They say money can’t buy happiness…
The world was a different place in 2008 when Grand Theft Auto IV released. I had just been hired to TSSZ News, and GTAIV was my first review for the site. It was something that made me tremendously nervous, given how many months it would take me to finish games back in the day. Since then, we’ve had more than our fair share of open-world outings, between three Saints Row games, Just Cause 2, and Sleeping Dogs, not to mention Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption. Each game seemed to make the growing backlash against GTAIV look increasingly justified, offering larger worlds, wackier characters, more inventive mission types, and improved game mechanics. Grand Theft Auto V had to show the world why the name Rockstar Games came to be so revered. GTAV is definitely a bigger, better (and certainly more expensive-looking) game, but it at times feels as though it is about to collapse under its own weight. The game is the definition of excess; there are so many little things in this game that must’ve cost a lot of time and money to produce, and they only show up one time for a couple of minutes. Can that really be okay? If it’s done well, sure, and for the most part, Grand Theft Auto V is done pretty well.I feel as though GTA finally got its footing when the games started becoming snapshots of an era: in Vice City, you were treated to a send-up of the 1980’s, with plenty of references to things like Scarface and Miami Vice. San Andreas took on 90’s gangster culture and lingering cold war paranoia. In trying to take on modern-day, Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t really have much of an audience to speak to; it was Rockstar trying to flex their storytelling chops, for them to make a game about a character that breaks conventional molds. Unfortunately Niko Bellic was your typical GTA protagonist, but this time he had a foreign accent. Grand Theft Auto V switches gears; rather than orbit around a specific era of pop-culture, GTAV focuses on a theme: the mid-life crisis. This turns out to be fairly brilliant. Vice City and San Andreas worked in part because Rockstar’s audience is of the age to have fond nostalgia for the eras they featured, and those same people are undoubtedly in their late 20’s to early 40’s by now, which coincidentally is the same age range shared by our three protagonists in GTAV. The game is about where our characters are after they’ve finished “growing up”: maybe they’re married with kids, or have old friends that seem to be holding them back, or maybe they’ve just let themselves go. More than anything, GTAV feels like a direct sequel to San Andreas. In San Andreas, its protagonist was spread out across three different chapters: You had CJ the gang banger, repping for the Grove Street Families and trying to prevent the hood from succumbing to the influence of crack cocaine. You had CJ the wealthy playboy, owner of a car dealership, personal jets, and even a casino. Then you had Secret Agent CJ; who aided in both the suppression and release of government conspiracies. All of these things played in to that era’s pop-culture, but for them to all be thrust upon the same character lead to a bit of a discordant personality. CJ became the kind of person who was willing to do anything for any reason, while still trying to maintain some semblance that he still cared about that one little cul-de-sac where he grew up, despite he fact he had so clearly made a better life for himself away from it. Meanwhile, in GTAV’s three protagonists, you find an element of CJ: Michael is a former thief, now living in (and seemingly bored by) the lap of luxury. Franklin is the hood rat, trying to scrape his way out of the ghetto. Finally, there’s the psychotic loose canon, Trevor, who believes the government is being secretly controlled by lizardmen from space.
The heart and soul of GTAV is dedicated to setting up and executing half a dozen “heist” missions, which are an extension of a mission near the end of San Andreas. Heists highlight a lot of GTAV’s strongest aspects: namely the ability to switch between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor mid-mission. Often each of the three characters will be given a specific role during a heist, giving you multiple perspectives on how to tackle any given situation. Are police coming up the alley to shoot Franklin in the back? Switch to another character to give him some much-needed cover. Under fire from a helicopter? Trevor’s got a rocket launcher, switch to him and take it out… or don’t, and use Michael to snipe the pilot. The best missions are the ones where the three characters are split up, managing completely different roles, allowing you to flip between activities at the flick of the analog stick. As if that wasn’t enough, each heist often has two completely plans of attack, each with their own unique set-up and follow-through. Ideally, you should be able to use the game’s new “Replay Mission” function to go back and re-plan different attack strategies, but for whatever reason, once you setup a heist, that plan is set in stone for the duration of the game. Perhaps this is intended to keep you from scamming the game’s level-up systems; in addition to the three main protagonists, you often have to hire other members to your heist crew, and those that make it out alive gain experience points and become more proficient at their unique traits (driving, shooting, etc.). Regardless, this seems like a big missed opportunity for replay value on Rockstar’s part; the first thing I wanted to do after beating the game was see the alternate ways different heists can play out, to no avail. Beyond heists, the game is completely standard Grand Theft Auto fare: drive to a place and kill everyone, follow this car but not too close, get to the location before the time limit expires… so on and so forth. If you’ve played a GTA game in the last ten years, you know a lot of this game’s moves, just now they’re prettier and more expensive.Ideally the predictable non-heist missions is where the storyline should start picking up the slack, but even that doesn’t always do the job. GTAV has great characters, but the game doesn’t really do anything with them. You learn a lot about each character’s history, and they share a lot of legitimately great, witty banter. Michael and Trevor argue like an old married couple, Trevor’s perspective on Franklin’s lifestyle (and Michael’s new-found role in it) is always colorful, and Michael shares a particularly great moment with his son Jimmy near the halfway point of the game that feels like it is explicitly meant to one-up some of Rockstar’s wackier competitors. But nobody over the course of the story really grows. Nobody changes. GTAV has a status quo, and with some exceptions to that rule, it clings to that status quo all the way up until the credits roll. Don’t get me wrong, it makes for a fun ride. It’s just one that ultimately ends up feeling a little pointless as the game fades to black. Perhaps this is a result of the triple-character split; Michael, Trevor and Franklin all have to share the spotlight with one another, simplifying their motivations a great deal. But then, that’s also just the life of the GTA protagonist, isn’t it? Niko Bellic didn’t grow or change, and really, neither did CJ. With three times the characters, maybe this fact is now simply three times as obvious. Then again, CJ and Niko were struggling to get out of the game, whereas our characters in GTAV seem to revel in their illegal activity. They enjoy robbing people blind, and despite the game’s realism-oriented nature, the police never seem to catch on, no matter how many traceable elements are left behind. Whatever suspension of disbelief the game is trying to maintain in its story eventually starts to fall apart as the body count rises past triple digits and the crime spree continues. I’m not even sure the police can arrest you anymore; even from a 1-star wanted level, they will gladly use lethal force to put you down (which, as an aside, makes for some hilarious imagery when people on the street dial 911 over harassment and the cops show up with their guns drawn just because you called somebody an idiot).
