Whenever there’s a new Grand Theft Auto title on the horizon, gamers from every corner of the world – be they casual or the hardest of the hardcore – unite in pure anticipation, watching every trailer, checking every screenshot and news report, wondering just what incredible little rabbit Rockstar is going to pull out of its hat this time. Since the release of GTA III twelve years ago, that ‘incredible little rabbit’ has turned into King Kong and the ‘hat’ has gradually evolved into an aircraft carrier. With every new release, Rockstar has developed a reputation for pushing the envelope to the limit with its flagship series’ brilliant blend of comparatively monstrous open worlds, relatable, well-written characters, witty and hilarious social commentary and activities that fall well and truly outside the scope of one’s wildest dreams. Grand Theft Auto V does have its flaws, but I’d be lying through my teeth if I told you that it didn’t live up to that reputation.
Easily the most anticipated game of the seventh console generation, Grand Theft Auto V takes players into the new and improved Los Santos and the surrounding Blaine County, which combine to make a world so fantastically enormous that my PS3 makes all sorts of weird noises as soon as it begins to load. With that being said, considering how readily available supercars like the Pegassi Infernus (a beautiful cross between the Lamborghini Murcielago, Lamborghini Diablo and the Pagani Zonda) or the Grotti Carbonizzare (a cross between the Nissan GT-R and the Ferrari 458 Italia) are from the very outset, allowing you to drive long distances in a flash, it’s hard to truly appreciate the scope of the state until you’re looking down on it from above, confronted by a monstrous organised mess of lights, buildings, towers and roads. Compared to the clustered metropolitan maze that was GTA IV’s Liberty City, travelling around the city and surrounding countryside is a breath of fresh air.
Graphically, the game looks just like any other GTA title at a glance, but a few times more detailed and excellent. Even though I didn’t log too many hours with – or particularly enjoy – GTA IV, I was genuinely stunned at the beauty of Liberty City as a whole, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in absolutely adoring the amount of detail Rockstar put into every character, environment, object, vehicle and whatever else. Take a closer look (read: play the game for an hour or so) and you’re soon to realise that, at least in terms of graphics, Grand Theft Auto V surpasses not only its predecessor but any game Rockstar has put forward – and that’s saying something, since I thought Red Dead Redemption looked utterly perfect. Personally, this graphical beauty stands out the most in and under the water surrounding Los Santos; while completing early missions that required the use of a jetski and a submersible, I realised that the water and marine life was so detailed and realistic that it invoked my phobia of it… And it blew my mind.
Just like the version that served as Carl Johnson’s original stomping ground in San Andreas, the city of Los Santos is Rockstar’s take on Los Angeles, California. Districts such as Vinewood (Hollywood, complete with giant “Vinewood” sign on the hills), Rockford Hills (Beverly Hills) and Vespucci Beach (appears to be a cross between Santa Monica and Venice Beach) stand out as brilliantly-done replicas of their real-life counterparts, and provide many an opportunity for the game to parody all of the different kinds of people living in one of America’s most famous cities (and all around the world, for that matter). Rockstar has taken that opportunity and ran away with it, with pop-culture references being common in conversation, the media and the natures of the characters themselves; some subtle, some the complete opposite. Many an hour can – and more than likely will – be lost just exploring Los Santos and Blaine County, having a good laugh at whatever references pop up, or just beholding the beauty of the world you’ve been thrown into.
For the first time ever in the Grand Theft Auto series, players are simultaneously invited into the lives of not one, not two, but three criminals, each with a different background, situation and set of skills: Michael De Santa (formerly Townley) is a middle-aged retired bank robber with a cheating wife and two children who despise him, who entered a twisted form of witness protection when a job went horribly wrong; Franklin Clinton is a young gang-banger and small-time repo man working for a car dealership (which serves as a front for a loan sharking and extortion operation) who is always looking to move up in the world of crime… And then there’s Michael’s old running mate Trevor Philips, a brilliantly-written mixture of every role Jack Nicholson has ever played. In short, Trevor is fucking insane. Since the aforementioned job, Trevor has moved into the desert to form his own little company, Trevor Philips Enterprises, dealing mainly with methamphetamine but which he is looking to expand throughout the game.
