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A Perfect Crime Saga and So Much More - An In Depth Review
on September 19, 2013
**UPDATE**: The online is still being fixed and there are still frustrations, but I can finally provide insight into playing (not-so-nice) with others.
From the time I've started this game till now, I have enjoyed every single second of my journey. This is easily the game of the year, if not the decade. It is stunning graphically, pushing the PS3 to it's limits, and the world is seamless. If Rockstar never made another Grand Theft Auto, this could easily be the Magnum Opus of the series.
Graphics: 5/5 - The game looks gorgeous. Rockstar truly captured the feel of Southern California and made each location look unique and believable. Cars, characters, waves, the city; it's truly amazing.
Audio: 5/5 - Every sound helps make the city feel alive. From the sound of foot steps to the hum of an engine, the acting and the audio is top notch.
Gameplay: 5/5 - The improvements are immediately noticeable. Any issues with previous iterations of Grand Theft Auto should be satisfied; the controls are tight and everything feels fluid and seamless. It's a joy to drive, run, shoot, and travel around Los Santos. Those with gripes about GTA IV: this plays and feels much better, cars handle much better. You will not be disappointed.
Story: 5/5 - One word - incredible. Since the moment I turned the game on I was engrossed with each character and wanting to find out what happens next to our intrepid anti-heroes/criminal upstarts. This is a crime saga that will not disappoint and the characters help to give the story depth and meaning. The only real drawback is that the story moves fast and is over quickly.
Online: 3/5 - Online is fantastic and fun, but there are some major frustrations too. Other players will mercilessly hunt you down and kill you - over and over again. You lose money each time you die, and players have become creative to bypass certain things like Passive Mode. When you do find a group of players who aren't simply looking to cause mayhem and grief, the missions range from fun to extremely frustrating. The ability to free roam with up to 16 other players is great, but Rockstar needs to make some changes in order to give the online portion long-term success.
Overall: 5/5 - This is the game to own, regardless of what system you have. With limitless replayability, a vast, realistic world to explore, so many things to do, and a AAA story, this belongs in the library of every gamer who does not mind an adult story and content. If you enjoyed the other GTA titles, or you enjoy the action and gripping story of games like Uncharted, Assassin's Creed and/or Red Dead Redemption then get this game.
When starting on the PS3 for the first time, expect a 10 to 15 minute install; story mode takes another 5 minutes to load. Once that is through, the game thrusts you into a heist as you learn the basic controls, most of which feel similar to GTA IV. You are also shown a new gameplay mechanic -- switching characters on the fly. To do this, press and hold the down d-pad button, then with the right stick select the character in the wheel that pops up you want to control. After the introduction, there are some cutscenes as the player is shown a little bit of Los Santos. Once the scene is over, the player is left with a mission for Franklin. Finish the mission, and the world is yours to explore.
Welcome to Los Santos, with all the glitz and glamor you've come to expect, but corruption and crime runs rampant under the surface. Our -ahem- heroes are Michael, a retired bank robber; Franklin, a repo man trying to do right and make his way up in the world; and Trevor, an unhinged, unpredictable maniac who used to run robberies with Michael. Michael is living the rich life with his dysfunctional family. Trevor is running repo jobs with his friend for a shady car salesman. Trevor is living in trailer park and causing mayhem trying to make some money. Each character is distinct, unique and and extremely interesting. You'll want to spend time with all three. The dialogue is well written and I found myself waiting to finish a mission or move into the highlighted spot until the characters were finished talking so I didn't miss anything.
There are numerous improvements and upgrades to the classic Grand Theft Auto, all of which help makes a satisfying experience:
If you fail a section of a mission 3 times, can fast forward to next checkpoint - but don't have to. If there was a frustrating aspect, like having to place first in a race to advance the story, now you can skip the frustration and move the story along; you can go back and finish it later, or not at all.
Special Abilities and Character Switching:
Each character has a special ability used by pressing L3 + R3. As Michael, you can slow down time while shooting. Franklin can slow down time while driving and gain extremely improved maneuverability (my favorite!). Trevor can go into a rage reducing damage he takes, delivering more damage to enemies, and has a special melee attack. The new mechanic of switching characters on the fly adds new gameplay possibilities, and lets you experience each character's unique perspective during heists. This allows you to be flexible in approach, and when things turn sour, use quick thinking and reflexes to make it out alive utilizing each characters skills. When not actively engaged in a criminal plot, switching the character zooms out on one, and then refocuses over the other character and zooms in. The character is often just finished with something as you take control; for instance at one point Franklin was leaving a Strip Club and I switched to Trevor once to find him being thrown out of a women's clothing store, with a dress on, complaining about wanting to try it before he buys it. These little things help to make each character feel alive and like they are all engaged in their own schedules when you're not playing them.
