Grand Theft Auto: the infamous and world renown, “child corrupting,” “society polluting,” and “maniac inducing” video game series. Has it already been 5 entire years since you last corrupted my sense of ethics and morality? Clearly, I’m exaggerating. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve heard something similar before. I guess it just depends on which media outlet you choose to follow, and whether or not they’re behaving like uneducated fear mongers, or simply looking to extort viewership ratings with controversy. I make no apologies for taking an aggressive stance towards the mainstream media when it comes to the subject of video games provoking violent behavior, just as I once did with “Heavy Metal” music as well. It’s only natural for people to fear what they don’t understand, and an artistic creation such as Grand Theft Auto is simply one small example in a long line of many.
Naturally, the Metacritic rating is ridiculously high, sales records have been broken, and I’m certain that there are countless journalists patiently waiting for the next violent crime they can tie back to Grand Theft Auto V. For this reason, I thought I would take this opportunity to write a bit of a hybrid review/opinion piece instead of simply repeating information you’ve probably read in several reviews prior to this one. Just above, I referenced Heavy Metal music as a target of criticism, and whether you’re a fan or not, I’d like to briefly bring up the topic of the “Filthy Fifteen” – A selection of music artists deemed offensive by the “Parents Music Resource Center” in the early 1980s. At this point in time, music was an evolving entertainment medium, as well as a new source of “negative influence” and “degradation” within the society. In fact, on several occasions, these artists actually had to appear in court to defend their work, having been accused of provoking violent crime as well as suicides. Sound familiar?
Now, I’m not saying this particular series doesn’t deserve it’s share of controversy, especially when you consider all the provocative themes that the game explores. However, it’s a little difficult to fully cover topics such as parenting issues, mental health awareness and gun control within a single review, but the reason I used the “Filthy Fifteen” as an example is because I want to get the message across that this is not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. It’s never as simple as “video games made me do it”, and this is the reason why we now have the ESRB as a way to educate prospective players before purchasing. Admittedly, Rockstar is well known for pushing the limits of what they can get away with, but that doesn’t mean the game is dangerous. In fact, I would even argue that Grand Theft Auto is a meaningful exploration of the “darker” side of life that our real-world values would otherwise prevent us from understanding. It’s meant to be a satire, and it’s meant to be played by a mature audience. So, putting the ol’ soapbox aside, lets take a look at the game itself! GTA V, is it “over-hype” or “genius”?
Unlike previous entries into the GTA series, the 5th installment does something new by exploring it’s story from the perspective of three separate main characters; Michael, Franklin & Trevor. Naturally, this was a significant game changer for the franchise, and a major wildcard that had the potential to either make or break the entire experience. Returning to the sunny coast of San Andreas, players will explore the abnormal lives of these bizarre sociopaths, and all the trouble they get themselves into. To surmise, Michael is a professional criminal who faked his death to try and build a new life for his dysfunctional family. However, after crossing paths with a “Repo Man” named Franklin, the two of them eventually return to Michaels home to find his Wife in bed with another man. Unsurprisingly, Michael loses his mind, but accidentally pisses off the wrong people in an attempt to catch the guy. Now, in some serious debt, he is forced out of retirement and must face the consequences of his actions.
Admittedly, character switching was a little disruptive in the beginning when it came to the flow of the narrative. However, once Trevor is added into the chaotic mix of things and the individual stories begin to develop into something much larger, the game quickly finds it’s feet. I wouldn’t say this is the greatest crime story ever told, in fact, far from it, but the characters themselves are what really makes it work. The trio are simply well developed and entertaining, which is also very surprising as they have so few redeeming qualities between them. Personally, I did not enjoy the gritty approach of GTA IV, and whilst Niko’s story was certainly filled with a lot more “heart”, I still found myself more entertained with what this game had to offer. I think returning to a more light-hearted and satirical approach was a critical part of this games success, and I also believe this is what fits the franchise best.
