This review has been a long time coming, but what with Simul-Tober (the month of post swapping with UWG contributors I took part in), I didn’t really get a chance to slip this one in. So here it is! The GTA V review that you probably haven’t been waiting for, because a) you’ve probably already played it and b) you’ve probably already read a thousand and one reviews of it already. Hopefully though, I can still keep this interesting for you. So. I’ve confessed this before and I’ll confess it again. I never really played much GTA at all. I did get somewhat into GTA IV and then sort of just got distracted and never finished it. I didn’t really have anything against it, it just never really hooked me in. Perhaps I just never really gave it a chance. With all the hype surrounding GTA V before it came out, I decided to really give it a shot this time to see what all the fuss is about. What I found is that GTA V is exactly what I want out of an open world game. It’s massive in size and scope and actually has activities to match it. It’s not just empty space to traverse with the occasional repetitive side mission or activity to keep you occupied for a bit. Los Santos is rich and detailed and feels as real as any game city has ever felt. That’s not to say the game didn’t have its flaws, but it’s still one of the games I’ve enjoyed most this year and that’s really saying something considering this year’s slew of awesome games. I obviously can’t really compare GTA V with any of the previous games, but I can tell you that on its own, it certainly knocked my metaphorical socks off.
As you probably already know, unlike other GTA games, GTA V follows three protagonists rather than just the one. There’s Franklin, the youngest of the three and a small time gang member, repo man and driver extraordinaire. From what I’ve gathered from my minimal experience of the GTA franchise and what I’ve heard from other people, Franklin is in many ways the quintessential GTA character – a promising small time criminal who’s down on his luck and who has to really fight to get what he wants. Michael, his self-proclaimed mentor, is a former bank robber and a good one at that. When we catch up to him in GTA V however, he’s more of a rich, self-loathing and dissatisfied middle-aged man in a seemingly loveless marriage with a horrendous superficial women and two equally superficial kids – one of who’s a reality star wannabe and the other your stereotypical lives-at-home-trash-talking gamer. Trevor, Michael’s former associate and friend, in contrast, isn’t typical in any way. He’s basically a high-functioning (mostly) psychopath who kills people on a whim or for pleasure. He does what he wants, when he wants and what he wants is mostly completely insane. It’s an interesting mix of characters and switching between them means you get to see a different side of Los Santos each time you do.
First off, I should really talk about how massive this game is, both in terms of ambition and the size of the map. It’s ridiculous. Each area of the city feels distinct and fleshed out, from poorer South Central where prostitution and gang violence is rife to the beautiful Vespucci Beach to the up-scale Rockford Hills where the stars live. Of course it’s not just the city that you can explore, there’s the vast open desert with its dusty town of Sandy Shores, as well as the lush forest of Blaine County and many more other areas to explore. Stat increases to driving, stamina and so on, encourages exploration, so you never feel like you’re wasting time by travelling from one side of the map to the other. There’s also an incredible level of detail in terms of aesthetics as well as content. The way other drivers flick you off if you block traffic for instance or the fact that you only get wet up to the point you’re actually in the water. There are hundreds of little details like that that take your breath away when you notice them and that all come together to make Los Santos feel like a real living and breathing city. It of course, doesn’t hurt that the graphics are incredible. The game is undeniably beautiful and really pushes our last gen consoles to the max. All it took was for me to stand on Mount Chiliad, looking down at the bright lights of the city on a clear night for me to know that I’d fallen in love with the game forever.
The gameplay though, is by far the best part of GTA V. There’s just too much to do to ever get bored and the experience is truly dynamic. There’s of course a sizable chunk of main missions and heists, as well as a vast number of Strangers and Freaks side missions that are extremely varied. There’s also a vast number of activities you can engage in, like tennis, yoga or any of the sea, land or road races littered around the map. Even wandering around, you’ll come across some random events, like people getting robbed or coming across a hitchhiker who needs a lift. There’s always something to do and if you don’t feel like doing that mission or side mission, you can just explore and see what happens – sometimes that’s when the really crazy stuff happens. Also from the little I remember about GTA IV and from what everyone has been saying, Rockstar did seem to improve a few things that were not so great about previous games, like more frequent checkpoints and the fact that you can save anytime.
