Grand Theft Auto is a series that’s notable for a number of reasons. It didn’t become a sensation until its third iteration, it more-or-less created the open world sandbox genre, and it spawned a legion of imitators, some terrible, and some excellent. It also has the problem of having to perpetually top itself. Now we’ll see if Rockstar has done it again.
The graphics that GTA V wrings out of the aging Xbox 360 are nothing short of astonishing. The sprawling vistas of San Andreas (the GTA equivalent of California), seem to stretch out without limit. You can see mountains off in the distance that in another game might have been part of the skybox. Here they are destinations, and if you are dedicated enough you can probably ramp off the top and slide down the other side of the mountain on your roof. Every street and every corner is drenched with detail, much like GTA IV. This time around it seems even more pronounced. LA Noir pulled off some excellent facial animation, and what GTA V does seems awfully close. Whether they reused their groundbreaking technology or simply learned from it, the faces are top notch without triggering the uncanny valley reflex. I swear even the NPCs have greater variety. People walking through the city have a wide variety of body types, and the wilderness features dear, coyotes, and seagulls (though still no children).
I think the thing that impressed me most about the graphics of this game is the seamlessness. Yes, you can drive to that mountain in the distance but what happens when you get there? Presumably cutscenes are called cutscenes because the game jumps into them with a cut, pulling you suddenly out of gameplay and into story. A great deal of the dramatic scenes in GTA V flow smoothly in from gameplay. You walk up to a gathering of your cronies and they turn to you and start talking, your character slowing to a walk and entering the scene. I’m not talking about a few characters turning their heads and flapping their lips with dialogue. I mean fully animated and acted scenes taking place in the very same environment that you were moments before tearing through in a stolen garbage truck. Even when you switch characters, the game maintains an unbroken thread of perspective. You are pulled out to a blurred, aerial view of the city and then drawn steadily into the location of your new character, like zooming in to a streetview on Google maps.
The authenticity is astounding, the detail is inspiring, and the flow is flawless. Who needs next generation hardware for next generation graphics?
If you are reading this site, I’m willing to bet you’ve played GTA. I’m not going to waste words describing the sandbox nature of the game. Instead, lets focus on the new.
The primary addition to this game, and it is a significant one, is the introduction of multiple playable characters. This doesn’t just mean three different people to dress up, level up, and otherwise terrorize the town with. There are subtle gameplay differences, from their initial stats to their unique “skill”. As you play the game, you’ll notice a little yellow meter filling up. For each character, that meter represents the amount of “skill” you’ve got available. Franklin, the wheel man of the group, has the ability to slow down time while at the wheel of a car, giving him inhuman reaction time and letting the car turn on a dime. Clicking in and out of this can give you one hell of an edge during those little moments when a chase or getaway starts to go out of control. Michael, your second character, can slow time while on foot, giving you more time to line up shots or otherwise think things through. Trevor, the berzerker of the group, can ridiculously boost his ability to absorb damage, making him a one man army when bullets start flying.
Aside from having three characters, each with their own dedicated missions to fulfill, the larger cast lends it self to a new game mechanic; the heist. At multiple points during the game you’ll be called upon to do a complex “score”. These operations are broken down into planning, acquisition, execution, and getaway phases. In the planning phase the mastermind of a given heist presents two options to pull off the job. One usually leans heavily on finesse, the other on smash-and-grab tactics. Once you choose an option, you need to put together a crew. You’ll need things like hackers, gunmen, and drivers, each of whom can be recruited from secondary characters. They have stats, with the more skillful requiring a bigger slice of the pie, while the amateurs doing a poorer job and potentially becoming a liability. Reusing the same crew lets you build their skills, so it pays to be loyal.
