Few games have come to define gaming like the infamous Grand Theft Auto series.
From its first iteration as a top-down game with a focus on trigger-happy rampages and endless automotive civilian slaughter, it quickly became synonymous with games that pushed the boundaries of the video game experience. The open structure, free-roaming chaos and mixture of missions saw it quickly gain an army of followers who were more than happy with the two subsequent sequels (GTA II and GTA: London). However, it wasn’t until the release of Grand Theft Auto III on the PlayStation 2 in 2001 that the series really broke into the minds of the mainstream with its shift to a fully-realized 3D world that really showed what a sandbox experience could be.
While GTA III had an incredibly engaging storyline (regardless of the fact that the protagonist never spoke), it was the ability to just hammer about the city causing trouble that really launched the series into the stratosphere. Few people could resist the urge to cast off the shackles of traditional gaming and let loose on the countless screaming civilians as they car-jacked their way into all sorts of trouble and I know from my own experience that it was the game that sucked countless hours out of my life, often with little progress through the story itself. It was just such an intense and exciting experience that it changed the what we expected games to be. Over the following years it became very typical for other games to try and emulate the GTA formula, with mixed success, but nothing quite matched up to its grandeur. There was something about GTA that just made it stand out from the crowd, thanks in no small part to the influence of Dan and Sam Houser and their unrivalled passion for music and cinema which became such an integral part of the experience.
GTA: Vice City took things up a notch with its gloriously sun-soaked, neon-lit rendition of Miami in the 1980s, phenomenal soundtrack and fully-scripted protagonist. Bringing in a variety of voice talent, including Ray Liotta as the protagonist Tommy Vercetti, meant that the narrative was much deeper and more engaging than the silent-but-deadly Claude in its predecessor. Taking license from countless classic films and TV shows, Vice City felt like an incredible homage to an era that influenced every aspect of our lives and delivered something which felt like you were playing through a film more than anything which came before. Few people will forget playing at being their own version of Scarface and the missions that took inspiration from some incredibly influential films are the stuff of legend.
By the time GTA San Andreas arrived on the scene it was clear that Rockstar wanted to push the limits of both their game engine and the hardware available at the time. The map was noticeably bigger, allowing for the inclusion of various planes along with the helicopters that were added in Vice City, there were a multitude of side missions and activities and it even went so far as to incorporate RPG style aspects that allowed you to develop your stamina and health by exercising and completing stunts and objectives. While these ideas really brought the series to its pinnacle in many ways, the sprawling map and expansive storyline was a bit of a mixed bag. Rising from the mean streets of Los Santos and heading out to make a name for yourself across the rest of the state was a great rags-to-riches narrative but it got a bit side-tracked at times and the end result was less focused than we had seen previously. That being said, it undeniably provided players with some of the franchise’s highlight moments, most quotable scenes and some of the most frustratingly difficult missions in GTA history.
The sudden, surprise announcement that all three of these seminal games were being remastered/updated was met with shock, awe and an insane amount of expectation. People immediately began to contemplate a few big questions: Would they be like totally new games? Would they change the things which haven’t aged well? How would the games look and run on the newest hardware considering their age? Was this just a big cash-in from a developer who seems intent to squeeze as much money as possible out of their main source of income (yes, I’m looking at you GTA: Online)? My first thought was more along the lines of ‘how do the originals fair by today’s standards?’ so I dusted off my older consoles and spent a week or so getting back down to business (just to make a fair comparison, you understand).
Spending time on the Xbox version of the original trilogy (my PS2 is distant memory, sadly) really highlighted how far games have come in the two decades since GTA first dropped. Each of the games still stands out as being an amazing experience in terms of the narrative and sheer joy of, well, joyriding through the streets and back alleys of the respective maps, but many of the mechanics have not aged well and it almost feels impossible to adjust back to the lack of camera controls and reliance on auto-aim for combat, especially when most of the firefights involve you getting attacked from all angles with very little cover. It was pretty punishing. Something which really stood out was the use of fog to hide the lack of draw distance, along with the blur effects which just make the game look a bit ropey after playing games like Red Dead Redemption 2 on a 4K screen.
When booting up the remasters for the first time, I was struck by how much better the graphics are. The environments, vehicles and character models are much more solid and the framerates are hugely improved making for a much smoother and enjoyable experience. There is now the ability to control the camera, which makes a huge difference, and the ability to free-aim (although the lock-on is still the default option and can be a bit hit-and-miss unless you fiddle with its sensitivity levels). Having struggled to get to grips with the originals, this was a welcome change and it certainly made the games feel a bit better. Character models have been revamped and are much less angular, but the animations are still rigid and this creates a bit of an odd sense of contrast at times. The result is that some of the cutscenes look hilariously bad and the first time you meet Misty she walks with such a bow-legged gait that it looks she has soiled herself horrendously. For the most part these upgrades are welcome and work well but it does lead to a few things which stand out including the characters’ hands looking absolutely ridiculous.
