Still A Great Open World Experience
Rockstar is a company known for their creativity and independence. They’re not only independant in the sense that their publisher for the most part walks by the office only to slip a cash envelope under the door without interrupting the creative process, but they work independently from the industry as a whole. For the longest time this set Grand Theft Auto apart from the rest of the market. Fiercely original and uncompromising in it’s vision. While the Housers were once again able to achieve a very specific goal and a really good game along the way, this isolationist design philosophy has inevitably started to catch up with the franchise.
Welcome to Los Santos, a beautiful re-creation of Los Angeles and the greater California region. In Grand Theft Auto V we leave the dreary faux New York behind, with it’s immigrants, biker gangs and night clubs, and are transported once again to the sunny west coast of Rockstars warped America. The story this time around centers around not one, but three separate characters trying to find happiness on the streets of Los Santos in their own unique ways - Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Michael, an aging crook that made it big and got out of the game is going through a midlife crisis trying to find meaning in his new sedate lifestyle while attempting to somehow reconnect with his spoiled kids and cheating wife. Franklin is the classic young hoodlum living a petty life of crime, trying to come up, escape the hood mentality that his friend Lamar is deeply entrenched in, and make something more of himself. Finally Trevor is.. a psychopath, strung out on meth and who knows what else, living out in the boonies conducting various “business” operations. One by one these character story arcs intersect and you start to explore Michaels past, Trevors present and Franklins future - all of which revolve around driving, flying, shooting, kidnapping and good old fashioned mayhem.
Past and Present
While Rockstar dabbled with mixing up the formula in GTA IV by steering the story in new and not always satisfying directions, exploring what it means to be happy and generally presenting a protagonist that wanted to escape the life of crime rather than revel in it - GTA V returns to it’s roots with a classic take on getting rich and making it big. There are still some residual traces of this past approach to be found here - for instance Michael initially is hesitant to reenter organized crime in favor of leading a peaceful family life - but very quickly everyone gets onboard the crime train and never looks back. For the most part we play these games to have fun and let loose, and while in GTA IV Niko’s story was interesting considering how many people immigrate to the United States each year, his constant dour attitude and reluctance to engage in the chaos that the actual player is drawn towards, put a damper on the whole game. It’s a lot more enjoyable when your characters are motivated, able and more than willing to go wild, taking you along for the ride - and the new trio have no problems getting their hands dirty.
Mechanically this is a very similar title to what most people that have ever played an open world game are used to. You get in a vehicle, drive to a marker, watch a story cutscene and do a mission - right trigger gas, left trigger brake. Car handling has been greatly improved from the days of GTA IV where nearly all land vehicles felt like whales on ice. The physics now straddle a balanced line of arcadey to quasi realistic - meaning you can generally have fun but you still can’t hit the handbrake at 200 MPH and expect anything less than disaster. Gunplay has simultaneously evolved and taken a few steps back. For the most part aiming feels similar to Max Payne 3 allowing for more fluid targeting in the third person perspective - but the game defaults to an extremely aggressive auto-aim system that amounts to holding the left trigger and automatically cycling between bad guys at the flick of an analog. You can change this to completely free aim if you so desire, but personally I didn’t find the shooting engaging enough and left the auto targeting on. The city is huge and diverse, offering it's assortment of slums, residential housing, downtown highrise and a sprawling desert on the outskirts of town. Making a return are mod shops that let you customize your vehicle from new fenders to bullet proof tires, as well as purchasable properties that come with occasional missions of their own. All of this is very par for the course in the sense of what Grand Theft Auto is and has been for the past several years.
One of the biggest new changes comes in the form of on-the-fly character switching. Once you’ve progressed the story far enough, you’ll be able to freely switch between the trio, prompting the camera to gradually zoom out above the city, pan over to where your selected protagonist is currently at, and zoom back in, showcasing a small scene pertinent to that character before you fully regain control. It’s a clever way to hide the load time and highlight each members personality - for instance Michael might be relaxing by his pool while Trevor might be dangling a Lost biker off a bridge. Each of our protagonists also receive a special bar that fills up over time and grants them unique abilities - Michael's straight out of Max Payne bullet time, Trevor's rage mode increasing damage dealt and decreasing damage taken, and Franklins unique driving ability that not only slows down time when in a vehicle but also allowing for some ridiculous maneuverability reducing even the tightest corner to a yawn at breakneck speeds. Then there are the heists. As the story unfolds, you will find yourself in need of money and there is one sure way for professional thieves to gain large amounts of it and quickly - and that is through carefully planned armed robbery. Pulling off these heists requires preparation, gear and a crew. You’ll have to scope out your mark, get whatever equipment is necessary to pull off the job - which can range from something as simple as carnival masks and jump suits, to military grade helicopters used to cargo lift entire train wagons right off the tracks - and finally decide who you’re going to take along with you which will greatly impact your final payout as professionals take a larger cut. You’ll even be able to choose from two completely different approaches for each mission, greatly differing in what you need to acquire and how the job actually plays out. Not only are these heists incredibly fun to prepare and pull off, but they net you a large sum of money which until the very end of the game is quite scarce. They also gradually build in intensity, keeping you waiting for when the big score finally rolls around. Considering this is probably the best “new thing” about GTA it’s a shame there are only a handful of these capers sprinkled throughout the quite lengthy story.
