Grand Theft Auto IV was an extremely divisive game. Despite universal critical acclaim, players were split over the less bombastic approach we were given. Personally, I loved it. It was a sombre, miserable tale about futility and how the American dream is a broken one, especially when The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony are factored into the equation. Gone were many of San Andreas‘ sillier excesses, and in its place was a game that heralded Rockstar’s newfound maturity of writing they’ve displayed over the last generation. Does Grand Theft Auto V continue on down that path, or does it succumb to Saints Row-eque tomfoolery?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Grand Theft Auto V continues Rockstar’s exploration of the idea that trying to get ahead when working within corrupt institutions more often than not ends up getting you back where you started, and sometimes with less than you had to begin with. It also sees the return of many of the features from the PS2 games many players have been missing, such as planes, car mods, rampages, character stats, and property buying.
Grand Theft Auto V juggles a record three protagonists as it weaves its sordid tale of guns and money in the glitz and glamour of
Los Angeles Los Santos. Ten years after a bank heist went bad in the Midwest, Michael De Santa is a middle-aged, retired career criminal living in a swanky house with a bratty family, growing bored with the peaceful civilian life. Franklin, meanwhile, is a young man from the ghetto trying to make money without leaving more bodies behind him than necessary. And finally, we’ve got Trevor, who is an unholy mixture of Jack Nicholson, Beetlejuice, and Walter White. He’s Michael’s former stick-up partner from back in the day, living out in the hicksville countryside of San Andreas, cooking meth, feuding with anyone who looks at him wrong, and occasionally partying in his underwear. He’s foul, violent, short-tempered, and probably rather smelly. When circumstances throw these men together, they decide to pursue the big jobs that will set them up for life….if their enemies don’t kill them first. The supporting cast is colorful, memorable, and as with the protagonists, well voice acted.
Grand Theft Auto V [PS3 (Reviewed)] [Xbox 360]
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: September 17, 2013
The story of Grand Theft Auto V might just be one of its weakest elements. It’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it does lack a certain drive. It’s much more upbeat and action-movie than its predecessor, though still with a healthy slice of Rockstar’s trademark cynicism on top. The dialogue is a definite strong suit and often outshines the plot itself. It’s immensely quotable and hilarious, with some very nice character beats thrown in for good measure. While the game certainly sows the seeds for the end from early on, there’s a significant chunk of the game’s plot that seems kind of aimless, moving from one mission to the next without a real sense of momentum. It’s typical for an open world game’s story to drag around the midsection, but for Grand Theft Auto V that’s a long, long time.
One of the biggest positives is that Grand Theft Auto V focuses much more on these characters working towards their own goals and with their own friends rather than flitting from one employer, one gang to the next. It lends the story and the characters quite a different flavor, and goes a long way towards making them more than ruthless killers who will do anything for a quick buck. Okay, well, Trevor is a ruthless killer, but he’s self-employed.
The use of three protagonists is implemented very well, although it’s quite a wait until it’s fully implemented. Switching between characters working together on a single mission is a ton of fun, and allows for much more complicated plans to be executed than the series has allowed for previously. Swapping between characters for general play is works equally well. One of Grand Theft Auto V‘s greatest achievements is making its world feel alive and persistent and much larger than before. Scenes in the Midwest and its beautiful snow as well as the San Andreas countryside help to sell the player on the idea that this world is bigger than just the featured city, and there’s a lot more America out there to explore. Even character swapping reinforces this: it’s not just a one-man army doing everything and crushing the city under his thumb, and when you’re not playing as them, their lives don’t just stop. They continue on without you, and when you return they’ll have been up to their own activities in the meanwhile.
The mission structure works more or less like this: Each character will pursue a series of their own individual missions, leading up to a big multi-character job. Rinse, repeat. This repetitive process is probably a large contributor to the stagnation I felt at times. The missions themselves swing back towards a more over the top Michael Bay approach, and they’re a ton of fun as a result. The ever-present sidequests are just as engrossing and occasionally infuriating as ever, ranging from hanging out with friends (only if you call them, no more LET’S GO BOWLING calls), collectathons, the aforementioned rampages, vehicle training, and so on. I appreciate the effort the game goes to to make the inclusion of the sidequests feel more naturalistic, often providing a cutscene or minor plot reason as to why your character will temporarily put aside their criminal activities to scour the ocean following radar pings.
The soundtrack isn’t the best ever to grace a Grand Theft Auto game, but it’s serviceable. It certainly feels huge; you’ll play a long time before you hear the same shit over again. The commercials, DJs, and talkshows are their usual amusing selves, although Rockstar probably isn’t as clever as they think they are. A nice touch is that the radio stations change when leaving the Los Santos city limits for the countryside. Details like that are what makes Grand Theft Auto something special.
Graphically, the game is stunning. It might just have the best water textures I’ve ever seen. The cityscapes and outdoor environments are absolutely gorgeous to behold, and look very nearly photo-real in many cases. The vehicles are similarly slick. Little effects like grass and bushes bending as you pass, stone columns getting chipped away by bullets and the like really add to the experience. The weak link here are the characters themselves, who can at times look a little like plastic mannequins come to life. It’s a little creepy. Especially when characters are delivering dialogue outside of cutscenes; very often their mouth movements don’t match the sound and they stare blankly ahead.
The gameplay is largely unchanged from Grand Theft Auto IV, so there’s nothing to complain about there. The shooting has undergone a bit of a streamlining process. Combat was never Grand Theft Auto‘s forte as far as control goes, so for V Rockstar has adopted a Call of Duty style lock-on, where tapping in and out of aiming mode will snap the reticule to the nearest mook, and you can switch your aim between enemies with the right stick. It takes practically zero effort and you’ll almost never have to actually aim on your own. Personally, I welcome the change, given the franchise’s track record with this sort of thing, and really, shooting is one small part of what this game has to offer.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto V is pretty successful at having it both ways: A return to the more over-the-top nature of the PS2 games, but done skillfully enough that it doesn’t feel out of place within the new universe Grand Theft Auto IV had established. Rockstar has done its usual best at bringing a truly massive game to life, and people will be playing this one for a long, long time.