Performing certain actions improves your abilities. These abilities include driving, shooting, flying, lung capacity and a few others. When improved, the character has better aim, can run longer, or better driving skills. Leveling each skill requires the player to perform specific actions, for instance, to get better at driving hit top speeds, have near misses and pop wheelies on motorcycles. To increase each character's special ability, keep using it. To get better with guns, either get head shots or head down to the firing range. The different activities around Los Santos can help increase the skills.
Shooting is easy to do as well, and the targeting system can be customized. A player can choose traditional GTA style shooting, assisted aim, and free aim. Enemies can be quickly switched between by flicking the R stick. I have mine set to traditional GTA, where I hit L2 to aim and it snaps to a target for a few seconds before going to free aim. Holding L1 slows down time and brings up the weapon wheel: press the R stick to select a weapon, press the right or left d-pad button to change to a different type of weapon (for instance selecting to use a knife instead of fists). Guns also can be customized once purchased and fitted with flashlights, larger magazines, and silencers. The variety of weapons is quite large.
Random missions are scattered around the map, which appear as question marks (?). These generally have story elements tied to them and help flesh out the characters and the world. There are also blue/red blips that will randomly appear and you can choose to participate by getting close. One random blip early on had me help two morons robbing a store get away and one of them told me to call them if I ever need muscle. You may encounter the same random event more than once, but there is a nice variety. Purse snatching seems to be pretty common.
Size and Activities:
Los Santos is BIG. Open the map in your game case if you have a physical copy. One side shows the big city close up, with the other showing the whole area. Once in game, looking at that map and zooming in, it was nearly overwhelming to see just how large the world is. Better yet, there are no barriers. You want to visit the mountains after the first mission? Go ahead. There is so much to do in Los Santos too. Visit the strip club (WARNING: unlike Liberty City, Los Santos is a fully topless region), golf, tennis, movies, tv, etc. You can shop to buy each character new outfits or visit a barber to give them a new look. Suspend your disbelief as a beardless character can order up facial hair for a few bucks. Invest in the Real Estate business and buy yourself an income property. Play the stock market, and keep an ear on the fluctuations in game. Some missions may have an affect on stock prices as well. Take your dirt bike off road and explore the wilderness.
Driving can still be a pain sometimes, but the mechanics have been vastly improved over the last Grand Theft Auto. Top speeds in some vehicles are quite impressive, while driving large trucks is often very slow, but once at max speed it's hard to stop them. Each vehicle handles differently, so you may want to experiment until you find one you like. Pressing O locks on a target for a mission and it time is slightly slowed down to make maneuvering through traffic somewhat easier. Couple that with Franklin's ability to slow down time while driving and it makes chases fun and exciting. You'll be shouting with joy as you miss close calls and easily make that turn the biker just nailed at 90 degrees. There is Cinematic Camera during some missions that allows you to actual enjoy the action that's going on without having to worry about crashing the car, dealing with traffic, look where you're going, etc. It's easier to switch between the two modes with O. When the action heats back up, switch the camera and jump straight in.
Car Customization is in-depth with 15+ different categories that can be improved or changed. Some categories have sub-categories as well, like choosing different color patterns such as metallic, matte, etc. Some are cosmetic, but many have other benefits as well, like protective armor or better handling. Car aficionados will enjoy tinkering every detail on their car.
Missions are filled with great banter and are a lot of fun. While difficult, they are still accessible for even casual gamers. At the end of each mission there is a score based on what actions were completed, such as not receiving a single scratch on a vehicle for instance. This score can range from 0% (though I've always gotten around 50% so far) to 100% for doing each action. Missions can be replayed at any time, so don't feel the need to hit the 100% mark the first time through. In fact, I'd recommend not worrying about achieving 100% and just enjoy the atmosphere and story and come back to it later.
Heists are extremely enjoyable and you get your first taste in the introduction. These are in-depth, multiple part missions that let you case the place you're going to rob, select a crew, and determine how you want to approach the robbery and get away with a lot of money. Each crew member has pros and cons, those with less developed skills may take more time to break into a place, but ask for a smaller cut. Likewise, the higher skilled, higher cut crew members could always break in quicker and allow for a bigger payout. During the mission, you can switch between characters as desired to see from their perspective, or to help one of the other guys out of a jam. Have Franklin run in and when he gets into a jam, switch to Michael to provide cover fire and support. After the guys retrieve their score, switch to Franklin to land the helicopter and make their get away.
Rockstar goes outside the game to have an application and website that affects the game, iFruit and LifeInvader (their version of iPhone and Facebook). You can use iFruit to train and improve Chop, a dog that Franklin ends up with. Use LifeInvader to get discounts in game by clicking on the links when logged in and associated with your Social Club account.