Grand Theft Auto IV was the smallest map of the franchise, but boasted a significant boost to its level of intricacy. With GTAV, Rockstar has blown the state of San Andreas out to what might be the most fully-realized map in any open world game to date. It’s honestly sort of difficult to put in to words, but there’s something about this city that feels more intrinsically “real” than any other open world city. That’s more than likely because of its size. Real cities are often considerably more spread out than you get in a typical open world game, but the city of Los Santos in GTAV comes the closest to matching the scale you’d get in its real-life counterpart, Los Angeles. In something like San Andreas (the game, not the state), you’d often have ghetto neighborhoods located less than a minute’s drive away from high-rise skyscrapers, but Los Santos contains one of the largest, most natural cityscapes around, with a full-size, fully functional highway system and true delineations between uptown, downtown and low-class districts. Los Santos feels like a place that truly exists, with plenty of sights to see and people to meet (encountering a would-be politician campaigning about marijuana legalization is among my favorites). This even continues as you get out of the city. For as big and natural as Los Santos feels, there’s an equally massive desert waiting for you out there, separated by a sizable mountain range. Best of all, the exact same detail-oriented nature that lead to Grand Theft Auto IV‘s depiction of Liberty City now applies to every inch of GTAV’s massive landscape. Every building feels like it exists, like you should be able to push the door open and find a fully furnished interior teeming with real people. One of my first experiences getting out of Los Santos found me pulling up to a diner out in the middle of nowhere and being legitimately upset that I couldn’t go inside, because in the language of videogames, everything about its level of detail suggested it was an important space. But that’s just GTAV; expect to be similarly disappointed you can’t go inside locations like “Bishop’s WTF?!” Museum, or even the casino. GTAV’s illusion of realism becomes a double-edged sword, because for as interactive as everything looks, it is deeply frustrating when it is not. Why can’t I buy the novelty t-shirts they sell at the fairgrounds? Why can I only sit on one singular couch in the entire game? Why is my phone full of people I can contact if 90% of the time I’m forwarded to unusable voice mail? It’s a cliche to use the term “uncanny valley” these days, but that’s almost what Grand Theft Auto V specializes in: it looks just real enough to be off-putting when you see the limitations.Then there’s the game’s multiplayer element, Grand Theft Auto Online. I’m not quite sure what the point of GTA Online is; while it’s a nice sentiment that Rockstar would try and implement some form of multiplayer, GTA Online plays more like a half-step between a fully-fledged MMO and the more traditional offerings available in GTAIV. After the world’s most pretentious character creator (which has you selecting your grandparents physical appearance and putting skill points in to esoteric categories like “hours per day spent partying”) you are dropped in to what is essentially the world’s biggest multiplayer lobby, with a paltry 16 other players roaming its miles upon miles of open road. To join actual multiplayer events, you must drive to their physical locations on the map, where you are then shuttled off to more traditional match types like races, death match, and occasionally, simplified versions of the game’s singleplayer missions. Earn experience, rank up, and eventually you’ll be able to purchase better clothes, drive better cars, and have enough clout to live in better digs. It’s not such a bad idea, but it all feels a little undercooked. There doesn’t appear to be many events available, and being forced to drive all the way out to locations on the map just for a specific track or arena makes it a little difficult to find people playing certain gametypes in some areas. Nobody wants to spend 15 minutes traveling to the middle of the desert just for an empty race with no one. Rockstar has already promised more content will be added to GTA Online, including the ability to pull off heists in multiplayer, but as it stands right now, the mode is little more than a curiosity.
I could easily still keep talking about Grand Theft Auto V, like how the game’s “handheld camera” look managed to give me slight motion sickness in a way no other game ever has before, or the way the game seems to discourage you from stealing cars by providing all of your characters with a “personal vehicle” available to them throughout most of the game (and how it’s annoying that GTA Online lets you freely replace your online character’s personal vehicle, but you cannot do the same for Michael, Franklin, or Trevor in singleplayer). Unfortunately, this review has gone on long enough, and despite what sounds like mounting evidence of disappointment, I cannot in good conscious say I hated Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar clearly spent a lot of money to create a bigger, better world with tons of stuff to do. Sure, some of the missions are the same recycled tropes we’ve always gotten, but it’s not often anyone enjoys 100% of everything demanded of you in most other open world games. While GTAV’s story does sort of peter out in its second half, that’s made up for with great character-to-character interactions. It may not have the raw hand-to-hand combat of Sleeping Dogs or the all of the over-the-top goofball sensibilities of Saints Row, but maybe it doesn’t need them. GTAV plays like it still runs the joint, and while that’s not entirely true anymore, I still had plenty of fun with it. It’s not the industry-shaking event it once was, but I would recommend you play Grand Theft Auto V.