Age has not been kind to GTA IV. While it redefined current generation expectations in 2008, today it feels dated and is tedious to play. The meticulous portrayal of recession-blighted New York is still something to admire, but there is no denying that GTA IV is too serious for its own good. Judging from all the media pre-release, it would appear that GTA V would not only bring new gameplay mechanics to the table but would also return the series to roots of sorts, bringing back the fun factor that was seemingly abandoned on the PS2 and Xbox. Thankfully GTAV accomplishes this and more, and is easily the most ambitious GTA game to date.
This is never more apparent than when traversing the frankly colossal San Andreas map that has been lovingly crafted and begs for every crack and crevice to be explored. Beginning your journey in the urban sprawl that is Los Santos – a darkly comic and satirical take of downtown L.A. – you can expect to come across all the Hollywood clichés imaginable interspersed with very real world depravity, poverty and injustice. Political apathy, talent (fame?) contests, the hyper realities of social media and celebrity culture; they’re all in here, and they’re all ripped apart in a way only Rockstar can pull off. Whether it’s Costa Coffee/Starbucks, Fox News or multiplayer-centric shooters such as Call of Duty, you can’t play for more than a couple of minutes before stumbling across the next hilarious parody on the streets, at home or on the radio.
Moving to the outer regions of Blaine County, it’s a completely different experience that encapsulates the isolation and natural beauty of an area largely unblemished by mass human settlement, yet equally blighted by a lack of order and decorum. Stereotypes of hillbillies that thrive on anarchy, abhor immigrants and have an obvious disdain for the ‘made man’ undergo the same biting Rockstar critique that walks that tightrope between offense and humour. Blaine County is by no means empty, but is welcome a departure from the insanity of the city and provides opportunity for the player to relax, reflect and appreciate. Standing atop or flying above Mt. Chiliad, the scale and ambition are never more apparent. Los Santos is the most beautiful and clinical realisation of a real world locale ever created. It could be debated whether this is the largest open world ever in geographically, but nothing comes close in terms of vivacity or diversity.
The number of activities you can partake in is beyond ambitious, ridiculous in fact. But it’s not just the quantity of things to do, as the detail and attention that has been given to each unique past time is nothing short of staggering. Golf and Tennis are fine examples that accommodate complex yet accessible gameplay mechanics that rival fully fledged releases. A Virtua Tennis or Tiger Woods PGA may be more complete games, but those are also games dedicated to their sport and cost full retail price. Racing, whether on land, sea or air also challenges dedicated racers that are in development for years with multimillion pound/dollar budgets, sometimes even usurping them in terms of variety and enjoyment. That GTA V can deliver similar experiences that are, while incentivised in terms of skill improvements, totally optional metagame distractions is preposterous and, quite honestly, takes the piss.
San Andreas then may seem like Heaven to the player, but for the three protagonists it’s nothing short of Hell. Each character is unique and their personalities greatly differ from one another, reflected in the areas they reside. Michael is gaming’s Tony Soprano: a criminal who finds it difficult to spend all his riches and even more difficult to find happiness and solace. He’s retired but yearns for that adrenaline rush heists and bank robbery provide. An unfaithful wife and two children victim of society’s senseless modern tropes only serve to exacerbate this self-loathing.
Franklin hails from downtown Los Santos. He laments the gang-banger, hustler lifestyle and is constantly, perhaps ironically, looking for bigger scores to leave that life behind, even if he still has love for the streets. Franklin is the safest bet in terms of his character; ‘rags to riches’ is something Rockstar explores in nearly all GTA games. He’s also the most personable character of the three and the easiest to sympathise with.
Finally we have Trevor, a vicious psychopath, void of morality or decency and willing to kill without remorse. Out in the desert in a wrecked trailer, Trevor makes his living as a Bounty Hunter and has a crippling addiction to methamphetamine. His outrageous persona is the source for many of GTA V’s laugh out loud moments, but also many distressing and troubling scenarios. The three protagonists have wildly different backgrounds and personalities, but their shared goal to make money keeps them together, at least their working relationships anyway.
Bringing three main characters to the table has allowed Rockstar to offera great deal of flexibility in terms of how the player develops the story. In between missions you can select any character on the fly. A stylish loading screen teleports you to your desired character’s entirely random location. Whether It’s Michael lazing by the pool with a cigar, or Trevor waking up on someone’s front lawn drunk and only in his underwear, you introduction to your chosen protagonist sits within their personalities. It’s nothing revolutionary but brings depth and plausibility to them as people. It’s a mechanic that hasn’t been attempted before, but Rockstar has almost perfected it on their first go. There are instances where the character switching is forced upon the player too much – i.e. early heist missions – but as a whole it’s executed remarkably well. With the exception of aforementioned rare restrictive moments you can play who you want, when you want, and that’s a welcome choice to have.
The plot itself is entertaining and moves at good pace. Your standard themes and confrontations such as government conspiracy and authority corruption are evident as expected, but the variety of ways in which the narrative develops these themes keeps the player from becoming jaded with a one dimensional approach to the story-telling. With three protagonists GTA V allows the player to engage the plot from different perspectives at different times, keeping things fresh. Conversely however, this flexibility, in conjunction with the character switching mechanic, can result in the plot losing steam where it crucially should take precedence over free-roaming. It’s dependent on how the layer wishes to play of course, but focussing solely on one character for 10 hours mid game can result in the narrative becoming fragmented and peripheral. It doesn’t make the story redundant all of a sudden, but it does take focus away from it, something that Rockstar will no doubt explore in future games when it looks to balance the freedom of character switching with the pacing and development of the overarching plot.
