If you have any interest in videogames, then it is highly unlikely that you haven’t been touched by the scorching winds of the firestorm raging around the release of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. At the very least, you will have noticed the plumes of acrid smoke on the horizon as customers swamp Rockstar with refund demands via social media, for a product that has disappointed and shocked the GTA fanbase with it’s shoddiness. Now, I’m not here to tell you that videogame drama is actually something important in life, but this is a pretty big deal within the hobby.
Grand Theft Auto III, for example, was a landmark, ground-breaking title that wrote the blueprint for the modern sandbox/playground style of game – a blueprint that has been photocopied to absolute death and continues to spend a lot of time on said metaphorical copier. It was a game that defined a generation and could genuinely be considered ‘important’ for the evolution of the medium. The follow-up, Vice City, was more of the same but remains more popular due to it being a love-letter to the 1980s. The final game to be
cursed treated to a 2021 remaster was San Andreas – perhaps not as nostalgic as III and Vice City for many but still wildly popular for it’s staggering scope, memorable characters, and the way the Playstation 2 literally struggled to handle Rockstar’s ambition at times. The point is that, regardless of your favourite, these were all huge, triple-A titles that transcended into cultural icons and, as such, there has always been a powerful affection for these games and the experiences that our younger selves had when pouring hours into these virtual worlds.
You would, therefore, expect these games to be handled with the utmost care and reverence when polishing them up for the year 2021. They have a status to respect, and millions of fans worldwide who WILL pick up on the most minute of inconsistencies and problems. So I guess that’s why Rockstar outsourced the remasters to somebody else (Grove Street Games), said, “fuck it” to quality control, and punted out this absolutely sloppy effort. Obviously, they knew that gamers would pre-order and pre-load this release regardless of the lack of info because, let’s face it, you could obtain a steaming, freshly-birthed dog turd from your nearest alleyway, carve the GTA logo into it, and sell it to pretty much anybody. The whole thing is so cynical and so representative of the lazy, cash-grabbing, prideless attitudes infesting Western videogame development and publishing that it genuinely puts me off gaming as a whole.
I loved these games back in their day, and I’ve been playing them on-and-off ever since so, when I heard about these remasters, I was intrigued. My curiosity was further piqued by news of the Nintendo Switch version because a portable San Andreas seemed too good to be true (and it was…it really was). Fortunately, I managed to avoid investing any of my money into this embarassing shitshow thanks to a combination of cynicism (assuming that Rockstar would be pumping out a quick, lazy rehash to bring in money for minimal effort), caution (remembering how rubbish the previous updated 2014 versions were), and good-old common sense. This last one is most important because I kept trying to warn people that something was most likely wrong when there was no further information, screenshots, or footage being made available as the release drew closer. How much of the original music would actually be retained as a result of expired licensing agreements? Nobody knew and, seemingly, nobody cared because the hype for these remasters remained real despite the utter lack of pre-release material. I took a step back and was disappointed at how gamers were so eager to ignore the red flags and hand over their money for pre-orders without having seen anything. They put their faith in Rockstar and were rewarded with horror on November the 11th 2021 when they awoke to find a grunting, obese bull straddling their body and ejecting the hot, sloppy contents of its digestive system all over their upturned faces and into their screaming mouths. It didn’t taste good.
I’m not going to go into depth about the problems because a) there isn’t enough internet capacity available and b) so many people have already done that. What I will do, for anybody who somehow doesn’t have a fucking clue what I’m going on about, is just quickly list some of the stuff I have seen or heard about first-hand from those I know who have been playing the GTA remasters:
- Freezing and general instability
- Absolutely borked, deformed NPC characters models that make no anatomical sense
- Character models that somehow look worse than the originals
- Random vehicles mowing characters down in the middle of cutscenes
- An invisible bridge in San Andreas
- Cars being randomly launched across the map
- Falling through floors into a glitchy hell (so early 2000s…)
- A nasty rain effect that has no depth and makes visibility a struggle in the dark
- Removal of the fog in San Andreas‘, making the map look a lot smaller and just silly when up in the air
- Drastic frame rate drop and slowdown on the Switch when the screen is busy
- Spelling errors on in-game signage (how is this even possible…?)
On top of the technical issues, over 40 songs are now missing across the trilogy, including Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean which makes the opening of Vice City much less evocative. There are also bits and pieces here and there that have been removed so as not to cause offense in this far more sensitive age (something I find incredibly ironic given how the GTA games are all about the satire…)
Through all of this, there are still the valiant ones trying to find the positives with the praise largely directed towards the GTA V-style controls and the general improvement of the visuals, effects, and…foliage. Yes, it’s a rough day when you can take solace in the increased detail of bushes and trees. Prettier these games may be, but it doesn’t excuse anything in my book. Products have to have credible substance beneath the exterior gloss or else the customer is just allowing themselves to be deceived. Put it this way: would you rather have Kate Upton dressed in dirty bin bags, or a toothless, bow-legged old crack whore garbed in beautiful lingerie? And, yes, I’m well aware of the irony of criticising superficiality by using an analogy involving a supermodel, doubly so when GTA games themselves poke fun at how superficial and image-obssessed Western society is.
This post isn’t just about how bad the GTA Trilogy is, however: this is a post where I’m going to break out the Truth Cannon and fire some serious shots at more than just Rockstar themselves, though I’m definitely going to start with Grand Theft Auto‘s owners. What were they thinking? Did they really believe it was a good idea to sign off this travesty rather than just delaying it? Was hitting that seasonal period really more important than maintaining their reputation? I just find it staggering – absolutely staggering – that a business with as much experience in the industry, and such a rich back catalogue of top-draw games to their name, think that’s it’s intelligent and acceptable to behave this way. They also did themselves no favours by delisting all previous versions of the games from digital storefronts in order to make The Definitive Edition the only option (though they have recently reversed this decision if what I have read is true), and aggressively lashing out at the modding community. The latter is especially worth discussing because the modding community has produced exceptional works.
