on December 16, 2013
Rockstar have raised the gold standard for the sandbox genre to seemingly unattainable heights for not just their competitors, but even themselves.
Topping Red Dead Redemption was always going to prove to be a mighty feat with unreasonable fan expectations, but Rockstar didn’t just admit defeat and nonchalantly pump out another entry into the cultural phenomenon that is Grand Theft Auto, they took this as a challenge and delivered on unearthly expectations and hype.
After spending roughly 50 hours in Los Santos and Blaine County, I come to you writing this review with my own sky high expectations blown out of the water. For some additional perspective, I’m nowhere near ready to satisfyingly shelve the game and prepare for new releases or consoles as there’s still so much more exhilarating content to experience. Simply put, Grand Theft Auto V will go down in the history books as a landmark in gaming and one of the very best games ever created.
Ambition and originality highlight the adventure in a myriad of ways but most notably with the enormous undertaking of crafting a game with roughly 100 hours of content around not one, but three unique and distinct protagonists with their own intertwining life issues. Michael is a retired professional thief stuck in a midlife crisis constantly at odds with his family, Franklin works a dead end job repossessing vehicles whilst desperately struggling to escape the urban lifestyle, and finally, there’s Trevor who is pleasantly psychotic and amongst being the most colorful character in the game, he’s also one of the most entertaining characters in all of gaming embodying everything the GTA franchise is about.
I’m not going to delve too far into the plot because how everything unfolds; even from the very beginning is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game. All you really need to know is that you will be flipping between this criminal band of heroes in a series of elaborate missions and dangerous heists that feel ripped out of a movie to ultimately get rich and exercise some personal demons.
Among these intriguing central themes are much more riveting plot points that touch upon everything from dysfunctional families, celebrity sycophancy, government morality, feminism, social media, torture, and overall brilliant satire of modern America. Every single scene, mission, and character is just ripe with provocative social commentary in traditional GTA comedic fashion, but this time around it’s relevant and intelligently nailed to a point that directly speaks to the player. These are all things you naturally would not expect from a GTA game but surprisingly they exist and greatly add to what is probably one of the most compelling narratives in all of gaming.
Everything is also heightened from the fact that GTA V is just so damn fun to play. Shooting has received a drastic cosmetic overhaul taking cues from both Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, complete with helpful cover and a weapon wheel. You can also toggle multiple aiming settings that include a traditional aiming system allowing you to flip between softly locked on targets. Fundamental control schemes aren’t all the upgrades though as you can now shoot gasoline in the environment to ignite a fire which hopefully leads to an explosion.
Seamlessly switching between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor during frenetic firefights can not only prove to be advantageous but also cinematically intense. The most well-known example of this is sniping as Franklin while Michael snatches a hostage whilst rappelling down a towering corporate building but without spoiling anything, this highly touted feature is executed remarkably well.
Each protagonist is also given a special ability that suits their personality and role in a completely new feature to the franchise. Michael can slow down time in a firefight similar to Max Payne in his franchise but without all the stylistic John Woo inspired diving. Trevor can enter a state of berserk granted with the buff of dishing out double damage and having all damage taken halved. Franklin’s ability goes in a different direction allowing him to slow down time while driving.
All of these special abilities are highly useful and can be taken advantage of when in a pinch; in some ways they almost make the combat too easy especially considering the ability gauges recharge fairly quickly and your health already will always regenerate to halfway when nearly dead. Nevertheless, it’s an awesome feature and anything that mixes Max Payne into GTA can’t be a bad thing.
Driving was given a lot of flak in GTA IV as the cars essentially felt like you were skating on ice so Rockstar dialed the unwaveringly required precision back a notch so that every method of transportation is more user friendly and accessible but doesn’t play completely arcadey. You’re still going to need skill for the various racing activities but for the most part, everything is balanced in a manner that should satisfy everyone. That goes for every method of transportation too, whether it’s driving, flying, exploring the deep sea with a submarine, or cycling on a bike.
My only real issue at first wasn’t necessarily with the driving mechanics but rather evading the police. Maybe I’m just an oblivious idiot but the game doesn’t properly explain how to effectively ditch the fuzz, and leaves you just trying to burn rubber and leave them in the dust when in actuality it’s about sneakily hiding whether they’re far back behind you or in the immediate area. Once I became accustomed to playing hide and go seek with the LSPD however, it became thrilling to engage with them in ways that actually felt fair which is a rarity for the franchise.
Exploring Los Santos with or without the LSPD breathing down your neck is an enthralling activity as well. We all were aware that GTA V would boast a map larger in scale than Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV but the gravity of that statement doesn’t resonate until you get out there and start searching around. Aside from San Andreas (which is coincidentally the setting of GTA V as well) I’ve never found a disconnect in a sandbox game that instills a feeling that I’m traveling great distances and am drifting away into a new locale entirely.
