Over a decade ago, DMA Design (aka Rockstar North) shocked and wowed the video game community with its release of Grand Theft Auto III. As the crime-driven series’ first attempt at employing gameplay that revolved around a third-person, behind the back camera scheme, the experimental title quickly proved to be a great success, and has since paved the way for multiple sequels, spin-offs and copycats. In fact, GTA III will go down in history as being one of the most important and impactful games of all-time, and we have it to thank for one of this console generation’s best releases and potential swan song, Grand Theft Auto V.
Instead of returning to New York-influenced Liberty City, like its most recent predecessor and aforementioned grandfather, Grand Theft Auto V revisits the mean streets of sunny San Andreas (California, if you will), where the weather is warm and the countryside is rough and desert-like. Therein, a story involving three new anti-heroes takes centre stage, spilling out of the grid-based confines of Los Santos and into the state’s rough, sparsely populated and arid wilderness. The noted twenty-five to thirty hour-long campaign is not only heavy on bullet-filled shootouts and dangerous criminal escapades, but it is also filled with smart writing, great voice acting and an added level of mission-based creativity.
The tale begins with a bang, then switches to the hood, where a twenty-something, African American gang-banger named Franklin Clinton is busy fraudulently repossessing expensive vehicles with the help of his rather dumb friend Lamar Davis. Together, the two operate as a corrupt car dealer’s main men, doing his dirty work in exchange for limited amounts of money and high doses of danger. Basically, they’re low level thugs with aspirations of unlawful grandeur. Granted, no matter how dream-filled their heads are at that stage of their digitized lives, neither young man has an idea of how to improve things.
Players get to take on a couple of the aforementioned dirty jobs, while trying to get the hang of the game’s mechanics – a list that includes an appreciated and much improved new gunplay system, which mixes Call of Duty‘s snap focus aiming with more traditional sandbox-action designs. However, it isn’t long before things unsurprisingly go south, and retired criminal/second playable character Michael De Santa comes into the fold. His unexpected return to crime after many hours spent lounging about ends up being the most interesting and enjoyable part of the three-tiered storyline. However, that’s not to say that Franklin’s story isn’t interesting, or that Trevor Phillips, the final playable protagonist found inside of Grand Theft Auto V isn’t a joy to portray. Michael simply shows the most depth, and is the easiest one to become invested in due to his family dynamic. His wife is promiscuous, his daughter flaunts herself for fame, and his overweight son is in love with borrowing the family credit card.
Youngster Franklin is the outsider in the aforementioned equation, whereas Michael and Trevor are both old friends from their days as Mid-Western thieves. It’s important to make mention of this, but little more can be said about the relationship, because it’s pivotal to the way that the campaign unfolds. Let’s just say that something happened during their last job, which took place ten years before Grand Theft Auto V, and things are tense. Secrets have been kept, and they’re about to come out into the open, for better or worse.
Over the course of the single player-focused experience, the criminal trio chooses to work together in order to steal copious amounts of money (and sometimes hardware) from different groups, ranging from a government agency to bankers and even security contractors. These new heists are one of the most prominent additions to the well documented and ever popular GTA formula of vehicular hijackings and shootouts, but they only make up a portion of the included missions. Prep is important, though, so objectives regularly pertain to collecting tools of the trade or getting things ready. It’s all context sensitive, though, as each job requires its own unique workarounds, and most offer two distinctly different options to choose from. For example, one may send you in with guns blazing, while the other may require silent infiltration. Just remember that all heists necessitate temporary hires for shooting, driving and/or hacking positions, and those ne’er-do-wells take cuts ranging from about 6% to 15%.
Outside of its new, team-based heist mission type, which is put into action several times, Grand Theft Auto V is predominantly familiar when it comes to gameplay. Sure, there have been a lot of enhancements and some additions, particularly when it comes to secondary content such as hobbies and activities, but this is still an open world crime game. As such, you can expect to steal a lot of cars, shoot a lot of bad guys and do a lot of driving from one point to another, while focusing on the mini-map. That familiarity is a good thing, though, because the core formula has been great since its inception, and is arguably the best it’s ever been with this outing. However, I’d still have to say that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is my personal favourite, because of its great setting, fantastic 80s vibe and exemplary soundtrack.
