Grand Theft Auto V
Genre: Multiple Personality Sim
Developer: Rockstar North, Rockstar Games
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Release Date: 9/17/2013
While I stood waiting in line at midnight with about 70 other people at my local game store to pick up Grand Theft Auto V, different conversations broke out around me. The line had stretched so that my area of the line was directly in front of a bar, which was annoying to the patrons walking in and out of it. Those in line were making fun of the people in the bar for being drunks, which was mostly a defensive action since the people going in and out of the bar were making fun of people who would stand in line for a video game.
A lady walking through the line to the bar stopped and asked those in line what the game was about. ‘Is it just cussing and shooting and driving?’ She asked. One of the guys in line said back to her ‘It’s everything’. She said that’s what her niece told her as well and she didn’t get it.
That conversation stuck with me, because to me, it felt like a great example of what GTA is like to those who may not be fans or familiar with the title; a game of cussing and shooting and driving. That’s not entirely incorrect either, though there is so much more to the game that I can see why the guy told her that it was everything. Sure it was hyperbole, but playing GTAV, you get the impression that Rockstar sure tried to fit everything it could in the game.
Of course, while it tries to do everything, it also does absolutely nothing to try to appeal to those who have disliked the vulgar worlds or characters that they’ve previously created. Even still I’d hope that people who do not like this style of game would be able to appreciate the craftsmanship involved. It is like a finely balanced sword, sure its purpose is one of violence but it’s also possible to stand in awe of the skill required to create it.
The master craftsmanship of the game is the focus of this review. To begin with, let’s look at the setting of GTAV.
Often people talk about the satire of Grand Theft Auto, even though satire isn’t the appropriate word to really describe the world the game takes place in. Like all of the GTA games, the world of GTAV is a parody of American culture. It’s not meant to influence change and it’s about as subtle as a kick to the balls. Even parody isn’t a correct word; the world that exists in the game flat out mocks our culture on every level, though it does so with such detail that it’s also done with an obvious love of the very culture it mocks.
Those who aren’t a fan of the series or who may come into the game for the first time with GTAV might find themselves in shock at the setting because of how abrasive it is. The only analogy I can think of that really fits is that the world in the game is like a roast of American culture, and specifically California and the West Coast in GTAV. I’m not talking about a light-hearted roast, like the recent one of James Franco; I’m talking the kind of roast that tears down and exposes every aspect of the subject of the roast, and frames it in a humorous way.
That’s the world that Grand Theft Auto V is set in. A world that is close enough to our own that we can see the similarities, but with all the ugliness turned up to 11 and poked fun at. Where a televised singing contest is advertised as ‘Finally Democracy you can care about’. Where there’s a liberal super hero called Impotent Rage and a conservative news channel called Weazel News that is proud of its ability to scare the public.
Every billboard, TV show, movie, advertisement, webpage, and so on carries this theme in a way that is easy to admire the level of dedication and sheer work needed to make this possible. That dedication is extended to every part of the game, and is part of what makes Grand Theft Auto V such an amazing achievement.
Usually open world games feature quite a lot of buildings or environments that are copied and pasted. Because of the costs of such large projects, there’s not many open world games with well structured side content because only a small percentage of people might ever experience that content. Rockstar, on the other hand, has both the money and the resources to do so, and because of that the game is packed with places to explore and things to do.
Do a mission and there will be news of it on the radio, but there might also be posts about it on a characters LifeInvader (Facebook) page, or posts on Bleeter (Twitter). Some of these might just be a person complaining about a traffic back up which was caused by something you did in the area. This is all optional content that the game doesn’t even do much to inform you that it even exists. It’s just there if you want it.
Some of this was in GTAIV but they’ve handled it a lot better this time around. There are short films you can watch in movie theaters, several television shows to watch, an internet in miniature to surf, along with several various activities and side quests to engage in, and they’re all optional. No one is calling you on the phone to try and remind you to do it, it’s just there.
Nearly all of the side content is worth the time to seek it out. Some of the side missions are fantastic and are as well designed as the main missions in the game, though there are a few that feel underwhelming. While activities in most open world games feel like mini-games that are added onto the game, the activities in GTAV are thoughtfully designed and are surprisingly fun. Hunting, for example, could’ve just been shooting a list of animals, but instead when you hunt you have to pay attention to wind direction and trying to aim for the heart, along with avoiding does. It’s a side activity that you never ever have to do, but it’s also better thought out than many hunting games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Tennis, golf, racing, et cetera are all given similar treatment.
It truly feels like a place that exists. Los Santos and the greater Blaine County area are ridiculously detailed. It’s not just the different layers of dirt in one part of town than another, or garbage in the streets, it’s the distinct look of different areas. The architecture varies, as do the vehicles, pedestrians, to the graffiti on the walls. I’ve seen unique interesting graffiti underneath a bridge that I probably drove by a million times and never looked at.