The glamorous and Hollywood style appeal of Los Santos separated with rural America and vast deserts complimented each other in ways that serve as a testament to just how expansive the sandbox is. I haven’t even commented on the insane attention to detail yet but am still perplexed that while the credits rolled, the game was fading in and out of areas such as underwater ruins that I hadn’t even given a seconds thought about exploring yet.
Assisting how remarkable the world already is on sheer scope are arguably the greatest graphics we have ever seen on consoles. The sun shines off of metallic vehicle paint jobs, advertisements and billboards litter the city, character models have outstanding motion capture and facial expressions, and astounding levels of detail touch every object in the game from trees to clothing. Getting in a helicopter and rising to a high altitude only to casually fly around and sightsee from above is breathtaking and mesmerizing, especially when factoring in how vast the game’s draw distance is. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, something that wholeheartedly applies to the visuals in GTA V.
Physics are also out of this world impressive as GTA V runs on an enhanced version of Max Payne 3’s RAGE engine which astonishingly allows for unprecedented and lifelike ragdoll reactions to bullets, punches, head on vehicle collisions, falling, and more. Every single reaction is different, almost as if real life nerves are being simulated. Whatever is going on, it’s damned impressive and constantly keeps the interactivity from feeling stiff or dull.
If you’re more about partaking in actual activities instead of sightseeing then fear not, because Rockstar have once again gone above and beyond the call of duty with seemingly endless amounts of entertaining side content. Right off the bat, the inspiration from Red Dead Redemption is evident as the Strangers and Freaks line of side quests return in which you encounter all sorts of warped and idiosyncratic characters that either may want you to stalk celebrities, help legalize marijuana (these missions are incredibly out there and amusing), do some extreme sports, and more.
To further flesh out each main protagonist they even are granted their own individual missions with most strangers. There are also numerous random events in the world ranging from hijackings to assisting robberies to driving home hitchhikers and more. It seems as if around every corner is something to distract yourself with.
Also returning by popular demand is the ability to buy property ranging from bars to movie theaters to the taxi company but in all honestly it’s rather disappointingly useless save for the Los Santos Customs which allows for free car modifications upon buying it. I suppose money is more of a novelty than anything in the game, constantly pushing the plot forward. There are some really nifty and revolutionary things you can do with money though besides buy a golf course that you’ll never use, like trying your hands on the stock market.
From each character’s cell phone dubbed the iFruit is an internet app that lets you browse a fictionalized and satirical version of the internet. You can buy cars that will be directly delivered to your garage, check on some in game news, and generally get lost in another ridiculously detailed feature of the game but the most intriguing is the interactive stock market. Players with a broader awareness of what’s going on during the story will most likely invest in corporations that may be positively affected by a mission. If you’re planning a jewelry heist it’s probably wise to invest in their rival.
There’s also a fully competent Tennis mini-game to play which is miles more entertaining than Bowling from GTA IV, which probably stems from the fact that Rockstar has experience with creating actual Tennis games. Playing Darts is also mildly amusing as are the interactive strip club private dance mini-games. You also have your traditional races that come in multiple methods of transportation ranging from cars to boats to ATV’s to jet skis.
By far the biggest addition however in terms of side content is something once again derived from Red Dead Redemption; the ability to go hunting. Animals frequently roam around the forests and more rural areas of the game. Some will most likely inevitably become road kill as you unintentionally squash them as they trample on in front of you whilst you’re blazing down the road. If you ever get the itch to do it more professionally though you can acquire a calling whistle which points you in the right direction of elk, bobcats, mountain lions, and whatever else is roaming around out there.
If you’re more interested in zanier activity it’s already proven that you can find Bigfoot (for real this time around) or go hunting for the 50 spaceship parts scattered around the world. Trevor can also go on Rampages (yes, they are indeed back), or pick up hitchhikers and mischievously take them to some cannibals living way up in the mountains, or accept bail bond bounty missions. Maybe you feel like investigating a murder mystery too or jumping through hoops to join a religious cult. There is just so much to do that it’s nigh impossible for any review to cover absolutely everything but I can tell you one thing; once I’m finally done writing this review I’m jumping back in to get lost again.
Aside from looking good and playing good, GTA V sounds exceptional too. I’m not just referring to the cavalcade of gunshots and explosions either but more subtle things, like the shattering of glass or yelps of animals meeting their demise under your tires. The voice acting from a relatively unknown cast is fantastic mitigating the initial disappointment that Rockstar didn’t contract any major celebrities this time around.
This also marks the first time that a GTA game has ever had an orchestrated musical score to emphasize critical plot points instead of just having nothingness or a random song on the radio play. Speaking of the radio stations, there are 15 amounting to a whopping rough estimate of 250 songs, so there’s potentially something for everyone.
Winding down this review (finally), I think it’s no understatement when I say that GTA V might have the most content ever in a video game that isn’t an MMO or something without end. The story is smart and socially relevant satire with unforgettable characters, pitch perfect gameplay, and unbelievable graphics that will undoubtedly rival the early days of the next generation. Rockstar have gone above and beyond shattering sales records and deservedly so, for I firmly believe that GTA V will live on as one of the greatest games of all time.