Perhaps the biggest aspect of the graphical overhaul comes in the form of a new dynamic lighting system which really brings a sense of depth to the city. It does look good in action, especially during intense driving scenes, and some of the weather effects really add to the sense of immersion (lightning in particular) but there are a few aspects which are less well developed (the rain doesn’t really look great) and this can tarnish the experience a little. One thing I will admit is that the explosions look great and totally caught me off-guard the first time a car blew up in close proximity.
On the flip side of this, some of the technology they have used to transfer original files has led to a number of weird errors in the in-game text meaning that the higher levels of fidelity that bring the environments to life actually causes problems with some of the finer details. Many of the shop signs and posters have spelling errors which can be humorous but it all adds up to the list or issues.
I suppose the main issue that some people will have is that these are not remakes of the games but rather shiny remasters and because we have come to expect a lot more from this type of game over the years it sometimes just feels a bit clunky to handle. The driving takes a bit of getting used to, but handles well enough, yet the cars have no real weight to them and feel like they are floating/sliding around and hitting objects often makes them stop dead with no feeling of impact. On the whole, the lack of the physics engine we have come to love in the subsequent years is really noticeable (although this is not a criticism of the games themselves).
If you can adjust your brain into a more ‘retro mode’ then the games are still really enjoyable and far more playable than the original versions, but they won’t be to everyone’s tastes. I would imagine that younger players who never got to play the original games or came to them much later will gripe over some of these aspects, but as a homage to the classics that defined gaming these are not to be sniffed at. If you haven’t played them on console since for at least a decade I would imagine that your perception of how they play has probably been tainted by time. This isn’t to say that the games aren’t without their flaws, far from it, but none of these have been game-breaking or completely ruined. Many of the bugs and glitches have been left in, apparently for ‘authenticity’, and there are some issues with pop-up or ghosting of vehicles (especially in GTA III) but most of the gripes come from the outdated feel of combat…and then there’s the sound issues.
From what I can gather, there were a number of issues when it came to re-licensing music for this re-release and this means that some of the most iconic songs are now absent. This might not seem like a huge issue but it does impact the feel of the games at certain points and a few missions feel less memorable without the music which was intended to accompany the journey. Perhaps my biggest disappointment is the way that the sounds have been compressed, meaning that they sound really tinny and the guns sound pretty horrendous. If you have a good quality sound system it can be a little grating. Throw in the weird way that some of the music cuts out and jumps mid-song and it all adds up to produce aspects which are not up to the standard of what we have come expect from Rockstar (although this has been handled by Grove Street Games as opposed to the main studios).
There is obviously the potential for bugs to be ironed out and for certain issues to be fixed through updates, but when you consider the quality of some of the mods which have been developed over the years (in terms of the PC version) it begs some serious questions about how much time and effort was actually put into bringing these games up to the expected standard. Calling this a ‘Definitive Edition’ feels a bit like a smack in the face when there are clearly a number of glaring issues but most players will only notice a handful of these during their playthrough unless they purposely go looking for them. I’m not trying to excuse the problems, but I’ve seen an excessive amount of hate online since the release date and much of it seems to be the typical snowball effect of people commenting on issues that they haven’t experienced for themselves. Yes, it’s far from perfect but these are dated titles now and many of the issues grow out of this fact. I would say that if you have only ever played the console versions the difference really is pretty phenomenal (the PC master race always have the upper hand and higher expectations).
On the whole, this is a nostalgic trip through some of the most influential games ever made and the narratives, soundtracks and general sense of each individual city still hold their own. Few games have come close to replicating the GTA model with a consistent level of success and while the cracks are certainly showing around the edges there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Over the coming months it will be interesting to see how much effort is put into bringing the games up to the expectations that players have voiced so loudly…it’s just a shame that this seems to be the way companies work these days. Considering the fact that nobody even knew this was coming out until the last minute, you can’t help but wonder if the big rush to get it out in time for the anniversary was a bad call.
A great trilogy which is marred by its age and the finer technical details but still worthy of your time, if only for getting to hang out with Big Smoke at the drive-thru. I have to admit that I actually found myself wondering how GTA IV would run on the newer consoles and downloaded that as well with truly impressive results (although this only served to highlight how far games have evolved since GTA: San Andreas). A blast from the past but these games are unlikely to make the same impact second time around.