Grand Theft Auto V is written much like a good television program; while each of the three main characters has his own, equally prevalent and equally intriguing sub-plot, it is their relationship and ‘business’ dealings that provides the game’s overarching storyline. Franklin, who is constantly being haunted by the ghosts of the life he desperately wants to escape and supercede, quickly becomes the level head of the group, providing the voice of reason as Michael and Trevor never really find a way to resolve the tension related to the ill-fated job a decade ago. While all of the jokes, facetiousness and social parodies are right on point and had me in stitches, it is the air of mistrust that permeates every discussion between the former best friends that is the biggest achievement as far as Rockstar’s writers are concerned. As the game progresses, one cannot help but sympathise with Trevor as he begins to put the pieces together and reacts like he’s just found out that Santa Claus isn’t real. Watching Franklin mature as the story does, tying up the loose ends from his former life and on many occasions keeping his new, improved life on the ‘right’ track, is the icing on top of the cake.
The most talked-about new feature in the game was the ability to switch between the three main characters almost whenever you please, and it is not rare to catch one’s chosen character doing something utterly hilarious. I personally caught Michael in the middle of an intense yoga session on one occasion, and far more often I jumped in on Trevor sleeping at the top of a mountain wearing a summer dress, or on an isolated beach with a number of corpses in his wake. The fact that, as I mentioned above, each character has a unique set of skills (Franklin’s is driving, Michael’s is stealth and Trevor’s is violent, bloody murder) means that switching between the three in missions provides countless options as to how one might go about completing a mission. With that being said, character switching in general play (and occasionally in missions) is marred by the length of the animation triggered when you do decide to switch… Especially if you’re as impatient as myself.
The three characters’ stories are told primarily through the game’s 69 story missions, which are spread evenly between Michael, Franklin and Trevor. For the most part, the missions take on the “style” of the character they’re set for; Michael’s missions tend to be clean, efficient and professional, Franklin’s are more small-time, and Trevor’s are just ridiculously messy, outlandish, crazy and incredibly fun to complete. While the three characters have their own independent and equally interesting stories, they are all subplots to the game’s overarching storyline, and each character’s missions culminate in six major heists that take place at various stages in the story, often before a major plot point. The heists are meticulously planned, with the player able to choose between two different situations – generally stealth, or loud and all guns blazing – which then affects the number and nature of the missions completed strictly to set up the heist.
Strangers that the characters meet throughout the city provide the more comical missions that the Grand Theft Auto series has come to be known for; in this case, “collecting” celebrity “memorabilia”, helping a paparazzo get some scandalous pictures and finding the pieces of an alien spaceship, just to name a few. Funnily enough, while these missions tend to provide much of Grand Theft Auto V’s comic value, allowing the main story to focus on the deeper, more meaningful issues, they also tend to be the more challenging missions. Unlike other games I’ve had the pleasure of playing through (and reviewing) this year, I rarely died – or even had to stop and really think about what I was planning to do next – during the story missions, and was somewhat disappointed at how incredibly easy I found them to get through. The “Strangers and Freaks”, on the other hand, sent me on missions that were a little more challenging, but even though some of them took multiple attempts to complete, they were still quite easy, which left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled as I blew through them.
Aside from being told through missions and heists, each character’s story is supplemented in various ways by his activity on his mobile phone. It brought me incredible joy when I realised that the persistent, endlessly-annoying phone calls from utter tosspots like Roman and Brucie – who were known to get annoyed if you’d prefer to do something constructive, like survive a gunfight, than go bowling with them – had been replaced with meaningful, substantial calls and messages with some relevance to the game itself. Numerous missions – both storyline and “Strangers and Freaks” are set up or advanced through text messages and emails read on the mobile phone, and in free-roam players will hear from characters associated with the one they are controlling; Michael’s family will make contact to abuse him for the most part, Trevor’s business partners (for lack of a better term that isn’t likely to be offensive) will talk business and inevitably be abused by their boss, and people from Franklin’s “past” life will need him to bail them out (or, in the case of his ex-girlfriend, brag about her life in the weirdest way possible). Other characters will occasionally send a message that refers to a mission you’ve just completed, and you’ll get a whole bunch of emails from various stores when new merchandise becomes available. The cherry on top of the incredible improvements made to the mobile phone, though? Selfies. An app called “Snapmatic” is probably the best parody in the game, allowing the three characters to whip out their phones and take a selfie in any situation, before uploading it to the Rockstar Social Club to fish for likes.
