Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
As you’re passively walking along the city streets, if a non-law abiding citizen boards a city bus, kicks the driver in the face, then throws him out, and the same bus driver returns the favor and takes off recklessly, you know you’re playing GTA. If a Spanish speaking wanna-be border patrol trainee is demanding your passport and begins ranting about how illegal immigrants are ruining the American dream, you know you’re playing GTA. If you fly a crop duster into a cargo plane, kill everyone in it, fly it, then jump out and parachute to earth as you watch the jet plunge into the sea, then you know you’re playing GTA.
Grand Theft Auto has earned its notoriety as one of the most outlandish, and most ambitious video game franchise known to both the hardcore and general audiences alike. No game has quite subversively criticized American culture quite like GTA, no game has allowed the level of interactive freedom quite like GTA, and no game has replicated a living city quite like GTA.
Grand Theft Auto V is a force to be reckoned with, bringing the power of “three” to many facets of this installment. Three lead characters elicit three different perspectives and in some cases, three ways to play. The game mechanics have been refined, taking assets from three of Rockstar’s strongest previous games. There are three major ways to earn cash which create a meta game within the city. And its sheer size eclipses Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV and San Andreas combined.
With that said, GTA V isn’t the best Grand Theft Auto it can be, but Rockstar’s ownership of the open world genre and systems integration sets this game to be a generational defining title.
GTA V’s three main characters come from different backgrounds which are well represented by both their mannerisms and the depicted culture of their parts of San Andreas.
Michael is a retired bank robber, reaping his monetary benefits occupying a Vinewood mansion in witness protection and wallowing in self-pity and self-conflict as he laments the long since passing of his prime age and the disdain that his despicable family has for him. Trevor is a disturbed individual, an intelligent psychopath emergent from the cesspool of the northern country side who’s in a sustained angered and manic state whose unpredictability - which oddly encompasses brief moments of societal compliance for the success of the job - always has the player on edge. Franklin's hood style "yes mutha f**ka" adherence to issued requests painfully recalls the errand boy status of past GTA protagonists. And while he himself isn't entirely compelling, his banter with his boy Lamar makes for some of the best exchanges in GTA V.
GTA V brings these unlikable three together in a way that’s both enjoyable and painful to watch. Their interactions contain hilarious exchanges as well as mindless, unproductive bickering. Michael is the source of gravity here, though never really taking away from both Trevor and Franklin’s individual so-called character arches. Franklin is the son he never had, and Trevor is the brother he can’t get away from. The chemistry of all three mainly works when the comradery cycles in a specific direction.
The troubled three
The hook involving these three is the character switching, allowing you to jump from one protagonist to the next – regardless where they are or even what they’re involved in – within San Andreas. It’s a narrative justification for all the antics that each of the three get into instead of having one jack-of-all lead, it works as a quick way to get from one end of the city to the next, and most excitingly, it divides missions into different perspectives between two or three of the characters.
While this mission structure approach works, it doesn’t quite operate the way in which many of us have hoped. The assumption building up to GTA V’s release was that character switching will be available anytime during a mission; I want to play as Franklin instead of Michael because his engagement is more interesting at this present time. But for the most part, this simply isn’t true. Many of these missions are divided into sections, using each character to move from one playstyle to the next. First you’ll play as Trevor, then you’ll play as Franklin, then you’ll play as Michael. This underwhelming feel isn’t just from set expectations, it causes a more linear texture to a game that’s all about freedom.
Having said that, there are times when cycling between the three is available which is commanded by prompts indicating when one of the three has the advantage, and when one is in danger. When left to their own devices, they have a tendency to move away from your issued vantage point which spoils most strategies involving boxing in the enemy. Thankfully they never put themselves in unjustifiable danger as they stick to a position that generally prepares them for the next monkey wrench thrown into shootouts. But even without the swappable freedom, the immediate transition from one character to the next almost ensures that the action is always at its climax.
When looking at each lead individually, the distinguishing attributes hardly differentiate one from the other. All three have identifiable special abilities. Michael can slow down time Max Payne style in shootouts, Franklin can slow down time while behind the wheel, and Trevor’s rage ability allows him to sustain less damage and output more. Though they sound great on paper, in my entire playthrough, I never once felt the need to utilize them. Character statistics are less meaningful, having various – but all minor – effects on the gameplay itself. In the end, Trevor, Michael and Franklin may be vastly different as written characters, but not as playable avatars.
