The GTA Trilogy Undermines Its Own Legacy

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By Abram Buehner on November 17th, 2021


I intended on reviewing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – Definitive Edition. But, after eight hours of gameplay, I no longer have any plans to do so. In fact, I unfortunately have no intention of playing the game at all anymore, not even casually. This Definitive Edition is anything but definitive. Instead, it’s a critical failure on behalf of Rockstar and Grove Street Games that leaves me feeling completely disillusioned by the entire package.

There is so much wrong with the Grand Theft Auto trilogy, and more faults are found every day. I have no doubt that by the time you’re reading this, more issues will have been unearthed. And I have quite the laundry list right now. Where do I even begin? Do I start with the totally botched, physically unplayable PC launch? How about the mountain of leftover code that was supposed to be removed from that version? There are so many great (and by great I mean terrible) entry points into the release’s missteps. I want to start with the issue which pervades every platform: the visuals.

presentational problems

Now, I’m not one to grumble about graphics usually, unless those graphical problems speak to clear underlying issues. Such is the case with the GTA trilogy. The visual overhaul to GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas was touted as one of the main selling points for the collection. I regret to say that the visual facelift is a marked disaster that directly undercuts the storytelling here. The facet of San Andreas that impressed me the most was the narrative and its cast. However, my immersion in said narrative was routinely damaged by the poor attempts at modernizing the game’s aesthetic.

Ryder in GTA San Andreas Remastered

I was not opposed to the trilogy’s new art style when it was revealed, but that reveal offered an incredibly curated look into this redone world. In motion, these games are rough. Character models suffer dramatically, and everything else is of a variable quality. You’ve no doubt seen characters like Ryder get absolutely thrashed on social media, and that’s sadly for good reason. The new aesthetic is clumsily stretched over PS2-era wireframe models and animations, which is both uncanny and sometimes unwatchable. There is such a stark dichotomy between how these characters look when static and how they look in motion, and the latter is just disastrous.

Everyone clips into other objects and generally move in immersion-shattering ways. These issues blatantly undermine character interactions and cutscenes, and these lie at the heart of GTA’s success. The root of this problem isn’t the PS2 bones though, but instead the PS5 skin put over them. Had Grove Street Games simply retained the same visuals, cleaned them up, and sold the games that way, then I would’ve bought into the plot so much more. I understand what a PS2 game looks like and how it moves. I can contextualize my enjoyment through that lens, and roundly excuse what were simply the technical limitations of that time. 

I never had that luxury here though, because these remakes/remasters/something in-between want to present these games through a modern lens. Factoring in the lighting engine, redone textures, and reskinned characters, the intention is clearly to not have these games feel fifteen years old. They’re supposed to pass as new, but most of the time they just can’t. They’re stuck in this awkward space between spaces where they’re supposed to feel fresher than they really are under this unevenly applied coat of paint. Even the environments, which sometimes look beautiful, are rife with inexcusable mistakes. Sure, the lighting and textures look good some times. But others, well, not so much. Players are discovering blatant spelling and logic errors in the redone text throughout the games, as well as many other thoughtless issues. The rain and thunderstorms are specially notorious, strobing and obscuring the environment to the point of genuine eye strain on my part. It feels like a thousand corners were cut to ship these games now, and Rockstar’s seminal PS2 trilogy deserves so much more than that.

shaky gameplay

Not only are the games in shambles visually, they’re marred by gameplay issues which, again, feel a lot less acceptable when this trilogy is clearly being positioned as something newer, cleaner… definitive if you will. The AI is all over the map, as are the checkpoints. The rules of this world both on a moment-to-moment level and a meta structural one (with respect to missions, save points, etc.) are so inconsistent. Again, if this was a straight-up remaster or port that was meant to leave these games untouched, then I could forgive these issues as being baked into this 2004 cake. But they’re not, because the graphics, which arguably needed less help than the mechanics, are totally redone. The controls are also redone to an extent, but only in the context of GTA’s antiquated systems. So, while gunplay has been rebound to the triggers to fit modern conventions, aiming absolutely has not been. It’s still a pre-seventh generation third-person lock-on system, which works just fine. But, it certainly is not the modern control scheme that I expected. Like the visuals, this is the veneer of newness plopped upon something decidedly doddering.

GTA San Andreas invisible bridge

San Andreas was decidedly unstable, too. The framerate on Xbox Series S had a nasty habit of noticeably dipping, and from what I understand, the Switch version is so much worse. That isn’t to say Xbox got off with just a few frame hiccups, though. I had an entire bridge disappear underneath me at one point, and I consistently had ghosted-shadows under my cars that flickered white and illuminated my ride from below. On a technical level, these games are just fundamentally unfinished.

I’ve only touched upon the troubles in broad strokes, but hopefully I’ve at least been thorough enough to illustrate this point: Grand Theft Auto deserved better. The community deserved better. In light of the contradictory, careless decisions which resulted in this halfhearted package, I can’t help but see this collection as a cash grab. What these games needed, in order for their legacy to be truly honored, was a trio of full Super Monkey Ball-style remakes. Instead, we got the fastest route from point A to B; point A being PS2 GTA nostalgia, and point B being our wallets.

preservation missteps

Seeing how this collection came together is disheartening because I hoped that this would finally be my opportunity to get into GTA. I grew up with the PS2 generation, but also with a mom who would preview my Game Informer magazines and clip out individual articles that she deemed appropriate for me to read. Even if GTA had been on my radar back then (it wasn’t), getting the games would’ve been a non-starter. For whatever reason, I just never latched onto the series afterward either. My friends throughout middle school and high school played GTA V constantly (a testament to that title’s life cycle) but I never got in on the action. I always was curious though, and I figured that the definitive versions of the landmark GTA PS2 trilogy would be a great place to begin. I was just so wrong, and I imagine that the sting I feel is felt tenfold by those who came to this collection as a way to reconnect with treasured favorites. But alas, Rockstar let us down. 

GTA ps2 covers

Not only did they let us down though, they blatantly spit in the face of consumer choice and preservation by delisting GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas from digital storefronts. This isn’t just an insult to injury, it’s additional harm upon an already-flawed product. Releasing a bad collection is nothing new. Silent Hill HD and Sonic the Hedgehog (GBA) spring to mind. But, releasing that product while also suddenly limiting access to the previously-accessible originals is just a bridge too far. I’m not sure how to view these events as anything other than an obliteration of GTA’s sixth-generation legacy. 

At every turn, the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition went wrong. The context of the launch was wrong, the remasters themselves were wrong, and delisting of the original games was wrong. I care about gaming history. Clearly, Rockstar, Grove Street Games, and Take-Two Interactive did not in this case. There’s plenty of blame to be passed around. Ultimately, this release just feels like the archetype for how not to revitalize a classic. If nothing else, I hope that this debacle becomes a deterrent for other studios and publishers who feel like their back catalogs are simply something to throw about for a bit of extra cash.

Abram is a part-time student and a full-time dork from the East Coast of the United States. He spends much of his time discussing video games, film, and comics... that is, when Abram isn't playing games, watching film, or reading comics. When Abram's not doing that, he is probably busy with college, dual-majoring in English and Film & New Media Studies.


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