- "Money doesn’t buy you happiness; it just buys you a lot of therapy to talk about why you’re not happy."
Grand Theft Auto V is a game that was followed by unprecedented levels of hype. It's a return to the state of San Andreas, with all the bells and whistles of Grand Theft Auto IV. It has wide open wilderness, a huge city, and a map bigger than any other game in the franchise. Hell, it's bigger than the observable universe, if Reddit is to be believed. Point is, there was a lot of hype building up to this game. Does it deliver?
- "Did somebody say yoga?"
Unlike other Grand Theft Auto games, Grand Theft Auto V gets straight to the point. You start off with a bank robbery, which acts as a quick run-through of all the mechanics. This sets up the basic premise of the plot, and touches upon the character relationships. It also establishes two of the playable characters, Michael and Trevor.
The game then smoothly shifts over to Franklin, who is a perfect introduction to the driving mechanics. Again, unlike previous Rockstar titles, the opening is a bit faster paced, meaning you’ll be speeding down the road in a pseudo car chase instead of driving your cousin home or riding a bike to your neighbourhood. For the first time ever, we get an introductory driving mission that doesn't suck.
From here, Franklin’s missions are here to set up his character, and his place in the plot. He’s a two-bit gang banger convinced he’s surrounded by idiots and wants to move up in the world. He may seem like the odd man out in the game's trio of playable characters, but he is a good outside party. He represents the perspective of an outsider-the perspective of the player. The other two characters are also well-established in the plot, making sure they aren't there to act as filler. Michael De Santa is the protagonist of the story, and most of the plot revolves around him. He embodies the game's central theme, the idea that money doesn't buy happiness. Trevor is integral to the backstory, but also serves as Rockstar's "get out of jail free" card. He's there to alleviate Rockstar's longest-running criticism of ludonarrative dissonance. He's the Lynch of Grand Theft Auto V: an irredeemable psychopath who contrasts with the other characters well.
Things escalate further when Franklin is asked to repossess James Da Santa’s car. After a brief (and admittedly shallow) stealth segment, the plot smoothly transitions back into Michael, who pops up to make things interesting. We are now re-introduced to Michael's character. A lot of the missions involving him are a bit slow-paced, as is to be expected of a family man.
After the heist, things get really interesting. When Michael repeats his same line from the prologue, it ends up on the news, and Trevor takes notice. If you played the Lost and Damned like I did, odds are you were pretty shocked to see Trevor fucking Ashley (well not the fucking part, we all know she’s a whore). Seeing Johnny Klebitz in the game actually evoked an audible reaction from me, as did what happened next. How do you introduce a character and set them up as a complete psychopath? Have them kill one of the previous protagonists.
This is great way to introduce Trevor’s character. It’s best to get his nasty personality out of the way right away, instead of letting us fall into the trap of liking a character, then feeling betrayed. I approve of any character who commits sodomy and murder in the first ten minutes of meeting him. Let’s you know you’re in for a good time.
From here, the game opens up, unravelling and introducing new plot threads, without a real overarching one. I can certainly see the appeal of having three characters here. The aim is to mix things up and try to please as many people as possible. However, it also means that the narrative lacks focus or direction. It's hard to call Grand Theft Auto V a journey so much as a point in time in which a bunch of people live their lives, and stuff happens to them. I know that's probably not the best way to put it, but playing Grand Theft Auto V had me disinterested in the plot, and at times, it felt a little impersonal.
Because the plot is so divided between the three playable characters, it's hard to get to really know any of them. However, that's not the reason I didn't care for any of the characters. All three characters are pretty unlikable for the most part. Michael's often whiny and grates on the nerves, Franklin's practically bereft of personality, and Trevor's just an indulgence for the player's sadistic streak. As I said however, they really do justify their place in the plot, so none of them feel tacked on. They're just not very fun as playable characters.
With three characters, you'll probably please less people than with single well-written, one. For example, I really love playing as Trevor-he's the character I play as the most-but I struggle to find a lot of missions that I enjoy. It's hard to just jump in and play as the character I love the most. If you want more gang banging with Franklin, you're shit out of luck, because that aspect of the game is almost ignored entirely. In fact, I'm not even sure if Franklin's is in a gang or not. If you want more of Michael, you'll be left wanting for two-thirds of the game.
Even if you like all three though, it's still a shame that even though the game brings up many stories, none of them are exciting or all that interesting. Playing through the story in Grand Theft Auto V just feels like going through the motions. Now, to be fair, some of those motions are downright epic. There are some incredible moments in this story, but it all feels disconnected. The story wants to do a little of everything, and doesn't do anything extremely well. What we're left with is a sad case of "jack of all trades, master of none".