After the plan is selected and the crew is recruited, you need to acquire the supplies to do the job. Usually this will boil down to weapons, vehicles, and disguises, each of which must be gathered or purchased before the job can go down. Then comes the job itself. Each of your characters will have a part, and you’re able to switch focus between them to handle the most crucial aspects of the job. For instance, maybe one of you is flying a chopper, another is repelling down from it, and a third is on a rooftop with a sniper rifle keeping an eye on things. Changing characters is as simple as holding down on the d-pad and waggling the control stick. It is a great way to keep the tension high during the operation, and it works even better during the getaway. Racing through town on three different vehicles, hot-swapping from the seat of a dirt bike to the wheel of an armored car to sideswipe a few cops and back again, shifting focus while airborne, even as I write about it I’m getting the tingles. So good.
Now, what about the rest of the game? Any improvements in the old mainstays of the series? Well, yes, actually. I’ve never been a big fan of the combat in the GTA series, but a few of the more troublesome aspects have gotten some much needed tweaks. If you stay put, your health will restore to 50% on its own, which was a game changer for me and led to far fewer irritating deaths. You also have a fighting chance of righting a car that has been flipped over, as wiggling the stick lets you shift the weight of the car. Again, far fewer mission failures when a freak collisions flipped the mission critical vehicle over.
There are a few aspects of the game which remain unavoidably dopey. There is so much to do in this game that the developers can be a bit overeager to show their work, leading to the first third of the game feeling like a six hour tutorial. I can appreciate that you added all sorts of side activities, but I’m not sure I needed to guide my character through a yoga session in the middle of an emotionally tense mission. I can look past all of those hokey moments, though, with a few final changes that make it all okay. First, the whole gorgeous city is available to you from the start. That’s right. For those of you who want nothing more than to cause chaos in pseudo-LA, you no longer have to put 18 hours of gameplay in to have the whole city as your plaything. Second, the game is taking itself much less seriously this time around. You can shotgun clowns and have a one-sided discussion of human psychology with Lassie. Last, but not least, YOU CAN REPLAY MISSIONS! I used to juggle saves so that the more entertaining missions would always be available to me. Now I need only pull up the mission menu and take my pick. Halleluiah!
The radio stations have a vast assortment of real music, the voice acting is top quality, and the ambiance is as flawless in sound as it is in appearance.
Though GTA games often have better stories than most, until now I’ve never really felt a connection to the characters. In the past I’ve wanted to get on with the story not so much to see what would happen to our protagonist but to see what I’d be allowed to do next. Not so here. The three characters are deep, flawed, and varied. Franklin is a young urban youth with dreams of being someone. We follow him as he is enchanted by the glitz and glamor of those who have earned everything that he’s always wanted, then disenchanted by the way such things can change someone. Michael is a retired career robber who simply doesn’t have the mindset to enjoy a life that most would kill to have. Trevor is an unrepentant maniac who believe that he and those like him live life by a different set of rules than the rest of the species. The story is about what happens when those three very different people are thrown together.
The plot of the game weaves back and forth, and serves to explore each character both directly and through the eyes of the others. We are treated to a case study on one of my favorite distinctions in fiction: the difference between a sociopath (Michael) and a psychopath (Trevor). As their stories unfold you’ll find yourself feeling sympathy, then revulsion, then sympathy again for each of them. You root for Michael to pull himself together before he destroys the family that serves as his only connection to real life. You marvel as tiny hints of redemption glimmer just below the surface of Trevor (in between his domination of an army of lackeys through intimidation and force of personality and his casual disregard for humanity). You watch as Franklin, the youngest member, displays the loyalty, decency, and wisdom that the others lack, yet still slips further into their world. It was actually compelling, and the performances were great.
Oh, and just for the record, the Hot Coffee scandal must be pretty far behind us, because characters having sex aren’t locked away in some unreachable code, they show up on screen again and again and again. This game seriously earned its Mature rating.
A game with the hype and anticipation that surrounds every new GTA game seems almost set up to fail, but GTA V never even came close to failure. The setting is vibrant and alive, the plot is solid and interesting, and the gameplay has been further sculpted into as near to perfect as they have ever come. GTA V worked hard to earn a perfect score, and I’m glad to give it.
10.0 / 10: With GTA V, Rockstar has once again set the bar for complexity, scope, and detail in the realm of sandbox games.