 songs from the original playlist have been removed. The most glaring omission for me was that of 2Pac’s ‘I Don’t Give a Fuck’, a acerbic screed about the struggles of being a young black man in nineties L.A. – which felt pertinent to CJ’s struggles, and the atmosphere just wasn’t quite the same without it.

 

The Unholy Trinity

 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy

San Andreas… knows how to party!

 

Any remastering of such classic, moment-defining titles like these was destined to be divisive. Some will lament the visual changes, and how it disturbs the delicate aesthetic balance of the original games. Others will feel that the updating didn’t go far enough, and that there was a missed opportunity here to improve subpar AI in enemies or the awkward combat systems used to engage them.

Even worse, it can justifiably be argued that many community-made mods of the original games did a better job of addressing the issues that this remaster attempts to fix, and more besides. However, now that Rockstar has replaced the original games on online stores, people no longer have the option to experience the original versions, nor the great community mods they spawned.

There’s some legitimacy to all of these gripes, and that’s why I can’t give The Trilogy the perfect score that these titles would have merited individually when they were first released. Though the teenager in me might balk at giving any of these games less than 5/5, the 35-year-old me can’t deny that they are a bit janky and dated in parts, and much of the work done to update the gameplay has been insufficient or uneven. It definitely seems a big ask to expect folks to pay £55/$60 USD for these more minimal remasters when the Mafia trilogy, for example, was recently given a much more thorough root-and-branch remake of the first game along with the remastering of the other two titles.

Still, even though a new coat of paint can’t cover every imperfection (and creates a couple new ugly streaks in the process), Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy is still a serviceable update for three absolute classics. With the quality of life improvements and visual upgrades, it’s still a fine way to enjoy three amazing games beloved by so many.

CJ, Tommy and Claude are rolling back into town looking sharper than ever, and the young bucks on the open-world gaming scene had better take notice of the real OGs making their return.

 


Final Verdict: 4/5

Available on: PC , PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed) Xbox Series X and Series S; Publisher: Rockstar ; Developer: Rockstar, Grove Street Games (Remaster) ; Players: 1; Released: November 11th, 2021

Editor’s note: The publisher provided a PlayStation 5 review copy of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy to Hey Poor Player.

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Jonathan is HeyPoorPlayer's token British person, so expect him to thoroughly exploit this by quoting Monty Python and saying things like "Pip, pip, toodly-whotsit!" for the delight of American readers. He likes artsy-fartsy games, RPGs and RPG-Hybrids (which means pretty much everything at this point). He used to write for Sumonix.com. He's also just realised how much fun it is to refer to himself in the third person like he's The Rock or something.

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