This isn’t quite a review of Grand Theft Auto V, unfortunately none of us got our copies until release, and by the time we would have been able to review it it would have been too late. On the plus side it’s meant that I’ve had a few days to sit and play through it, without having to think about reviewing it or rushing through it to get one up in time. So I present to you this Review That Isn’t A Review.
At the time of writing this I’ve been playing for roughly 17 hours and my 100% completion pie-chart is at 35%. I’ve completed a little under half of the missions and I’ve spent roughly the same amount of time with each character so I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for it. This isn’t going to be too in depth, more of a shorter, broader look at what I like, what I love, and what slightly confuses me about Grand Theft Auto V.
My favourite part of Grand Theft Auto V is the same as for all the big Rockstar Games this generation: the writing. Whilst I’m not too far into it so far, the story is great, and the three character narrative is excellent, and excellently executed. All three protagonists have distinct personalities, deep backgrounds and they all behave differently. They’re all superbly written and voiced as well. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of Franklin, but Michael sounds exactly like a washed up, tired middle aged man and Trevor, well, Trevor is something special. For those who haven’t played it yet, the introduction to Trevor is a real treat.
The depth and variety in characters has helped with one of the big criticisms of GTA IV; it wasn’t believable going bowling or causing mayhem with Niko Bellic. This is hugely improved by the inclusion of three characters as it lets you actually play the game in character, which I found myself doing. If I want to wander about south Los Santos, doing odd-jobs, racing or modifying some cars I choose Franklin. If I want to play golf or tennis, dabble about on the stock market or buy suits I drop in on Michael. If I want to let loose, blow some stuff up, drive stupid and just generally cause havoc I slip into Trevor’s methamphetamine and blood soaked shoes. You can, of course, do whatever you want to and spend as much or a little time with a character as the story allows but all the characters are so compelling that I’ve spent my time fairly equally without any thought. Most of the time you can switch at will between Trevor, Franklin and Michael but the story does keep you pinned to one some of the time. It feels natural within the flow of the story and it never restricts you to what you can do or where you can go, merely who you can control for a given period.
It’s not just the protagonists, there is a whole host of support characters that are as varied and as well voiced and written as you could hope. From Trevor’s conspiracy theorist lackey Ron, to Michaels idiot son Jimmy and Franklin’s wannabe gangster friend Lamar they all contribute to the richness of the world and add greater depth to each character. There is one criticism that a lot of reviewers have picked up on (such as Polygon) is the portrayal of women in the game. There are few female characters, and so far none of them are complimentary or sympathetic. So far they any number of shrill, selfish, shallow or an obstacle to the protagonist. It’s a difficult criticism to make and, to be honest, I might not have noticed it without my attention being drawn to it. Whilst Grand Theft Auto, and gaming in general, is not famed for it’s portrayal of strong female characters it’s not beyond the talent of Rockstar to create another Abigail Marston or two.
Aside from the writing the thing I admire most about Rockstar is the worlds they create. I might be in the minority but I enjoyed GTA IV and found Liberty City to be engrossing. But Liberty City is nothing, and I mean nothing, in comparison to Los Santos and Blaine County. Not just in size, but in depth, in the sheer variety of it. It’s almost impossible to convey in words just how much there seems to be, and just how big it is. I drove from the middle of Los Santos to a point roughly two-thirds of the way up the cost and it took decent amount of time. There’s so many alleyways, country roads, side-streets and just open land to explore. I’ve not uncovered all of the map, and I’ve in no way explored all that I have uncovered. That’s gonna take a lot more than 17 hours.
In terms of locations there are a stupendous amount, inside and outside the city. Construction sites, docks, a power plant, trailer parks, airfields, a prison, military base, strip malls, mountain tops, seafront towns, high-end stores and lots more. There is a veritable plethora of activities. Clothing to buy, cars to upgrade, stores to hold up, firing ranges to use, golf, tennis, cycling a triathlon, races in and out of the city, in the air and on the sea and just so much more. They all have a point too, beyond just because. Races improve stats, either stamina or driving, the firing ranges improve aim, ammo capacity and weapon handling and the sports increase character strength. I heard it described as “RPG-lite” and it’s a perfect description. It’s a welcome return of the system from San Andreas, but slightly trimmed down.
Some of the depth comes from the setting and how it intertwines with the themes of the game. Some of the issues raised, such as medical marijuana and modern day Californian politics, are handled pretty tongue in cheek but the major theme of Los Santos itself is the collapsed economy. There are a number of homeless people, especially off the beaten tracks, and foreclosure signs are everywhere near Franklin’s house and even up into the affluent areas of Vinewood. This social commentary prevalent in both the writing and the environments adds to the games depth and makes it more of a world, than merely a sandbox.
