Developers: Rockstar North
Publishers: Rockstar Games
"I boost cars, and pop motherf**kers. Maturity's not really my f**kin' thing!"
These lines, spoken in frustration by reluctant gangbanger Franklin Clinton, pretty much sum up Grand Theft Auto as a series. GTA has always been the game where you unleash the darkest fantasies of modern life, mowing down pedestrians in impatience, going on a rampage with a minigun just because you can, knowing that if you get busted or wasted you'll just emerge unscathed from the nearest relevant medical centre or police station, ready to do it all over again.
But it's also been about anarchic tourism.
Rockstar's world-building is exceptional; it always has been. But here, with Los Santos and Blaine County, they've elevated their game to another level. The enormous world that they've created in a technical masterpiece, almost impossibly detailed, with everything in its right place. The lighting was one of the first things I noticed, and at the earliest opportunity I jumped into a car after hoofing out its previous owner -- living out the name of the game -- and headed for the Vinewood sign up in the hills, just so I could watch the sun set over the city. As the lights below me twinkled, and the sun melted into indigo clouds, I whipped out my iFruit phone and took a bunch of snaps (and the obligatory selfie)... none of which saved, sadly due to the early sever issues with Rockstar's Social Club.
My favourite experiences from this series tend to come from cruising around these incredibly realised worlds with the meticulously-crafted radio playlists blaring from the speakers. So it has been with GTA V too. The highways and avenues of Los Santos bear a significant resemblance to their real-life L.A. counterparts, and the depth of research that has gone into creating this coherent city is on show for all to see. Driving around the world at your own pace, picking out highlights for your own satisfaction rather than to fulfil a mission parameter, soaking up everything that the city has to offer, and getting distracted by new icons, emergent events, and geographical landmarks -- it is here that GTA V truly excels.
From taking a cable car up to the top of Mount Chiliad only to hurl yourself into oblivion from the summit, borne away to the desert below on the back of a scrambler, to exploring the fantastically wrought canal system and deep, blue, postcard-perfect ocean that surrounds the map -- the visual tourism has never been stronger. The hugely impressive dynamic physics engine behind the Pacific's undulating waves create a haven for jet skis and speedboats, not to mention diving suits and submersibles as you search the seabed for hidden treasures and assorted sea life.
"I'm rich, I'm miserable! I'm pretty average for this town."
Into this world, Rockstar have dropped three playable protagonists for this game. We meet Franklin first -- a more savvy-CJ, perhaps, and the sort of frustrated anti-hero we've come to expect from the series. He's stuck in the hood when we find him, desperate to break free from the gang-focused destinies of many of his peers. It's an encounter with Michael, our second protagonist, which gives him a way out. Michael is a middle-aged ex-thief, living an unfulfilled life in a house that's too big, with a family who want nothing to do with him. And then there's Trevor.
If Franklin is the embodiment of GTA as it has been in the last couple of games -- the anti-hero of the underclass -- and Michael, all jaded and cynical and living on past glories and desperate to prove he's still got what it takes to get the job done, is perhaps a comment on GTA's return, then Trevor is the personification of all of those sadistic, pathologically violent sprees we went on just because we could. It almost seems as though he's a character built out of FOX News and Jack Thompson's nightmares. He's a mass murderer, a torturer, possibly a cannibal too; he's a petrol-sniffing Walter White, who'd kill you just for looking at him in a funny way; he's a pan-sexual deviant, though also a man with a warped, perverse sense of moral justice at times. He's both the comic relief and the most controversial character in the game. He has made me laugh, and yet I detest his virtual existence.
The criminal trio all have individual special skills and a set of RPG-lite stat bars that determine how proficient they are at running or driving or shooting or flying. Trevor and Michael's special skills -- a berserker rage and temporary slo-mo respectively -- are actually relatively redundant. But Franklin's -- a skill that allows you to slow traffic down to a snail’s pace when you're behind the wheel -- is of great use, and is enormously helpful when running from the police, making perfect turns, or dodging cars on a packed freeway during rush hour.
