Five years are a long time in the gaming industry, and in that time since the last Grand Theft Auto a lot has changed in regard to the open world genre. With Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar aims to shake things up, and to set a new standard in the genre – and to a large extent they have succeeded. Though Grand Theft Auto V has notable omissions and detraction, and in some areas is not on par with its contemporaries, it outshines them in so many areas that it ends up being one of the most impressive titles of the last few years.
Grand Theft Auto V works for a number of reasons, the most instantly apparent one being its setting. This latest instalment in the series takes players back to San Andreas’ Los Santos, and some of the outlying area. This isn’t just a rehash of what has been done before though, Los Santos has been totally rebuilt for the current generation and is utterly fantastic. This is not just a built up metropolitan city, made up of faceless skyscrapers and apartment complexes; this is a vibrant and intricately detailed location with a decent amount of variety to it. Each part of the city has a distinct feel to it, and helps to make the overall whole something really special and interesting. This makes exploring the place worthwhile, and the incredible attention to detail (and staggering amount of content) makes this all the more tempting and rewarding.
The city by itself is a great deal better than the locations of most similar open world games, but in reality Los Santos is just a small part of the map. The rest of the map is made up of mountains, beautiful rolling countryside and a desert. It’s an expansive landmass – and a lot of it is empty – but even these areas are brilliantly detailed and feel authentic. Towns are dotted around the area, and the empty land between them makes this iteration of San Andreas feel like a real place – and helps to create a greater transition (and juxtaposition) between each area on the map. The vast land gives everything a real sense of place, and makes the whole experience so much more immersive.
The setting isn’t the only star of GTA V though, as it shares the limelight with the games three protagonists. The protagonists themselves are Michael, Franklin and Trevor, and their different outlooks combined with the interplay between them make GTA V really engaging, and rather novel. Like GTAs of past, each character is a criminal of some sort, but there is enough variance between the three to make each stand out to a certain extent. This is especially true of Michael and Trevor, who are both fantastic characters that are a joy to play as.
Michael is a retired bank robber who quit the game early and is now living a life of idle luxury with his family. Of course, this does not work out to be as idyllic as it sounds; due to Michael’s boredom, pessimism and family troubles. The end result is a nostalgic and world-weary protagonist who longs for what he can’t have; and a man who simply doesn’t fit the life he has carved out for himself. This all makes for a very interesting character, who is different from GTA protagonists of past, but still fits into that world. In fact, Michael fits better than most, as he is played realistically rather than sympathetically. He is a very likeable character, but not because he’s a sympathetic figure. The story doesn’t shy away from his tendencies towards murder and chaos, and it does not try to excuse him for these. Michael isn’t the nicest guy around, but he’s strangely endearing, and this is mostly due to sharp writing and an excellent vocal performance.
Trevor goes even further down the unsympathetic line. He is truly psychotic, very intelligent and utterly unpredictable. He is a detestable manipulator of people who kills for fun and ruins lives in his wake. He is a truly horrible person and is easily the best character in the game (and perhaps the entire series). He fits the world of GTA perfectly, and is excellently realised and superbly portrayed. The key to Trevor’s success is that he is incredibly entertaining, and is a great character in the same way memorable movie villains are. Also there is a definite charm to Trevor, which makes you oddly root for him, though this connection is mostly down to how darn entertaining he is. But this approach to character in general is one of GTA Vs greatest strengths. GTA IV faltered when it tried to make its inherently unsympathetic characters sympathetic relatable leads; and by presenting characters as they are (and by ensuring these characters are consistent and entertaining) GTA V has evaded this problem. Rockstar has realised that good characters and sympathetic characters can be separate, and this makes for a real step forward from their previous title.
Franklin isn’t as interesting though. Part of what makes Trevor and Michael so interesting is how they go together. They have a past (they robbed banks together), and there is a real tension and animosity between them – and Trevor’s unpredictable nature makes this even more enthralling. On top of this Trevor and Michael develop in really interesting ways over the course of the narrative, Michael learns more about himself and Trevor gets in increasingly stranger and complex scenarios. There is a real arc to both of these characters, and to a large extent there is a joint arc also – as the crux of the story revolves around the fractured relationship between these two characters. Franklin serves as a third wheel in this scenario, it’s a position which is needed in the story, but not enough is done with him as a character to make him appeal in his own right.
