Grand Theft Auto V Review: Activity overload

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GTA V coverGrand Theft Auto V
Price: $59.99
System(s): PS3 and Xbox 360
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Rockstar Games (Rockstar North)
ESRB Rating: “Mature” for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol

Before I begin, here’s a brief public service announcement. Parents, Grand Theft Auto V is an Mature-rated game that has some stuff that is not appropriate for kids. Even when the content isn’t appropriate for kids, there is still some content that is questionable for exposure to the audience that the game is marketed to, which is people above the age of 17. Then again, none of the GTA games are appropriate for kids. It’s still pretty surprising though about the amount of parents who have bought games like this for their kids and then, as though the parents have no prior agency or thought, blame the industry. That being said, let’s get down to business.

I can say that GTA V is controversial, but that’s not news. Most of Rockstar’s games, since the release of the original GTA, have been blamed by the pseudo-moralists for everything from real world violence to slow death of western civilization due to the content that they put in their games. Well, the latter might be hyperbole at the moment, but let’s be realistic. It’s bound to happen. As the franchise has evolved, the cities have become more realistic and have taken on the tone of a more cinematic and satiric city simulation that happens to have a lot of crime. I will say, my favorite part of the satire is Weazel News, the game’s equivalent of Fox News, whose motto is now “Confirming your prejudices.” And when the games are on and hitting their stride the way the developers intended, there’s only one thing I can think. GTA V is the best Grand Theft Auto game ever.

GTA V screen

Mmm. That’s good satire.

Each game in the GTA series has had a bit of a different individual character theme while holding one overall theme that is lovingly critical of the American Dream. Namely, it has the courage to ask whether or not the dream is actually a good one. At least that’s my reading. Much like the previous games, GTA V has a story that follows criminals. However, much like in GTA III, when the series started getting a fully defined story, the playable characters aren’t really redeemable people.

This time around, rather than playing a single person in a large seemingly living world, players will have the ability to switch between three separate character with incredibly distinct personalities, abilities, and stats. Michael’s a former thief who faked his death and turned bitter suburban family man. His collision with Franklin, a former gangster turned up-and-coming thief with a bit of a chip on his shoulder since he was trying to go legitimate, draws him out of retirement. Then there’s Trevor, who is just generally insane. After the events of the prologue, he’s brought back into the picture after your first heist too. Depending on how much you pay attention to the story, you’ll notice all takes place in the first three or four hours of play. In my case, I was a little hung up on exploring so it took me about 11 hours to even get that far.

GTA V screen1

There’s just so much

Rockstar really outdid themselves with their idea of creating a massive living world. Though, not all is consistently good. Due to the sheer amount of time it takes to install GTA V and get in-game (first time you’ll play will take about 20-25 minutes to even get in game to start to play), it makes me wonder one thing. Why was a game this big and this ambitious not held off for one of the next-gen consoles? The only reason why I’m saying that is the fact that the next-gen Xbox and Playstation are both built precisely for what this game is while also supposedly allowing you to play while installing. Coupled with the large and highly detail living world, having GTA V as a next-gen title probably wouldn’t have dealt with framerate drops or texture popping when there’s either a ridiculous amount of action, something as simple and mundane as waking up or retrying a part of a mission.

To return to the idea of a living world, there’s one really random and interesting thing that happens with the game. Characters and the world just seem to go on with their lives whether you’re playing with them or not. They wander and work independently, though their paths in the story do converge in various different ways. In fact, unless the game is trolling me or my memory isn’t what it seems, characters just seem to go on with their lives whether or not you’re even playing the game. Each time I turned off the system to rest up for school and/or work after saving, when I returned to the game the playable characters were not only not where they were when I stopped playing, they also weren’t even in the same neighborhood or with the same car. If I’m noticing this correctly, it really does give credibility to the premise of a living world in the game.

I will say this. The biggest improvement is the driving. While the damage system for collisions and roll overs could use more work, the driving itself is one of the best driving systems I’ve ever seen in a game. It seems to factor in how terrain, weight of the vehicle, speed, traction, weight distribution, damage, suddenness of movement, obstacles and weather affects the drive. Again the damage system needs work. I mean if I get into a violent roll over down a mountain and only get slightly scuffed paint, which had happened, there’s something wrong. It needs work, but the driving for once is easily the best thing about the game for once. It just looks and feels more realistic than it had felt even in GTA IV.

GTA V screen2

The writing and characterization for the playable characters is remarkably complex, even outdoing level of complexity for Niko Bellic. For example, Michael is a former thief who is discontent with the way he’s seen America and the American dream go since his thieving days. It also doesn’t help matters that his wife is cheating, his son’s a bum and his daughter is pretty slutty. So he’s trying to deal both current domestic life and his urges to revert back to old criminal habits while seeing his life and his happiness go down the drain. Franklin is a former gang member who is trying to go legitimately successful, but as his boss at the start of the game says “You tell me what you want and I’ll explain to you very carefully why it cannot be.” And then there’s Trevor, one of Michael’s old crew mates. He’s the simplest of the three, but he’s pretty crazy at the same time. It really makes them come to life, which  borders on unsettling when it comes to some of the more violent plotlines in the game.

For example, one of the scenes in the game deals with torture. Unlike other games with scenes covering controversial topics (e.g. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with the “No Russian” level), GTA V gives you no options for skipping over such scenes outside of not advancing in the story and it gets pretty detailed. It doesn’t mean that it glorifies torture or anything like that. If anything, at least in my case, much like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, at best it makes you feel uncomfortable while at worst it’s terrifying to have that kind of control counter to what many anti-game crusaders might say.

That being said, GTA V also gives a massive map that’s already packed full of sights and activities. And much like the other GTA games, that world is your playground. While you could play through the storyline, pulls heists and commit random crimes. However, you could still do a lot of random other things whether it’s good, bad, fun or financially lucrative.

After your first job after meeting Lester, you can trade stocks. You can go play tennis or golf. You can get drunk, speaking of which drinking and driving in this game is terrifying due to how much control is hindered so there better not be any complaints about the glorification of DUIs. You can go scuba diving or parachuting. You can surf the web. You can join and use the satirized version of Facebook, simply called LifeInvader You can hunt. You can help random people in a multitude of different ways. For example, my first night playing, I got lost and happened to witness a purse snatching. I beat up the thief and was presented an option, either return the purse for an reward of some kind (which could include a stat boost) or keep it and gain the $400 within. Personally, I returned it. If you want it to be, it can be an almost entirely freeform experience.

Honestly, after playing the GTA V, I can see why Hideo Kojima admitted being depressed by just the gameplay trailer for GTA V due to the openness of the experience and the world. It is amazing, but in a weird way it’s also GTA V‘s greatest weakness and it’s the fact that it’s pretty directionless unless you strictly try to follow the story. It’s an activity overload bordering on epic levels of ridiculousness. And this is without the multiplayer component, GTA Online, even released yet, which is supposed to expand not only the map but the activities even more.

GTA V screen3

Back in the game

GTA V isn’t for everyone. It does have bits and pieces that might appeal to everyone, but overall it’s a game that’s made for two types of gamers. It’s made for adults who don’t necessarily need direction and for people who don’t have previous exposure to the GTA franchise. GTA V is the best entry point to the series, as aspects of all of the previous GTA games pop up in some way, whether it’s cameos or references and in terms of personality, world and presentation. It is just so complex. If you like your game worlds open and available for freeform exploration and play, get the GTA V. You won’t regret it.

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