I love it when this happens; when a game comes along that rewrites what it is we think defines hallmarks of gaming excellence. It seems to be a recurring theme having Rockstar involved in these moments. Grand Theft Auto V is one of those games. It vigorously grabs hold of you and forces you to stare in awe at everything it has on display; ensuring that your eyes stay wide to soak in all the seemingly impossible detail and endless spectacle. It’s a game that reminds you why it is you used to get those little pangs of excitement whenever you played something believable and downright engrossing. That’s not to say that Grand Theft Auto V is a perfect ride from start to finish; the game stumbles in a few areas, but the sheer confidence and surefooted swagger that pervades the rest of the title is enough to ensure that those few stumbles hardly get a courtesy grimace.
I realise that I’ve essentially started this review with a paragraph that probably would have made for a good closing summary of my overall opinion. Really, I’m cutting to the chase considering that most of you lovely NAG readers are probably well into the game already. This review is somewhat delayed due to a desire to test the multiplayer portion. Sadly, that portion of the review will have to wait until Rockstar has sorted out their servers. I will be posting a separate GTA Online review, complete with its own score and Bottom Line, at a later stage. Insofar as the single-player portion is concerned, I couldn’t hold off my desire to talk about the game for much longer.
The Unholy Trinity
Ever since Rockstar thrust the Grand Theft Auto series into the third dimension, the various teams responsible for the franchise have continually fine-tuned the core mechanics and innovated in areas. Grand Theft Auto V still holds some of the now outdated mechanics of previous entries (such as one’s continued reliance on the minimap and waypoints to navigate the world) but its biggest and brightest innovation is the introduction of three playable characters. With perhaps the exception of GTA III’s mute Claude, there have always been two stars in each game: the player character and the city. In Grand Theft Auto V there is no doubt that the staggeringly detailed and massive world of Los Santos and its surrounds is one of the stars, but player characters Michael, Trevor and Franklin are responsible for GTA V’s overall lasting impression. All three are meticulously crafted and unique, and I’d go so far as to say that they will probably go down in history as Rockstar’s best creations. The attention to detail with each of them is awe inspiring, down to their individual gaits and characterised vocabularies.
Franklin is your typical African American gangster, however his aspirations have outgrown his present lifestyle and he’s in the beginning stages of a transition to something bigger. The constant tug-of-war between his gangster friends and his own desires to become something more makes for a compelling sub-plot peppered with colourful dialogue.
Michael, the middle-aged retired professional thief can only watch in angered disbelief as his family disintegrates around him. It is, of course, entirely his own fault thanks to his inability to leave his violent past behind him. He is possibly the most tragic of the three characters as he shows signs of the man he could have been had he not made poor decisions earlier in his life. For me, Michael’s most memorable sub-plot involves his love for old Vinewood (Hollywood) movies, which eventually gets him involved in a series of missions for a movie producer. It’s Michael’s dream job but the only way he can apply himself to his new boss’ requests is by the only way he knows how: through violence and illegal means. It’s somewhat devastating to watch the whole sequence play out as he’s given this chance of a lifetime only to self-destruct the entire opportunity while showing his true colours. The fact that he can’t even see it makes it all the more tragic.
Trevor, quite honestly, scared me. He is the most disturbed and dangerous character Rockstar has even created, and that is largely thanks to how well characterised he is. Trevor is a textbook sociopath and the new poster boy for the term “chaotic evil”. While he can be hilarious in his dialogue and actions, he can quickly flip to become genuinely chilling. It is entirely appropriate that the return of the series’ Rampages are unique to Trevor. You’ll find the Rampages dotted around the game world, and when activated, something unique to the particular area will push Trevor over the edge; the screen becomes blurred, and the sounds of bullets and screams become amplified and distorted as he buckles under the effects of some deep-seated psychosis.
Each of the three characters has a unique skill that can be activated to give you an advantage in various situations. The skills have a metre that depletes once you activate it, but the metre can be refilled through reckless activities. Thanks to the inherent driving mechanics of Grand Theft Auto, Franklin’s skill is by far the most useful. He has the ability to slow time while driving and make any vehicle much easier to control. Trevor can activate a Rampage mode of sorts that vastly increases his weapon damage. It comes in handy when your wanted level goes beyond four stars. Michael’s skill is somewhat superfluous; during gunfights he can activate a Bullet Time sort of mechanic that helps you to aim. It’s an altogether useless skill unless you play the game with free aim on. That, by the way, is not the game’s default aiming setup so you might want to change that from the start.