Franklin’s background is that he is a young kid from the ‘hood’ that wants to move up in the world. He’s a lowly car thief surrounded by dead-end gang bangers who thinks he deserves, and can do, better. It’s a very GTA kind of set up, and that’s partly the issue – we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Franklin’s role is really that of a catalyst, he is the much-needed straight man in the trio, the one that grounds things. He is the neutral ground between Trevor and Michael that is necessary, and is used to make things more interesting. In this position he works perfectly well, and the story benefits from having this kind of role filled, as without it would be too easy for things to fall apart. However, Rockstar could have done a lot more to develop Franklin as a character, and to make him more interesting.
The really interesting part about having three protagonists though is how this is manifested in gameplay, and this element is what makes GTA V really special. A key mechanic in the game is switching between these characters on the fly, and this has a real impact on story and on gameplay. Admittedly this ability isn’t always available; certain missions are assigned to certain characters, and there are set switch points in most of the missions where more than one character feature. On top of this you don’t gain access to everybody right away, which makes for a rather slow start where you are stuck as Franklin for a bit too long. However the system is still superbly implemented, and when it is allowed to shine it shines incredibly brightly.
The real joy of this system comes from being able to swap between who you explore Los Santos as, as each character has a very different feel and different content available to them. This enables you to play a really multifaceted game, which has a lot of inherent variety. It also stops things from getting stale and helps in regard to gameplay and narrative dissonance. Before, there was always a contrast between character and gameplay. You could go on rampages as Nico Bellic – and certain missions just ended up that way – but doing so never made sense, and this somewhat neutered the experience. The freedom was a tease that you could only utilise at the extent of sacrificing character and continuity. Of course this still exists, and is always bound to, but Rockstar have gone to great efforts to get around it, and now these issues rest more with the player than the game.
In a lot of ways Trevor is a bit of a free pass, him being spontaneous and unpredictable lets Rockstar work their usual nonsensical magic, and have one character do all kinds of different things. Usually this would cause a conflict, but when Trevor sways from one extreme to the other it feels more like a character trait than a defect in the narrative structure. On top of this, Trevor also gives the player an excuse to exercise all the destructive freedom of the open world, and an excuse for Rockstar to create insane (and insanely enjoyable) missions. The impact of this is that there is an outlet you can use if you want to play in this way, and while you can still go crazy as Franklin doing such seems misguided. Making the act of playing the game how you want misguided in GTA IV was a real detraction, but here it that is not the case. By adding an option that allows other approaches to work (and make sense), Rockstar have achieved producing decent characters and anarchy; they can now balance serious and insane consistently, rather than causing a real dissonance. Behaving out of character now seems like your fault, seeing as there isn’t really an excuse to do it any more.
Of course the characters are not one hundred percent consistent, there are still notable occasions where the GTA structure gets in the way and forces you to do things that your previously well realised characters would not (or to merely go into things willingly that they would be clever enough to avoid). Missions are still going to a mission giver labelled on the map and do what they tell you to do, and for the most part this works, however this means that when it doesn’t work it really stands out. This mission structure allows Rockstar to leverage an impressive cast of momerable characters, and allows them to include all kinds of varied content, but it could be better.
The missions themselves can be quite exceptional though, and are really the highlight of the experience. GTA V isn’t as low-key as IV, and has you doing all kinds of insane, adrenaline pumping things that rank up among the greatest things you have ever done in a video game. Sadly this is not always the case. Though GTA V is the least drawn out open world game Rockstar have made this generation, there still is a degree of padding. The story doesn’t feel over-long or stretched, like it can do in Rockstar titles (which is a real achievement as there are easily twenty plus hours of story content here), but some of the missions in it are needlessly mundane. There are a few too many missions which are just dull, and though these sometimes weirdly work (by making the whole world more immersive and making things feel more realistic) they can become rather boring.
Luckily though a great degree of possible mundanity is avoided by the inclusion of checkpoints, something GTA IV sorely missed. Missions mostly still belong to the talk to someone, drive somewhere, do something and then drive somewhere else template, but having checkpoints in them makes this a lot more palatable. Also the beautiful world makes the driving more appealing, and the thing you do when you get to places is often really incredible. Another important improvement over GTA IV is in regard to how the game plays; to put it simply GTA V now plays well. Driving is responsive and enjoyable, shooting is much more solid and cover more effective. It still doesn’t play like a normal third person shooter, but the game isn’t a shooter, it’s an action game you shoot in and the overly generous lock on aiming suits this mould. The lock on can make combat drag, and makes long encounters a tad tedious (as it takes out the skill associated with most shooters), but more often than not the missions are designed with the mechanics in mind, and that’s the best thing you could hope for.
