When Rockstar and Take-Two shuttered OpenIV earlier this year, thousands of player-made Grand Theft Auto 5 mods hung in the balance. For self-taught hobbyist modder Jamal Rashid—who goes by the pseudonym Razed—this potentially meant sacrificing 1,200 hours of unpaid labour on his ambitious, and at that stage unfinished, NaturalVision Remastered project.
"I really panicked for a while," Razed tells me. "I'd been working on the project for so long and was like: What if this shuts down, how am I going to get it out? I started thinking of other options, and I wanted people to be able to install it easily. I did think of a few examples but I'm just really glad that everyone spoke up in the community and we still have it."
Rockstar and Take-Two have since rescinded their OpenIV ban so far as single-player mods are concerned—a move which, much to Razed's delight, has seen projects like NaturalVision Remastered reach completion.
Inspired by the realism forged by games like Forza Horizon 3, Watch Dogs and even Grand Theft Auto 4, this ambitious and impressive visual overhaul mod is the result of extensive research. Beyond its 1,200 hours (50 full days) of work, for example, Razed studied over 40 hours of video footage, hundreds of photographs, and wandered down the real life streets of Los Angeles and neighbouring settlement Salton Sea—portrayed in-game as Los Santos and Blaine County, respectively—via Google Street Maps more times than the creator is able to recall.
"I'd take a look at it, and get a feel for the general area," says Razed. "I'd go on Flickr and search the same location. The game's Blaine County is based off of Salton Sea and where Trevor's actual trailer is situated is off of Bombay Beach, also in Salton Sea. Google Street View hasn't actually accessed that area, so I'd have to look up pictures and YouTube videos of people who'd actually been there, recording vlogs and things like that.
"But it's no good focusing on just one perspective—each person would use a different camera, some cameras are misconfigured, or they'd take oversaturated shots, or have too much contrast. I had to do a lot of research on that, watching tonnes and tonnes of videos over and over and over again. I had to find a balance and had to decided on what colour saturation, gamma, tone mapping to use, so that it looked as good as possible. And it was exhausting."
The result is pretty spectacular, but it came at a cost. Razed's sleep schedule suffered throughout development, he put his job on hold to focus on seeing his pet project through, and, while creating builds for beta testers to pore over on a daily basis, worked ten to 12 hour shifts seven days a week. Regular beta testing was an integral part of this process, affirms Razed, as he valued multiple perspectives against his own personal outlook. In turn, what began life as a less complex reshade mod, NaturalVision Remastered took on a life of its own while becoming one of the prettiest and most sophisticated GTA 5 visual overhaul mods the community has to offer.
Unlike much of its competition, NaturalVision Remastered doesn't require ReShade and instead serves to highlight what's possible by virtue of both learning the game's time cycle and leveraging the tools Rockstar already provides. Razed took issue with certain aspects of similar mods like Redux—"the sky, for instance, doesn't have a gradient or fade towards the horizon"—and learned that only by furthering his own work could he fully realise his creative vision.
"I saw other mods that didn't appeal to me and wanted to create something that no one has ever done," adds Razed. "Something that looks realistic, everything from the sunset to sunrise, whether it has clear weather, clouds, I wanted to make something unique."
Against the OpenIV closure scare, it seems somewhat ironic that creating NaturalVision Remastered's sunsets proved Razed's biggest challenge. The final version of sundown that occurs around 9 pm in-game required between 36-40 hours work alone, he reckons, however a huge amount of iterating and reiterating took place in the weeks leading up to launch.
"It took a lot of back and forth before I managed to nail it," says Razed. "All the details that I looked at for sunsets were, for instance, having to slope around the sun, making sure it's not too dim, making the sides of the sun look realistic—there was a lot to consider. I'm very happy with how it turned out in the end.
"There is some stuff I'm hoping to improve going forward, though, like smog weather for example. I didn't touch foggy weather at all—I want to go back and do that one. I felt like it was low priority, there was already so much that I was doing and not a lot of people use fog weather. I've been working on blizzard weather too, taking inspiration from the Forza Horizon 3 Blizzard DLC. That's turning out pretty well."
Like all hobbyist projects, Razed admits development occasionally came close to overwhelming and that, without remuneration, quitting also crossed his mind from time to time. But positive feedback from early testers, from commenters on Flickr, and from the GTA 5 modding community as a whole pushed him forward.
Hailing from Florida, over 2,500 miles away from LA, the way NaturalVision Remastered intersects reality and GTA 5's faux California is exceptional—something made all the more impressive given Razed has never set foot in the City of the Angels. A future real life trip is in the pipeline, as is implementing blizzard weather conditions in-mod and the option to increase brightness at nighttime.
Razed also points out that his work wouldn't have been possible without CP's esteemed VisualV mod. Not only did its creator inspire Razed to begin modding Grand Theft Auto 5 in the first place, NaturalVision Remastered requires VisualV to function. The cherry on top for Razed, then, is that the latter's creator is a big fan of the former.
"I talked to CP when NaturalVision Remastered came out," says Razed. "He told me that it actually looks a lot better than VisualV in a lot of places and I really appreciated that. Not every modder will tell you that your mod looks better than theirs."
But I guess they do when your mod looks as gorgeous as this.