The ability to switch between any of the three when you’re not on specific story missions means that you almost have three GTA games in one. I loved the way that the in-game camera would swoop into the sky, pan across the city and then zoom in on whichever of the three characters had been selected. Sometimes you’ll catch one of them in the middle of a conversation or encounter: Trevor might be found passed out in a dumpster or be busy tying some poor sod to a support pillar under a pier; Franklin might be stumbling out of a bar or playing fetch with his dog Chop; Michael might be in the middle of a heated argument with his wife, Amanda, or he might be driving alone in his car, swearing at his situation or singing along to a song on the radio.
Did somebody say heists?
Throughout the game’s main storyline is a series of heists that become increasingly intricate. Here is where Rockstar breaks away from traditional GTA mission types in that they give you two options to approach each heist. You also need to recruit additional team members, many of which you can meet by chance through the game’s extensive collection of random encounters. Once you’ve picked a crew and chosen your heist approach, you need to make the necessary preparations that could include prep missions that involve steeling a submarine or acquiring a janitor’s uniform and ID card.
Each heist is unique in its setup and they all double as these shining set pieces in the GTA V mission list. Insofar as the rest of the game’s missions are concerned, they encompass a multitude of incredible characters and tasks that range from everyday mundane activities, to over-the-top action sequences, to drug-fuelled, hallucinogenic insanity. The spectacular achievement, however, is that there isn’t a single mission throughout the 45+ hour main storyline that comes across as boring or repetitive. Previous GTA titles have suffered from repetition in mission structures, but each mission found in Grand Theft Auto V manages to stay fresh and enticing. I didn’t feel a single low point, and while there are some parts of missions that boarder on the frustratingly tricky, it never reached controller-flinging levels of exasperation.
A particular set of Trevor’s side missions (which fall into the “Strangers and Freaks” subset) sees him aiding two elderly British tourists obsessed with Vinewood glitterati and show business. Utilising Trevor’s penchant for unbridled chaos, the two tourists send him on a string of missions that make for a terrific sendup of movie star fanaticism and idol worship. The dialogue that plays out between Trevor and the two tourists is some of the best in the game’s script and at one point I was crying with laughter. Look out for the “Strangers and Freaks” missions; they’re designated by question marks that will crop up on your map. Find them and complete all of them as they invariably contain some of the game’s more incredible characters and more scathing satire.
All that glitters…
GTA V is a staggering achievement in terms of technical execution and attention to detail in both the characters and game world. Still, the aforementioned stumbling points need extrapolating. The shooting mechanic, while somewhat improved from GTA IV, is still a problem particularly during the game’s numerous indoor sequences. Aiming feels clunky, which therefore necessitates the use of the snap-to targeting system, which in turn obviates Michael’s special ability (as I previously mentioned). Additionally, shooting while driving remains an uncomfortable and unwieldy affair and you’ll very often opt for evasive driving techniques rather than shooting your way out of a car chase.
Furthermore, while the game world, game mechanics and attention to detail all represent a colossal leap forward for the series, the menu system and user interface seems trapped in the past. The weapon wheel and slow-down effects when changing guns is a definite step in the right direction, but the fact that you need to pull up the slow-to-load map every ten minutes in order to navigate the game world feels archaic when placed next to all the other advancements GTA V exhibits.
I also experienced a mission-breaking design fault: I had to take a photograph (using Franklin’s cell phone camera App) of a subject, but because the game tries to sync your in-game photos with Rockstar’s online Social Club, I ended up failing the mission because the camera App wouldn’t load due to server issues. This forced me to sign out of Xbox LIVE in order to bypass the game’s insistence on connecting the camera App to the Social Club. It’s a small gripe in the grander scheme of things, but other companies have been blasted for games breaking thanks to online requirements, so Rockstar shouldn’t be handed a free pass for this.
As a whole, Grand Theft Auto V is a triumph and Rockstar deserves every cent of the financial success the title has experienced so far. It is abundantly clear that hundreds of people gave years of their life and put immeasurable amounts of love into this game. That can be seen in all the tiny bits of detail that at first you won’t notice because the realism they invoke just makes so much sense within the context of the world. Things like your GPS losing signal when you drive through a tunnel, certain radio stations only being accessible in the more rural outskirts, sweat forming on your characters as they run – these tiny details are found everywhere, and they’re incredible. At one point I was gobsmacked when I took Michael to see his psychologist. On the way to the rooms I ran over a pedestrian, and that random piece of emergent gameplay came up during the therapy discussion. That moment gave me this little uncanny jolt and instant goosebumps; Los Santos felt infinitely more alive and real, and that was thanks to two lines of dialogue.
As we stand on the precipice of a new console generation, it’s become clear to me that Rockstar has created this console generation’s swan song: Grand Theft Auto V is incredible.