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.
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 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.
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.