Phenomenal job. Every sound breathes life and atmosphere into the game, whether you're listening to the high quality radio stations or enjoying a stroll downtown. A woman walked by on the sidewalk in high heels - I could every "clack clack clack" as she strutted by. I'm playing with a basic stereo set up, so I'm sure it sounds even more vibrant and alive in a full surround mode. The voice actors do a fantastic job bringing the characters to life. I have no complaints here.
It looks like Grand Theft Auto, but better. The structure design and layout is what you'd expect from a GTA, but the textures have been vastly improved. Little details have been added to the world to make it feel more alive, I was noticing drains in the street and small potted plants. These small additions might not seem much, but added up together really enhance the world. I found myself looking at distant building with lights on during the night, or admiring the foliage as I drove down towards the beach. Random NPCs walking around are a bit less detailed than main characters, but have a great variety of different models/looks. The vehicles look better than ever too. Random weather (slow down time with Franklin's special ability during a thunderstorm, it's pretty awesome), night and day cycles, lights with the right amount of bloom to look believe - it all helps to pull you into Los Santos. Some of the textures are noticeably low resolution when close up, but thankfully the action is often to frantic and fast paced you won't have time to stare. Also, I have not noticed any lag or hiccups while traversing the world.
You start by creating a player. Choosing the grand parents from a set list influences the looks of your parents which will in turn influence your appearance. You cannot make strange looking freaks ala Saints Row. Once out of creation, you pick your skills by allocating what you do in a 24 hour day, in half hour increments. These will decide your starting statistics which you increase like in the single player game, by using them. They advance slowly however, so don't expect to max out the skills in a day.
Once done with basic tutorial mode, you're free to roam around Los Santos stealing, robbing, and killing. There are blue circles and indicators on the map where you can play missions, death matches, races, parachuting, and other activities like tennis. You can kill other players you meet as well, though doing so might result in each of you chasing each other down endlessly for no other purpose than to "get back at them" - do so at your own risk. And indeed, there is risk...
Dying online reduces the amount of money you've accrued by a certain %. This amount caps off at $2000, but that is still a big chunk and can fall quickly when caught in a griefing session another player or players. Passive mode doesn't work exactly as intended either. While players can't shoot you, stab you, or other weapon related activities, they can run you over and will. This is frustrating, especially when you spawn nearby and they're ready to run you down again.
Different types of activities scattered across Los Santos. Take part in custom races (bikes, cars, boat), custom death matches (teams, free for all), survival (10 waves of enemies), and missions (objective and co-operative). Races, parachuting, survival, and some co-op missions can be done solo. You can earn money doing survival and co-op missions solo, but not for the races/etc. You can rob stores by pointing a gun at the clerk (if you have a headset, yell into the mic for a fun surprise!). Buy clothes at the different stores and make your online criminal persona a unique snowflake.
There are a lot of little nuances as well, a staggering amount really. You can charitably give money from your bank account to other players, drop a gun or ammo for another player, split money from a recent robbery/activity (or not and get hunted down by pissed off partners), put bounties on players so they are mercilessly hunted down, text other players in game, etc. You can put a tracking device on your car so you can locate it easily, and buy insurance to recover it for a small fee if destroyed. You can customize your ride at a Los Santos Customs garage. You can also buy property: garages to store your vehicles are the cheapest, and apartments to relax or lay low in which also features more car space. You can allow certain people to utilize your vehicle (like friends, crew, everyone or no one) and can determine who you want to hear you if you have a mic (same options).
Doing jobs and taking part in activities earns a player Reputation Points (RP) which is like experience points. When you reach a new rank, you unlock customization - new hairstyles, clothes, weapons, weapon parts, tattoos, car customization, etc. The higher the rank, the more options available. Higher ranks also allow players to take place in more missions and earn new contacts. Some contacts offer invaluable services. For instance, at Rank 10 you receive Lester as a contact and he allows you place bounties on other players.
One minor note: I don't think the Stealth skill helps you against other players in the Free Roam mode. It may assist in death matches (your blip not appearing unless you make loud sounds like firing a gun or running). So in Free Roam, I would not be concerned with slinking around other players. Still useful to hide from the cops though.
--Rockstar is still working the kinks out and listening to player's feedback. Some of the gripes/issues with multiplayer MAY OR MAY NOT be addressed in the future. As of right now, this is how it was intended originally and what it's like.--
**PARENTS PLEASE NOTE - THIS IS -NOT- A GAME FOR KIDS. THERE IS EXCESSIVE CURSING, VIOLENCE, NUDITY, AND ADULT THEMES! PLEASE READ THE LABEL AND UNDERSTAND THIS IS A MATURE GAME MEANT FOR THOSE OVER THE AGE OF 17. PLEASE BE RESPONSIBLE WHEN HELPING TO SELECT A GAME FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN.**
If you have any questions, or feel that I've left anything out, please leave a comment! Enjoy!
Updated: 9/22/2013 for clarity, wording, and structure.