This isn't to say that the plot is bad. It's just not very good. The plot is fairly solid, really. The problem here is that I didn't really care about it all that much. The story is very underwhelming this time around, especially compared to the plot of previous titles such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV. I never felt invested, because I didn't really connect with any of the characters. They all go about their lives, and I commend this, but I never felt a part of those lives. The story moves through several plot threads, but none of them are very interesting or connected to the overarching plot.
It's hard to articulate exactly what the journey is, or where it took the characters. Did they learn anything? How did they grow, or change? What did they set out to do and accomplish? What is the major overarching conflict, and who is opposing the player? It's not entirely clear. By the end of the game, I was taking guesses as to who the true underlying antagonist was. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you have officer Frank Tenpenny, who ties the entire plot together. He is responsible for the game's inciting incident, and is the final obstacle the player must overcome. He kept the plot grounded by opposing Carl Johnson and creating conflict throughout. He's seen as a powerful adversary, one worthy of respect... or fear. Finishing him felt satisfying. It capped off Carl's journey, bringing it full circle. Dimitri Rascalov, the arch-nemesis to Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV threatened the player throughout the story, betraying you, burning down one of your safehouses, kidnapping Roman Bellic, and trying to kill you more than once. He was a constant threat and nuisance, making killing him cathartic.
Grand Theft Auto V lacks theming. In Grand Theft Auto III, the first cutscene introduces Catalina as the antagonist, as she betrays Claude and leaves him for dead. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Frank Tenpenny kills a fellow officer and then threatens to pin it on CJ if he doesn't comply and is established as the primary antagonist from the first cutscene. Conflict with Billy Grey starts as early as the first mission of The Lost and Damned. Dimitri Rascalov is established as a character in the first act, and as a villain by the time the second has started.
Really, there isn't one good antagonist. There's several boring ones. In the finale, the three playable characters split up after a somewhat epic last stand to tie up all the remaining loose ends. Michael takes care of Stretch, whom I had completely forgotten about at this point. Compared to Ryder and Big Smoke, this character is just a joke. He appears in only one mission before he dies. Then he drops off the plot. Franklin handles Wei Cheng, who only appears in one mission before dying as well, only this time, it was well into the third act. Trevor handles Steve Haines, who for all intents and purposes could have been as good as Tenpenny, but doesn't really hold up. He's more like United Liberty Paper Contact but with an annoying "dude bro" attitude. It doesn't really help that he gets sniped in the head (or blown to bits) with very little effort.
After taking out Steve Haines, Trevor heads to Devin Weston's home, leading to a short, unsatisfying gunfight. After kidnapping Devin, you take him to a cliff, and push him off. After a short bit of dialogue, the story ends. Killing Devin offers no real satisfaction, simply because he doesn't do much of anything in the story. Sending Merry Weather to try and kill Michael's family is a good start, but Devin simply isn't much of an antagonist, and I certainly didn't expect him to be the final enemy the player faced. He's essentially just Yusuf Amir, if he were an asshole, and that's fine-for a supporting character. For the primary antagonist? That's just not gonna cut it.
The worst part is that this is the best of the three endings, if you can call choices A and B "endings". In one ending, Franklin chases and executes Trevor. In another, Franklin kills Michael (in a cutscene, no less) after a short and unsatisfying chase. To make things worse, they do a 180 on his character, turning him suicidal at the last moment if you decide to save him. Gee, thanks for that sudden non-choice. Both of these endings are incredibly short and require very little effort beyond basic participation. You're just going through the motions of one of gaming's most disappointing and unsatisfying climaxes. Their inclusion is nothing short of shameful, and it amazes me that Rockstar actually though these were acceptable ways to end a story (though the drop in quality leads me to believe an intern wrote these parts). The game is only made worse for having these endings, and should have stuck with the one. I honestly feel bad for anyone who picked the other two.
- "I’m the turd of death!"
The world in Grand Theft Auto V feels more lifelike and painstakingly crafted than any other open world game ever made. From the incredibly complex AI, to the little touches like flip flops that both flip and flop, there's a lot for detail-oriented gamers like me to salivate over. Most of the time, you won't notice these things, and that's the whole point. You're too immersed to notice. Whether you're stalking a pedestrian, or shooting Michael's house with a rocket launcher, the game takes it into account and reacts accordingly.
As soon as I was given free reign, I decided to take a walk to the barber. That’s the true test of an open world, being able to simply walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. As I walked, I read emails and texted on my phone like a jackass (okay, I do that too), talked to people, and observed a police chase that I wasn't a part off. All of these little things came together to make a walk down the street feel like an incredibly immersive experience.
However, there are some limitations. At times the world can feel smaller, more compressed. A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of safehouses and interiors, amongst other things. For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the player can visit a large number of small towns around the San Andreas countryside. Whilst there, they can head to Well-Stacked Pizza for a bite to eat, gamble at the Inside Track, and even purchase a safehouse to store their vehicles. The towns in Grand Theft Auto V sort of blend into the background. You can buy clothes there, but the clothes there are the same in Los Santos. There are tattoo parlours and barber shops, but again these are also in Los Santos. You can buy guns at Ammu-Nation, but that's only in the unlikely event that you ever run out of the tens of thousands of bullets you have. These are all basic utilities, but these also disappoint somewhat in their own right.