However, there is always more depth to the story of a GTA game outside the core narrative. As expected, the game is populated with lots of side missions and interesting characters, but the one aspect that this series has always done particularly well is “environmental narrative”. I’ve discussed it before, but to surmise, these are the unique experiences the game world allows you to create for yourself, and there are so few that can deliver in this area like GTA does. It’s been almost two weeks since the initial release, and on both weekends passed, I have witnessed lots of people discussing all the crazy things they’ve done in the game, as well as the random adventures they’ve embarked on. Honestly, this is an incredible quality that most genres can’t even begin to realise yet, and it deserves to be recognised. Although, if it’s just the main feature you’re interested in, I still think most players are going to feel satisfied with how it comes together. A surprisingly “feel good” ending, in a disturbing kind of way.
I know it probably goes without saying, but the amount of content within Grand Theft Auto V is literally insane. In fact, there is so much to do in the game that I recommend you stop reading and watch the Official Gameplay Video as it will give you a much more efficient explanation than if I were to try and rattle off a long list of features. I’m not going to waste your time repeating redundant information, and will instead focus on what I consider to be the more significant changes & improvements, and of course, what I enjoyed the most! Notably, the inclusion of three playable characters is going to be the most impactful innovation, and fortunately, this feature was a lot more successful when used in technical design than it was at telling a story. GTA V allows players to switch between each of the characters at almost any time, and just drop into whatever they were doing at that particular moment. Naturally, this opens the door to a lot of entertaining scenarios, especially when you have a wildcard like Trevor.
And yet, what would be the point of controlling three separate protagonists if there wasn’t some sort of benefit when choosing to play as a particular character? Interestingly, Rockstar went back to San Andreas for some inspiration and to re-evaluate the implementation of statistics. However, don’t worry, players won’t need to go to the gym, and you can’t get fat from eating too much Cluckin’ Bell! In fact, each lead starts with a different balance of skills, as well as one special ability unique to them. Michael is a gunman who can pull off a bit of a Max Payne styled “Bullet Time”, Franklin’s a skilled driver who can slow down time to navigate tight situations, and finally Trevor, well, he kinda likes to fly planes. However, he’s also kind of mental, so his special is actually a rampage mode where he will become near invincible for short bursts of time. It all fits perfectly, and the core statistics will naturally grow as you play. You won’t ever have to grind because you can’t “beat the boss at the end of the level”.
With that said, it’s really the “Open World” experience that makes Grand Theft Auto what it is today. Heck, I can still remember losing myself for days at a time within the insanity of Vice City, and you know what? It was never about trying to “kill prostitutes”, no, I just wanted to find a “Cheetah”, crank V-Rock, and just go for it. Sure, I took to the occasional headshot for fun, but it wasn’t just about doing controversial activities, it was the freedom to be wild and disregard the rules. I’m not exaggerating when I say I once tried to sleep days away in anticipation of San Andreas! To elaborate, I was on school break at the time, but all I wanted to do was read about all the crazy things you could do in the game. Unfortunately, whilst it was fun, it was hard to see it through as I struggled to relate with the “Boyz in The Hood” approach. 4 years later, GTA IV arrived with it’s gritty, stripped back & “realistic” approach. It was great to relate with the themes, but with so much of the satire removed, Niko just didn’t resonate well with me.
To put it bluntly, the GTA series hasn’t really been my cup of tea for almost a decade now. And yet, all of that changed when I sat down to play Grand Theft Auto V. Straight up, I think Rockstar have nailed the core design, and a large part of this success comes from being able to experience the world from three different perspectives. Ultimately, this approach helps to prevent any “stereotype” from outstaying it’s welcome, as well as encouraging the player to personify their actions with each character and try new things. It’s also encouraging to see an increased level of customisation returning to the series as you can once again alter your appearance, modify cars and customise weapons. However, this is entirely optional, and that’s the beauty of this design model. There is just so much to do, and yet, it never feels overwhelming. It’s simply there if you want to experience it, and that’s perfect.