I’ve seen footage of modders who have recreated these games in the GTA V engine, for example, and they look incredible. I’ve also seen what modders have done to GTA IV and V to boost their visuals to heady heights – to the point where some of the latest efforts look photo-realistic. Now Rockstar have been targetting this community with cease-and-desists (even though nobody is actually trying to sell this stuff) which is leaving a bad taste in gamers’ mouths. Just when you thought that bull had finished dropping his suffocating load all over your face, there’s a follow-up blast of cow diarrhea.
Rockstar are entitled to protect their IP (as is anybody) but don’t buy into that being their reason. I believe that they have been shown up by the modding community, and are embarassed by how poor their official remaster is versus what fans are creating in their bedrooms. Just consider all of the comments on some of these mods where people are saying that they wish the real thing would look like this, or – before the remasters actually landed – that they hope the games will resemble these unofficial upgrades. And why shouldn’t they have these hopes? Is it unreasonable to expect a giant like Rockstar – the people who created these much-loved worlds in the first place – to be able to easily put bedroom coders in the shade? I don’t think it is. Rockstar should be beasting this, and if we need to wait a year or two for the final product, then so be it. Rushing out a dodgy remaster package in a matter of months and hiding all sign of it to dupe your customers into pre-ordering is a very poor alternative option. Worse still, it’s pure abuse of your customers and the good faith that they place in you to deliver on your promise of a quality, enjoyable product. It’s disgusting to me, and the exact opposite of how a business should conduct itself.
But the truth is that Rockstar will probably get away scot-free with this. We can talk all we want about how their reputation will be tarnished, about how the internet erupted into anger, and about how much money they will have given back through refunds, but the reality is that gamers (and consumers in general) don’t have a strong enough set of principles to force an industry giant like Rockstar to change their ways. Gamers have a knack for rewarding mediocrity and failure with praise and financial success so, even while Rockstar are busy fighting the fires that are devouring The Definitive Edition, their coffers continue to be filled thanks to all the people who keep paying into GTA Online. And you can bet that pre-orders for GTA VI (whenever it happens) will break industry records when gamers should be exercising greater caution and not placing so much blind faith in Rockstar. If you don’t punish publishers for their failings, then there is no requirement for them to behave any differently if they are still making a profit. A stand must be taken at some point but I fear that gamers don’t have the backbone or restraint to establish some core principles and stick to their guns.
What I’m saying is that gamers are also the problem. Rockstar felt that they could dump this underwhelming heap on the market because they knew they’d ultimately get away with it. They know how the gaming community behaves, and how very few gamers learn from past disasters and continue to invest their hard-earned cash into pre-orders or Season Passes that have zero available information for what they will include. The phrase “vote with your wallet” has never been more relevant than it is today. We have so much choice of videogames (too much choice if you ask me), with thousands of quality titles available in the back catalogues, so there is no reason to exchange our time, attention, and money for substandard fare or poor treatment. We certainly should not allow ourselves to get sucker-punched more than once by a shocking release but it keeps happening. Did nobody learn from the Cyberpunk 2077 debacle? Practice greater caution and start thinking critically. It’s how I avoided jumping in to this GTA-shaped cesspool – by recognising that something must be wrong if Rockstar weren’t showing us any in-game footage.
But what hope is there when so many gamers have accepted the increasingly-standardised industry practice of releasing a buggy mess and just patching it up later on? I’ve spoken to people who say that this is “just how it is” these days. No! It’s only this way because of what I spoke about above: because you allow publishers to behave this way. We have decades of videogame development experience to draw upon so there’s no reason that this should be happening more and more. It’s a Western problem too. Obviously, not all Japanese games are bug-free, just as not all Western games are glitchy messes, but the general lay of the land is that Japanese stuff is just less likely to hit the market with issues. If Nintendo can consistently put out quality, drama-free software and turn a healthy profit in the process, why can’t the likes of Rockstar and Betheseda – giants of the industry loaded with resources and experience – do the same? There’s no excuse at all.
The ultimate conclusion for me personally, is that I have added Rockstar to my list of publishers/developers to avoid when it comes to day one releases. It’s a sad thing because I used to laud the GTA games and their consistent levels of quality but I just don’t feel that I can include Rockstar in that group anymore. In truth, the rot began with the 2014 editions when they decided that it would be a fine idea to convert iOS versions of the games to Xbox 360 and PS3 ports. That questionable course of action aside, the games themselves were not good. I played the PS3 version of San Andreas and it was riddled with issues, such as bad shooting controls, glitchy radio, and everything having a weird glossy, wet look. The final straw was when I found completing the flight school impossible due to the game consistently freezing on the same mission. I remember binning the game off in disgust and reverting to my original PS2 copy, warts and all. As it transpires, Grove Street Games were also responsible for those 2014 versions. All the pieces fall neatly into place.
The “definitive” editions of these games will always be the original PS2 versions for me. Yes, they look quite dated now and – especially where San Andreas is concerned – the host hardware struggles to keep up, but where else can you enjoy all of the original music, and only the amusing glitches (San Andreas‘ “Tractor Launcher” and absolutely mental freeway traffic for example)? In fact, this whole sorry episode recently inspired me to purchase physical copies of the games for the original Xbox. These versions retain everything that made the PS2 originals so enjoyable but come with uprated visuals courtesy of the Xbox’s superior grunt. They’re all the remastering I’ll ever need…