Review: Grand Theft Auto V
Here's a riddle for you: Why is it that there aren't any triple-A titles releasing in September? What's that?-- Grand Theft Auto V releases in September? You're goddamn right it does. And it has. And we've played it. And we're going to talk about it, right here. So put on your big boy pants and jump in already.
- Worth The Time?Every. Damn. Second.
- Things LovedMultiple playable characters makes for added depth in storytelling; Special abilities and personalities make for interesting interplay; The visuals are absolutely breathtaking at times; The game does not hold back, ever; There are just so many activities, mission objectives and radio stations available for the player.
- Things HatedSome of the side missions don't add that much value to the game, really; There's the odd AI or texture glitch, which is typical of open world games; Sometimes you're too weak and other times you're a walking tank; There are framerate issues in places with high activity.
- RecommendationYou already know whether or not this is a game for you, so if it is then your money will be well-spent buying this. Anyone else, presumably someone who doesn't understand what the fuss is about, is at least encouraged to give it a try.
- Name: Grand Theft Auto V
- Genre: Sandbox
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: GTA: Online (coming soon)
- Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
- Developer: Rockstar North
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Price: R 689
- Reviewed On: Xbox 360
There are many different kinds of love in the world. Apart from the obvious love for friends or family, there is also the kind of love that is physical, or dependent, or clingy, or based entirely on a kindred understanding with someone else. There is deep love and there is shallow love. And of course, there’s forbidden love. But this isn’t one of those website, is it? However, like that, there are many different kinds of perfection in the world. Rather, there are various, interchangeable uses of the word perfect. You could have, and let’s keep it to the topic here, a perfect RPG, or a perfect FPS, or even a perfect game. There have been a few games which have been labelled with a ’10/10′ perfect rating this year; BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us have both been labelled perfect games relative to a specific context. (A game for a thinker and a cinematic experience, respectively.)
And like that, I’m here today to tell you that Grand Theft Auto V is the perfect GTA title.
Before we can get to the whys and wherefores, we must first establish how I view the GTA series. Sure, it’s a series of games and therefore a product of the videogames industry. But more than that, GTA is a genre of videogame. It’s Sleeping Dogs. It’s Saints Row. It’s LA Noire. It’s Red Dead Redemption. It’s open world sandbox titles built on the idea of a linear progression of story presented through the non-linear assortment of missions in a world that the player is free to explore. I don’t care who came first, Rockstar Games took that genre and made it their own. With some style.
My first experience of the GTA series was that of Vice City, when I was thirteen. (Should I have admitted that?) It was quickly followed by Max Payne and then another dip into the open world madness, with Grand Theft Auto III. I then went even further backwards to Grand Theft Auto 2, but the top-down design didn’t do much for me. Needless to say, however, it was quite the wild ride of Rockstar titles. I had to wait a while before playing San Andreas on PC, and then again for GTA IV on PC. However I managed to play every GTA release that has come out on the bigger consoles, including the two expansions for GTA IV. And here I am, calling GTA V the perfect GTA title. (At least until the next one, right?)
The thing that makes GTA V such a perfect GTA title is that it isn’t perfect at all. You read that correctly. I’ll reiterate: The thing that makes GTA V such a perfect title is that it isn’t perfect at all.
The game has flaws all over the place. For one, there are constant framerate issues whenever you’re in a part of the game with high levels of activity. Think of a busy interchange or a street race. Anywhere the console’s processor is taxed with AI calculations and rendering. Then there’s the glitching, which although infrequent, and understandable of an open world title, still plays enough of a role to be both noticeable and an annoyance at times; especially when it causes missions to disappear, forcing a reload of the game. Hell, there’s even an annoying sequence of side missions, like with every GTA title.
So how does it shine so bright that I would start my review of the game by calling it perfect? Simple really…
Grand Theft Auto V simply does not give a fuck what you think about it.
That’s right. It is not your bitch, and it will never be your bitch. It sees your hopes for change in the world. It sees your search for a sign of the medium being progressed. It sees your need for female representation. It sees your ‘games as art’ debate. And it throws up a straight middle finger to all of it. All in the interest of having a good time in a familiar setting, with some fresh new faces and a new style of play. And that is what it does absolutely spot-on, all through the experience.
