Let's face it: You have already bought this game
Open-world crime games have come a long way since the bird’s-eye view carjacking escapades of DMA Design’s 1997 cult hit Grand Theft Auto. Titles like Saint’s Row and Sleeping Dogs have bolstered our expectations of the once-novel genre and we expect bigger, better versions of our preferred franchises with each installment. It had been five long years for fans since Rockstar blew everyone away with Grand Theft Auto IV and now that the newest incarnation is here, I can’t help but wonder if five years was long enough.
By all accounts, GTA V is a very good game. It offers the (mostly) realistic world fans of the genre have been clambering for while still retaining the polish we have come to expect from Rockstar. Why change up a winning formula?
The game’s story begins with a flashback to a heist from nine years ago. Michael Townley, Trevor Phillips, and two accomplices botch a job and end up in a shootout with police. Michael is shot, Trevor escapes, and the other two thieves are killed. The game then fast-forwards to present time and puts players into the shoes of the stereotypical gangbanger Franklin, who does repossession jobs for a shady car salesman. In a chance meeting between Franklin and the now-retired Michael, the two bond over their criminal pasts and begin working together. Trevor, who believes Michael had died, notices his old crew’s calling card in a news story and attempts to track Michael down.
The plot doesn’t overly impress, due to the typical crime tropes and story beats all making appearances, as well as a lacking payoff at its conclusion. Betrayals, insider trading, torture, government corruption, drug- and gun-rings, and other typical fare all show up to the party with Rockstar’s social commentary tacked on as an attempted justification for inclusion. Character development is lackluster as well, with frustrating stereotypes and questionable motives taking the place of possibly interesting arcs.
Rather than one playable character, GTA V gives us three – Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. While this concept does offer two extra perspectives on the workings of the criminal mind, it also overloads the player with side missions, activities, and random encounters. More is not always better and I found myself stressing out about missing story beats and time-based activities (as in visits to Michael’s therapist), as well as undertaking a number of stock market missions before I had sufficient money to do so.
The amount of content here is staggering. Tennis, golf, and darts are all available to play and are surprisingly fun for the most part. Strip clubs (with a questionable, full-fledged groping mechanic), movie theatres, and televisions all provide alternate entertainment, while the standard fare like races and mayhem missions return.
Side quests throughout San Andreas tend to be worth your time, which is very refreshing to see. Paparazzi missions see Franklin helping a scummy photographer taking pictures of celebrities while assassinations change the ups and downs of the incredibly robust stock market created by Rockstar. There is always something to do in GTA V and it is apparent that the development team created each activity with significant care.
GTA V ditches the overly serious tone of IV, evoking the more playful, darkly comedic feel of San Andreas. The game features plenty of laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled with social commentary about America’s current issues. Several instances detract from the humor, however, through the liberal use of gore and depravity and I found myself cringing when Rockstar took this route – Trevor’s already-infamous torture scene is a strong example of crossing the line, and in no way contributes positively to the world so carefully crafted.
GTA V features much better gameplay mechanics than previous incarnations of the franchise. Shooting and aiming are more on par with other open-world games, which is a huge step up from Grand Theft Auto IV‘s atrocious system. Driving and car handling are also vastly improved – no longer do vehicles handle like the world is frictionless. In many ways, GTA V feels like a more robust version of the previous games and more in touch with Rockstar’s grand vision.
The gameplay is centered around the completion of heists, which are multiple-stage missions. The first step of each is planning, wherein the player chooses crew members with assorted stats to drive, gun, or hack. Each heist offers two different paths to take – generally a decision between stealthy or 80′s action movie style – and setup for either. Getaway cars must be acquired, equipment located, and the locations must be cased in order to attempt the mission. The heists were my favorite part of the game by far, but with only six or so throughout my forty-plus hour experience, I did feel let down. It is clear that Rockstar spent a great deal of time on these but I was left hungry for more.
Graphically, the title is very impressive. Sunlight reflects off surfaces realistically and rain puddles shimmer like their real-life counterparts. Character models are strongly detailed and aside from occasional janky movement, are animated quite well. Rockstar’s focus on the smallest of details is something to be applauded as well – things like characters looking in their rear-view mirror when backing up and character-specific car-jacking animations.
GTA V is very pleasant on the ears. A great musical selection over varied genres is a staple of the franchise’s awesome radio, and this game is no different. Music is important, but voice acting is paramount, and character dialogue is believable for the most part and well-executed.
GTA Online, Rockstar’s newest multiplayer service, is an ambitious concept. A full story complete with voiced dialogue awaits when the servers are finally stabilized. Races, deathmatch, and heists are all available here. At the moment, the service is suffering from launch woes and is mostly unplayable, but it is a good reason to keep the game disc in your console.
I can’t help but feel that as great as GTA V is (and it IS a blast to play), it suffers from its arrogance. Other open-world crime games have come and impressed us since IV‘s release and Rockstar seems to ignore them rather than monopolize on the competitive spirit. To really push the limits of the genre may not be in their grand scheme, but something needs to change if Rockstar hopes to maintain their reputation.
Despite my criticisms, GTA V is undeniably a solid game and well worth playing. With an overabundance of activities and a substantial main story (not to mention GTA Online, when it finally works), this is a title worth your time and money – providing you know what you’re getting into. GTA V does not reinvent the genre, but it does build strongly on the legacy Rockstar has created for itself.