Grand Theft Auto V Review

Among the increasingly profligate budgets and extravagant marketing campaigns of the modern videogame publishing business, there are few genuine landmark events. GTA V is unmistakably one of those events, perhaps even the most noteworthy since the last of Rockstar’s modern crime epics was released.

Each successive Grand Theft Auto game has been an increasingly accepted moment in modern popular culture and this latest in the series comes at a time when videogames are more mainstream than ever. GTA V is big, and not just in the scope and scale of the game world.

So, does Rockstar’s follow up to the console generation’s most critically acclaimed videogame empty the vault or does it only blow the bloody doors off?

If you’ve been keeping up with the relentless drip-feed of carefully managed information prior to GTA V’s release, you can probably skip a couple of paragraphs ahead while we recap a few pertinent points for the uninitiated.

GTA V is a return to the state of San Andreas, the main urban area of which is Los Santos. In this re-imagining of California and Los Angeles, there’s a mix of urban, hillside and desert areas, complete with military base, trailer parks, country clubs and bobcat-infested hillsides. The whole, huge, map (which is all available from the start) is surrounded by a sea that you can explore above and beneath and there is a huge range of activities in which to partake: from tennis to triathlon, rifle-ranges to road-races.

The map is much bigger and more varied than any previous GTA map and there is a range of bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, boats, jet skis, helicopters and aeroplanes that you can careen around in, evading the police and committing myriad road traffic offences along the way to criminal infamy.

For the first time in the series’ history, you play the story mode as three different protagonists – Michael, Franklin and Trevor. They each have different skills and special abilities and can be switched between at almost any time, as long as you’re not in the midst of a mission or being pursued by the cops.

Each has their own very distinct character and position within a narrative we won’t spoil here. Michael is an ageing, retired thief while Franklin is an intelligent, street smart kid on the fringes of gang membership who wants to move up in the world. Trevor is a meth dealer from the desert who is uniquely psychotic, sociopathic and strangely endearing in a terrifying kind of way. In the wake of Grand Theft Auto IV’s po-faced Niko Bellic, some fans wanted a little more of the old GTA lunacy back for this sequel. Trevor is a good helping of that lunacy, although he’s certainly not the only pivot upon which the balance of this game’s sanity occasionally tips.

“A masterful piece of satire, marbled with joyous fatty veins of subtle reference amid the muscular sinews of its more obvious parodies”

As you might imagine, these characters are not all members of the same country club. They encounter each other in a relatively natural way as part of a narrative that is at least grounded in reality, in spite of the spiralling body count and numerous twists, turns and double-dealings. Each comes with a small group of supporting cast members that enable some comic relief, side missions and exceptionally well penned – and often hilarious – incidental conversations.

Grand Theft Auto has always been a masterful piece of satire, marbled with joyous fatty veins of subtle reference amid the muscular sinews of its more obvious parodies. GTA V is gloriously self-aware and self-referential, with allusions to the hot topics of the day, modern videogames (and those who play them) and the wider public perception of the series itself. There’s a sense that nobody and nothing is exempt from being sent up by this game – you, me and even the game’s creators are all lampooned, along with big business, pseudo-liberals, hipsters, banking, the industrial military complex and almost all things in between.

The writing is typically smart and funny, with regular laugh-out-loud moments and a plethora of references and knowing nods towards popular cultural icons and media. The quality of the dialogue is testament not only to the great scripting but to what must be an incredibly complex job of both the direction of, and delivery by, the voice over artists. It’s easy to be hyperbolic about such things but there’s a distinct whiff of genius about the way GTA V manages to reflect the world it comes into, as the very best of satire always does.


The game regularly laments the lack of character pieces in today’s superhero-infested movie theatres – something which must leave the writers of a new instalment in such a typically referential series of work looking elsewhere. So it’s no surprise that GTA V has clearly been well influenced by some popular TV shows. Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Wire, The Sopranos – all are given a reverential tip of GTA’s hat. Practically every recent popular television series that possibly could be is represented in some knowing way and for fans of each fiction, it’s a regular joy to uncover those little nuggets of in-jokes nestled amid the broader humour.

