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Review: Grand Theft Auto VRockstar Grand Theft Auto PS3 360 Grand Theft Auto V
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
Release Date: September 17, 2013
ESRB: M for Mature
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which was provided by the publisher
Back when the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 duked it out for supremacy, I rented a game by the name of Body Harvest. It was so easy to be drawn to this Nintendo-exclusive title as it offered up an expansive world free for exploration. Many times I chose to kill survivors and run off with their trucks rather than save them from giant invading insects.
This was my first taste of the open world genre from DMA Designs, who would later become Rockstar Games. Memories of the game clouded my mind for years afterward until finally sinking into Grand Theft Auto 3 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
San Andreas became my life. At the age of 14 it seemed like the most incredible, free-form exploration possible. Wreaking havoc was massively fun and I would play for hours on the weekends. Since then, the series has mostly failed to recapture my attention. Why am I saying all this? It’s important to me to showcase that GTA played an important part in my gaming life and I intend to long cherish my memories of them. However, I am not so overcome by nostalgia that it’s impossible to view Grand Theft Auto V objectively.
Grand Theft Auto V is one hell of a game from a technological standpoint. It had very well better be after the hundreds of staff members and multi-million dollar fees connected with its creation. Requiring an approximately 8GB install on both PS3 and 360, GTA V offers some of the most breathtakingly realistic visuals available to console players. There is a fair amount of texture pop-in, but there’s not much Rockstar could have done to alleviate this engine-based problem. Overall, it looks damn good and serves as a nice way to show that the current console generation is still powerful.
In case you still haven’t heard, GTA V focuses around three lead characters - Franklin, Michael, and Trevor - who serve as, well, three sides of the same coin (if there were such a thing as a three-sided coin). Franklin is a young African American man trying to make his way out of the gangster lifestyle of Los Santos and go “legit”. Michael is middle aged, lives with his wife and adult children, and wishes to simply relax and leave his criminal past behind him. Trevor is a psychotic character who seeks out wanton destruction wherever he can.
Everyone is tied together by a life of crime as their work intersects. Franklin is the only new guy to the party though, as both Trevor and Michael used to run together. It was only when a heist went totally wrong that Trevor was required to go into hiding and mourned for the perceived death of his buddy Michael for years. With this proven to be a lie, the relationship between the two becomes incredibly tumultuous, often requiring the level headedness of Franklin to keep them from tearing each other up.
The ability to use three characters has been a big selling point of GTA V for a while. It’s new to the series and sounds quite cool in theory. In reality, the main reason to switch between characters is just to check out character-specific missions. Usually you can switch between the three men at will but there are times some are inaccessible. During important missions the game may even switch to someone else for you because that’s simply how Rockstar intended the scene to be played.
There are tons of possible missions to play. Beyond over fifty required ones, you can also engage in various side missions that range from incredibly dull to fun. Some inform the player about nuances of the selected character while others are just there to waste time. In any case, those interested in getting 100% completion will have a lot of work to do. Beyond doing all the missions there are also collectible items to find as well as special feats to perform such as flying under specified bridges. Rockstar definitely still has it when it comes to creating expansive worlds with lots to do.
Beyond the three characters to play there is another big addition to the series in the form of heists. Players must set up a heist by selecting one of two plans (safe or bombastic, basically), choosing your cast of crooks, and preparing all required elements. Once in the heist, no matter the choice, you usually end up having to fight off a swarm of cops at some point. After a successful heist, all involved parties get a cut and the game proceeds as normal. As touted as heists are, there are only six in the game and they are all tied to integral story missions. You definitely can’t just choose to stick up a joint for fun.
Once you’ve spent a while with the glorious open world experience though things start to become apparent. At least in my case, the more I played, the more it was clear that GTA V is a game utterly stuck in the past. For all the graphical advancements, there is little about the game which prepares us for the next generation. Put simply, it relies on many antiquated gaming techniques and sees no reason to change them. The GTA formula has not changed since its PS2 days.