The meticulous attention to detail in this video game is borders on obsession. It’s not only important in making the city feel like a place that exists instead of as a place you just happen to be driving through on missions, but it also adds another layer to the development of the characters in the game. They live in places that say a lot about who they are, from the books they have on their shelves, to the posters and paintings that they hang and pictures that are on the wall, but when different events take place the space around them reflects this change as well. The way their environments fit to each of the characters and how they impact the places they live in just adds weight to the story as it unfolds.
Plus it doesn’t hurt that the game looks really good. There are issues, there is aliasing all over, the frame rate isn’t high but it’s stable, and there is some noticeable pop-in of both objects and textures but the draw distance is incredible considering this is running on 8 year old hardware. For a game that highlights the nastiness of our culture it also manages to be incredibly beautiful at times. The water effects are awesome, as in the literal sense of the term. The first time through a mission I dove into the ocean my mouth dropped open in awe. The way waves roll and crest are some of the best I’ve seen in any video game. The game will surprise you with these moments out of nowhere; you might be in a mission to assassinate someone but stop to admire the sunrise or sunset. I was playing in the desert and a thunderstorm broke out with lightning crashing around a mountain in the distance and it was breathtaking.
In a game about three characters, the world that they exist in serves as a fourth character. Few companies can build a world like this, few can take the risk of spending millions of dollars on incidental details that many people might never even come across in the game. Regardless, the developers have built a world that might be filled with vulgar things, but it is also the best open world game at feeling like an actual place instead of as just a lifeless sandbox to play in.
Of course, that’s good an all, but what’s the point of creating such a place if the game that takes place within its borders is no fun to play? Luckily this is not the case. Among my own criticisms of GTAIV was that the game just wasn’t very fun to play. The mission variety of previous GTA games was gone and instead at times it felt onerous and repetitive. That’s not the case for GTAV.
Oddly enough, GTAV at times feels like a ‘Best Of’ version of previous GTA games. Nearly every mechanic that I enjoyed from previous games makes a return for GTAV. On the flip side of this, for both better and worse the game seems to draw inspiration from previous titles and other Rockstar games for it’s mechanics than other open world games.
Car handling has been tuned to feel at lot easier to control, which may not please everyone. Personally I hated the overly weighted fishtailing of vehicles in GTAIV, I wanted to drive loose and fast like I had in prior games. Recently I replayed GTA: San Andreas and after a decade of current generation games it felt a little too much in the other direction. Cars had no weight to them compared to other objects. GTAV compromises somewhere in the middle, vehicles have weight but you are able to steer freely without worrying too much about spinning out. I love it. It’s almost close to feeling like Midnight Club: Los Angeles.
However the game still requires you to look at the on screen mini-map for directions. I’m a little torn on this because while it is really annoying to glance down for half a second and then run into something and trash the car you’re driving, I also find myself learning the city a lot better than I do with other sandbox games so I don’t have to look at the map. Really though, considering that multiple titles have found ways of handling this better this part feels archaic. It doesn’t even appear to have the voice GPS that was in GTAIV.
The shooting has had a lot of improvements to it as well. First though, if you are planning on playing this game and have played any third person shooter over the last 5 years, go into the settings immediately and turn auto aim off, complex crosshairs on, and hoot the sensitivity way up. The game defaults to GTA Classic, which is strict auto aim and feels like a classic, as in it feels like an old ways of doing things. With the change in settings I mentioned it feels like your standard third person shooter, though I wish you could still turn the sensitivity up a little higher even. The game takes a page from the recent Max Payne game, enemies will shoot you while getting up, and there are exit wounds visible on characters and so on. No shootdodge mechanic though. There’s a cover mechanic that is functional, and it’s not bad like in some games where you can get stuck to cover, but it’s also not as good as games where cover shooting is the core focus of the game. The shootouts during the first portion of the game aren’t so exiting, but later as they ramp up in both scale and firepower it delivers situations that rank up there with some of the better third person shooting games.
Flying is a part of the game, and planes make a welcome return to the series. While driving has been changed to be easier for the player, flying is almost too complex. The game includes a flight school tutorial and I recommend playing through it to learn about keeping the wings level and rudder control. I love flying the planes and the details they added for accuracy, but I still suck at flying the choppers.
Missions are far more widely varied, especially between characters, this time around. There are still plenty of missions that revolve around driving and shooting, though the game mixes up the circumstances, weapons and how the encounters play out in GTAV so that each mission leaves a sense of curiosity over what the next mission might hold. The game also adds an element of choice to some of the missions in how they’re executed. This might mean the choice of weapon used, or in the case of heists you might have a completely different set of options on how the heist will go down. This includes hiring crew members to do their job accurately, which I’ve seen can effect the mission outcome. There are only a handful of these in the game, but they’re all huge set pieces with mini-missions within them in order to set it up. Even though the set up missions are kind of bland they still have a sense of excitement to them because they contribute to a much larger mission.