The player certainly can’t be castigated for suddenly exploring what San Andreas offers though because GTA V brings fun back to the series, along with a host of gameplay improvements that have evolved from Rockstar’s other franchises. Shooting and Cover mechanics are vastly superior to GTA IV, spawning from the successful and proven DNA of Max Payne 3. You won’t be diving across the room action hero style, but gunfights are much more enjoying and frenetic thanks to the increased responsiveness and fluidity of the controls. There are some occasions where you might find yourself frustrated transitioning between cover, but overall fire fights are intense and much more satisfying. As Michael you can slow down time, while Trevor goes into a rage mode where can absorb, and deliver, a greater amount of damage, providing further benefits and opportunity to experiment with different combat approaches during these engagements.
Franklin’s unique ability is slowing down time on the roads, which proves incredibly useful weaving through traffic during races or car chases. There’s no doubt that Rockstar’s own Midnight Club and Criterion’s Burnout series are hugely influential in the overhaul of the driving. The speed and handling in GTAV is now reminiscent of an arcade-racer, completely removing any of GTA IV’s pedestrian nature. It’s fast, it’s terrifying at times and an absolute blast to hurl down the streets of Los Santos. Boats undergo a similar treatment, while planes and helicopters are now more accessible and easier to control. Every aspect of GTA V’s gameplay has been revised and improved upon and. Some minor annoyances still manifest from older games which could do with further tweaking such as the hand-to-hand combat, but otherwise GTA V is about as complete a gaming experience as you are going to get for many years to come.
Of course with any GTA release, controversy and criticism follow close behind. At its best GTA V is mature and provoking, challenging our notions of morality, sacrifice, greed and so on . To the uninitiated or simply ignorant, GTA V does nothing more that glorifies violence, promotes criminal activity and accepts misogynist behaviour . This is missing the point however, because GTA V is complex and deep rooted in its message. It doesn’t embellish upon or endorse nefarious actions, it comments on the depraved nature of society and how it contributes to such activities. It doesn’t have to obvious, but exploitation and malfeasance are at the very core of our society, no matter how exposed or underlying.
The fact that GTA V is also graphic in its presentation actually is a deterrent to conduct such objectionable acts. On the one hand it’s too realistic. GTA V is fantasy, and should be clearly identified as fantasy by any sane person, but my perspective is that its ‘authenticity’ forces the player to explore emotions such as distress and disgust that too many developers are scared to engage. Any well informed or rational individual should be able to recognise GTA V presents itself in this manner because it wants you to confront your ideals and understand that in the real world these things intolerable, with your own abjection proving that exact point. GTA V wants the industry to grow up to a place where television and films are today. Practically any criticisms of the game along the lines of violence or misogyny are, while often from honest hearts, totally misplaced. Watch any critically acclaimed HBO series; violence and misogyny are rampant yet these series are still heaped with praise and adulation. Let’s not have double standards.
There is of course one particular scene that has been condemned for going beyond what’s acceptable as entertainment. Rockstar will argue that it is within the context of the character’s warped disposition to carry out such barbaric actions, and to an extent they are correct. Forcing the player to partake in these compulsory activities perturbed me however because of it’s shallow nature. No doubt that’s the point of the scene, but where the rest of the game handles violence in an impersonal, intelligent and often comical fashion that can be distinguished from the horrors of reality, this scene is unsettling and a bit too sincere. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s condemnable; it’s nothing compared to say, Saw or Hostel, which are downright gratuitous and revel in the suffering depicted, but it is a blemish for an otherwise mature, complex and faultless experience.
What can’t be criticised however is the astounding graphical achievement that GTA V is. Simply put, it’s the greatest technical accomplishment this generation, even more extraordinary given that it isn’t from a first party developer. Having to work within the limitations and greatly differing architectures of the Xbox 360 and PS3, Rockstar has somehow created a world on an unprecedented scale that packs the detail and complexity of far more linear experiences. You could argue that it lacks the some of the fidelity and animation of The Last of Us or the cinematic grandiosity of God of War, but neither is anywhere near as ambitious as GTA V in terms of scope and diversity. In every technical respect, GTA V has been improved upon and will leave you amazed at what can be achieved with antiquated hardware. Crucially, both console versions are nigh on identical as well, indicating that 5 years of development time has been invested wisely where no corners have been cut or fundamental compromises have been made to the presentation; there is no ‘superior’ product to get should you have the luxury of choice. Persistent texture streaming and lod issues still plague digital copies or installing the entire game to your hard drive, so it’s advised to play a physical copy from the disc until these problems have been resolved.
GTA V is an incredible product that lives up to the hyperbole and then some, even when it loses a bit of narrative steam in the middle and, as you’d expect from a GTA game, on isolated occasions aims awkwardly below the belt. GTA V will make you laugh, grimace, gasp; the entire gamut of human emotion and reaction is explored, and maybe that’s the point: no matter how distressing or uncomfortable, if it’s acceptable in all other mediums it should be acceptable in gaming. If that’s the message Rockstar is ‘gunning’ for, more power to them.
GTA V is easily the best in the series and all but erases Niko Bellic’s snooze fest from memory. It’s ambitious, vibrant and above all a ridiculous amount of fun to play. Los Santos is bursting with opportunity, providing tens, if not hundreds of hours more entertainment when the credits roll. It’s old hat now but Rockstar has smashed boundaries once again, bringing vigour to a waning and senescent console cycle. Quite possibly the best game of this generation.