After the unprecedented success of Rockstar North’s first 3D Grand Theft Auto, the team quickly began to make a sequel. Just over a year later, the team would ship a sequel to its genre-defining open-world franchise in the form of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Ditching the dusty and drab streets of Liberty City, the game would instead take place on the sandy shores of Vice City which is, of course, inspired by real-life Miami. Rockstar would achieve success again with this release, proving yet once again why it’s one of the best in the business.
Less than a year short of the game’s 20th anniversary, Grove Street Games has released an updated version of the game in its latest Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. While it sits comfortably between a full-fledged remake and a low-effort remaster, there’s a lot of things that have been changed this time around. Let’s have a look.
Much like Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City also utilizes Criterion’s RenderWare engine. In the lighting department, not a lot seems to have been changed. It still uses the same techniques, although that’s not to state there aren’t any improvements over Grand Theft Auto 3. Shadows look sharper for the most part, and given the game’s setting – there are a lot more sources of light present in the environment. There’s still no form of indirect reflection on most surfaces, although car surfaces and character models do light up and accordingly reflect some sources of light such as traffic lights. Buildings, on the other hand, seem to have some baked-in self-reflections which are particularly noticeable at night which gives the illusion of ambient occlusion. Shadows are also sharper across the board.
In the game’s Definitive Edition, a whole new lighting system has been set in place, and the difference is night and day. Reflections are more accurate and have higher resolutions, and buildings do have proper ambient occlusion. To retain an authentic feel reminiscent of the original, it seems that the developer has increased the intensity of neon lights in order to cast proper shadows on the roads. Cars have glossy exteriors and reflect sunlight with precision which gives them a pristine look. Given how essential lighting is to the neon-soaked 80s presentation of Vice City, an updated lighting model along with clever retouching seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in making the game’s presentation look palatable to the eye.
Grand Theft Auto 3‘s character models were certainly impressive for the time, but Rockstar was able to outdo themselves for the sequel as they got to grips with the PlayStation 2 era hardware. As an engine is optimized over time, developers can essentially cram in a lot more polygons to make the environments and most importantly, character models believable. According to Rockstar, polygon budgets for character models in Vice City were doubled when compared to Grand Theft Auto 3. Vice City also features markedly better facial animations, as rudimentary as they might be.
While both games might look equally primitive today, the bump in visual quality was very appreciable especially given the sunny and bright aesthetic for the game which didn’t allow for darker colour palettes to mask the lack of detail. For the game’s Definitive Edition, I am presuming that Grove Street Games has used some form of AI upscaling for both character models and textures then manually retouched them to give them the proper look. While the character models are a natural evolution of the originals, not all fans have responded kindly to the changes. That said, I personally think that out of all the games in the trilogy, Vice City‘s character models look the tidiest and the most consistent.
Streaming, NPC Density, and Draw Distance
Rendering a fully 3D open world was a big technical marvel when Grand Theft Auto 3 was released in 2001, although the developers did manage to craft a more richer and vibrant world with the sequel without any sacrifices to the visuals or the framerate. The streaming system works wonderfully as there are little to no loading screens while traversing the game’s world. The draw distance also seems to have received a bump, although that isn’t too surprising considering that Vice City‘s world isn’t littered with the same number of tall buildings as the first game. NPC density looks to be the same level, the foliage looks marginally better, although they might have used the same tricks and techniques of swapping level of details and animation play rates to make the performance smooth.
The game’s definitive edition uses Unreal Engine 4, which can afford to render a large portion of the map without any sacrifices to the game’s performance. Of course, that’s largely because modern consoles have exponentially large amounts of memory when compared to the now-antiquated PlayStation 2 era hardware. The draw distance is massive, and you won’t encounter any signs of pop-in like the original where trees would fade into view when at a certain distance. Foliage is remarkably better, and more dense – which looks great with the game’s overall art style. NPC Density looks to be roughly the same, which isn’t a complaint by any means.
Animation And Other Improvements
Rockstar had utilized rudimentary motion capture technology for Grand Theft Auto 3, and the usage of the technology was cranked up to eleven for Vice City. The game has entirely new animations, and while it might look primitive by today’s standards it is certainly an improvement over the mostly hilariously janky animations of the first game. Rockstar used both motion capture and stop-motion animation techniques to achieve a markedly better result across both cutscenes and gameplay. The loading times were also improved, with Vice City taking just over 20 seconds or so to start a fresh save on the PS2. In the remaster, there aren’t any noticeable improvements to the animation to speak of. There are improvements to the loading times, with the Definitive Edition loading in just a couple of seconds on the PS5.
Physics And Attention To Detail
Grand Theft Auto 3‘s signature physics system has been improved by a lot in Vice City, allowing players to go haywire with the game’s vehicles. For instance, you can drive cars on just two wheels if you are skilled enough. Of course, there are motorbikes as well – and you can do some absolutely ludicrous stunts if you are good enough. Rockstar’s signature attention to detail is also present here too – fired bullets leave trails of smoke behind, shooting the tyres of a car would flatten them, glasses of cars can also be broken using bullets or melee attacks and there are a ton of similarly minute yet impactful details for eagle-eyed players to indulge in.
While the physics system looks to be unchanged, there are some differences in the attention to detail department. Much like Grand Theft Auto 3‘s Definitive Edition conversion, there are no newspapers lying on the ground in many areas of the map. The beach area also seems devoid of detail, unlike the original which had tons of mats, newspapers, and palm tree leaves lying around. On the bright side however, waves seem to have received a big boost in quality. The waves splash when a grenade is lobbed in it or bullets are fired on the surface. Both details are absent from the original release. Particle effects such as smoke, fire and explosions are much richer and impactful than the original release, as well, and so are the weather effects such as rain and fog which work very well in tandem with the new lighting system.
Out of all three entries in Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, Vice City seems to have received the most love making it the best among the bunch. A completely redone lighting system does wonders on the neon-soaked, sunny shores of the city. Clever attention to detail in some aspects also makes the experience richer for returning fans, although there are certain details that have been lost in the transition too. Updated character models look the best out of the remastered trilogy, which coupled with technical improvements makes the remaster worthwhile for fans of the original release.