Published on October 10th, 2013 | by Tony Odett2
Grand Theft Auto V Review
Summary: Rockstar's Magnum Opus- not an effort of perfection, but certainly a genre-defining labor of love.
Grand Theft Auto V is huge. There’s nothing about the game that isn’t big. The open world is massive, the production budget gigantic, the campaign lengthy and meaty, the hype as prolific as hype can be, and the sales numbers out of this world.
GTA V is also an experience. We use that word in relation to games so as to drive it to cliché, but how else do you describe something so entrapping, so immersive? A journalist once said of Theodore Roosevelt after meeting him that you had to wring poor Teddy out of your clothes. And so it is with GTA: you cannot escape the aura of GTA-ness.
To encapsulate such a quality as GTA-ness, to understand what makes Grand Theft Auto V such a fantastic game is to understand greatness. Greatness does not imply perfection, and I cannot deny it: GTA V is not a perfect game. There are elements of the game which are disturbing and offensive, that drive even a player jaded to horrific gaming violence to question Rockstar’s judgment. But its flaws are long bypassed by its achievements, by that vibrant, living open world, captivating missions, and fantastic gameplay. This is a once-in-a-generation game.
GTA V takes place in the thriving metropolis of Los Santos and surrounding environs. The map is an island, invisible walls and other fencing phenomenon replaced by ocean. The world is incredibly detailed, including features like potholes, animals that can (unfortunately) become roadkill, and a vast network of back alleys, parking lots and tunnels. These become key in the police chases as it is more difficult than ever to escape when you are wanted. Creative use of the numerous back channels is a necessity. There are several airports of various sizes, an army base, ports, and pretty much anything you would see in a real world city is included. Very little of it seems generic. Each portion of Los Santos is meticulously constructed as to give it a unique, personal vibe.
Of course, such a place would be a waste of space were there nothing to do. And, while there are many buildings whose thresholds you cannot cross, much of the world is devoted to providing the player with hours upon hours of entertainment outside of the campaign. Some of the activities are decidedly boring, I’ll admit, the Ferris wheel being the worst offender. Others are difficult to figure out. I could never improve at tennis despite numerous attempts. But many are compelling and worth serious time investment: hunting, shooting ranges, triathlons, street races and so forth all provide entertainment and either stat increases or monetary compensation for your efforts. There are also activities that dynamically generate during play: armored cars (holding up one will get you a decent amount of cash), muggings, and some other I won’t spoil crop up from time to time and give the feeling of a world that exist beyond the confines of the player.
The controls are very similar to those you’ve seen in other Rockstar games. If you were hoping that you wouldn’t have to hold down a button to run, well, sorry. The shooting feels and handles well, a definite improvement over GTA IV in this regard. The driving feels smoother and more realistic as well. I still cannot for the life of me fly a helicopter. One mission requires you to intimidate someone by flying your helicopter erratically. I had no problem doing that by flying normally. One area I have to commend Rockstar on is the feel of the boats and jetskis. Bouncing on the waves was immensely entertaining and felt great, and the numerous canals gave you ample opportunity to travel inland.
There are, this being a Rockstar game, numerous seedier activities. You can pick up prostitutes, for example. The game also includes transsexuals, mostly for the purpose of mocking. Generally, non-male characters are included in the game only for the purpose of exploitation in an overtly sexual sense. There is no worse offender than strip clubs. These include a seduction mini-game where the player can touch a prostitute during a lap dance. Touch her sufficiently, while avoiding the gaze of the male bouncer, and she’ll sneak out to come back to your place. Now, I’m all for sexual content that is justified within the greater sense of the narrative, but when you seem to be including females in your game only for the purpose of them being conquered, you’ve crossed a little too far over that line of misogyny.
The game includes three different characters, with the unique ability to switch between any of them at any point when you are off mission. It’s a really cool aspect of the game when you switch to Trevor, finding him in some random location in a state of undress, or to Michael getting in a tiff with a family member, or Franklin smoking up in his living room. It really gives the characters the feeling of separate lives, drawn together to get jobs done, but living the consequences in a separate way. Largely, it’s Michael’s story. The game narrative revolves mostly around his struggle with the mistakes of his past, his tendencies toward violence, and his inability to bring up his family with any normal sort of life. Franklin is under-developed, a simple coming-of-age, every-man type who is struggling to get ahead in a world set against him. And Trevor…
Trevor is the kind of character that typifies playing Grand Theft Auto. He’s a psychopath, given to any and all manners of violence to advance himself. He’s a self-serving anarchist, with an odd sense of honor and loyalty. He’s also decidedly unpleasant. The game advances his violent (and, dare I say, evil?) nature from his introduction, to his interaction with his “friends,” to his manipulations and threats against everyone he comes into contact with. While playing, I thought it a tad bit overdone, until one particular scene which had me questioning Rockstar’s sanity. This was, of course, the infamous torture scene, where Trevor performs some rather horrific acts to some poor soul to extract information. Playing through, it seemed necessary for game progression as well (something which other objectionable content, like the seduction mini-game, is not). The game had already established the kind of character Trevor was in spades, and mostly through the use of cutscenes. This portion forced the player to perform the acts themselves. It felt gratuitous. In a game in which violence is the primary force the player uses to interact with the world, this crossed a moral line I would not have expected to still exist. Even Trevor could go too far.
The story meanders, as you would expect a narrative with three main characters to do. There are some interesting twists to the narrative, and it’s worth paying attention to. What really sells it is Rockstar’s attention to dialogue, and to continuing the parody of American values and culture that has long so made the Grand Theft Auto brand so popular. There is some truly fun dialogue, steeped with pop culture references, and even some self-aware pokes at previous GTA games. Don’t get too lost in the missions to miss out on the dialogue and storytelling, which are intensely amusing.
This may prove difficult, as the missions are widely varied and the best constructed in the series to date. You will do everything you can possibly think of: stealing aircraft from a runway, repel down buildings, execute drug dealers and everything in between. The sense of sameness you got in the GTA IV missions is long in the past, as its successor has mastered providing a wonderful array of well-designed operations. They are largely linear (odd, given the size of the world). Even the well-hyped heist missions, while expertly designed and involving an element of player selection, lack a certain open element you’d expect from such a wide open game. Don’t take this as much of a knock on the heists, however; each one is a singular entertaining experience, as the player takes a key role in the planning and execution of a team-based task. Heists are damn fun.
Any review of Grand Theft Auto V is bound to become as wide and meandering as the game itself. The game is both compelling and offensive, a guilty romp through a criminal paradise. Its imperfections are largely dimmed by its successes. Yet, I wish Rockstar would let go of the notion that it needs to be mindlessly offensive, as if designing a game that celebrates criminality doesn’t exercise enough of its creative rights without overt misogyny and gratuitous torture. GTA V’s attempts to include such elements only diminish what would otherwise be the perfect game. Grand Theft Auto is at the top of its class, a master of the form with a few skeletons in its closet.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360 with a copy of the game provided by the publisher.