The mission have a much grander sense of scale to them in GTAV, with many of the story missions equaling or far surpassing the best mission in the previous title. Part of it is because the set pieces that surround these missions are so well done and often structured like an action movie, another is just the way they’ve paced the game. For the first couple of hours you do missions that aren’t very outside of missions that you might find in prior GTA games. They might control and look better but it feels like the missions that we’re used to by now. Then it starts building upon the mission structure more and more, until you’ve gone from stealing cars at the beginning of the game to pulling off some of the most insane things ever set in a GTA game.
Returning from Ballad of Gay Tony are checkpoints within missions, the ability to skip them if you fail too many times, grading at the end of a mission and the ability to replay any mission that you’ve completed at any time to try and do better at. Finally! This adds so much to the game. Checkpoints allow them to have longer missions without worrying about a player quitting in frustration because no one wants a long mission, then to fail near the end and have to drive all the way back to the starting point. Skipping means no one mission will be a road block to progressing through the game. In other genres that might seem like a lame thing, but in games like GTA if you suck at just one part (like I do with helicopter piloting) but a mission requires having skill in that part, I’d rather people have the option to skip then to hit a wall or to over simplify that aspect. You still have to make three attempts before the option appears.
The game gives a medal for achieving different objectives. While I don’t like that these objectives appear after a mission instead of being able to view them during, they certainly give a reason to go back and try it again. Often they’ll even have objectives that require playing differently than how I completed the mission, which makes me interested in going back and seeing how to pass it that way instead. Being able to do these in any order after later and having the Rockstar Games Social Club let me know when a friend has managed to beat my particular score provides so much more of a reason to replay the game than they’ve ever included before.
The enemy AI is much better. They’ll move to flank and shoot accurately. The police are very aggressive this time around and will try and stop you at all costs even with a two star wanted level. In order to escape pursuit you will have to break line of sight and then hide while they try to find you. This new hide and seek approach to evading the police is a much better system.
Like I said it’s a ‘best of’ GTA games so things you might’ve enjoyed in past games, like bicycles, Rampages, Taxi missions, base jumping, robbing stores, character stats that get stronger with use, swimming undersea, ability to sneak up on enemies, and more all make a return and are integrated better. Like side missions many of these get their own cut scenes and characters that are related to that activity.
On top of all that there are character related abilities. I mentioned that the driving felt slightly similar to Midnight Club: LA and some of that might be because while driving, Franklin has the ability to slow down time to maneuver better, much like the Zone ability from Midnight Club. Michael can slow down time while shooting, like Max Payne. Trevor can rage out and both take more and deal more damage with his ability.
That’s not to say that the game is without flaws. As I mentioned for both better and worse the game feels developed in a vacuum, with most of the game feeling like it is building on prior GTA mechanics or borrows from other Rockstar games. I can’t help but feel that some of the improvements made in other open world games, like the melee system from Sleeping Dogs, the on screen driving directions from multiple titles, cruise control from Saint’s Row, and other good ideas and additions the genre has seen since GTAIV are noticeably absent.
Some ideas don’t work out as well in GTAIV as they have elsewhere. For example you can fully customize a vehicle, and if you lose it the game will impound the vehicle. There’s a bigger garage for each character to store vehicles at as well. This is a good idea, but I’m not sure how it’s supposed to actually work as the cars it chooses to impound for me seem random. Like it impounded a car I used for a couple of blocks, but not the car I bought online, completely upgraded, then had to abandon for a mission. Each character also gets character specific vehicle(s) that spawn at the home location. Customizations made to these vehicles don’t appear to stick as far as I can tell. Respray to a different color and it’ll just change back later.
They added a dog to the game, which can only be trained to be further useful within the game via a pet simulation app on iOS devices. Mine is full of stuff I’d rather not delete so I didn’t get to test this, and it’s lame that there’s no option to do this within the game itself if you don’t have an iPhone/Pod/Pad. Android support is coming, but still it’s goofy that an aspect of the game, no matter how trivial it may be, is only accessible by another device.
Jumping and hitting and object that you can’t climb over oddly makes the character ragdoll and take falling damage. With shopping you have to go to each rack of clothes to see what’s on that shelf instead of being able to see just what is available in the entire store. I really don’t understand why they don’t have you try both shooting options in the beginning and then ask the player to choose instead of making the worse one the default option.
