It’s finally here. After nearly two years of waiting since its announcement, and watching the hype levels rise and rise, Grand Theft Auto V is finally upon us. Rockstar’s huge open world series is back in a swan song to this generation of consoles. Making big gameplay changes and with a less serious tone than its predecessor, does GTA V live up to the hype? Let’s find out.
The addition of three main protagonists keeps things engaging and fun.
The story of GTA V centers around three main protagonists. That’s right. Breaking tradition, Rockstar introduces us to three main heroes, rather than focusing on one. First we are introduced to Franklin, a street thug who wants more than a life of crime in the hood. Next there’s Michael, a retired bank robber who now lives a depressing life in the rich part of town with his resenting family. Lastly, there’s Trevor, a crazy psychopath living in rural San Andreas.
Various events bring these three men together in the city of Los Santos. Franklin is taken under Michael’s wing, sort of as a son. The dynamic between these two is fun to watch as it unfolds. In contrast, the relationship between Michael and Trevor is rocky, to say the least. The two have quite a history together, and until now, weren’t even aware that the other was alive. The three have a good group energy, but neither character is all too interesting. Having three main protagonists unfortunately doesn’t allow time for three main fleshed-out characters or personalities. Unlike GTA IV’s Niko Bellic, or GTA: San Andreas’s CJ, these three guys just aren’t as interesting, without clear motivations or goals. Sure, they have their own struggles, be it with family or work, but on the whole they aren’t as fascinating as other Rockstar heroes.
The new mechanic of having three main characters adds its own unique touch to the GTA universe. For one thing, it keeps the story fresh, and there is always something exciting going on in one of these guys’ lives. If you get bored playing as one character, or don’t want to travel across the sprawling map, you can switch on the fly, zooming out in a Google Maps-type loading screen, which then zones in on the other character’s position. They might be in a crazy situation since you last left them, or they may have new missions to tackle. I like the new system of multiple protagonists, but would I want it to return in future GTA iterations? Probably not.
After an opening prologue, you are introduced to the world of San Andreas, which has seen an update since we last visited. The bustling downtown of Los Santos mimics Los Angeles perfectly, and the resemblance is uncanny. Furthermore, you have backwoods and countryside to explore, mountains to scale, oceans to dive in, and much much more. The initial feeling of having too many overwhelming opportunities eventually subsides, and you are soon left to explore the world at your will. The entire map is unlocked from the get-go, and it is a blast to explore. The diversity in the many locales you venture keeps things from getting stale, and the many diversions will keep you busy when you aren’t on missions.
Speaking of diversions, San Andreas is not lacking in activities to take part in. From golf or cycling, to hunting animals or customizing cars, to base-jumping or scuba diving, you will always have something to do. There are cars to customize, clothes to buy, weapons to upgrade, and a lot more. There is rarely a dull moment in San Andreas. In addition, random events occur quite often, akin to Red Dead Redemption, where you can choose to participate or flee the scene. You may stop a cutpurse, or even save a barber shop from being robbed. These random events keep you on your toes, and sometimes even have unexpected rewards.
The city itself is the star of the show. Los Santos is dense, and jam-packed with people and cars. The concept of a living-breathing world has never been as fully realized as it has here in GTA V, and Rockstar did it best.
Grand Theft Auto V represents a sort of conditioning at work here. Rarely do I cause mayhem as Michael or Franklin, only when necessary. As Trevor, though, I go crazy: stealing cars, killing pedestrians, and the like. The stark contrast between the three characters make things like this matter, even if it isn’t a big deal in the long term. Because the city feels so alive, I feel more inclined to drive with the flow of traffic, and park in designated parking spots. Of course occasionally I’ll speed through red lights or cause heavy crashes, but in GTA V there isn’t much of a point. It’s an interesting thing, and I can’t quite explain it, but at times GTA V feels more like The Sims than it does GTA V. With so many things to do in the city, and with things to do around the house and with friends and family members, GTA V feels like a life simulator. It’s a strange effect, but when not on missions, you’ll feel it, too.
The heist missions are the standouts, allowing for multiple methods of success.
In terms of missions, GTA V isn’t lacking. With over 65 story missions, and plenty of side-missions, you’ll be busy for a long time. GTA V has made great changes to mission structure, and they’re for the best. For one thing, checkpoints are now here, so you avoid frustration and having to drive to these locations over and over if you fail. Another new feature allows you to skip a mission entirely if you fail three times. This is good if you are stuck on just one mission, yet want to continue with the story. The biggest change is in mission variety. GTA IV had a lot of “drive here, shoot these people, get this thing, and come back” kinds of missions, with the exception of an awesome bank-robbing heist. Rockstar has taken that with a grain of salt, and expanded on the mission variety immensely. Early on, you’re still doing small jobs, but these are a lot of fun and don’t feel like they’re tacked on just to teach you the ropes.
The biggest and best part of GTA V comes in the form of heists, huge missions that your gang tackles, in order to make big bucks or make a big score. These require careful planning, and you must plan each element of the heist meticulously. Your pal Lester helps you here, advising you on whether to go in smart, or go in guns blazing. One jewelry heist gives you the choice of gassing the customers and then breaking in, or going in Rambo-style and take no prisoners. You plan these heists straight down to the getaway vehicles, and you choose who you want to take with you on these missions. You need hackers, getaway drivers, gunmen, and more, and these come in the form of gang members you recruit, or old friends from past games. The planning of these big missions make each attempt feel unique, and they allow for repeated attempts, so you can see each outcome.