A nice feature allows you to hop between the three protagonists at pretty much any point, once you've been introduced to all three of them. No more do you have to wait for a cab or drive for ten minutes back to civilisation after a far-flung mission; now you can just switch character and dive into their narrative. When they converge for missions, the game encourages you (sometimes forcefully) to switch between all three during the action. What this means practically is that you'll end up doing the interesting stuff nearly all of the time, cutting out laborious journeying. One mission sees you flying a helicopter over to a building as Trevor, rappelling down to the right floor as Michael, and then providing cover with a sniper rifle from a nearby skyscraper as Franklin. It works really well, but sadly Rockstar adhere strictly to their script, meaning that often the game decides who you're controlling, and actually Franklin's getaway powers are criminally underused.
"Pew, you'll be shot amigo!"
You see, for all of the enticing openness, GTA V is a paradoxically narrow game for so much of its running time. Instead of laying Los Santos out for our enjoyment, giving us the keys to the city and challenging us to go out and see what havoc we can cause unfettered by limitations, the game leads players by the nose through a whole bunch of story missions, forcing you into the narrative to unlock the best bits of the game -- with the empire building and parachutes coming to mind in particular.
The missions are the same missions we've seen in every GTA game up to this point: drive here, kill this guy, tail that vehicle (but don't get too close), steal this car, chase those dudes, gun down everyone you find, stop perfectly in that tiny halo of light. But at least the developers have tried to inject some variety into proceedings, and the writing in some of the sideline distractions often makes going off of the main path enormously worthwhile. Speeding around the posher parts of Los Santos and stealing items from celebrities for a deliciously macabre old English couple is hilarious, and the assassination missions that Franklin takes on for Lester are actually fairly open-ended and some of the most rewarding in the game, particularly when you combine them with speculation on the game's stock markets.
The heists -- the aspect of the game for which I was most excited -- are outstanding. Yet they too come with a caveat or two. These are multi-stage missions that form the narrative spine, and range from knocking over a jewellery store to stealing evidence from a government agency's HQ. You case the joint, working out entry options, distraction techniques, how to avoid alerting guards and the police, and your exit strategy. Then it's a case of drawing up plans, putting together a crew, and determining the approach -- usually a choice between quiet and loud. The stealthier option might require more legwork in advance of the heist itself, but if all goes well, you won't have to shoot your way in or out. From there, you go out and requisition the things you'll need for the mission -- specific vehicles, outfits, weapons -- before moving in for the steal.
They're fantastically constructed, and it's just a shame that there aren't more of them. But after one or two, the façade falls, and the scripting becomes an issue because there's nothing really at stake apart from progressing the story. If you fail, you just restart from the last generous checkpoint. There's not huge way to deviate from the plan, no surprises that come your way, and you begin to realise that actually the heists are just as linear as the rest of the relatively meaningless story that the game seems intent on pushing you through. We've been spoiled by the dynamic nature of Payday 2 of all things, and one can only hope that heists find their true home in GTA Online.
Mechanically, combat has been vastly improved, with an auto-targeting system that actually works fairly well, even if it's accompanied by a cover system that seems so antiquated that you'd imagine it would make chair noises if it were a human being. Driving is actually now enjoyable for the first time in a GTA game. Rather than having to make excuses for the awful vehicle handling, Rockstar have finally sorted it out. Different types of cars all have their own distinct feel to them, and cruising around Los Santos is a joy. I've long hated driving missions in GTA games in the past, even in my beloved Vice City; but here, they prove a joy. I just wish the same could be said of helicopters.
"You tell me exactly what you want, and I will very carefully explain to you why it cannot be."
But I think I might be done with GTA. I couldn't finish GTA IV, it just stopped being fun after a while. This game is a technical marvel; that much is certain. But it's a game with no soul. I compare this to the feeling of cheeky rebellion that Vice City and San Andreas instilled in me -- doing ludicrous things in ludicrous worlds to ludicrous people. It's been thirty five hours in GTA V and I haven't found a single tank to steal.
