Unashamedly ambitious, yet reassuringly inviting, welcome back to Los Santos in Rockstar North’s most immersive, genre-defining title to date.
It was all but inevitable that Grand Theft Auto V would be the best instalment of the storied franchise. Representing the culmination of Rockstar’s best work – namely the rural expanses and wildlife of Red Dead Redemption, the driving of Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and the gunplay of Max Payne 3 – the game offers players everything they could possibly want. Yet this isn’t what makes it so special. In the face of a stifling amount of hype, Rockstar mostly exceeds expectations by not only improving almost every element of the game’s mechanics and formula but by rewriting their own open-world rulebook. In a period where TV dramas have replaced movies as the medium for adults, Rockstar has put forward its boldest attempt yet to shatter conceptions of what videogames can achieve. And it is utterly phenomenal because of it.
Set in a satirical reimagining of Southern California, the game wholeheartedly delivers on the promise of a living, breathing world and is overwhelming in every possible sense. The bustle of city streets, pedestrian chatter, and the beautiful vistas are staggering in their own right, but serendipitous occurrences like stumbling across drug deals gone awry or the sun setting as you drive along mountain ranges bolster the experience immensely. It’s a world that dares you to explore, with random events and surprises in store everywhere you look. Words don’t do it justice; it has to be experienced in order to be understood. It is this warped and polarising reality that acts as safe haven and living hell for Grand Theft Auto V‘s biggest innovation since its change to 3D back in 2001: the game’s three protagonists.
Together, Michael (a retired bank robber), Franklin (an aspiring hustler), and Trevor (a maniacal meth producer who acts on impulse) are drawn together in an effort to survive the criminal underworld by plotting and executing a series of increasingly audacious heists. Following the exploits of three lead characters reinvigorates the gameplay by deviating from the traditional GTA formula of driving to X and destroying Y. By allowing players to switch between the three characters on the fly, you can effectively direct the action and play co-operatively with yourself. Rather than flying to a building, attacking the enemies inside, and then extracting the goods before fleeing, the player can now swap between all three antiheroes and perform these acts separately. You choose what action you want to participate in, and avoid what you least prefer. Rather than climbing twenty flights of stairs to reach a sniper’s nest, players can simply hop to one of the three and find them already set up and ready for action. There’s still a fair bit of driving to do – mainly as a consequence of the humongous size and detail of the game world – and the game is inherently focused on crime and violence, but the characters are so well written and funny that it will rarely (if ever) feel like a chore.
The character switching is also a stroke of genius in the sense that it alleviates the narrative disconnect of having an all-in-one antihero that’s everything for everybody. Hopping between the trio also is also a subtle way of peering into their individual psyches, whilst concurrently (at select moments) driving the story forward as well. When Trevor was preparing for a rival faction to arrive in the desert and take him out, I switched to Franklin only to find him tailing the assassins out of Los Santos, which started a mission before my every eyes. Outside of missions, you are free to switch whenever you wish, encouraging you to play as the characters in line with their personalities. If you want to run a triathlon, choose Michael. If you want to explore the hood, choose Franklin. And if you want to break into destructive rage, Trevor’s your man. No character is better than the other, but their individual skills complement varying styles of play. Whatever you can think of, it’s likely you can do.
Mission design has similarly witnessed a significant overhaul, with expected additions like mid-mission checkpoints being introduced, on top of an even more personalised and freeform approach to completing missions throughout the world. What was once a relatively simple task of driving to a spot on the map, robbing an armoured truck, and driving it to a lockup, is now a much more complicated and thrilling affair. In your ‘free time’, off mission, it’s up to you to acquire disguises like masks and outfits, selecting the team’s weapons, and stashing a nearby getaway vehicle, which in turn makes a flawless mission infinitely more rewarding. As missions are rated and can be replayed, you strive for excellence. By extension, the game’s signature heists amp up your creativity tenfold: do you go in smart, by disabling the security cameras, or go in loud and dumb by pointing a gun in the manager’s face? There’s even a factor of risk and reward, as you can hire guys to help your heist run smoothly – but the better they are, the more of a cut from the score they’ll take. The heists are easily a highlight, and the choice is yours – as are the drastic consequences.
There are opportunities aplenty for fun outside of chaos, with there being an even greater ‘Sim’ quality to life across the state of San Andreas. Extensive car, character, and weapon customisation; great minigames like tennis and golf; the largest selection of vehicles ever to grace GTA; scuba diving and underwater exploration via submarine; bounty hunting; and much more is all accounted for. You can even walk your friend’s dog, who helps find hidden packages and even chases enemies. The amount of content is staggering and almost entirely excellent, with it being your decision to indulge in activities.
On a more technical note, GTA V continues to astound. Whether it’s Michael’s stride, or how Franklin contextually scrambles to cover, fluid animations invariably rival the best in the business. Cutscenes bleed in and out of gameplay. Pop in is slight, if not unnoticeable. Terrific voice acting on the part of the hilarious ensemble cast as well as supplementary characters and pedestrians all serve to sell astonishing depth and authenticity to the world. Refinements to the wanted system also flaunt the game’s excellent AI, which is now based on line of sight. Thirty police officers hurtling towards you, with choppers overhead (despite you cowering under a bridge in a different car), are now a thing of the past.
The game does have its faults, with most deriving from its greatest improvement: mission variety. What had the potential to be Rockstar’s most gripping, nihilistic story yet occasionally flounders when players are tasked to perform odd jobs that reinforce how the trio lead separate lives, or to introduce crazy (but enjoyable) gameplay mechanics or moments. The lack of one clear goal to keep all three individuals motivated (unlike GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption) hurts the overall narrative. Likewise, the game’s unrivaled freedom which empowers players to experiment with how explosive or stealthy they wish to approach missions is undermined in rare instances when you are supposed to play a certain way. For instance, in an early mission I could either outrun my pursuers or switch to Franklin and engage them. In another, despite shooting enemies to no avail, I had to (unknowingly) trigger a set piece in order to progress. These are only minor quibbles, but they nonetheless stand out – if only because the experience is so stellar overall.
Grand Theft Auto V isn’t simply this generation’s crowning achievement; it confidently sets the gold standard for what is expected from the next generation. As rewarding as it is vast, consider this a compulsory purchase. In many ways, it was Rockstar’s own heist by committing so fully to the three-character structure – and their gamble has most definitely paid off.
Presentation: Breathtaking. Every bit of power is squeezed from the current-generation consoles. With regard to which version to get, the honest answer is whichever one your friends own. The differences between the two are negligible.
Entertainment: One can’t help but use hyperbole to explain the extent to which the game astounds from one moment to the next, both in and out of single-player missions. Sporadic lapses in narrative disturb an otherwise sublime experience.
Sound: With 240 licensed songs, including infectious pop, rock, rap and beyond, the variety is exhaustive. The original score is the real winner though, making late-night traversal feel haunting and gunfights unnervingly erratic.
Playability: The driving, the combat, and the AI are all better than ever, whilst character switching provides varied, frantic action and differing perspectives on the world and its populace alike.
Replay Value: Extremely high. In terms of its 16-player online functionality, GTA Online will be available on 1 October and is free for everyone who owns GTA V.