As if the plethora of missions weren’t easy enough to complete without breaking a sweat, the incredible selection of weapons and vehicles made available to the player throughout provide plenty of options in terms of just how to go about each mission. Weapons can be acquired in two very familiar ways: from the cold, dead hands of the latest group of idiots who were well out of their depth, or from the ever-reliable Ammunation franchise, which conveniently sends you an email whenever a new weapon has been stocked so that you can zip on in and pick one up. Each weapon tier – melee, handguns, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, light machine guns, sniper rifles, heavy weapons, projectiles and miscellaneous – has multiple variants to choose from, each with slightly different specs and capabilities that make them useful for different situations or styles of play; if the size of what I’ve deemed the “DLC wall” on the right-hand side of the Ammunation counter is anything to go by, that selection is going to grow exponentially. On top of all that, every weapon in the game (aside from the melee class) can be customised with a number of attachments – suppressor, extended clip, scope, advanced scope, grip and flashlight – to make them even more versatile, and a bunch of different paint jobs to make them look a little more badass as they dispatch rooms full of the aforementioned idiots.
With all of that being said, while the selection of weapons available to the player is nothing short of remarkable, it is absolutely dwarfed by the number of vehicle there is to choose from. Just like the weapons, the 150+ vehicles available throughout the game are divided into a number of different classes – sedans, hatchbacks, muscle, vintage, sports/supercars, SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, motorcycles, bicycles, public service, emergency, commercial, watercraft, airplanes, helicopters and a few miscellaneous others – and each class, let alone individual car, has its own distinct merits, be it in handling, speed, durability or otherwise. The number of options a player has to choose from when making a getaway or trying to run someone off the road is incredible, and often becomes a difficult one to make, which isn’t really a bad thing at all (for the record, I often chose muscle cars for missions, for their durability and performance, and supercars when I’m just messing about, because they’re just awesome). As I mentioned earlier in the piece, the best vehicles in the game can be found just as easily as the worst ones from the very outset, with supercars feeling a fair bit more common than in previous GTA titles (that’s probably due to the fact that Michael lives in the more affluent area of Los Santos, but whatever). Also like the weapons, players have an incredible number of options when it comes to customising their cars; some of the standouts include the hundreds of paint jobs on offer, the availability of armour and bulletproof tires, and my personal favourite, the ability to change the colour of the smoke coming from your tires when you do a burnout. In short, the number of options available in terms of cars and customisation means that the player doesn’t really have an excuse to drive the same stock car every day, and that’s a great thing.
I’ve spoken about missions quite a bit throughout this review, but if you feel like you can tear yourself away from the game’s incredibly immersive storyline for a little bit, you’ll be pretty happy with the amount of things you can do outside of it. You can choose to go skydiving or hunting, play tennis or golf, do yoga, ride cable cars (almost) to the top of Mt. Chiliad, compete in various race events, and even check out the carnival rides on Pleasure Pier, just to name a few; like in GTA IV, you can also phone a friend and hit the town for a bit, going for a couple of drinks, playing some darts, catching a movie or visiting the strip club for a cheeky circle jerk if you’re into that sort of stuff. With that being said, even though there’s a stack of options for more “wholesome” activities, there’s always the best GTA pastime, a little game I like to call “Shoot the fuck out of the neighborhood and see just how long you can survive the police assault!” This time around, there’s also “drive a car as high up Mt. Chiliad as you can get it and then go off the edge and see how badly it’s destroyed when you get to the bottom” and “try to steal military hardware from Fort Zancudo without getting blown to smithereens in 0.3 seconds”, all of which provide hours of essentially mindless fun. Of course, if you’re looking to move up in the world, the phone also allows you to trade on the stock market, look at real estate and purchase exotic cars, boats and aircraft at ridiculous prices. Like I said, it’s not easy to stop doing the missions and just mess about around Los Santos, but it’s totally worth it. It’s so very relaxing, even if you just get yourself a beast of a car and go for a lap of the city and surrounding areas, and I’m really impressed with how well Rockstar have done at holding my attention considering I stop playing most games once I’ve finished the storyline.
In any case, if you’ve sat through the preceding 2,700 words, I salute you. However, if you’d prefer a short summary of what I thought of Grand Theft Auto V, here you are: the game lives up to the series’ hefty reputation, delivering on every promise it has made with each passing release and exceeding expectations in a number of ways, even if it is a little too easy. It combines with such incredible titles as The Last of Us to say the very fondest of farewells to the seventh console generation, and brings with it a sense of true anticipation; if this is how good games can get in this generation, how good are they going to be with the new hardware? I really cannot wait to find out.
Author’s note: Again, I’m sorry about how damn late this review is; I’ve been particularly held down by coursework for my final semester of uni, but that’s all behind me now. I should say that all of these images, while they’re credited to Rockstar in the captions, are screenshots that were graciously provided to me by my good friend Jake, who is on YouTube under the name ‘DARKWOLF_29′, so thanks Jake!