The story mainly works as long as you remain invested in the snappy dialogue, Rockstar's bread and butter. It's lighter hearted and because of this, proving to be less focused than GTA IV. But its biggest fault is its failed sense of direction and inconsistency. Throughout the campaign, the three involve themselves with undesirables that have no narrative tie-in until the game’s haphazard final mission. That’s not mentioning the story's turning point that concludes a campaign-long conflict that remains stagnant for far too long. But once you reach the game’s conclusion, you're faced with three choices, two of which offers a bitter tonal shift to the writing's flavor that would have been more appropriate in Niko's Liberty City. You can view all three with a save, but likely only one will satisfy.
While the story telling could have been better, Rockstar always pulls through with their unapologetic social commentary. Racist satire is in abundance, and everything from gun control to even the Travon Martin case finds its way into GTA V’s outlandish, albeit heavy handedly on the nose, and very relevant portrayal of western society.
However its satire can be taken too far. Nothing is filtered through Rockstar’s subversive lens, not even torture. Among the countless lives you’ll take throughout your mischievous gallivant through San Andreas, the intimate physical and emotional manipulation of one will remain as the most memorable. What was supposed to be a criticism on America’s preached, yet allegedly not always practiced, stance on methods of information gathering turns into a disturbing antithetical sequence that crosses a line even beyond Manhunt’s trivial mutilation. If and likely when media catches wind of this, Rockstar won’t be able to defend themselves with much more than their right as artists.
There's no preparing yourself for what's about to follow.
As a technical feat, GTA V shouldn't be possible in current gen systems; but it defies that belief consistently. San Andreas’ astounding lighting is one of the most impressive I have ever seen in any game that money buy. It does an incredible job of emphasizing a sense of depth, presence, and vibrancy on everything it touches. The level of pervasive detail is unheard of, particularly in an open world game this size.
The draw distance is almost dizzying, looking like chopper shots of the Manhattan skyline. From the reachable back dropped buildings, to fog obscured hills, to the sun-bleached dirt of the countryside, GTA V owns the term, "as far as the eye can see". And I have to give Rockstar credit for making the first game to have me exclaim, "Whoa!" when I dove underwater for the first time, opening an entirely new and fully realized aquatic world.
The city’s independent activity demonstrates an unparalleled ecosystem. Events occur naturally virtually all the time without you ever having to touch a thing. Cop chases and shootouts erupt at random, sometimes startling your paranoid criminal instincts. Fights breakout between civilians, conversations carry out, car accidents happen; stand still long enough, and you’re likely to see something different every single time. And with a slight or brief push, this sensitive city will respond in a domino-effect fashion, eliciting a metropolis driven chain reaction.
Unsurprisingly, San Andreas' existence isn't a result of pure flawless execution. Glitches stratify on a wide spectrum, everything from occasional brief freezes entire landscapes missing. But from the sheer scope of San Andreas, to the crumbling destruction of a collapsing house, to the animated anatomy of organic faces -- eye balls, teeth, tongue -- very much like how Halo 4 redefined our expectations of the Xbox 360's hardware, GTA V is the very essence of the maximum power of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Take away its moral vices, and it's truly magnificent.
Running through the blood vessels of GTA V exists a bit of an anthology of the developer's best games in the last 5 years, all indicating a culminating evolution of Rockstar. The moment you draw your first weapon, Max Payne 3’s heritage surfaces, with a powerfully magnetic cover system and slightly over powered soft (more like stiff) aim. It performs at its best outdoors as characters will stick to unintended surfaces when in corridors and close quarters. Though it’s tough to accredit Rockstar’s Midnight Club series, the driving mechanics have vastly improved, with tighter steering and cars that virtually never explode unless you want them to. Random event quests will appear spontaneously as you drive through the city just as they did with John Marston; and from Sandy Shores to the northern parts of Blaine County, the yelp of a coyote or the growl of a bobcat will trigger your Red Dead reflexes. Lastly, Rockstar has capitalized on the idea of what the Four Leaf Clover mission brought to GTA IV and made it the central theme for GTA V.
It’s all about the heists.
Heists function as payoff events in the story, sometimes bookending the results of premeditative missions that set up the big job, but all are heavily involved as they often drive you through an ever evolving and very mobile standoff that even stretches across a significant portion of San Andreas. Some missions will ask you to steal disguise vehicles to cover your infiltration, other times you’ll be placing a stolen car in a discrete location for the getaway. All missions in GTA V are replayable from the pause menu, however heists large in part make for worthwhile revisits depending on what you decide to do, and who you choose to bring in.