Let’s get the usual stuff out of the way. The visuals are as great as expected. If you’ve watched trailers for the game, they’ve not lied to you. That’s what you get from the final product. It’s a shame that the next-gen titles have slightly dulled our appreciation because Los Santos, the setting of GTA V, is absolutely breathtaking to behold. It does require you to get the brightness settings ‘just right’ or it ends up looking washed out and bland, but if you nail the calibration and have an HDTV then prepare yourself for something really pretty. It’s a shame that textures are sometimes a bit of a letdown in this respect, but that can easily be blamed at the end of the current generation, on consoles that are definitely showing their age. There’s also the framerate drops I mentioned earlier, which is a direct result of the hardware not being able to perform to the game’s requirements at times. Thankfully, for the most part you’re too busy having fun for it to really get in the way. But it is definitely noticeable.
Los Santos itself is quite large and fleshed out, with a lot of it faithfully recreated from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This time around, a lot of the country-side is left out, along with San Fierro and Las Venturas, and the Blane County region which was far north of Los Santos has been brought in closer, making for what you might call a more effective and cohesive location insofar as there isn’t a lot of space just wasted, like with GTA: San Andreas. Not that it matters too much since most of the game plays out in Los Santos anyway. The map is large enough that it doesn’t get old fast, but not large enough that it would be unrealistic to explore the entire thing *cough* Just Cause 2.
This time around, there’s even a fully mapped ocean floor with all sorts of goodies if you’re willing to go diving long enough to find any of it.
The game brings back a lot of old favourite side quest type missions, including Rampages and Assassinations which went missing in action from recent GTA titles. Also making returns are street races, parachute jumps, missions from purchased businesses (including taxi fares and cargo drops) and winged aircraft. Mini-games on offer this time around include tennis, golf, hunting and more. You can play the stock market if you so desire, buying shares in various companies and either winning or losing big. There’s also various other activities on offer, depending on the character you’re playing at the time. We’ll get to that in a bit.
I’m going to take a moment here to note that at the time of writing, I haven’t finished the story. I’ve played well over twenty hours, if that’s any indicator of my exposure to the title, but I’ve not played the story to completion just yet. As an indicator, I’ve been told that the game offers around forty hours worth of story content, which is already longer than Grand Theft Auto IV’s story, if you just count Niko’s part of it. Anyway, for the purposes of story discussion, I’ve consulted with Marko who has provided the following monologue regarding the game’s story content, verbatim:
“GTA V’s story missions are probably some of the best I’ve ever experienced from all the GTA games. Every mission plays out brilliantly and it never becomes stale due to new ideas being presented on a consistent basis. There is that important aspect of variation present. One of the reasons why I finished GTA V’s story so quickly is because I could not wait to see what the next mission would bring to the table. The character progression found in these missions was expertly executed. You would learn a lot of our dysfunctional stars and grow a real bond with them, right through to the game’s finale. There are certainly better stories out there if you look at it through a narrative perspective, but there are few that come close to the entertainment value. The story is just pure fun to play and that’s what should matter the most.”
Thank you, Marko. From what I’ve played of the story, it’s clear that Rockstar Games are aware that they’re going to get into trouble for this game regardless of what they do. They’re also aware that these days, with all of the conspiracies and propaganda going around, there are some golden opportunities for a more edgy narrative. And so, they have provided just that with this game. How edgy is the narrative, exactly? Well, let’s see. During the course of the game, thus far, I’ve taken on the creator of a worlwide social network (hint hint), had a brand new religion thrust upon me while touring Vinewood (hint hint) and I’ve done some work for the Federal Investigations Bureau (the game’s version of the FBI) in which I’ve tortured, killed and stolen in the name of patriotic duty. Oh, and I’ve started a meth empire. Hint hint.
That’s the thing about GTA V — it just does not let up. From the very first mission, the so-called prologue, you’re doing crazy things with crazy people and your antics are always decidedly over-the-top. I’ll repeat: From the very first mission. Remember that time in Grand Theft Auto IV when you drove your cousin to pick up his girlfriend from the airport and then drop her off? Here, you stole a car from a rich guy who then held you at gunpoint and made you drive into the shop of the guy you were working for, before deciding you were alright and offering you a drink. It’s that kind of zany madness that never lets up in GTA V.