To surmise, Grand Theft Auto V delivers a large open world that is seamless, and jam packed full of personality. The non-playable characters always appear to be going about their business in a manner that is quite convincing, and this definitely contributes that extra bit of something to bring this virtual re-imagining of California to life. However, even with the stage set, it would all be for naught if the mission design wasn’t clever enough to make the most of the situation, and fortunately Rockstar have finally stepped up to the plate. Honestly, it didn’t matter whether it was one of the larger heists in the game, which involves customising your own personal strategy, or simply one of the random events taking place on the street, the game never felt monotonous. In fact, there are enough unique scenarios in the game that it really made me feel as if this was a significant evolution for the genre.
For the purpose of this review, I decided to take a trip back to Liberty City once I had completed the main storyline. Essentially, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to compare the two, and hopefully see how far the gameplay mechanics have developed over the past couple of years. Wow, just wow! I’m not exaggerating when I say my time spent in GTA IV felt dreadfully awkward. Honestly, the control scheme was shockingly inefficient, and the shooting mechanics were clunky at best. Additionally, I have to admit that I regret having ever been a strong defender of those “realistic” driving mechanics. Although, let’s be reasonable. It’s probably a little arrogant of me to go back and start criticising a 5 year old game, but the reason I approached the topic this way is because GTA V essentially fixes every one of those complaints, and this clearly demonstrates just how far the series has come.
I’m not saying the gameplay mechanics are perfect, especially when there are still enough of those random moments where things will go hilariously wrong. However, at the same time, I also think that’s just naturally become a part of the GTA charm. Rockstar have always been one of the greatest innovators within the genre, and this is something you come to expect from a game that tries to exceed the sum of it’s parts. Simply put, the shooting mechanics in GTA V are just as tight as Max Payne 3, and the special abilities are both easily accessible and work well. For me personally, I felt the driving was spot on, and even found myself using first-person on a regular basis. Additionally, most of other forms of transport such as the bikes and jet ski’s control in a likewise manner. Pretty much, all except for the damn helicopters. Seriously, that is the last time I ever want to try and pick up a submarine from a truck. Trust me, you will understand soon enough.
Graphically, I think Grand Theft Auto V is going to surprise a lot of people. It generally looks very attractive, with the character’s faces standing out in particular. Ironically, faces have always been one of the more awkward elements in the series presentation, so that was definitely a nice change. Additionally, the game appears to run surprisingly well, and the frame-rate never appears to drop too low or become a problem. Admittedly, there are still a few pop-in’s that are unavoidable due to the platforms limitations, but I can understand that, despite quietly hoping that the game will get a next-gen or PC release to deliver on it’s full potential. In my opinion, the Grand Theft Auto experience needs to be colourful in order to resonate best with players and having revisited Liberty City recently, I now realise just how gritty and depressing it was. If given the choice, San Andreas is where you would want to be.
Of course, presentation goes so far beyond graphical fidelity, and I feel the artists at Rockstar have really captured the essence of what my impression of California is, but with that hilariously twisted GTA feel. In particular, I really enjoyed the voice cast, despite some of Franklin’s friends dropping more “N-Bombs” than my Australian vocabulary could even begin to comprehend. In fact, I especially appreciated that the developers went out and literally pulled voice talent from the streets to bring that authentic feel to “The Hood”. Maybe i’m just not well versed, but it sounded great to me! And the way that Michael & Trevor fight? Well, it actually managed to make me feel uncomfortable at times, as if two arrogant people were fighting in front of me. Finally, if I had to pick something that grinds my gears, it would be that stupid title font in the bottom right-hand corner. I simply hated it.
Honestly, I don’t think I have ever experienced more hype for a game than I did with the original San Andreas, and unfortunately, that experience left me feeling disappointed as we just didn’t work well together. And yet, the most incredible thing about Grand Theft Auto V is that it literally reconciles that long-passed feeling of “overhype” looming within my memories and delivers everything I could have possibly imagined at that time. To put it bluntly, this is the San Andreas I have always wanted, and I think this particular installment into the series will “steal” a permanent place in my heart. And sure, don’t get me wrong, I can still clearly see a lot of little areas where the game could have been improved, but it just doesn’t interfere with my ability to have fun. Grand Theft Auto is back in the game, and once again, I’m ready to commandeer an “Infernus”, crank “Los Santos Rock”, and just drive.