On these big heists, you can switch to any of your three main characters, to see their perspective on things. The game tells you when you might want to switch, but its entirely up to you. Michael may be holding a man hostage, while Franklin provides cover fire, and Trevor flies a getaway helicopter. By giving you three different points of view to see through, Rockstar has given you more freedom in execution, and this is a welcome change. You can also replay missions at any time to try for a better score, and there are even optional objectives to complete during the mission, similar to Assassin’s Creed’s synchronization challenges.
New gameplay changes help to refine the third-person, open-world experience. The gunplay this time around is more akin to Max Payne 3’s gunplay. A weapon wheel lets you select your weapon of choice, and the snap to aim feature is a welcome addition. This can even be turned off entirely for those who want a challenge. The cover system has been greatly refined, being less sensitive and more tactful this time. Sometimes you even have the option to be a bit stealthy, and you are often rewarded for keeping a low profile. Melee combat also feels tighter, with more options, and character movement is less floaty.
Of course, being a GTA game and all, you’re of course going to run into some cops, and they’ve been made smarter and more aware since the last time they graced Liberty City. Now, instead of escaping a “zone” of police sirens, you can break their line of sight. If you go around a corner, they may lose sight of you. After this, they still search for you at your last seen location. Each cop has a small cone of vision which you must stay out of if you want to avoid capture. It’s a small change, but it makes you think before you act, and gives you more options in evasion. The police officers themselves are now smarter, and they’ll flank your position and take cover in addition to ramming you off the road to spin you out. This nice AI upgrade is definitely a needed and welcome change, as the GTA IV cops were sometimes bumbling idiots.
In addition, each character has their own set of stats, which you can improve as you play. Franklin is the driving expert, Michael’s great with guns, and Trevor can fly planes very well. Stamina, stealth, lung capacity, and more skills can be upgraded as you play, making each character feel useful in specific situations. Each character also has their own unique special skill, which they can use when their special meter is full. Franklin can slow down time when driving, and Trevor goes into a rage mode, boosting damage and defense for a short time. These unique skills allow you to choose which character is best for the job, be it combat or driving.
There is no shortage of things to do in Los Santos.
The driving, too, has been more refined. Cars and vehicles now stick to the road better, and don’t fly past turns or tumble over upon hitting a small bump. Driving is tight, precise, and feels great when you’re flying at high speeds down the freeway. There’s no shortage of vehicles either. From sports cars to bicycles to ATVs to jet skis to choppers and even blimps, the options are endless. Most vehicles can be customized to your need, fine tuning the engines, adding better brakes, or a completely new paint job. You can then store these in your personal garages to take with you when you cruise around or take part in street races. One small gripe I have is with driving and shooting. The reticle is super small, and you use the same button to shoot as you do to aim. This is a hassle when there is a lot on the road and you can’t focus your aim precisely.
San Andreas is visually arresting, and hugely populated.
You are given a smart phone, as well, to communicate with NPCs and fellow characters via email or text message. There’s no relationship system this time around, so don’t expect to be pestered by other characters asking to go bowling or get drinks. You can set these up yourself, and plan a night of darts or visiting the strip club, but you won’t be penalized for not socializing. Also on the phone you can take pictures, helpful for heist set-up missions. You can even take selfies and share them via Rockstar’s Social Club, and show them off to friends. An in-game stock market is also present online, allowing you to buy and sell shares of stock in big companies, and their success is determined by in-game events. You may hear financial predictions on the radio as you’re driving, and then its up to you whether you want to risk it all or not.
Rockstar has never been known to shy away from controversy, and their entire game worlds seem to be littered with satire and sharp jabs at pop culture and the media. In GTA V, sometimes they take things a bit too far for their own good. One torture scene has Trevor waterboarding a victim, which calls to mind the CIA’s use of waterboarding on Al-Qaeda suspects. This scene is uncomfortable to say the least. Get ready to hear the media’s reaction on this one.
When will we see smart and capable females in a Rockstar title? It’s about time for that.
All of Rockstar’s main protagonists are smart, capable men, while the women are portrayed as nothing more than sex dolls or bitchy wives. When will we get a smart, cool female protagonist? One that doesn’t need men to push her around and can make her own decisions. The closest they have ever come to that is Bonnie MacFarlane in Red Dead Redemption, but even she was nothing more than a farmhand. I’m not docking points for controversial statements or misogynistic views, whether intended or not, but these questions and criticisms definitely come into mind when you’re playing.
Grand Theft Auto V’s visuals are subtle, less grainy and more detailed than its predecessor. Colors are brighter, helping the city feel more alive, and its hard not to marvel at the view of the city’s skyline from on top of a mountain. Unfortunately, due to hardware limitations, texture pop-ins are frequent. Characters, too, don’t look all that great in cutscenes. This makes me wonder where the technological potential used in L.A. Noire went. The voice acting is astounding. The characters are funny, and have fun things to say around town or when interacting with NPCs. Many guest stars also help give the city some flavor. The soundtrack is great, as always, featuring many radio stations to listen to while you drive around, with hit songs from great artists. The score is also good, although it didn’t standout from the crowd. There is even an online play mode in the form of GTA Online, which isn’t available until October 1, but I will tackle that in a separate review.
Grand Theft Auto V is the king of open-world games. The best open world in recent history can be found right here in San Andreas. The city nails the feel of a bustling, alive metropolis, and there is no shortage of stuff to do. The gameplay changes keep things new and fresh, and the entire engine has been refined for the better. Despite some graphical hiccups here and there, and protagonists who aren’t as interesting as they seem, GTA V is a champion.