A lot of what I just mentioned does not impact the overall game, but it’s worth noting. Otherwise it’s the best GTA game in terms of everything working really well. GTAV tries to be a jack of all trades and attempts to master them all, and while it doesn’t master every aspect as well as a game where an individual mechanic might be the entire focus of the game, it manages to comes close to mastering every mechanic and more importantly weaves all of the mechanics together so that it works without being obtrusive to the player.
The Characters and Story
Even as a fan of GTA games, I was getting really tired of their storytelling structure. Too many of the games rely heavily on the main character doing chores for other people instead of acting in their own in interests, even doing missions that act against what has been established for the character. They’ve finally figured it out, kind of.
In GTAV you play through the perspectives of three characters, Franklin, Michael and Trevor. They could’ve still run into the same problem even with splitting the game among three characters, but thankfully most of the story missions are the characters doing missions to further their own agendas, or doing missions together for mutual profit. Even when doing missions for other people there are better reasons behind doing so, like to try and fix a mistake that a character has made in the past or to keep the continued silence of another character. Rarely does it feel like any of the characters are just submitting their wills to further the goals for another party, instead it feels like your performing actions that feel natural to the characters involved.
It helps that these are some of the best characters they’ve created. Franklin is a younger guy from the hood who has personal reasons to want to get out of his neighborhood. Michael is a retired bank robber with a nice house in the hills, a cheating wife, a son that refuses to do anything but sit and play video games, and a daughter who wants fame no matter what may be asked of her. When Franklin and Michael meet Franklin doesn’t see an unhappy middle aged man who regrets his decisions, he sees a man who is living in luxury and want the same for himself.
There’s an interesting dynamic between these two characters because really they’re not much different from each other. Despite their difference in age, race and background, they’re both people that are good at doing bad things and making money from it. When their actions lead to negative things happening in their lives both assumes that the problems aren’t related to their actions and that the only way to fix these problems is to double down on the bad choices that they’ve made.
And then there’s Trevor. Trevor is a meth-dealing, weapon running, psychopathic son-of-a-bitch who will likely be the most divisive character in the series history, and I love the crazy bastard. He doesn’t ever worry about the consequences of his actions. He’s morally and sexually ambiguous, a violent force of nature that does what he wants to when he wants to. Trevor is the personification of Freud’s Id, and moves through the world seeking instant gratification. He and Michael have a previous history that is the backbone for much of the plot. He’s the perfect character for the Grand Theft Auto games as it doesn’t feel out of character to go on spontaneous rampages.
Each character is developed well and all feel unique to the point that when I play as them I typically change the radio station to something I feel fits the character more than something I want to listen to at the moment. The have different animations for various things, like Franklin having the most car theft experience might jimmy open a parked car door, Michael will use his elbow to break the window and Trevor will just punch through the window. They all have unique missions that play into their characters and sometimes will be at odds with another main character in the game. The game does a great job at building these characters and giving reasons to switch between all three.
Switching between the three is easy to do, and makes for some creative and intense mission design as you swap between the characters. Outside of missions it’s interesting to switch between them because they go about living their own lives, Franklin might be working out, Michael might be hanging out at the pier, and you never know what situation that you might find Trevor in. This is a nice addition that shows these characters aren’t just standing there waiting for you; they exist in this world and are going about their business.
There are some that might be disappointed that the game didn’t try to further a social cause because of the characters they chose for this game, however personally I really liked all three of these characters. Sure, they’re terrible people, but they’re terrible people living in a world that’s not friendly to anyone and they fit the context of the world Rockstar has created. If you are a person who has not liked the violent characters of Grand Theft Auto in the past and have a hard time relating to them, then this game will not change your mind in that regard. Though there are moments in the game where it feels like Rockstar is specifically speaking to the audience in regards to complaints such as this and is poking fun at both the audience and themselves.
GTAV has one of the best stories that they’ve told in any Grand Theft Auto game and part of that is because there is less feeling of just doing chores for other characters, along with the setting up and pulling of satisfying large set pieces. The way the camera work, music, voice acting, character and animation work together for cut scenes make the middle and later parts of the game feel like you are taking part of something cinematic, maybe not like a movie but similar in tone to a longer dark mini-series except interacting the way only a video game can really provide.
Short Attention Span Summary:
GTAV is crude, violent, and filled with immature humor. It also is bold, willing to push the limit on taste to make a point, manages to address past issues with narrative and is a game that manages to pull all of the various mechanics of the game together in a way that’s technologically impressive. It’s a game that impressive in scope and scale, is full of things to do and discover, and the online mode doesn’t even come out yet for another week.
If you do not like the tone of the series then you will not likely find much to love since GTAV makes no attempt to appeal to a larger crowd. If you are a fan then the game is what I consider to be the best one in the series and I can’t recommend it enough.