Of course, there’s plenty to do in San Andreas. Barbers, clothes shops and tattoo parlours are all back, with all the character customisation they bring with them. There’s also a shop where you can buy masks and the usual Ammu-nation stores so you can stock up on plenty of ways to express your Second Amendment rights. Some activities are new to GTA V, yoga, tennis and golf give you new ways to spend your leisure time and parachutes mean that leaping out of aeroplanes and helicopters is all the more pleasurable. The activities you can take part in are slowly introduced during the course of the first few hours and some will increase each character’s skills too.

This new skill system isn’t exactly RPG-lite but it does make a small difference to how long you can make each character sprint or swim underwater. You can practice shooting or flying, and heightened ability in those categories makes those activities a little easier to handle during the course of the missions.

Each character also has a special skill, activated by pressing in both sticks – not the most convenient control trigger when you’re speeding down a packed freeway and want to enable Franklin’s special driving skill. Trevor’s skill enables his rage and means he takes less damage while Michael’s special skill allows him to focus more when shooting. Each is very useful in certain situations but they’re certainly not necessary and at times it even feels like the game itself forgets that you have experts in certain fields.

At least once, a story mission forced me to drive a getaway as Michael with Franklin and his incredibly useful driving skill in the passenger seat. If a member of your crew has the ability to slow time and steer a car through gridlock at 100MPH, why is he sitting in the passenger seat?

The standout new mechanic, though, is the Heists system. Several times throughout the course of the story mode, there is a big job to set up and pull off. You’ll case a location, gather the necessary resources and then choose between two approaches. Generally this choice simply comes down to a noisy approach or a more stealthy approach but each scenario plays out differently and some choices you make at times through the game have consequences for the way it continues to play.

Once you’ve decided on your approach, you choose from a small selection of crew members to hire – more capable ones demand a greater share of the take but allow you more chance of a clean job. For example, a better driver is likely to plan a more successful escape route or turn up in a more suitable getaway car. A better hacker might give you more time to do your thing before an alarm system notifies the authorities.

The switching mechanic allows, and often forces, you to take on the most exciting parts of these new Heist missions. You’ll play a few minutes as one character, perhaps engaged in a firefight. Switch to another character with a sniper rifle on long-range overwatch. Switch to another character flying a helicopter for extraction. You get to play all of the most exciting aspects of the job.

No GTA game is complete without a multitude of side missions to get caught up in. While these don’t progress the story at all, they give you opportunities to make a little extra cash, develop your skills and immerse yourself in that world a little more. It’s also an opportunity to inject a little fun into the game without corrupting the story mode. The first side mission I took part in had me taking a bad trip and fending off invading aliens with a minigun. It was the first in a little series that each character got to take part in.

“There’s so much to do but that wealth of choice is often tempered by the feedback to previous games”

There are also the random missions that pop up as you’re driving by – similar to the Red Dead Redemption system – where you can recover someone’s stolen property or otherwise assist them. And then there are the phone call missions that will feel familiar to many GTA fans but those are certainly less frequent and less mundane than they often were in the previous game. You won’t be cajoled into awkward dates and taxi runs, even if you do leave all the notifications switched on in the menu. Of course, there’s always the option to steal a cab and run some fares, if you want to.

And that’s the overwhelming feeling to take away from GTA V – there’s so much to do but that wealth of choice is often tempered by the feedback to previous games. There’s no wild deviation to the missions, which are still mostly a case of driving somewhere to pick someone or something up, driving to a location and then shooting everyone until the game tells you to drive away. That’s the formula though, nobody should be expecting that to change and the efforts to refine that, while mixing things up slightly with the Heists system show that the gameplay designers at Rockstar North are still looking for ways to improve on a formula that couldn’t be considered broken at all.

It’s not the most visually stunning game you’ll ever play, although it certainly has its moments. The frame rate in very busy areas, or at top speed on busy highways, seems to dip slightly below 30fps (PS3 version tested) and the lip syncing and facial animations look a tiny bit rough compared to some recent big budget releases but when you place that in the context of such a huge and busy game world, no noticeable in-game loading times and the sheer scale of opportunities on offer, it’s a remarkable and unprecedented achievement.