Customisation is expanded, and is a huge improvement over its predecessor. However, it is still restricted in some areas. Some clothes are restricted for some characters. This means Michael can't buy hats, for absolutely no reason. The selection of hats is also limited, which is odd, because there's a huge variety in the online mode. Why can't Trevor buy a cowboy hat? Just because, I suppose. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you had one character you could customise any way you wanted. In Grand Theft Auto V, each character has their own selection, and are unable to buy other things. For example, only Trevor can buy a Love Fist shirt. Why? Just because, I guess.
Many players have already pointed out the lack of interiors, and it certainly doesn't help that there are absolutely no safehouses for the player to purchase and explore. Sure, you can do this in Online, but these are only in Los Santos, and you can only buy one. Again, compare this to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where you can buy safehouses all over the state. You can buy properties, which gives you more side missions, and nothing else. It does rake in more cash, but you'll always have so much money that you'll never notice, and it takes years in-game to even make a profit. To make things worse, you can't even go inside these places.
The problem with the world of Grand Theft Auto V is that, whilst incredible detailed, it's largely intangible. The state of San Andreas does a lot of window dressing, making for a world that's great fun to drive through, but not as much fun to actually explore, because there's more to see than there is to do. The game is constantly drawing your attention to places you cannot visit with brightly-lit neon signs, and constantly disappointing. Though the game is based around the concept of heists, a lot of the gas stations and convenience stores are inaccessible, and the banks are empty, though you can go inside, for no reason. All of the restaurants are closed off, which is a step back from Grand Theft Auto IV. Vespucci Beach Sidewalk Market is lined with shops full of interesting things you cannot buy and places you can't visit. Walking down Vespucci Beach for me became an excercise in disappointment, because of all the cool things it looks like you can do, but can't.
The lack of safehouses means nowhere to store customised cars, safe for one in your garage, unless it randomly disappears on you. To compensate for this, you do get a garage for five of your cars, but that means that once you get six vehicles you like, you'll likely stop customising vehicles for that character. Compare this to Saints Row, which let you customise vehicles any way you want, and store a vast amount in one storage shared across multiple safehouses. I'm not saying Grand Theft Auto V had to do this, but it fails to create a system to match its competitor. Once again, you'll fall into the same old habit of storing a car you like and never taking it out again, because you'll likely lose it if you go on a mission, die, or blow it up. In the Saints Row series, once you store your vehicle, it's yours, meaning you can actually use them instead of letting them collect dust. Again, you don't need to have this exact system, but Rockstar could have added more safehouses to store more vehicles.
- "Remember, terror doesn't take coffee breaks."
Though some speculated that the combat was going to be similar to Max Payne 3, it's actually a lot closer to Red Dead Redemption in its structure. Overall however, I'd say I prefer Max Payne 3 and even Grand Theft Auto IV over the most recent instalment.
Like Red Dead Redemption, your health regenerates, however this time only halfway. Unlike previous Grand Theft Auto titles, you can carry every single gun in the game on your person at once, which means you'll never find yourself in a jam or have to fight your way out of a desperate situation. This removes most of the tension during combat, because as long as you show some restraint, and keep to cover, you'll never really have to worry about getting through each mission.
The addition of special abilities also further breaks the game. Trevor can become nigh-invincible, Franklin can slow down time whilst driving, and Michael can slow down time on foot. Franklin's is fine, and Trevor's can come in handy, but Michael's is the most unbalanced. Slowing down time works in the exact same manner as Max Payne 3, but it's horribly unbalanced. In that game, you don't have regenerative health, meaning you have to rely on health packs to get you through. This kind of thoughtful level design was present in Grand Theft Auto IV, where getting shot was a long-term consequence. On the one hand, this does do a lot of damage to a an already-broken combat system. These are pretty tacked-on, so their inclusion feels a little unnecessary. On the other hand, they do complement each character well, and helps them stand out. When playing as Trevor, his health buff lets you go crazy. For Michael, you can be more precise, and when playing as Franklin, you can pull of crazy stunts on the road. Though it doesn't complement the gameplay, it does make me feel more immersed, because I'm acting more like that character.
The game is simply too easy. There’s very little challenge in getting what you want. I understand that heists are supposed to give you huge payouts, but once I finished the jewellery store job, there was nothing I couldn't get. I walked around for the rest of the game with every single weapon in the game on my person with tens of thousands of bullets, rounds, and shells for them. I never truly found myself in a desperate situation or worrying about anything. Hell, a simple pump-action shotgun was always enough, since it always seems to kill in one hit at any distance. Bury the Hatchet was one of the more enjoyable missions, because you start the gun fight with only a pistol.
