Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is perhaps one of the most well-known, well-recognized, and perhaps one of the most consistent series in all of gaming. Originally developed by Rockstar North which at the time was DMA Design, the top-down games for the original PlayStation were decent hits, although the series would come to be the behemoth it is today with 2001’s Grand Theft Auto 3. A fully 3D open-world game with gorgeous visuals at the time was enough to make fans of the medium salivate back in 2001, but Rockstar poured in a lot of its own creative juices that elevated the series to great heights.
Now, 20 years later – Grove Street Games has released a remastered trilogy in the form of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. It’s not a full-fledged remake, and it’s not a by-the-numbers remaster either. It sits somewhere in between, and from what we’ve seen – there are quite a few things that have changed this time around.
The original game used most of the techniques that were prevalent during games of the era. Of course, there weren’t any fancy tricks as used in games of today – ray-tracing, dynamic lighting, and what have you. In the original, a lot of the reflections seem to be baked into surfaces themselves – such as the hood of a car. Light poles, sunlight, and other sources of light do project direct reflections on the surface themselves – which helps the game’s lighting techniques achieve some degree of dynamic lighting. Shadows are also primitive and seem to be mostly unhindered by external sources of light. Another point worth noting is the color palette that’s used in the world, which mostly consists of darker shades – a conscious choice to hide the many inefficiencies with the game’s lighting and reflective surfaces.
In the remastered version, a completely new lighting system is in place as the game is ported over to Unreal Engine 4. Immediately, you can notice a big change in how sources of light have proper projections and how surfaces react to the projected light. There are also proper shadows, all of them are in higher resolutions. There’s no ray-tracing, and there also doesn’t seem to be any traces of indirect lighting techniques either. The color palette also seems to have been altered with more vibrant colors, which might be a bit controversial but definitely seems to serve well in this case.
Grand Theft Auto 3 was a huge game for its time, and while DVD technology opened up multiple possibilities – DMA Design would still have to keep ambitions in check for the character models. Polygon budgets needed to be kept in check, as the game would have to fit several character models in a frame at a time and even more in memory to be streamed instantaneously without any loading screens. That said, they were still quite impressive back in the day, even though they are primitive by modern standards.
For the Definitive Edition, we are presuming they have used some sort of upscaling technology which would most probably have involved some sort of AI algorithms and then retouched textures and models by hand. That said, not all players seem to be fans of the updated models. Of course, some NPCs have gotten more love than others which does lend some inconsistency to the whole affair.
Streaming Technology, Draw Distance, and NPC Density
While the original Grand Theft Auto games did have open environments that players could explore at their own pace, a fully 3D environment that should be as deep as it is large was a monumental undertaking on DMA Design’s behalf. Using Criterion Games’ Renderware engine as the basis, the team would continue to create prototypes of the game’s world while still deciding on the level of detail for environments to get a streaming model that would actually work in the constraints of the hardware. Keep in mind there was only 32 MB of RAM, and it had to contain at least a decent-sized chunk of the game’s map that wouldn’t break if you went too fast. On top of that, there were a ton of other things that had to fit within the memory as well.
Using a laundry list of technical wizardry, DMA Design was able to get a streaming system in place that could render the Liberty City without any loading screens. Of course, a lot of work had to be done in the NPC department too, as the lack of any pedestrians would make the city feel empty. A ton of character models for the NPCs had to be stored, along with their own behavior trees, voice lines, and whatnot.
Draw DIstance is perhaps the most important parameter that designers can turn to get acceptable performance for games that have to render huge worlds. Given that the hardware of that time displayed visuals at standard resolution, there was a fair bit of leeway for the development team to render faraway objects in half detail, reduce animations of NPCs to half once they were at a certain distance, or better yet – envelope the distant surroundings in thick fog entirely to save precious resources or get a few more frames of performance. Getting Grand Theft Auto 3 to work at target 30fps on the sixth-generation consoles was a massive technological achievement that cannot be overstated, although the development team would continue building upon the foundations established for future entries in the series.
For the Definitive Edition, a combination of Unreal Engine 4’s powerful feature set and the fact that modern hardware is exponentially more powerful makes running these games in higher definition a relatively easy task. Of course, that’s not to undermine the improvements in any way – from the higher resolution textures to the increased draw distance for the environments to seemingly an increased number of NPCs all around – there’s a lot of change in the Definitive Edition. A modern console has at least 8 GB of RAM, which is more than enough to comfortably fit all information for this 20-year-old game, albeit with a fresh coat of paint. Unlike the original, there’s no need for a sophisticated streaming model to get things to render in an orderly fashion given a large memory pool.
Animation And Other Improvements
Grand Theft Auto 3 also had a lot of cinematic flares, with a ton of camera angles and other cinematic tricks being used during the game’s cutscenes. Of course, that required a lot of work in the animation department and DMA Design did use some primitive motion capture to make the animations look great. However, looking back at it today – all of this looks rather primitive with janky animations making the characters and the NPCs look rather cartoony. As evident from the footage of the Definitive Edition, this is an area that hasn’t gotten any love.
Weather effects and other particle effects like explosions, water, and fire have also been souped up with higher resolution textures and alpha effects, although they don’t seem as palatable to the modern gamer eye as the other improvements. The opening shot of the game which sees a vehicle lit on fire looks rather primitive, and so do the weather effects such as rain. Loading times have also seen a massive improvement this time around, with the game’s Definitive Edition loading in just a couple of seconds on the PS5. This is of course, in stark contrast to the game’s original release, which could take almost a minute to load into a save.
Physics and Attention To Detail
The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its goofy yet realistic physics systems, as well as the developer’s penchant for crafting immaculately detailed worlds filled to the brim with secrets – all of which stands true for Grand Theft Auto 3 as well. DMA Design also put Renderware’s physics systems to great use, adding a great deal of realism to the whole affair. Cars would get dents and scratches according to what hit it, where it hit, and how fast it was. Explosions would knock you back too, and there are a ton of other similar little but essential details that are essential to the experience.
For the Definitive Edition, it seems that a few details have been lost in the transition. Many areas in the original included a bunch of newspapers lying on the ground which would fly around, making the world feel a bit more realistic. In the Definitive Edition, many areas lack these minor details. Furthermore, when throwing a grenade in water, the original would explode underneath the water whereas, in the Definitive Edition, the grenade explodes on impact at the surface of the water.
In conclusion, Grand Theft Auto 3: The Definitive Edition has many things that have been improved upon but at the same time, many details have seen a bit of a downgrade as well. It’s an inconsistent package that could have been better had it spent more time in the oven. What’s here is certainly impressive, and a notable step-up from the original – although certain rough edges in the package do make this remaster effort a bit sour.