That’s really the point to GTA V. As with previous games in the series, the main story is worth playing but it’s your story that you’ll remember the best. Those open world moments of hilarity that everyone else who has lived some time in that world will identify with. Those moments in the hills, preparing for an impromptu sniping session when a Bobcat eats you. That time you were riding your motorcycle through the hills and a deer literally charged you. The time you jumped from a jet and parachuted into a weird location you’d never known existed. GTA is as much about your stories as it is about its own, and that’s its true genius.

What’s Good

    • Massive world to explore.
    • Balanced an engaging narrative arc with some trademark lunacy.
    • Characters that are well fleshed out and oddly believable.
    • Exceptional scripting and performances from all involved.
    • So much to do.
    • Packed with pop culture references and secrets to uncover.

What’s Bad:

  • Combat can be occasionally unforgiving, leading to frustrating mission failures.

GTA V doesn’t break new ground. It’s not going to change the world. It is, after all, the fifth numbered title in a well loved series and for the most part it is simply delivering more of what the developers must know the fans want to see. To expect otherwise is idiocy. But it is engaging, compelling, interesting, clever, funny and packed with things to do and see. It’s a personal story, or several personal stories, set in a magnificent world that ebbs and flows with thousands of people who all seem to be living their own personal stories. It’s a genuine landmark event in the history of videogames and it’s one that you definitely shouldn’t miss.

Score: 10/10


  1. Countdown to midnight! don’t think i’ve ever been this excited for a new release :)

  2. “It’s not the most visually stunning game you’ll ever play,” – really? You mean those stunning alleged PS3 trailers do not represent the final game? OMG!

    • “although it certainly has its moments”
      Not everything has to be a drama!

    • Exactly Tuffcub, happens every single time GTA comes out.

  3. Lovely, just what I wanted to hear, looking forward to playing it tomorrow. Thanks for the review.

  4. Thanks for the review, fella. Read it through and wanted to know so much more.

    The cars: are they now handling more like previous versions, as GTA IV had every vehicle driving through (what felt like) treacle compared.
    The gun-play: Rockstar mentioned improving on it hugely. Is that the case from your limited time with the game?
    To reiterate what Tuffcub said: does the game look pretty much like the recent “captured from the PS3” videos we’ve seen?
    Island: are huge swathes of it shut down “due to bad weather”? :-)

    • Play the second video on the review, it’s just Peter driving around. I must say I expected better :/

    • The cars are nippy enough but the slower ones (like trucks and such) are very sluggish. Faster cars are obviously much zippier and handling certainly isn’t as bouncy as GTA IV.
      Gun play is more accessible, there’s a slight snap to target and working on your shooting in a rifle range makes the crosshair easier to position too. It’s not as tight as a dedicated third person shooter but it’s not as loose as in IV.
      As I said in the review, it’s not the most perfect game visually but it has moments that really are stunning. Those videos are representative of the game, although not all gameplay looks that perfect, as you would (or at least should, if you’re not an idiot) expect.
      Nothing is shut down at all, it’s all hidden on the map until you visit it but the entire map can be visited from the start.

      • Cheers, fella. Think I replied before the vehicles article. I can see many “moves” where you wouldn’t have survived in GTA IV so that’s great to see. I didn’t need comedy controls but something that sits between the caper-like earlier titles and the cruising through sludge-fest that was GTA IV when out and about in cars.

        What’s kinda funny is that I don’t think you’ve written nearly enough in the review. I’ve just read IGN’s and Polygon’s and all of you have missed out so much, although it’s simple to work out why. You all had to stop somewhere before each respective review became biblical in length!

        Can’t wait for my copy to arrive tomorrow. I’m desperately trying to see if I can postpone work for a bit. ;-)

        Top article, fella. Thank you.