The three character perspective deserves its own mention. I had no idea how it was going to affect the pacing or gameplay before I started playing it. At most I didn’t think it would make that big a difference, but it really did. Having three characters’ lives to manage, each with their own apartments, friends, story missions, side missions and more really made the game feel even more vast and detailed. All three of them are completely different in terms of personality, lifestyle and morals, but they all represent a part of the ‘LA lifestyle’ that Rockstar is parodying. Being able to switch between them whenever you want kept things fresh and meant that I never really felt that open world fatigue that’s usually inevitable when I play massive open world games. If you get bored following one character and want to try something a little different you can just switch to another character to play a few of their missions. When you switch characters, you zoom out of the map into satellite view of the city and then zoom back into wherever the other character is. Not only is it often pretty hilarious seeing what that character is getting up to (with Trevor for instance, it usually has to do with waking up drunk with hardly any clothes in some random place on the map), but there’s actually a practical benefit too. My other problem with some open world games if not done right is vast amounts of tedious travelling. Of course there’s a lot of driving, walking and flying around the map in GTA V – it’s part of the fun of the game after all, but considering some of the huge distances between certain areas, for instance Sandy Shores and South Central, it would be a serious drag having to actually travel between them constantly. GTA V’s solution to this is to switch characters and switch back later where you’ll most likely find the character in a new place, often near useful or interesting sites. It’s also a really useful feature for combat, especially during heists where having multiple vantage points will usually give you the tactical edge. It’s an exhilarating experience switching between the three characters in the midst of a fight and far from breaking the flow, it makes it feel faster-paced and cinematic.
Obviously I can’t compare with previous games, but the combat, physics, driving and flying mechanics felt fluid enough. The cover system felt solid and the shooting mechanics were smooth. Driving and flying generally felt pretty realistic, but at the same time they’ve clearly focused on making it fun as well. It certainly feels easier to navigate than GTA IV, which will make some people happy and piss others off. All in all, there wasn’t anything that particularly stood out about these different mechanics, but each felt great on its own and together felt like a well oiled machine.
Although flawed in many ways, I still really loved both the characters and the story. As a satire it was often both funny and poignant. It had Rockstar’s distinct brand of light-hearted humour and cutting social commentary that only they can really pull off with such panache. I loved the fact that the three different characters seemed to represent the different parts of the superficial and consumerist Western culture and that Hollywood mentality that GTA V is so obviously mocking. And in true Rockstar fashion, no one is safe, no any race or gender or class. Rockstar pokes fun at everyone whether it’s through the use of billboards, radio stations or dialogue. Of course if you wanted to ignore all of that and just blow stuff up and drive some cars, that’s fine too. Also, though they’re not the most likable characters (Trevor and Michael) at least, each one of them has some sort of redeemable quality, something that makes them human. I found it difficult not to bond with them, awful people though they were and although I didn’t always cheer them on, I was sad when it came time to finally leave them behind.
There were of course a few things that weren’t perfect. Like Carolyn from GameSpot mentioned, the characters did indeed sometimes feel inconsistent. There were times when I wasn’t sure where they were going with a character or felt that their actions didn’t really make sense, even in the context of it being satirical. Also, as a social satire it often felt confused. The point that Rockstar was trying to make often felt conflicted from one mission to another. I do also agree to a certain extent with Carolyn that the portrayal of women is somewhat problematic, as were some other stereotypes they raised. Unlike the portrayal of the main male characters, who were often extremely flawed, but also somewhat redeemable, all the women were crazy and emotional bimbos and not one did I feel had any sort of redeeming characteristic. However, it didn’t really bother me all that much as I felt perhaps that Rockstar was attempting to satirise here too, but just didn’t do as well. I don’t think there was any ill intent behind it. As I’ve mentioned before, satire only works when you actually break down the stereotypes you set up, otherwise you’re just further strengthening them. So although it didn’t particularly bother me, I can see what it might bother other male and female games alike.
Another minor problem I had with the way the narrative was handled in the game was that I felt that Franklin was often left out. His missions weren’t nearly as interesting or personal as Trevor and Michael’s near the end. There was also a lack of heists and dough for much of the game, although the problem is largely solved by the end. Many of the activities weren’t quite what I expected from what the trailers and info released and did seem to be there more for padding then anything else, like yoga, for instance. Basically, I feel perhaps they did hype up some of the activities more than they deserved. That is the smallest of gripes though as they did a great job of adding tons of new content to the game and also, continuing on the world after the story was over, with characters checking in on you and so on. The result was incredibly varied game that even after I finished, I instantly returned to because there were still a ton of races and activities and a few extra missions to complete.
As I said before, GTA V is by far one of the best games I’ve played this year and along with games like Far Cry 3 has renewed my love for vast open world games. And no one does open world quite like Rockstar. I think it’s safe to say they’ve truly outdone themselves with this hugely ambitious, detailed, rich and most importantly, fun world that it’s laughably easy to get lost in. I know Los Santos hasn’t seen the last of me yet.