The overall feel of Grand Theft Auto V, especially in comparison to it’s predecessor, in terms of controls is a lot better. The Euphoria engine physics have been toned down and refined so I no longer find myself falling over my own feet and down a flight of stairs which is refreshing. The whole movement system reeks of Max Payne 3, and I mean that in a good way. The characters no longer awkwardly climb over walls and fences, they move a lot more fluidly. Low walls are vaulted over athletically, parked cars become temporary slides and the cover is a lot less sticky. The driving is lighter, looser, more responsive and no longer feels like trying to drive a broken down barge. The shooting is very much refined, it’s a lot more responsive and feels a lot less doughy than before. It’s no real surprise that all these improvements made it in. Not only have Rockstar had a lot of time, they’ve had a lot of practice in-between. Elements of Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 and Midnight Club are all front and centre. This video was posted just after the gameplay trailer was released and it sums it all up pretty nicely.
Along with the controls being tightened, there are a lot of other gameplay changes too.The phone has been brought up to date and now includes internet access as well as a built in camera that I’ve used to take all the pictures I’ve used in this post. The downside is that to use the camera you need to be connected to the Social Club and it’s currently having some teething trouble (which is probably why Rockstar delayed the release of Grand Theft Auto Online). Another big change/improvement is the way that you evade the unwanted attentions of the police. Escaping the police is much more dependent on breaking line of sight than in GTA IV. After breaking line of sight with pursuers, either through sheer speed or hiding, the cones of view of individual enemies are shown on the map. This makes hiding a much more viable solution in comparison to just driving. You can always just drive as fast and as far as you can but you might not make it. Law enforcement in this town is brutal.
It’s impossible to talk about changes to the gameplay without mentioning the much talked about heist missions. I’ve only completed two so far and I’m in the process of setting up the third and they’re a brilliant addition. The first heist is the jewellery store heist from the trailers and it takes places over a few missions. The first is a scouting mission and then, depending on how you choose to approach the heist, the set up missions. I chose to go quietly so I had to steal a van and disguises and some knock out gas, but not before choosing my team. Choosing the crew is a balance between high skill and low cost personnel based on the intel you have and the type of heist you’re planning. I was going in quietly so I chose a good driver, a good electronics expert but a cheap gunman. This was all reflected in the dialogue before, and in how the escape panned out.
As much as the big things impress me in Grand Theft Auto V, it’s the little things that make me love it. Too many little details to list, but they all add up. The subtle changes in the movement of the characters is one, as is what happens when you leave the controller alone for a few seconds. I genuinely laughed when I set the controller down to take a drink for a second and I saw Trevor sniff a finger, recoil in disgust, and then sniff it again just to be sure. This next one is a bit sad, but I thought it was awesome that the sat-nav dropped out of signal range when going through a tunnel. Some radio stations are only available in the city, and some only in the desert.
On the top of radio, the music in this game is superb. I don’t mean the radio stations, they are as good as you would expect from a Grand Theft Auto. I mean the ambient music. The music is dynamic and changes depending on the situation, whether you’re in combat or escaping, whether you’re being stealthy or going in hard. Each character has there own style, own motifs and it really is superb. I said before that music can make or break a game, it really does make this particular game very special.
The only thing that confused me with Grand Theft Auto V is that I’m not sure how to take it sometimes. At times it’s almost an action-comedy with it’s tongue firmly planted in it’s cheek. There’s some minor fourth wall breaking, with the characters seemingly aware of their contradictory behaviour. I helped a woman recover a stolen wallet and Franklin responded by saying “I’m such a hypocrite”, this being moments after robbing a jewellery store. There is one mission not too far into the game which made me genuinely uncomfortable. I won’t go into details, but it’s out there if you want to know. The game became very dark, very quickly and went from socio-political commentary to gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable. I think the tone of the mission may have been intentional, somewhat like the scene with the dogs in Django Unchained, but the juxtaposition between the grim, dark mission that took place just after base-jumping whilst dressed in an ill fitting suit resembling The Joker.
Since this is A Review That Isn’t A Review, I won’t end with a score but I think you could guess that it’d be a very high score. I’m unashamedly a big fan of Rockstar, and I was very much looking forward to Grand Theft Auto V to the point where I broke my own rule about pre-ordering and buying special editions. It’s brilliantly executed, fantastically written, it handles like a dream and it both is, and encourages you to have, fun. If you were erring on the side of buying it, do it. If not, read some more reviews (even the odd negative one), watch some footage or better yet, try and play it. If you’re not impressed by Grand Theft Auto V after playing it, the chances are you were never going to be.