Nothing in Grand Theft Auto V feels earned. The game makes the fatal mistake of giving the player too much too early, taking away any sense of satisfaction. By the end of the campaign, you'll have enough money to afford everything you want or need. What's the point of having price tags, if I don't even notice a dent in my cash? Everything in the game might as well just be free, and the currency system removed. In previous games, money meant something. You needed it to buy ammunition and prepare for missions. You accumulated money to acquire assets, and though there's more to buy in this game, by the end of the game I had bought every boat, every helicopter, every plane, and a tank, and still had tens of millions of dollars to spare, with nothing to really spend it on. If I had to point out one thing that holds this game back the most for me, it's just how boring it was, because the game never made me work for anything.
- "Bangin’ married women’s a hobby, not a fuckin’ profession."
Instead of just one protagonist, we get three. This breaks up the action, keeping things fresh. In addition, it also lets Rockstar have a sophisticated tongue-in-cheek narrative whilst still allowing for variety. I found myself listening to rap and hip-hop when I was playing as Franklin, and generally doing the things he’d do. When playing as Trevor, I’d go unhinged, and play some Radio X, because that’s what he’d listen to. Having three characters also makes customisation more flexible, as you can customise three distinct characters at once. On the other hand, this makes customisation more limited, as each character will only buy certain things.
Whilst this can vary the gameplay, it also makes for a somewhat disjointed experience, as I've stated earlier. Despite the underwhelming story however, having three distinct characters does make for some fun missions, as you swap perspectives on-the-fly.
This can also lead to some interesting insight in missions. For example, during the Fame or Shame mission, I saw half of a cutscene I wouldn't otherwise see by switching to Michael instead of going to his house or Trevor. Furthermore, it also changed the clothing Michael was wearing, and which character I controlled.
Though it might seem like a bit of a nitpick, some of the transition scenes can get really annoying. Though these are really neat to watch, but they can also be really annoying when they constantly change out of the clothes you picked for them, which is compounded by the lack of safehouses. Seeing Trevor wake up in a dress in the wilderness was funny the first time, but it quickly becomes an annoyance.
For the first time in the history of the franchise, Grand Theft Auto V offers an original orchestrated score. These are perfect for the missions, when there’s no licensed music playing. These are always noticeable and enjoyable to listen to. This also plays during high wanted levels and when flying. This is one aspect of the game that I believe is a unanimous improvement, and Rockstar's outdone themselves here.
Police chases are much more in-depth this time around. Instead of trying to escape through narrow city streets, the player must escape from the cops' line of sight and stay hidden, making for some truly tense moments. They're also a lot more tenacious, which balances out the fact that you can more easily escape your wanted level if they're out of sight. To escape, you can keep moving, find a good hiding spot, or find a different car in hide in plain sight by obeying traffic laws. The AI here is some of the best I've seen, honestly, and it makes every police chase an adventure.
The Little Things
- The radio user interface has been perfected, allowing you to open up a convenient radial menu that displays the station, song, and artist. No texting required.
- You can take and save photos, and even do selfies. This is a huge improvement from the... nothing that we got in the last game.
- You can give people the middle finger in traffic.
- You press triangle to enter a cab instead of holding it down. It makes more sense for the default to be entering instead of jacking, as the inverse was true in the previous game, much to the chagrin of players who accidentally hijacked their ride.
- There are waypoints and points of interests the player can set down, which is extremely useful. In most other games, waypoints disappear when you get to them, meaning you can't mark a point on the map indefinitely. Other games do the opposite, meaning you have to jump back into the pause menu to remove it. Grand Theft Auto V removes the hassle by doing both.
- "Lube up your eye hole fucker, 'cause I'm gonna fuck your mind!"
Grand Theft Auto V is huge. There's a ridiculous amount of value in this $60 package. With 69 story missions, 58 Strangers and Freaks missions, and a huge open world to explore packed with detail, you get a lot more than your money's worth. Add on to that the expansive online mode, and the high replay value, and you've got a game that will last you a while. Sadly, the game is far from perfect, and it fails to deliver in some areas, actually performing worse in some areas compared to its predecessors. The story, though chock-full of epic moments, is ultimately underwhelming, and made worse by two terrible endings that actually punish the player for picking them. The gameplay also has its ups and downs, with very realistic driving mechanics and a robust physics engine. Sadly, most of the combat is boring, because there's no challenge to it. Ironically, the game's central theme is that money can't buy happiness, and it does prove this: the player can get all that they want, but because they'll never want or need anything for most of the game, there's not as much satisfaction.
Is is it a great game? Absolutely. Is it game of the year? It's certainly a contender. Is it the best game ever made? No, not even close.