The biggest and the best
1,286SRP: £49.99The months since the announcement of Grand Theft Auto V have seen the mainstream games media plunge new depths of click-bait 'articles' in which 500 words of rejigged press releases are hastily vomited onto the internet for an increasingly frenzied public to consume. With the release of the game, the focus inevitably and legitimately shifts to an avalanche of analysis concerned with the game’s socio-political message, or lazy attacks on its supposed “corrosive effect” on our fragile adult minds.
All this noise can almost obscure the fact that there’s a game to be played. When we sit with a control pad in our hands and see the Rockstar logo scoot jovially onto the screen amidst a cacophony of wailing sirens, gunfire and shattering glass, all that matters is whether or not the game will deliver.
So let’s get this out of the way from the off: Grand Theft Auto V is a stunning achievement, and represents a spectacular last hurrah for the current generation of consoles.
The fictional city of Los Santos and its rural surrounds return as the setting for GTA V. First seen in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, this twisted recreation of Los Angeles is a natural home for Rockstar’s ruthlessly satirical brand of humour. Many of our favourite locations from GTA: SA return, but nine years is a long time in videogames and this is a world apart from the setting we knew and loved in 2004, both in concept and execution.
The earliest sections of the game take place entirely in Los Santos itself, a backdrop defined in part by poverty and gang culture, and in part by lavish living and the cult of celebrity.
We’re introduced to the darker side of the city through Franklin Clinton, the first of three protagonists. Franklin’s a drug dealer gone (mostly) straight, working as a repo man for a crooked car salesman. A bungled repossession in the well-to-do district of Rockford Hills leads to Franklin meeting Michael, a retired thief living on his wealth and teetering on the brink of mid-life crisis. Together they’re drawn back into a life of criminality but it’s not long before their antics catch the attention of Trevor, an old associate of Michael’s and possibly one of the most fundamentally amoral videogame characters created to date.
Through Trevor we get to see some more of what this awe-inspiring map has to offer. He lives out in Sandy Shores - a rural town in Blaine County - a setting totally unlike the bustle of the big city.
It’s possible to spend hours soaring over Los Santos marvelling at the diversity.
This is emphasised during a memorable drive to Los Santos as Trevor races down to find Michael, a journey which steadily reveals the variety of landscapes GTA V boasts, and recalls in a less dramatic way the atmospheric ride across the border in Red Dead Redemption. A pause as Trevor descends towards the city shows off Los Santos at night: streetlights and neon as far as the eye can see, with a central cluster of high rise office blocks imposing themselves on the horizon. It's stunning.
That sense of wonder returns once again when planes and helicopters become available. It’s possible to spend hours above Los Santos marvelling at the diversity. The atmosphere is boosted as ever by the myriad of radio stations available to listen to, which provide hour after hour of music, chat and adverts.
Considering the sheer scale and density of the world Rockstar have created, there are fewer graphical issues than could have been expected. The draw distance is consistently impressive by current-gen standards and although there are occasional pop-in issues they’re infrequent enough to not be too distracting.
GTA V breaks from tradition by telling its story through three protagonists, allowing you to switch between Franklin, Michael and Trevor at will. Each character has his own special ability: Michael’s is a Max Payne-esque bullet time, Franklin’s allows for improved car handling and Trevor’s reduces the damage he receives while increasing the damage he deals.
The differences don’t end there though, as each character has a range of stats that dictate how competent they are at shooting, flying, driving and so on. At the start of the game, Michael has excellent aim but makes for a poor pilot, while Franklin is a skilled driver but can’t shoot for toffee. These skills can be improved by spending time doing the activity (the more you fly the better you get at it), or through engaging in some of the activities littered around the city. A three set game of tennis will add significantly to your character’s strength, for example.
With a world as rich as GTA V’s, it can take some time to get around to focussing on the main campaign, but it’s here that the experience really shines. The repetitiveness that plagued huge chunks of the previous installments’ central stories is greatly reduced, although it’s still a little flabby around the middle and the ending is unfortunately a cobbled-together mess.
The character switching plays a crucial part in keeping proceedings interesting, particularly during the heist missions. Depending on how you choose to approach them, you’ll have a few smaller missions to complete before the heist itself. The heists typically involve intricate action sequences in which you need to quickly switch between all three characters as required to ensure success. There are unfortunately too few heists in the campaign, but they are undoubtedly the jewels in GTA V's crown.
It’s mind-boggling how much there is to do in the world Rockstar have created. Each character has his own unique side quests, which are similar to the standard mission types of previous games. It’s during these missions that the momentum dips slightly, by definition they’re incapable of delivering the depth and variety that switching between multiple characters provides. Still, many of the character-specific missions and side quests are a rich source of backstory or context, which adds value even if you spend at least part of the time hankering for the next big heist.
Money is all-important as always, and there are lots of ways to make it and spend it. There are a range of customisation options for cars and clothes and so on, but perhaps fewer than some may have hoped. Properties can once again be bought, and owned businesses occasionally need your help (reminiscent of the turf wars in GTA:SA). Playing the stock market can result in some serious wins, and it’s a clever touch that actions taken in the story missions will impact on the stock price of a company. So if you know you’re about to shoot the popular CEO of a company, you may want to invest in one of its competitors.
