An exclusive behind the scenes look at GTA 5’s most impressive visual overhaul mod


I first spoke to Jamal Rashid, aka Razed, the creator of the formidable NaturalVision Remastered visual overhaul mod for GTA 5, in 2017.

Back then, his breath-taking project had consumed 1,200 unpaid hours of his free-time, wherein he’d studied over 40 hours of video footage, hundreds of photographs, and had lost count of the number of virtual visits he’d made to the real-life streets of Los Angeles and neighbouring settlement Salton Sea on Google Street Maps – portrayed in GTA 5 as Los Santos and Blaine County.

In March 2018, Razed had tripled that time-investment with a stunning hyper-realistic update, and by October that year had declared the project complete with one “final” knockout iteration inspired by the then incoming Red Dead Redemption 2.

And that was it. Well, that was it until last Friday, when Razed unveiled NaturalVision Evolved, an eye-watering visual overhaul that somehow blows his previous work out of the water. It’s still in early access, but has already eaten up one-and-a-half years of development time, which equates to almost 6,200 hours of work. Thank Epsilon art is never finished.

“When I finished NaturalVision Remastered, I did think that was it,” Razed explains. “I had no idea at the time I’d work on something bigger, and I thought that was as good as it gets. But it seems I spoke too soon.

“Red Dead Redemption 2 came out for consoles around the same time I released the last update for NaturalVision Remastered. I was completely blown away by the lighting in that game. It made me rethink everything and made me realise what I’d been doing wrong with my GTA project. This motivated me to work on a complete overhaul of NaturalVision and improve upon the lighting, colours and overall style of the mod.”

In doing so, Razed has created the most ambitious Grand Theft Auto 5 visual overhaul yet – a feat made all the more impressive by the fact the game itself is five years old on PC, almost seven on consoles. New aesthetic features here include improved particle effects, moon rays, new street lights, and a custom sky dome.

Razed assures me he and a few helpers are only getting warmed up, and while it’d be easy to disregard that promise as platitudinal, given the standards and consistency with which the creator has delivered before, I cannot wait to see what’s ahead. What’s behind, on the other hand, sounds like meticulous, painstaking work.

“I’ve put an enormous amount of time and effort into this project,” Razed adds. “Currently clocking 6,194 hours in GTA 5 on Steam. This is mostly due to lack of proper modding tools. For instance, it is extremely difficult to place custom time-cycle modifiers around the map without being able to measure the precise min/max XYZ coordinates for the bounding box.

“The others helping me with the project have done their part too. Editing models or creating shaders can take days or weeks depending on what you’re doing. My buddy Robin is currently working on a complete vegetation overhaul which will take months to complete, so I can’t wait to see how that turns out.

“If I had the same tools that Rockstar use, then I could probably make a lot of interior and exterior environments look better without spending so much time on them. Currently you have to restart the game each time to see what you changed. We have tools to reload weather time-cycles, though… so I guess it’s not all that bad.”

Admittedly, much of the creation-side minutiae of NaturalVision Evolved is over my head, but when the end product is so mouth-wateringly gorgeous, I don’t think that really matters. So long as Razed and his team keep doing what they’re doing, I’m more than happy to watch my PC melt as it strives to keep pace with the 2016 Lykan HyperSport zipping through the screens afoot, or the Subaru tearing up the city in the trailer above.

A full gallery of NV Evolved in its current state lives on Flickr, and below is a smattering of exclusive images, oozing with atmospheric detail and accompanied by musings from Razed himself.

I must agree with Cian’s suggestion that the rain and headlight interchange is the above trailer’s most alluring feature – and just look how gorgeous that comes off on the reworked still of the Hollywood Walk of Fame here.

The Galileo Observatory glowing in the late afternoon sun in ExtraSunny weather.

This shows a parking garage that I edited using time-cycle modifiers in order to increase interior reflections and lighting intensity. You can also see the screen-space global illumination effect really well in this image.

The morning sun rises as the residents of Los Santos begin their daily commute.

The highlight of this image are the screen-space rain reflections and the depth of field shader we made for NVE. I love using it during rainy nights.

In the heat of a 5-star police chase. Driving in one of my favourite classic sports cars – the Lamborghini Countach.

Foggy weather with a haunting atmosphere. This was heavily inspired by RDR2’s foggy nights.

Cruising in the 2016 Lykan HyperSport – one of my favourite vehicles. This was made for me by my friend vans123 who creates amazing GTAV car mods. He was also responsible for making the Subaru used in the NaturalVision Evolved trailer.

Dawn in the Blaine County countryside. In this image you will notice that I use a vignette-ing effect on the top part of the screen in order to mimic a polarized image. I’m a big fan of polarized photos.

Razed is a big fan of polarized photos, and is clearly also a big fan of GTA 5. He’s launched a Patreon to help subsidise his latest and hugely ambitious venture, but so much of his incredible work so far has been for the love of a game now half a decade old on PC, and a world now pushing seven. So, what is it that keeps Razed coming back to San Andreas time and time again?

“I guess it was the weather… or the… ahh, I don’t know… that thing… that magic,” he says, quoting Story Mode protagonist Michael De Santa, a line which featured in one of the game’s earliest promo trailers. “No, seriously, aside from the mods, I’d say it’s the only open-world game with a great single-player and multiplayer that allows for complete player freedom. That’s what keeps me coming back.

“Other games just don’t do it for me. GTA 5 has way too much detail in every corner of the map. On top of that, it runs on an incredibly powerful engine that can still hold up to this day. I can’t wait to see what Rockstar does next.”

Wherever Rockstar lands with GTA 6, rest assured its visual overhaul mod creators will leave their fingerprints on its crime world in due course. Until then, it seems pretty clear Razed has unfinished business in Los Santos. And I for one am delighted he’s in no rush to clock off for the day just yet.

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