You might call a lot of it referential humour. You might call it parody. There are some missions which are absolutely downright fucking bizarre — we’re talking more bizarre than a Saints Row IV side mission — and there are some which are decidedly cliché, to the point that you’re sitting there going, “Okay, I get it. You’re making fun of gamers and videogames in a game and I’m supposed to laugh. Ha. Ha. Etc. Stop now.” And yet, the game is so unabashedly indifferent to your feelings. It is unapologetic in the things it does, the actions it takes and the way it pulls all of it off — to that extent, this game is also brutally more adult in nature than previous games. Seriously, heads get blown off or bashed in, popular characters make short-lived cameos and the word ‘fuck’ is used a lot. Not Mafia II level, sure, but a lot. And they don’t hold back on other words, too…
The end-result, however, is something that, if you’re an adult, you can really appreciate. Assuming you’re looking for a good time. Fun. Entertainment. That sort of thing. If you’re looking for artistic expression, well it’s definitely there but you’re going to have to take what you get. I for one quite appreciated how the game tried to tackle controversial topics, the likes of government agencies and the lengths they will go to, anti-immigration, religious cults, torture as a means of interrogation and more. There are even minor commentaries on the legalisation of gay marriage and marijuana usage.
Let’s talk about the characters for a bit. I’m going to do this in three paragraphs, one per character.
Michael is the guy who most looks like Max Payne. He’s in his forties, he’s living under witness protection, he’s got a special set of skills, just like Liam Neeson in Taken. The thing is, he’s not done a great job with his family. His daughter is joining all the wrong people, his son is fat and plays online videogames all day (heh) and his wife is having an affair because she hates his guts. Meanwhile, he’s busy getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself. This is the character that the game wants you to feel sorry for. He’s my personal favourite but truth be told, as much as you want to feel bad for him, his motivations throughout the game’s story are the darkest of the three. He puts on the face of someone who is willing to play along but he is methodical and calculated in his actions. He also has the special ability to slow down time, yes like Bullet Time in Max Payne. See? He’s basically the GTA version of the character. (Random: Michael loves eighties movies.)
Franklin is a young, black male who is trying to get out of the hood he grew up in by stealing cars. His ambitions are almost entirely selfish, and he’s basically just in it to better his own life. He wants to be a better person for others but he is first and foremost about himself. He’ll do pretty much anything if there’s payment involved. Early on in the story, Franklin meets Michael and the two create something of a father-son bond with Franklin wanting to learn the tricks of the trade and Michael wanting a second go at being a better teacher to someone younger. Franklin’s special ability, surprise surprise, slows down time while he’s in a vehicle and allows for more agile manoeuvring as well as a heavier vehicle for those sexy takedowns. (Random: Franklin is a huge American football fan.)
Trevor is the final character to be introduced in the story and he is definitely going to be the fan favourite. He shares a history with Michael, being his old best friend and [SPOILERS]. The thing about him is, the game constantly yo-yos his character between awesome and antagonistic, in that you’ll watch one scene where he’s mercilessly bashing in the skull of a recurring character in the GTA series and then you’ll watch another where he’s helping an elderly couple to procure various items of interest on their holiday. He’s a direct contrast to Michael in that on the outside he is batshit crazy, bordering on pure insanity, but on the inside he is the most morally sound, often helping those in need or taking issue with the corrupt. As is fitting of the role of loose cannon, Trevor’s special ability is that of the berserker, increasing his weapon damage and negating most of the damage taken such that when activated, he becomes a bullet sponge of note. (Random: Trevor is a drug addict.)
Each character has their own set of stats, which make a return from GTA: San Andreas, and each is strong in a certain aspect. Michael is really good at stealth but terrible at stamina, whereas Franklin is horrible with guns but great at driving; Trevor on the other hand has near-perfect flying skills but isn’t the best at stealth. So each of them has strengths and weaknesses in terms of basic playability. Further, they each play very specific roles in the story as a result of their strengths, with Franklin usually assuming the role of driver whereas Michael will typically be the inside guy.
Each character also has their own set of side missions and what’s called ‘Strangers and Freaks’ missions, where they meet various oddball characters and carry out missions for them. There are also certain businesses that can only be purchased by a certain character, such as the Film Theatre which is available only to Michael. Further, some characters are better at certain mini games than others, have their own available sets of clothing, tattoos, haircuts and weapon loadouts. All of these are customisable in-game, however sometimes a character will opt to wear different clothing depending on what they get up to. Regardless of which character you’re playing, all missions are available to be replayed once completed, and there is an incentive to do so because each mission has various bonus objectives to be completed in order to acquire a Gold rating; assuming you’re up for the challenge, that is.