Random events make a welcome transition from Red Dead Redemption and help give the illusion of a living world. Generally they’re over very quickly, a petty crime is committed and you catch / maim / kill the perpetrator. But even these don’t exist in isolation: it was through one of these chance encounters that I met the woman who would end up an excellent getaway driver on a mission towards the end of the game.
Many aspects of the gameplay are fundamentally unchanged from GTA IV, but tweaked in a number of crucial areas. Finally checkpointing has been done properly, and it makes the world of difference. Gone are the days of needing to drive for five minutes to return to a mission you've already attempted ten times.
Driving is a little more forgiving than it was in the previous game, while still feeling more realistic than the wacky Saints Row. A staple of the series rightly consigned to the past is the way upside down cars would always explode, leading to a mad dash away from an upturned vehicle. It’s now possible to right a car that’s tipped upside down, which is particularly useful when you’re in the middle of nowhere with no other vehicles in sight.
Combat is improved overall too, with shooting now much snappier and a decent cover system in place. The usual range of weapons are available, from pistols to rockets, and it’s nice to finally have a GTA with a draw distance that extends comfortably beyond what can be seen through a sniper rifle’s scope.
Some annoyances have been introduced, however. The police might as well be psychic and are extremely difficult to lose. The shooting accuracy of the AI is far too good, and cars offer little defence against their bullets. And for my tired 33 year old brain and eyes, the tutorial text was frustratingly small and far too quick to disappear.
Entirely predictably, the release of a new GTA precedes a wave controversy and hypocritical tabloid outrage about Rockstar’s influence, and the broader relationship between videogames and society’s various ills.
If only GTA V were as black and white as the Daily Mail would have us believe. The truth is, getting under the skin of the characters and world Rockstar have created is a difficult job. This is partly because it’s a complex game that’s aiming to satirise the darker side of a complex society, and partly because the nature of the sandbox game means some degree of ludonarrative dissonance - or the story standing at odds with the gameplay - is almost unavoidable.
Franklin represents the classic rags-to-riches GTA protagonist, which in some ways makes him the most sympathetic of the three, but perhaps not to the extent Rockstar would like him to be: he is, after all, still a mass murderer (among other things). Michael can be thought of as being at the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s retired from crime, living a wealthy but empty life in a loveless marriage with teenage offspring who hate him, all the while steadily eating his way to an early heart attack. The parallels with Tony Soprano are obvious, but Michael has rejected his crime ‘family’ and his core conflict could be thought of as having arisen from breaking omertà.
In any case, these conflicted but potentially redemptive characters pave the way for the game’s real star: the psychopathic Trevor. Achingly funny at times and utterly unwatchable at others, Trevor is the most extreme playable character ever portrayed in a Rockstar game, perhaps any game ever. This is made possible because of the relative balance provided by Michael and Franklin, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of Trevor’s actions and attitudes.
The standout ‘Daily Mail’ moment in this regard is a particularly shocking and lengthy interactive scene, which highlights the difficulty of balancing satire and extreme violence. There’s an attempt at humour in there, but it’s misjudged. It doesn’t balance out the acts the player is forced to commit, and neither does the subsequent conversation on the nature of such violent deeds say anything meaningful on the subject.
What’s concerning isn’t that the views expressed in GTA might influence some people's attitudes, it’s knowing that they reflect some people’s attitudes.
The usual issues around race, class and gender rear their heads again, too. The misogynistic vein that runs throughout the game is impossible to ignore. Every woman in the game is stupid, pathetic, or stupidly pathetic, an approach to half the population that wears very thin, very quickly.
Now we all know GTA isn’t going to turn a well balanced adult into a murderous, misogynistic maniac. What’s concerning isn’t that the views expressed in GTA might influence some people's attitudes, it’s knowing that they reflect some people’s attitudes. The realisation that some players will revel unironically in the violence, treatment of women and so on, is deeply unsettling.
But it would be unfair to point to those issues without commenting on what GTA V satirises well. The relentless attack on the twin cults of Facebook and Apple are heavy-handed, but consistently amusing nonetheless. Adverts are a fantastic source of subtly crude comedy throughout, like the billboard for a watchmaker with the slogan, “Strap on time”. For better or worse, it’s that level of humour that’s always been at the heart of GTA, and I for one wouldn’t like to see it compromised.
Ultimately, it's right to accept there are issues in the game's politics, but it's impossible to deny what Rockstar have achieved. GTA V is a breathless, action packed experience that blends superb gameplay, an interesting narrative and solid characterisation, all in an open world environment. Unmissable.
Grand Theft Auto V Single Player Xbox 360 Review
GTA V is the biggest and best open world game released to date. The visually stunning environment that Rockstar have created is a joy to spend time in and to explore. The ability to switch between three protagonists at will is a masterstroke that provides a solid foundation for the story and characters to build on.
With seemingly so much to say, Rockstar don't always hit the mark with their humour or satire, and a certain amount of criticism is justified. But that doesn't undermine the fact that GTA V is a rare gem of a gaming experience, and one that shouldn't be missed.
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