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This is why you shouldn’t buy the $60 Grand Theft Auto Definitive Trilogy

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

Enlarge / Over 12 hours after the collection’s launch on the Rockstar Games Launcher, I still can’t launch the games despite having fully downloaded them.

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 IIIVice 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.

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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.

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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.

Graphics modes on current-gen consoles

The Xbox and PlayStation console versions let you choose between “Fidelity” and “Performance” modes. The former increases full pixel resolution, while the latter drops the resolution and cuts down on certain on-screen details such as shadow resolution.

So far, I’ve only tested the games on the Xbox Series X, which weirdly doesn’t show much difference between the two modes. Both tend to maintain 60 fps refresh rates during open-world gameplay, while “Fidelity” drops somewhere between 30 and 60 fps during various cut-scene moments. I’m not sure why Grove Street didn’t tap the power of the Xbox Series X to further tune these presets so that “Performance” might offer a higher resolution while “Fidelity” could go overboard with extreme settings befitting a 30 fps refresh.

Sadly, if you have a current-gen console connected to an HDR-compatible screen, you’ll want to disable HDR for all three games. Someone at Grove Street forgot to give the collection a proper tone-mapping pass, so pivotal cut scenes are nearly impossible to make out. I’ve seen HDR-enhanced images push into dramatically dark territory, but this isn’t the same thing. This is botched.

While I have not yet tested the game on a base Xbox One or base PS4, impressions in the wild suggest that—at least on the Xbox One—the collection struggles to maintain a steady 30 fps in certain scenarios. Considering how much more powerful the base Xbox One is than the series’ original PS2 hardware, that performance is a bit shocking.

Forgot to hit the Switch

But that’s nothing compared to how dismally the collection runs on the Nintendo Switch.

A sub-720 resolution in portable mode—and something close to 800p in docked mode—is arguably forgivable for PS2-era graphics. If anything, that fuzziness sometimes softens up the weirdness of the original trilogy’s animations and body constructions.

But there’s no getting around it: the Switch version of the GTA Definitive Trilogy needs to go back into the oven before anyone considers spending even $30 or $40 on the package, let alone the full $60 MSRP. Whether played in portable or docked modes, each of the trilogy’s games performs terribly, with frequent drops into the 20 fps range and noticeable stuttering into the low 10s. This all happens in spite of a massive reduction in visual elements like texture quality and shadow resolution. All too often, cars, pedestrians, and buildings magically appear quite close to the camera while you’re peeling away during an epic car chase.

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Worse, unlike the Xbox version I tested, I ran into at least one full Switch hardware crash in each of the collection’s games. I didn’t even rack up massive counts of police stars in these scenarios. (Though, let’s be clear: when I did court mayhem, it brought the console to its knees.)

Quality of life in short supply

Even if you’re on a higher-powered system, the developers’ “quality of life” updates in this collection don’t add up to a lot. The best tweak comes in the form of a new free-aim system, which works more like the one in Grand Theft Auto V. Sadly, this aiming system feels wobbly, largely because the port has apparent issues with bullet hit detection. If you’ve found that, in hindsight, the PS2 version of GTA III was brutally difficult, imagine having even fewer of your bullets hit. (This would have been a great time for Rockstar and Grove Street to crib from longtime GTA modders and add something that resembles a cover system to this old, difficult trilogy. Alas.)

The Switch provides an exclusive toggle for motion-based aiming. But like I said above, you don’t want this game on the Switch.

Other updates feel pretty slapdash—particularly those to the flimsy menus. Worst of all is the save file system. It includes a handy and much-appreciated auto-save feature for all three games, which is great. But whether you rely on those auto-saves or save manually, the interface doesn’t give you any information about each file. There’s no timestamp and no count of your in-game time. You have to just kind of guess which file is which.

With all of the above in mind—and because of viral videos showing serious crashes on the PlayStation and Xbox versions—I don’t feel comfortable recommending this collection to most people. I was unable to reproduce those crashes in my own tests, but based on my experience with crashes on the abysmal Switch version, I believe that they’re certainly possible on other consoles, and that has me spooked enough to recommend against purchases on any system.

Here we (don’t) go again

Instead, you might want to play either the version of GTA San Andreas that comes with paid Xbox Game Pass subscriptions or the version of GTA Vice City that will land on the paid PlayStation Now service in December. I’ve had a good time with San Andreas in particular, since it’s arguably the most robust and feature-packed entry in the trilogy. For now, I think it’s worth grabbing a month or two of Game Pass at its base $10/month subscription rate to boot that title up (and then you can giddily quote CJ’s “here we go again” without fear).

Following that recommendation will set you back no more than $20, or one-third of the Definitive Trilogy‘s asking price. Perhaps by the time you finish that game, Rockstar will have straightened up this mess. Even better, maybe Rockstar will relent in the face of criticism and add an à la carte purchase option.

Right now, the package’s $60 asking price feels like a classic GTA side quest scam. Don’t bite.

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Listing image by Rockstar Games