      • I wasn’t much of a fan of the driving in IV as it was like driving a car made of jelly at times,

  5. Nice read; you did however say “Of course, there’s plenty to do in San Andreas.” :P

    • Yep, meaning in the area covered by the map (not San Andreas the game!)

      • I totally misread that one, so sorry :)

  6. So pretty much the same GTA as it’s always been. I really can’t waited to get started…on Saints Row IV.

    • That’s not really fair, fella. Fundamentally it is, like most games from the same franchise, but it looks like they’ve refined the ever loving crap out of this one.

      I suppose if someone presented me with a terrible football game and the best one there is to buy, I’d still reply with “ah, but it’s still football so please step away before I slap you silly”. :-)

      With it being the biggest franchise on the planet (for gaming?), I can’t see how they would dare deviate away from it at this moment in time.

      • That’s not really the point of my comment. My favourite GTAs by far were the first two, I’ve played every other since and not bothered to finish a single one. In contrast, I loved SR3 and platinumed it, just found it much more fun in every way. Therefore, this new GTA doesn’t appear to be different enough for me to consider it, whereas SR4 is duplicating a game I love. I know it’s hard to believe, but not everyone loves GTA.

      • Moshbag – that’s a bit weird, fella. This feels like a return to the earlier ones but there’s a progression and refinement to the story that’s something we appear to be demanding as maturing gamers. Perhaps the latter is removing the fun you were having in the earlier versions.

        It’s a shame but you have to buy the games you like and leave the ones that are just too risky to throw down for.

        Finally, I’m definitely mature enough to appreciate that not everyone loves GTA. I’m a grown-up, after all. God knows, I’d like to puke bile on every copy of FIFA but there are some crazy people out there who like it. I have to bite my lip and remain calm(ish). ;-)

    • Isn’t that a bit of an ironic statement, given that SR IV is based on the exact same map as The Third?

      • I platinumed SR IV and traded it in as soon as I did and I haven’t traded for a while I enjoyed SR 3 a lot more,but I don’t think either will be a patch on this.

  7. Been trying with the thought of buying this for a while now with ps4 around the corner and the beautiful impulse buy of final fantasy xiv last week proving fruitful.
    Thing is (no offence to others) I trust peters opinion more than everyone elses on here and you might have tipped me over the edge.
    I’m sure the £40 could well be worth it judging by these words. Barely a snark in sight and the improvements seem to be all along the right lines after I was sorely disappointed by iv.

    • if you really hated GTA IV then you’re likely to retain some of that hate here. They have made efforts to address some of the things people complained about but it’s still quite similar in a lot of ways and if you really didn’t like IV then this probably won’t change your mind. It all depends on how into the world you get, I think. Three characters might help that and, knowing you a little bit, I think you’ll enjoy Trevor’s antics quite a lot ;)

      • I didn’t hate it, just disappointed by its main leads and the world seeming to be a drizzly affair. Once I completed it I didn’t feel anything to make me keep hold of it.
        The 3 way protagonists and switching mechanic plus extra mini games and the RPG type abilities are sounding like a major leap if you ask me.

  8. Looking forward to this so much now, just the day at work to get through.

  9. Great review, a really good read! The game sounds awesome, it sounds like the hype has given us a justifiable amount of excitement, I’m looking forward to this dropping through the letterbox :) Out of interest, how long will the install take?

    • It’s just under 8.5GB on PS3 and takes about 15-20 minutes, probably. Stick it in, get a cup of tea and it’ll be done by the time you’ve dusted off the biscuit crumbs ;)

      • Nice, thanks Peter. Got myself some cake for the occasion!

  10. Tomorrow’s mail can’t come soon enough!

    • Indeed not, that’s why I’ve just reserved a copy with Game for midnight (as well as the ShopTo copy that’ll turn up sometime in the afternoon tomorrow!)

      I just cannot wait and don’t want to waste half of my day off waiting for the postie!

      • Gaaaaaaarrrrrrr damn the inferior bank balance, would gladly get another copy at midnight and give my bro the delivered copy but alas im at the mercy of royal mail …. That makes me a Sad panda

      • same thought my copy would arrive today so going to a midnight launch can not wait.

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