First, you’ve got the heavy focus on driving. This has long been a staple of GTA (heck, the game is titled after stealing cars!). However, by now we have likely all been tainted by other open world games that offer something better. Sleeping Dogs had very prompt fast travel available. While GTA V does fast travel as well, you still have to take the moment to either find a taxi or wait for one. Then there is the elephant in the room by the name of Saints Row IV. After zipping over buildings and flying through that world it can be especially difficult to be so terrestrial here.
Driving becomes more of an issue because of how GTA V is structured. Often you will drive to a mission, then be tasked with driving to another location. Then, perhaps you’ll have to drive some more as you chase someone down or run from the cops. Driving is the name of the game and you’ll be doing copious amounts of it to weave through the huge world of Los Santos. This may become more difficult thanks to the unusual handling of cars. GTA has always seemed to have unusual car mechanics and that holds true here. No matter your driving skill in other games you’ll likely spend some time in GTA skidding and crashing all over the place.
Then there’s the humor, which appears to have barely evolved over the years. It may be because I’ve grown up in the years since playing San Andreas, but it’s just not that funny anymore. They hammer on a lot of the same tone of jokes as before and have only tweaked it to fit with modern issues such as corrupt corporations, social networking, and the like. But we’ve also seen a rise in satire and parody in American media so their tone stands as far less “daring” now. The goofy, ham-fisted parody also seems to now be at odds with what GTA V is attempting to pull off with its story.
But what of the story? Does Rockstar manage to coalesce each of the three character’s narratives in a meaningful way? They do mesh together well and it all makes sense. However, it really feels like the developer was most focused on Michael. He is the character who gets the most development by far overall and has a real “history” about him. Even though you can play as Franklin and Trevor and explore their own issues, their primary goal is to serve as secondary characters in Michael’s life. There are narrative choices that force you to play as others, they do not wash the feeling away that GTA V is still a story about Michael. It’s a good story, but unfortunate that the others could not have had their own full narratives.
Of course, there is also the heated issue of how characters are represented in the game. Everyone, from the lead characters to faux celebrities and the government of GTA V all are treated horribly. Everyone is someone to be made fun of. But does that really work when some groups really are mistreated in our society? What exactly is the point of shaming already underpowered peoples? It doesn’t seem a smart satire when you really start to break down the humor.
Not everyone will care and they are free to feel this way. But just because I do care about this topic doesn’t render me unfit to play. After all, if everyone who had any issues with the representation of characters in it stopped playing, then only horrible bigots, racists, sexist, etc would be playing. And, as gamers are keen to suggest, this is not the majority audience of the GTA series. It is a game for “everyone” who enjoys wrecking stuff in an open world - except apparently anyone who voices any problem with said games.
Like I said earlier, GTA V is a technical marvel. It looks great and handles mostly well when playing through the 15+ hours of main story. There are even interesting questions raised as to what motivates these men to kill and why they can’t stop. But beyond that there are a host of gameplay missteps that make it feel closer to a PS2 game than PS4. Many will still enjoy the game wholeheartedly and that is great for them. After all, this is a game with a 97 Metacritic score. For me, it seems that my tastes have changed in the 9 years since my last visit to San Andreas. At this point, it would be impossible for me to celebrate Grand Theft Auto V as anything other than a game trapped in its own massive shadow.
+ Huge world rife for exploration
+ Copious possible amounts of playtime via side missions/collectibles/etc
+ Heists are an exciting new addition to the series
- Jeez, did we always drive this much around expansive maps?
- Michael sees the most attention and even then only barely sees his character develop
- Instead of satire feeling exciting/fresh it feels aged - like something an older person trying to be “hip” would come up with
Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10)
Grand Theft Auto V feels like it has lost itself in spectacle. As fun as it may be on the surface, it ends up being both devoid of any heart and dated.
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