A lot of the fun of the missions though comes from where GTA V is different to its forebears, and from where it stands out from most open world games. This is in regard to the numerous amazing heist missions, and how the three protagonist structure fits into missions. Missions that let you switch between the characters do a great job of making one scenario really varied and engaging, and letting you do a lot more in a shorter space of time. It means that one element doesn’t get drawn out, and you don’t have to wait for your fun, you can have it delivered to you. Rather than getting a helicopter, getting to a building, rappelling down that building, sniping your foes from a vantage point and then destroying your foes from the skies in succession, you can now do it kind of at once. The waiting period is gone as while Michael is stuck rappelling down a building, Trevor could be in a helicopter while Franklin covers you both with a sniper rifle. You can then flit between the three options and get multiple fun angles on a mission. This makes everything more active, and takes out a lot of possible tedium. Also the ways that they use the mechanic in missions are usually really interesting, and make for excellently designed moments. It’s an impressive case of a core mechanic used really well, and it is one worth celebrating.
The heists are the real highlight of the storyline though. Needless to say, once Michael hooks up with his old bank robbing buddy and a car thief, he doesn’t stay on the straight and narrow for long. Circumstances force his hand, and he is thrown back into the game. This means that the player has to undertake a series of increasingly insane heists, and this makes for some incredible missions. Heists are also really well handled, a lot of effort was put into making these proper heist missions rather than missions when you happen to rob things, and that is a notable achievement. You decide on a plan for your heist (from a usual two options), choose your crew for said plan, prepare for the heist and execute it. These variables even impact the mission itself, meaning that things can turn out differently based on what you chose in the preparation stage. Did you hire a mediocre gunman because your plan doesn’t involve much killing? Well, he might get shot in the escape and lose you all the money he had on him. This means that not only are the heists inherently designed in interesting ways that keep you on your toes, there are things that can go right and wrong due to your input. Also the preparation stage does a great job of making the heist feel like a real undertaking, and helps to make the missions as special as they are.
There is so much to love in GTA V, but it isn’t without its flaws. In fact GTA V seems to have ignored a lot of progression that the open world genre has made since the previous instalment. It focuses on making its own improvements, and adding new things rather than replicating things that are now standard in the genre. This can be an issue at times, but the improvements and the new things that this game brings along are so brilliant that this issue is outweighed. Things like only having your route on your GPS, rather than visible in the world, do detract from the overall experience – but not enough to have a real negative impact on a sublime game. The idea behind this move was to keep their beautiful world on full display, but in reality it keeps you looking at the minimap rather than the world, something other games have realised and fixed. There are a number of small examples like this where GTA V falls weirdly short, but then again it reaches so incredibly far in so many important places, and is thus really easy to forgive when it falters. Yes it stumbles in places, but it more than compensates for this.
The beautiful visuals also have a downside. GTA V does look astounding, to the extent that it’s impressive to see it on a 360 and PS3, the frame rate holds up nicely also (bar a few rare exceptions), but there are some invasive visual issues. Basically there is an amount of pop-in, that doesn’t get in the way particularly (and isn’t rampant), but is disappointing every time you notice it. It’s still an amazing looking game, but this came with a slight cost that people will be more than willing to pay. On top of great graphics though you also get decent lighting and decent animations, neither are best in class but they are good enough to keep you invested. People move like people should and this helps to make the characters more believable and likeable, and of course more consistent. They look; move and sound like real people, and you know that if you could smell them they would smell like people to.
The end result of all of this is one really special game. A game that corrects so many of GTA IV’s mistakes, while compensating for the ones it retains in some really special ways. In regards to attention to detail, world design, structure and storytelling, Grand Theft Auto V is a step forward for its genre. It is a landmark game that you will keep coming back to, and that will keep you engaged for dozens of hours. There’s even a sublime original score from Tangerine Dream, which is really fitting and adds a lot to overall experience (of course there are still radio stations with licensed music also, and they are still decent). There is so much to see and do, and so much of it is of exceptional quality. Rockstar have made one hell of a game, and its one you should really play.