The degree in how each job plays differently rests on your hired crew and overall play style and approach. Most jobs offer two different methods of engagement; some are more discrete than others, but all those that offer split approaches are worth playing through twice just for experiencing two very different mission structures.
Most of these heists also allow you to employ specialists of different skill levels for the job. The more skilled the individual is, the larger the cut; the less skilled they are, the smaller the cut. Missions play out a lot smoother and with noticeable confidence involving higher level skilled specialists that make little to no mistakes. And though rookies get a smaller portion of the spoils, they panic, make poor decisions, and are more likely to lose their share by dying or getting caught. With the variable of how effective these hired crew members are, they add another layer of replayability to GTA V’s heists.
Not aborting for s**t.
These Heat style sequences make up for some of the most entertaining moments in GTA V, but that is to no discredit of the abundance of missions that almost never allow you to do the same thing twice: from engaging in a high speed sports car chase in a liberatingly wide airport runway while cars explode and fly into your field of vision, to shooting down a jet with a high powered sniper rifle then switching another character chasing down the descending aircraft on a dirt bike.
However, it’s important to be mindful of the game’s flawed mission efficiency. GTA V doesn’t always to a good job in indicating your task at hand. At times, it’ll flat out fail to notify you as you play. This exacerbates once the game kills the mission for doing the job incorrectly. And even when you know things have gone awry, having to fail the mission deliberately for a retry is almost as frustrating as restarting the mission entirely which has been fixed by the much needed checkpoint system. But when running smoothly, the level of enjoyment will almost certainly bring you back like an amusement park junky to a predictable yet thrilling roller coaster.
You’ll be earning millions completing heists in GTA V; but within the game’s full economical system, you’ll earn that amount of cash several fold. Property purchasing is back which award sources of weekly income. Rockstar also attempts to integrate a monetary value in in-game events; and while the idea of having someone call me up and ask for my help at the threat of losing a significant amount of money is intriguing, these occurrences rarely happen and stand as an interesting idea falling short as a missed opportunity.
However the massive success here is the ebb and flow of the in-game stock market. It makes a minor introduction with little exposition, but can have a drastic impact on how your earn money. Listen carefully, and you’ll pick up on company movements that indicate which stocks to buy. Certain missions also affect stocks which act as subtle yet valuable tips on where to put you money. The market is also influenced by the GTA V’s real world community. You can count on every player purchasing weapons and ammo at Ammu-Nation, so that’s inevitably a profitable stock to invest in. Properties within Los Santos can cost up to $150,000,000 which is impossible to earn by story missions alone. Manipulating the stock market is your best means in acquiring such valuable assets.
For players like me who powers through story missions and side requests that offer directional play, it can be easy to forget that there’s an entire city to f**k with. More than ever, GTA V provides players with a massive city filled with a slew of activities to engage in. Throwing away money at the strip club, turning into an Iron Man at the triathlons, practicing your marksmanship at the gun range or hunting game in the northern woodlands, or changing pace in a tennis match or one of the golf courses, while none of these activities are entirely compelling as single experiences on their own, their mere existence as simply s**t-to-do best serve in helping San Andreas capture the feel of a fully realized, fully interactive city
And yet, that interactivity is demonstrated best in classical chaos. Wreaking absolute havoc in a military base to steal a fighter jet and shoot down helicopters that give chase, parachuting from an obscene altitude within San Andreas’ massive skybox, or simply sightseeing cross-city, from the hanger in Los Santos International Airport all the way up to the beaches of Paleto Bay, GTA V delivers arguably the largest and most active play space in past and present gaming.
Rockstar’s games have the tendency to elicit a tingly feeling in me whenever they emerge into the scene. It’s a feeling that stems from entertainingly tabooed cultural satire, absurdly detailed and vast worlds, and a level of spontaneous gameplay that’s emergent from delicate ecosystems. While GTA V doesn’t have the best written story compared to past Rockstar titles, the best use of three protagonists in a strategic gameplay capacity, nor the most seamlessly played out missions as they could have been, it has tapped right into those very expectations I or any fan of the GTA series demand. It pulls it off with being the best mechanically designed GTA yet, the best moment-to-moment GTA yet, and by far the largest and the most dense GTA yet.
As it stands, Grand Theft Auto V is the best way to transition and/or conclude this console generation.
+ The most entertaining missions in Grand Theft Auto to date
+ The most interactive ecosystem and city in Grand Theft Auto to date
+ One of the most technically impressive games this generation
- More mission freedom and less hiccups please
- Not the best narrative in the franchise