For better and worse, Grand Theft Auto V feels like it was designed in a vacuum. Rockstar is completely unapologetic about carving out their own path, even if a better one has been stomped out by various other studios. Plenty of design decisions seemed to have been made with complete disregard for industry standards and what players come to accept as the “norm” these days. The mere fact that a lot of primary game interactions are triggered by the D-pad, something that the industry has long relegated as the auxiliary weapon switcher, is confusing at best. The lack of in-game GPS navigation the likes of which can be seen in Saints Row 3 means instead of taking in the beautiful world Rockstar has created, you’re stuck constantly glued to the oldschool GPS map in the lower left hand corner. Sleeping Dogs automatically slowed down time when you decided to shoot while driving in order to compensate for the lack of a third arm to execute this action properly. GTA V does nothing to innovate their own clunky system where you hold down a bumper until a reticle shows up and you instantly begin shooting, forcing you to waste a ton of ammo until you finally get a bead on your target. Mission design is still uninspired for the most part. Go to quest marker, get mission, go to another quest marker, kill everyone, outrun the cops. The new Strangers and Freaks missions that are sprinkled throughout the world and are unique to each character try to spice things up a bit by introducing you to some really colorful residents of Los Santos. Even then only a handful are fun and unique like having to kidnap a movie star for a deranged elderly couple, while the rest boil down to boring side jobs or monotonous collection quests. The core gameplay is still a ton of fun. Missions where all three characters are participating at the same time and allow you to switch between them freely are a novel experience - going from Michael wrecking havoc down on street level, to Trevor laying down cover fire from a helicopter above is really cool. The story is interesting with typically amazing Voice Acting. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of those missions, and when you’re thrust back into another boring fedex job you can’t escape the feeling that this is a little too “by the books” for a Rockstar game.
Graphically the game shines. It’s hard to imagine that they managed to make this world somehow still work on 8 year old hardware, much less run at a more or less consistent framerate. Los Santos looks great. There were moments when I’d be driving in the desert with the sun rearing it’s head over the horizon, slowly warming the sky to a vivid purple, that would make you stop and gawk. Although the old hardware does rear it's ugly head over the horizon ever so often as well - driving extremely fast cars will drop your framerate as the game struggles to render all it’s detail at over 200 MPH. For the most part though, it’s a solid performance.
The soundtrack is probably my favorite since Vice City but in this regard everyone’s mileage will vary. I was able to consistently find new favorite stations that I’d regularly keep coming back to. The talk-shows are probably the weakest they have ever been, but you can still find some good segments like the amazing Beyond Insemination talk show voiced by Danny McBride.
Along the single player there is GTA Online that launched completely broken two weeks after the initial release of the game. Two months later the servers have stabilized but it remains a largely imbalanced experience. The mode allows you to create a custom monstrosity (the character generator allows for some truly hideous looking player characters) and dumps you into Los Santos with 15 other players. Therein you can do races, missions and various forms of deathmatch in order to earn money so you can buy vehicles and a house to store them in. Each race or mission is accessed from the overworld, but once you initiate them a lobby is formed and that mission splinters off into it’s own separate instance. Racing against other human beings in your own custom car can be a lot of fun especially if you leave traffic turned on. The recent inclusion of a Custom Mission Creator has brought about some really fun player made gauntlets with ramps and wackiness not usually seen in the more traditional Rockstar created events. The missions themselves are generally fairly straightforward, but the overly aggressive and pinpoint accurate AI combined with a ridiculously low shared respawn limit makes these a lot less enjoyable than they could be. Considering how much money Rockstar made from the sales of GTA V it’s strange to see just how aggressively geared towards micro transactions the entire game mode is. When in single player a single respray might cost you $1000 per color, in Online prices are bloated beyond belief, where some colors cost almost $20,000 each - almost twice as much as the highest paying mission. Matchmaking is broken or inadequate, seeing as very often you’ll find it extremely difficult to fill up an 8 person race lobby. The entire concept of grinding out missions and races in order to earn virtual money so that you can buy extremely expensive cars in a game called Grand Theft Auto is also very ironic. Still, if you can find 3 other friends to play with, there is a lot of fun to be had just by messing around or doing missions together. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s constantly being tweaked and comes free of charge along with the already excellent single player experience.
The bottom line is that Grand Theft Auto V is a really great game. I had a ton of fun playing it, even if some of the missions were a bit more boring than others. The worlds that Rockstar create are so vibrant and full of character you tend to forget that what you’re doing is actually just driving from A to B, and get completely immersed in the details. Although if Grand theft Auto aims to remain the king of open world crime gaming, it’s going to need to start paying more attention to it’s contemporaries instead of rigidly sticking to their own ideas, which are increasingly becoming outdated.