With regards to switching between characters, how it works is that at any time of your play session, each character is going about their life in Los Santos. This means that Michael might watch TV or go for coffee, Franklin might take his dog for a walk (did we mention that there’s a dog here? Eat your hearts out, Infinity Ward) or go driving somewhere — incidentally, the most annoying side mission of the game involves Franklin doing some favours in a tow truck — and Trevor might go to a strip club or sleep fully clothed with a dude. If they’re available, you can switch to any character and go about your business. This is often necessary as sometimes missions are only available to a certain character, or let’s say in a story mission that involves more than one main character, you’re required to switch between them at various points. As an example, one mission involved me piloting a helicopter towards a building as Trevor, when I switched over to Michael in order to rappel down the side, and then I switched to Franklin to provide sniper support. All of this happened in one seamless, flowing move. Eventually, switching characters becomes almost like a tactical advantage; a sort of second nature.
A new feature of the game that takes advantage of the character switching mechanic is that of heists. These missions involve some forward thinking, where you’re tasked with picking a plan of attack in order to acquire some valuable item. You pick your approach and then various missions open up, which you must complete in order to unlock the heist. These involve securing a getaway car, procuring various tools for the job, disguises and so on. During the heist itself, each character you take along is in charge of something and it’s up to you to work between them and ensure that it all goes off without a hitch.
I genuinely appreciated this mechanic because it never felt gimmicky or ‘wrong’ to have it there. In fact, it actually felt a whole lot more fitting to have three unique characters, each with their own special abilities, rather than one powerhouse all-in-one super character the likes of CJ or Niko or whatever. Here are three very different guys who are involved in the same line of business. Yes they’re criminals but they’re not inherently evil either. They’re criminals in a game about crime, but each of them is so much more than that. I’m not talking about BioWare-level depth to each character, but there’s more than just the face-value judgement of each character as well. And switching between then constantly, allows you as the player to experience each of their lives. The decision to implement this feature was a masterclass by Rockstar Games, and you can expect it to be copied in future for other titles.
One last thing that I want to talk about, and it’s a damn godsend in this game, is that of the phones having an actual use this time around. Yes, phones are back. I frowned initially, but then I discovered the best feature ever: Quicksave. That’s right, you can now save wherever you are in the game. Except obviously during missions, although those have a retry feature now too, which also helps a lot. (There’s even the option to skip a section of a mission if you keep failing it — n00b friendly alert.) No need to get yourself back to a safehouse any more. Commence celebrations now… seriously though, it’s a welcomed addition. At last. Apart from that, phones serve various purposes including taking pictures — in-game and for the Rockstar Games Social Club — receiving texts and emails, as well as browsing the internet.
In the end, the question then turns to what I think of the game. After a day of having the game, I was asked the following on Twitter: “Is it worth the hype?” I have to say: No. It isn’t worth the hype. It’s a great game. It’s probably one of the best this year. But does it do anything remarkably special? Sure, it does a lot of special things. But is it remarkable? I would argue that it’s only remarkable insofar as the amount of things it gets absolutely right. Like nail-on-the-head right. We’re talking Ozymandias in Watchmen.
But is it a perfect game?
No. It’s not a perfect game. It’s got flaws, and obvious ones. But you know what? If you’re talking about GTA games, and that sort of genre, then hell yes it is. It really is.
The thing it does best is that it brings back the humour and fun of the series, and takes away all the melancholy and grittiness that the previous game brought. Good riddance.
I had to really think long and hard before even beginning with this review, because as much as there were a few things I could criticise about the game, they were so ineffectual to the experience that it barely even mattered in the end. It’s like going to a restaurant and having the most amazing meal that you’ve had the pleasure of consuming in a long time, but it’s that kind of spicy food that the rest of your family cannot stand and as it so happened, they sent you the wrong drink for your order. Is it the perfect order? No, of course not. But does that make the meal any worse? Nope.
To that extent, Grand Theft Auto V is absolutely delicious and I can’t wait to devour more of it.