There's a real weariness that sets in when you discover that the missions can be as lamentably monotonous as they've always been. This is a game that actually relies far more on its story than its world, and that's not a good sign. It really tries to force that narrative down the player's throat and that ends up leading to one or two rather horrific tonal missteps that the player has no option to opt out of. In any other game that might be considered to be a comment on video game violence, but this is GTA. It's not so much that the torture scene in question is too unpleasant to bear, it's just that there's no need for it. It's not brave, it makes no statement, it's just there. In fact the motivations of the central characters are so vague that you end up asking, "What's the point?" Unfortunately, the answer to that question is, "So I can base jump off of a mountain." You suffer the script for the supreme sandbox.
It's a shame because the San Andreas in this game is astonishingly realised. The little technical bits and pieces continue to amaze. No longer will the police automatically home in on you. Now they’ll hunt you down through side streets, combing the area and working their way out from the scene of whatever crime you committed. You'll see pedestrians and bystanders phone in crimes if you're too brazen and leave witnesses. Whenever you do something in the world, there's always a little thrill when you hear it referenced on the radio in a breaking news bulletin, and that doesn't go away. The tennis and golf mini-games are actually pretty well developed, and easy to lose an hour to. As a content package, GTA V really delivers, and does so with astounding aesthetics aplomb.
So why does it leave me feeling more empty than ever before?
We're all despicable individuals, that's basically the motto here. We're all Trevor, we're all Michael, and we're all Franklin. (Apparently we're all men, too. God forbid Rockstar dare to present a woman in GTA as anything more than a one-dimensional adulterous gold digger or a crack-addled ho.) But this grand embracing and acceptance of our own moral turpitude is nothing new, and shoving it in our faces isn't particularly clever. We get the joke, we got it a decade and a half ago; it's why we started playing GTA in the first place back when Rockstar North was DMA Design. For all of the Housers' talk of vision, GTA is still peddling the same puns as it was ten years ago, the same frat-focused jokes, the same structure, the same comedy, all the while still trying to tell some great American Hollywood-esque crime saga. But GTA V falls flat. It'd be like watching a Goodfellas where Joe Pesci's Tommy is the main character. Times three. That'd be exhausting and, ultimately, awful.
But I want more from GTA mechanically, as greedy as that sounds. You can't present us with an open world of this scale and then make us jump through incessant linear, hand-holding hoops and hope that we be satisfied. I wonder if people will begin turning on this game as they did with GTA IV after the perfect scores have been forgotten and the hype train has vanished into the distance. But Rockstar have a solution to that this time around, and it's called GTA Online. It's here I hope that they'll really crack open the world and let us loose on the systems that underpin Los Santos. Because that's what I want. That's what Sleeping Dogs and Saints Row and Skyrim and Assassin's Creed (for the most part) have given us since GTA IV: interwoven systems that can be mucked about with, twisted and turned, and approached in any way we choose. There are hints of that open-endedness in one or two missions in GTA V, but it's not enough.
We've grown up, and we expect more from our open-world games than ever before. It is telling, perhaps, that Rockstar have split theirs into offline and online versions, when so many games these days combine the two. In spite of its expanse, for so much of this game, I felt far too confined, disconnected, and adrift. Hopefully, GTA Online will rectify all of that.
- The San Andreas area is big, bold, and beautiful to behold
- A technical masterpiece, stuffed with detail
- Heists are a great addition
- Open approaches to heist setups and assassination missions are awesome
- Ridiculous amount of content
- There's still GTA Online to come
- Missions are still the same as they've always been really
- Little-to-no character development
- Limited ways to affect change in the game world
- Too many fun things are hidden behind forced story progression
- THAT garage glitch
- Tired ten-year-old jokes and frat-humour, weary misogyny, resolutely miserable society
The Short Version: Rockstar have created their most technically astounding game world to date. Los Santos is enormously diverse, extraordinarily well-researched, and almost impossibly detailed. But GTA V proves too in love with its own narrative to ever really encourage players to create their own. As flawed as it is as an open-ended game, Los Santos and Blaine County will delight and dazzle long after the script has been left behind, even if its ambitions promise extravagances that are never quite delivered here.