GTA Trilogy Definitive Edition proves that in a digital world, no classic game is safe

GTA Trilogy Casino
(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - Definitive Edition releases today, offering a new way to enjoy three classic open world adventures from decades past. But for returning players, this won’t be the games as they remembered them – versions of the GTA games that could one day be lost for good.

The GTA Definitive Edition release packages up the PS2-era GTA 3, Vice City and San Andreas games in one remastered package, touching up the visuals of titles around 20 years old to make them palatable to the eyes of 4K-weaned gamers, and with controls fitting for a modern age.

Though we’ve yet to go hands on with the new-look trilogy, much of what we’ve seen looks promising – there’s an exaggerated art style in-keeping with the spirit of the original releases, improved draw distances and lighting techniques employed, and modernised control schemes that should feel more familiar to this generation of gamers.

Five mean talking on a balcony of a club

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

But, as with the previous mobile re-releases of the games, not every element of the originals have been restored, let alone remastered. Early glimpses of the games show some questionably-drawn character models, as well as a significantly reduced soundtrack, among other eyebrow-raising changes.

Preservation vs evolution

While opinion on the art style differences are a matter of taste (any potentially-shoddy designs should have been avoidable with enough care from the developers), the soundtrack losses are likely to have been inevitable due to the complexities of licensing issues.

In other words, unless you own the original PS2 (or PC) disc versions of these seminal open-world games, you’ll never get to experience them as they were originally envisioned, without dipping your toes into the moral grey area that is emulation. 

And with publisher Take-Two removing the original PC releases of the GTA games from digital storefronts (other platforms’ earlier versions are a curious mix of ports from all over the place), there aren’t really any alternatives for the purist. 

In an era where the majority of games are distributed digitally, updates to online games are mandatory, and physical media is on the decline, your games will forever be in a state of flux and evolution. 

Man walking past the rear of a car in the woods

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

The ‘Definitive’ tag here is a bit of a misnomer when it’s all-but guaranteed that some digitally-applied update, big or small, will inevitably reach even this remastered take on the games.

It’s an issue that once again highlights the need for video game preservation. While remasters like these give players access to a version of these games, it’ll never be the same as those original releases. 

It’s like George Lucas and the original Star Wars films – there’s a whole generation of people who will never know them in their original state, and whether that’s a fair trade in order to get a once-deleted scene of Jabba the Hutt digitally restored is up for debate. 

Remasters killed the radio star

Context is everything here – though older readers may remember the early 3D GTA games with rose-tinted glasses, they would appear archaic by modern standards. 

First time players of today, spoiled by the scale and polish of open-world releases for the likes of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, are unlikely to be blown away in the same way that old-school players were 20 years ago. And so refreshed versions are able to re-capture and re-imagine some of the spirit of playing those original games once again. 

But for the history books and the retro gaming scholar, there are details that will be lost forever. There appear to be examples in the GTA Definitive Edition of character artwork not just being remastered, but instead dramatically changed – old characters now with youthful faces, menacing gangsters now looking simply nonplussed. 

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy GTA 3 remaster

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

The original intention is lost in the remastering process, reminding me of that sadly hilarious ‘monkey Christ’ painting restoration.

It’s a similar loss in terms of the soundtrack. There have been some interesting discussions among the TechRadar team as to the importance of the tracks that are to be lost in the GTA Trilogy Definitive Editions. 

Will they be missed when there are dozens of songs still in each game? Should they have been replaced with era-appropriate tracks where licenses are available? Should Rockstar have splashed the cash to reclaim the original rights in full – even if other parts of the game will no longer be like-for-like with the original versions?

At this point it’s academic – for the majority of gamers going forward, Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition is the only way you’ll be able to play these games, and the cuts and additions applied are what you’re stuck with. 

For many, that’ll be more than fine – 95% of a classic trilogy returning in an improved format unscathed is cause for celebration. 

But it makes me sad to think a whole new generation of GTA fans might not get to enjoy the neon-lit thrills of outrunning an entire police precinct while Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out blares out of the car radio at the same time.

Gerald Lynch

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.