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The PS2 GTA Trilogy has aged worse than I imagined, and messy remasters don’t help matters

20 years is a long time, and the PS2 GTA trilogy is still revolutionary - but some games age better than others. For the most part, these three feel every bit their 20, 19, and 17 years.

The new GTA Trilogy: The Definitive Edition rerelease is a chance to revisit some all-time classics - but compared to some other remasters I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently, the original source material is really showing its age.

These are some of my favourite games of all time, but still - it’s impossible to entirely ignore just how… ancient these games often feel. Last year we got a collection of Mario games that included the 25 year-old Super Mario 64, and I was blown away by how well that game has aged. Its movement, the feel of it - it’s still tight and satisfying to this day despite being a prototypical ‘blueprint’ 3D adventure. GTA3 is likewise a genre and generation-defining feat that is still emulated to this day… but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as timeless. There’s a sloppiness to the way it moves and handles that betrays its nature as a trailblazer more than with some other games of this era.

Perhaps part of the problem is that open world games have evolved and expanded so explosively since this trio was released. First there were copycats, but then slowly everything became at least a little bit open world, and that surely colors one’s perspective. There’s much since to compare it to, and muscle memory control mannerisms from the last twenty years that are absent here. There’s nothing wrong with games feeling their age, to be clear - but in my mind these three were relatively timeless - so I was surprised to have that view shattered by this remaster. After a bit, I have to admit I just begin to think about reinstalling GTA5.

One aspect that surely ages the games in spite of any visual overhaul is its humor and writing. The humor of GTA3 and its siblings is very much of its time. Some feels lazy and rote by modern standards - but that’s just how time treats a lot of comedy. Other times, what felt like cutting and exaggerated satire of the state of America in the early 2000s just feels like it could now be ripped from the headlines. GTA still comes in for a lot of stick from both the mainstream and specialist media for its politics, but I only truly realized how much the series has actually matured in its worldview and delivery in GTA5 after returning to the original 3D trilogy. It’s a significant leap.

With all that said, I still do think these games are fun to play, if occasionally fiddly and riddled with the sort of mission design that’d never fly now. That’s par for the course with older games, but the point is it’s still pretty fun. There’s something charming about the especially slippery way in which vehicles handle in GTA3, for instance, and one thing that I find particularly fascinating is to track the evolution of the series across the three games. Bundling these three together makes perfect sense, because one naturally flows to the next. There’s an incremental manner to how each builds on the successes and rights the failures of the last - and in the modern context, it’s a fascinating and engaging history lesson that gives a whole new perspective to all three. Playing on Xbox Series X and swapping between the three instantaneously with Quick Resume was an enlightening experience.

The remasters themselves are… fine, at least when they work right - which annoyingly isn't often enough, with good changes undermined by bugs or otherwise smart tweaks that have unintended negative consequences. These are workmanlike recreations, though your mileage is going to vary depending on how attached you are to the original look of the games and how tolerant you are of muddying artistic changes, bugs and performance problems.

At a base level, these are solid enough remasters - but at times they do sort of resemble when that old lady ‘fixed’ a precious historical painting of Jesus and, er, ruined it. As a Final Fantasy fan, I know this feeling all too well, as Square Enix has done this to their classics on the regular.

Anyway, to give an example, the extra draw distance is certainly an undeniably positive change. Vistas and long streets look better and more populated. The cities feel more alive and real, especially when you get to Los Santos, where on PS2 its density ensured a ridiculously short viewing distance ahead of you that lopped off everything further than a couple of blocks. Even this positive change partially backfires, though - hop into a plane or climb the highest mountains and the lack of culling and ambience means you can see San Andreas and the other zones in full from a distance - exposing them not as living, breathing worlds, but as an abnormally-shaped landmass floating in the middle of a dead ocean like a damn Super Monkey Ball level - inherently videogamey.

But there’s still more positive. The improvements to controls, shooting lock-on, and so on are all significant, and decent. These games do feel moderately more modern in how they control than they used to.

Other changes are debatable - far more aggressive reflections throughout look better in some places but distracting and uncanny elsewhere. Most of the texture upgrades are good - but in places, the changes to color and lighting feel to sap away the established mood of certain locales and scenes. Finally, there’s the purely bad stuff - like how minor NPCs who had very distinct character designs in the original games have been homogenized into more generic beings by the remastering process. I dunno what the hell is going on with the rain effects, but they’re so aggressive to actually make me feel ill. Then there’s the missing music! Don’t even get me started on that. Is it really Vice City if Billie Jean doesn’t play the first time you enter a vehicle? I don’t think it really is. Just pay the Jackson estate whatever they want, for god’s sake. This release isn’t exactly cheap!

Basically - and excuse the cliche - it’s a mixed bag. There’s also outright performance problems, bugs and weird errors - but I do expect those to get fixed over the coming months, given the entirely reasonable uproar on social media. Switch is one thing, but even with the visual improvements a game this old that looks like this shouldn’t be having performance issues on PlayStation or Xbox. But even if all those problems are fixed, there’s developer choices in these remasters that’ll mean they’re forever an uneven experience.

If we assume the egregious bugs and performance issues will be addressed, the rocky nature of the remaster feels almost fitting. These are imperfect remasters of wholly imperfect games. They never were perfect, despite their cultural significance and general brilliance. Not every single all-timer is going to age gracefully - and this trilogy might be the ultimate proof of that. With that said, Rockstar had better patch around and tweak some of the changes that have negative effects.

It’s good to have versions of these games running on current hardware, and in newer software that’ll be more future-proof in compatibility terms. They just don’t really feel worth the full-blown RRP. And even then, if you get it on sale - don’t expect it to hit like it did in the noughties. Some games have that timeless magic, but not these ones. If you want that feeling again, you might be better off playing GTA5.

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