Although I stand by the above statement, Grand Theft Auto V leaps ahead of its competitors when it comes to storytelling and gameplay refinements. The scripted dialogue is witty and interesting, and pokes fun at the world we inhabit, while the overarching storyline is both intense and immersive; so much so that the characters actually feel real. That is, even though psychopathic meth dealer Trevor is, himself, an exaggerated persona. As such, it’s easy to get lost in the world that they inhabit, which is made even more realistic by personal relationships.
In keeping with the discussion pertaining to the in-game world, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that there are many different things that one can do outside of mission parameters. For starters, there’s the mediocre but familiar hang out option from Grand Theft Auto IV, which allows for trips to bars, movie theatres and dart boards with pals. That’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket, however, as there’s simply an onslaught of content to plough through, including but not limited to base jumping, skydiving, mountain biking, Sea Doo racing, triathlon running, golf, surprisingly good tennis and rampages.
Triathlons bring swimming into the fold, and everything works well on that front. However, it’s the rampages that need explaining, as they’re limited to only Trevor and relate to his innate lack of anger management. The result is five different arcade scenarios, where the unhygienic methamphetamine entrepreneur takes on an army of stereotypes, ranging from ebonics-speaking gangsters to syllable-loving hipsters, and even ignorant soldiers. They only last a couple of minutes, so you’re only looking at about ten minutes’ worth of gameplay, but they’re fun.
Completing secondary activities actually helps the characters improve their skills. For example, running or biking helps improve their endurance, while going to the shooting range can help better one’s trigger finger. Conversely, taking flying lessons at the airport can help with the many missions that involve flying helicopters and planes. Granted, the helicopter controls are a bit too touchy, so even those who try their hand at lessons may have some issues with the parts where perfect maneuvering is the key to success. During those segments, things usually need to be picked up or dropped off on a dime – something that can quickly devolve into player anger when you consider that the helicopters love to sway from side-to-side.
Outside of the above, it’s frankly tough to complain about this much-anticipated sequel from a content and gameplay perspective. Yes, there are areas where things could’ve been better, and/or tighter, but there aren’t any major issues. Plus, whenever a glitch did occur it was usually of the minor variety, and there were only a couple of times where I had to reload a checkpoint.
Now, on to the presentation; something that this iconic Rockstar series has become known for over the years.
Visually, Grand Theft Auto V stands out from the pack. It’s a truly beautiful game, which features a varied map that wows with its pristine, blue water, and its many other geographical flourishes. Going further, the character models look great, which adds to the lifelike feeling that the campaign evokes. Michael, Trevor and Franklin look alive, and animate extremely well, with each one having his own personality and culture-based movement style. Still, things aren’t perfect throughout, as graphical glitches occasionally appear. In fact, I made sure not to install the play disc that came with my Xbox 360 version of the game, but still ended up seeing a lot of pop-in, especially during the opening credit sequence. By only installing the one, aptly titled install disc, I expected to avoid seeing a lot of that. Seeing some pop-in is quite normal with these kinds of games, but not that much.
We’ve already discussed the voice acting, but it’s worth repeating that those who took on the roles of the three memorable anti-heroes outdid themselves. Thankfully, the rest of the cast also performed admirably, offering realistic takes on occasionally caricatured character types. The audio is generally problem free as a whole, though the included radio soundtrack could’ve been quite a bit better. It offers some great songs, such as Night Moves by Bob Seager and Keep on Rockin’ Me, Baby by the Steve Miller Band; however, the majority of the music leaves something to be desired. While there is something for just about everyone, the hard rock and metal genres were overlooked somehow, which is disappointing.
In the end, despite some minor issues, Rockstar has outdone itself once again. Grand Theft Auto V isn’t a perfect game, but it’s great on so many levels that it’s hard not to give it a full score. It’s chock full of content, features two in-game stock markets, and provides nearly unlimited replay value for a fixed price tag. That latter statement will presumably become even more true when GTA Online launches in less than two weeks, giving multiplayer fanatics the crime-ridden online world that they’ve been itching for.
Don’t skip this one, my friends.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version, which we were provided with.
With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games has provided this late console generation with a fantastic and truly memorable swan song.