Welcome to Sunny San Andreas
Considering the absurdly widespread popularity of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games have to be commended for not falling into the standard pattern of sequelisation that many other developers working with extremely profitable games have. When Rockstar want to make a GTA game, they don’t just spit out a slightly more advanced version of something from the year before, they sit down and work on what they want to make for as long as it takes, and at the end produce a game that feels like a rich and full experience. This is truer than ever with Grand Theft Auto V, which stands up as one of the studio’s best works to date.
GTA V returns the series to the fictional U.S. state of San Andreas and revolves around three separate protagonists: Franklin, a black youth struggling to get by in the poorest part of the city of Los Santos; Michael, a wealthy resident of Los Santos’s equivalent of Beverly Hills, living with a cheating wife and ungrateful and spoiled children; and Trevor, a psychotic and controlling madman running his own meth business from the deserts of San Andreas. Michael and Trevor remain linked by a high-paying heist they pulled years before the main events of the game, while Franklin meets up with Michael after trying to repossess his son’s car for a crooked businessman. When the paths of these three characters meet, they are snatched up in a whirlwind of violent behaviour and elaborate crimes.
The driving and shooting systems that are the tools of your trade on this crime spree are carefully tuned, and make even just moving from A to B or completing basic missions an exciting experience. The game adopts a more refined version of GTA IV’s cover-based shooting combat, in which you can lock onto the centre mass of nearby enemies, leaving a risk-reward situation where you can either try to gun them down with sheer firepower, or try to angle your reticule just the right amount upwards to get a headshot. At least, this is the default. For those who prefer other aiming modes, the option is there. Enemies drop fast, and on paper this combat system may seem devoid of challenge, but the accuracy required to score headshots, the sheer number of enemies, and the way your health only recharges up to a maximum of 50% keep firefights engaging. The feeling of getting just the right cover placement and quickly taking out multiple enemies in a row is one of the most satisfying parts of the gameplay.
Each of the protagonists also has their own special ability that can be activated to give you a gameplay advantage for a limited period. Franklin can slow down time while driving and shift his car about the road with improved handling, Michael can slow down time when on foot allowing him to quickly and easily eliminate enemies, and Trevor can go into a furious rage to make himself impervious to damage. These abilities help add some extra colour to gameplay and are always exciting to use, but more impressive is the ability to switch between the characters at almost any time. Providing you’re not currently in a mission, you can select any of the three protagonists and the camera will zoom out of your location, fly across the map, zoom in on the character you selected, and let you begin playing from their perspective. I never got tired of performing these switches, and rejoining characters to find them in different places doing different things every time gives the sense that they actually have their own individual lives outside of your control. You can also switch between characters during the game’s “Heist” missions, using all three of them to complete larger jobs. For example, you might be able to control Michael or Franklin to shoot enemies on the ground, but be able to switch to Trevor to snipe at enemies from a helicopter. This feature adds an extra dynamic to the combat in these scenarios, and makes heist missions feel like a truly co-operative effort between characters, rather than one character being the central focus and two of them just feeling like tag-along NPCs.
From the character transitions, to moving between missions, the game must be commended for having very few load times once you get past the title screen, and this is just one of its great technical achievements. With GTA V having been developed at the end of a console generation, some strong limitations were placed on what it could do technically, but Rockstar have proved here that for developers who really try to optimise their software, they can still push a game to perform beyond our preconceived expectations for current-gen titles. Of course GTA V doesn’t look or run like a next-gen title or a high-end PC game, but objects and people render with surprising realism, and the game is free of limited draw distances, texture pop-in, or a choppy framerate. The only major criticism I can give of the game’s graphics is that in-game television shows and movies suffer from pretty severe compression artefacts.
One thing that shouldn’t be a surprise is that GTA V is big, but only by playing it do you truly get a sense of the way it dwarfs the worlds of previous Rockstar games. More importantly, it manages to pull off the grand trick of giving you the polish and detail of a linearly structured game, while retaining the freedom and grand scale of the open-world genre. No inch of the city of Los Santos looks the same, and from the shacks out in the sticks to the well worn roads of the motorways, close attention has obviously been paid to crafting every piece of the environments. San Andreas also has a silly amount of activities for the idle player to participate in outside of the main story, including golf, tennis, street races, boat races, air delivery missions, parachuting, yoga, watching the aforementioned TV shows and films, seventeen radio stations, an extensive in-game internet, strip clubs, two different stock markets to invest in, and a range of side missions. The state is so well-realised that it’s easy to lose yourself in the world to the point where you forget how far beyond other open-world games GTA V manages to go.
This world and its characters remain inseparable, and while from an outside perspective it might seem like the protagonists are too obvious and straightforward to carry the story for its full length, through a combination of quality writing, talented voice performances, and life-like animation, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor all become interesting figures in their own right. Trevor was a personal favourite, with his unhinged dialogue and reckless behaviour being a regular source of entertainment. The use of multiple protagonists also ensures that you never get too bored with any one, and as time goes on, seeing the characters bite off a little more of the criminal life than they can chew leads to some engaging drama. The game’s jokes can sometimes fall flat, most frequently when they just try to mention something vulgar in place of actual humour, but on the whole, the grand parody of American culture that GTA V creates by lampooning ignorant socio-political views and empty consumerism, is welcome and amusing.
Unfortunately, the online component of GTA V can’t quite reach the giddy heights of the single-player. The multiplayer has you create your own custom character and drops you into a version of San Andreas populated by other random players. You can then rank up and collect money to purchase properties, firearms, gun modifications, car modifications, and more, by participating in deathmatches and races with other players, as well as missions where one team tries to prevent another from completing a specific objective. The game’s driving and combat mechanics make the central experience of squaring off against other players mostly enjoyable, but faults in the surrounding systems start to undermine this.
To enter any specific mission, race, or deathmatch you have to know exactly where in the world it’s triggered from and go to that location, or use the matchmaking service. Matchmaking allows you to enter random matches with other people, but there’s no way to refine your player search beyond the rather vague “Join a random race”, “Join a random mission”, etc. When you do find other players, the game has no compunctions about dropping you into matches that it claims are too difficult for your current rank. Representing a far cry from the smooth transitions of the single-player, these matches are bookended with waits caused by extended server hangs and lobbies with perplexingly long timers. Payouts of experience points and money from matches are also inconsistent and commonly disproportionate to the amount of time or effort you put in, meaning it can take hours in multiplayer to attain what are considered fairly basic items and privileges in single-player. Part of this might be an attempt on the game’s part to try and get you to purchase “GTA Bucks”, the game’s microtransaction currency.
Outside of matchmade games, interactions with other players aren’t common unless you’re making a deliberate attempt to get together with friends online. Occasionally another player will have a bounty placed on them and you can pick up a cash reward for taking them out, or you may be able to find a random player and gun them down to steal money from them, but the size of the city is one major factor meaning that you’re unlikely to run into other people at any given time. It’s also worth noting that at the time of this writing people are still experiencing problems with losing their GTA Online characters or use of GTA Online corrupting single-player save files. Providing you’re using hard-saves and following the proper instructions, it’s unlikely that you’ll have any such problems, but none the less it’s not okay for these issues to exist in a retail game in any form. Along similar lines, I know I’m not the only player who occasionally gets spontaneously kicked from the servers due to connections issues on Rockstar’s end.
In short, the single-player of Grand Theft Auto V offers an amazingly large-scale and refined take on the GTA formula, and in every facet, from design to execution, the game achieves great things. The online component bears some significant weaknesses, but it still provides something satisfying, and the problems with it can’t eclipse the overall fantastic job that has been done on GTA V.