Grand Theft Auto 3: The Definitive Edition Review

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Grand Theft Auto 3: The Definitive Edition
Developer: Grove Street Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: 11 November 2021
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5

Grand Theft Auto 3: The Definitive Edition is part of the new Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition collection available on all current platforms. Touting visual enhancements, performance upgrades and gameplay tweaks, this collection of remasters purports to offer the ultimate way to experience these classic games.

Forbidden fruit

I grew up in a relatively strict Catholic household, the kind where my Irish grandad would give nine-year-old me sips of his beer one day and where my dad would pre-screen X-Men to see if he thought I could handle it the next (he didn’t). Grand Theft Auto 3 was something of a holy grail to me back then; a game I had to go my friend Alex’s house to play in secrecy, knowing full well I wouldn’t be allowed to own it myself for years to come.

Even at that young age, I had a sense of how truly groundbreaking Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 3 was. It was unlike anything I’d ever played. It’s funny that an open world crime game was ever a novelty, but GTA 3 really was a landmark event. A game that let you go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, in whoever’s car you wanted. A game that offered you freedom, or something like it.

20 years later, Rockstar and port studio Grove Street Games have released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. As the games downloaded to my PS5, it wasn’t the neon glitz of Vice City or the vastness of San Andreas that first called to me. It was the bleak, mean streets of Liberty City, a twisted mirror image of New York at the turn of the century. GTA 3 is often overshadowed by its sequels, but I wanted to go back to where it all started. I couldn’t help but wonder: does Grand Theft Auto 3 hold up?

It’s complicated.

Give me Liberty

It’s certainly eye-opening to replay GTA 3 in 2021, when games are still building upon the blueprint it laid out. In many ways, the game seems downright quaint when seen through modern eyes. 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V opens with a bombastic bank robbery and car chase straight out of a Michael Mann movie; GTA 3’s first proper quest tasks you with giving a sex worker a lift home. The missions are simplistic, the side-activities are crude, and you’re only given a limited set of weapons and tools with which to approach them.

But GTA 3’s relatively small scope doesn’t prevent it from being a tonne of fun. Cruising down the street in a stolen sports car, royalty free music blaring and your Uzi rattling, is every bit as enjoyable as it was in 2001. The gameplay is satisfying and arcade-y, with an immediacy that newer GTA games have lost a bit in their trend towards realism. GTA 3‘s plot, such as it is, channels classic crime stories like Goodfellas and The Sopranos and boasts a wide cast of larger than life characters.

Liberty City itself is surprisingly lifelike; I’ve seen New York for myself since the last time I played the game, and it has been endlessly amusing to recognise places I’ve been. It’s actually quite impressive how much of the city’s feel Rockstar was able to convey on the PlayStation 2, a console less powerful than the phones in our pockets today. Liberty’s individual pedestrians don’t have a huge amount of personality, but collectively they add up to help the city become what every romantic comedy director claims New York to be: an additional character in the story.

Modernity and antiquity

Some tweaks have been made to the gameplay to bring it in line with the expectations of modern players. Prior to release, Rockstar touted ‘GTAV-inspired modern controls’. Let’s just say that the word ‘inspired’ is doing a lot of the heavy lifting there. Driving is definitely much improved, with acceleration now controlled by the right trigger rather than a face button. This gives you a lot more control over the speed of your vehicle, a welcome benefit given how much time you spend weaving through oncoming traffic.

Gunplay is a different story; GTA 3 now having over-the-shoulder free aiming doesn’t suddenly make the game a tactical cover shooter. Enemies are still kind of dumb, and while they’ll occasionally take cover behind cars and crates, they will rush you en masse most of the time. There simply isn’t enough time to manually aim at each Triad or mafioso without dying, and about halfway through the game I turned on aim assist in order to make it through gunfights alive.

Grove Street Games have added a few quality of life changes, such as GPS navigation in vehicles and the ability to set custom waypoints on the map. Failing a mission no longer requires you to drive all the way to the quest giver; instead, a new checkpoint system lets you jump back into the action almost immediately. Some frustrations remain from the original game, however. Silent protagonist Claude still can’t bail from a moving car, forcing you to come to a complete stop if your vehicle catches fire and threatens to explode. The game autosaves after every successful mission but you’ll still have to schlep to your safehouse if you want to make a manual save.

So, Grand Theft Auto 3 the game is still great, but what about Grand Theft Auto 3 the ‘definitive’ rerelease? Remaking or remastering an older game raises an interesting philosophical question. Should the new version play exactly how the original game did, or should it play how you remember it playing? What developer Grove Street Games presupposes is: what if it did neither?

Busted

The Definitive Edition’s myriad technical problems have been well-documented at this point, but they’re still no less baffling. If there are too many explosions on screen, the game slows to a crawl; it’s simply unacceptable for a dolled up PS2 game to have such an inconsistent frame rate on brand new consoles. Even when the game is running smoothly, the threat of lost progress looms large. The game hard crashes roughly every 45 minutes, forcing me to constantly race back to my safehouse to save to avoid losing collectables I’d discovered.

Rockstar has released the first of many promised updates since I started playing the game. If nothing else, this patch at least addressed the release version’s bizarre rain effect that completely obscured the screen. Many issues remain, however. Bugs and glitches are rife, with characters falling through the ground and minor collisions sending cars flying into the air. Some signage from the original game is even misspelled, ruining visual gags in the process.

Cut corners

Much of this seems to be a result of the use of machine learning to automatically upgrade the resolution of game textures. AI has come a long way, but evidently the technology isn’t ready to be used without human supervision. Shouldn’t somebody be checking this stuff? This definitive edition isn’t cheap; Rockstar is charging £55 for the trilogy. This level of sloppiness makes it feel more like a budget release rushed out the door to hit an arbitrary release date.

GTA 3’s updated visuals have also drawn the internet’s ire, but my opinion here differs somewhat. The new lighting effects and real-time reflections add a decent level of verisimilitude to an otherwise cartoony aesthetic. I even quite like the new character models, an opinion that I accept might be in the minority. They’re a little goofy, but for the most part I feel they carry forth the spirit of PS2-era characters to the 4K era. Much of Grove Street Games’s technical work is shoddy, but I’m at peace with the more subjective decisions they’ve made in updating these games.

You can’t go home again

I’d love to be able to recommend The Definitive Edition without reservations, to tell you that this really is the best possible version of Grand Theft Auto 3. That’s sadly just not true. The game itself stands the test of time, but this new incarnation deserved much better. Maybe with enough patches and updates it’ll get there but for now, this version of Grand Theft Auto 3 just isn’t good enough.

I don’t understand why the game was allowed to be released in this state. How could Rockstar show less respect for this trilogy than the rest of us do? Rockstar might have made GTA 3, but GTA 3 made Rockstar in turn; all of their current success flows directly from this game. They would have done well to remember that.

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