Rockstar’s headline series ups the ante for open world titles, for the franchise- and maybe for video games in general.
Grand Theft Auto releases are marquee events for most gaming fans for a lot of different reasons. Some like the criminal element vibe that the series puts out, some like the action, some the freedom. Personally, I not only enjoy the games themselves (for the most part), but also greatly admire what Rockstar Games has continually tried to do with each successive title in the franchise. Not only has the company made a series that appeals to fans and critics alike, but they’ve also managed to push the envelope (for lack of a better term) in both the general (technical) makeup of these games and the ideas behind them. They seem to think big, and I like that.
That’s not to say that the end product is perfect though. I’ve played the heck out of some GTA’s and have also been completely turned off by a few. I doubt you could be a much bigger fan of Vice City or GTAIV than me for instance, and yet the ‘original’ title GTAIII isn’t one of my personal favorite games. Neither are the side stories that were released originally on the Sony PSP, or the expansion packs for Grand Theft Auto IV.
I don’t know if that means I’m of the ‘take it or leave it’ mentality about the series, or I’m just picky about what I like and don’t like in a game, but narrative is exceptionally important to me. And I don’t mean that it has to be anything complex, but it has to ‘click’ for me and can make or break an experience more than graphics can any day of the week. Basically, if a game has a strong narrative, I’ll probably find a decent deal of enjoyment in it.
With three main characters, you could argue that GTA5 is three different games all wrapped up in one, with three intertwining narratives- and you wouldn’t be too far off in that statement.
Things open up in spectacular fashion (and I do mean spectacular) with a bank robbery gone bad a decade before the main game begins. Somewhere in the frosty plains of middle America, a massive chase and shootout erupt between two of the main characters, Michael and Trevor, and a host of police. Things go from bad to worse here and then fade to black as the audience is left to wonder what exactly happened.
Fast-forward ten years and we have Michael once again, this time he’s in Los Santos (on the west coast) and in the office of a therapist. He’s retired and living the ‘good life’ which is fraught with problems all its own. He’s also miserable with every aspect of his life. As you play through some of his segments, it’s easy to see why as his family and circumstance leaves much to be desired. As Michael leaves the office and settles onto a beach-side bench, we meet Franklin.
A decent enough guy, Franklin is a young man who grew up with gang violence. It’s something he’d like to leave behind, which is not to say that he’s ready to walk the straight and narrow, it’s just that gang-banging for small time money isn’t too appealing to him. It isn’t till a while later that we run into Trevor and the complete insanity that is his life. He’s about as off-kilter and psychotic a character as the series has ever produced and a little bit hard to take at times. Of course, in typical Rockstar fashion, he’s also one of the funniest characters in the game and had me laughing between winces.
The writing is really good in GTA5 by the way. I had kind of thought that the game’s satirical bent might be getting a bit old from some opinion pieces I’ve seen, but that’s not the case. The banter between all three (and more) of the game’s main characters is mostly really funny and well scripted, as is the cast, which are all excellent in their parts. As I said, I was laughing out loud at some of Trevor’s segments in particular, although the great moments that GTA5 produces aren’t limited to just him.
Even passers-by and minor characters are terrifically put together. It’s not all that uncommon to drive down Vinewood Boulevard and hear two or three things from pedestrians that’ll elicit a chuckle. That’s not even mentioning the radio stations, all of which are great in their own right, and the Weasel News updates are flat-out great and mention stuff you just did (as all three characters) from the public’s perspective.
The control is very solid in Grand Theft Auto V as well. I had no trouble in firefights at all and moving through the gigantic world was easy as pie. If you’re looking for a massive upgrade in the vehicle handling though, look elsewhere. I still had a tough time traveling from one end of town to the other without smashing into a few things; something I was hoping the series would leave behind.
As far as what’s new, I really liked the new cell phone mechanics with the quick-save from the cell getting a big time thumbs up. Each character also has independent stats, level up separately and have different skill sets like Franklin’s awesome time-slowing ability when driving. That one element helped out immensely in too many instances to count.
Speaking of ‘driving’, I’m still looking for a fast-travel option in GTA. Driving across an ever-expanding world every time I need to go somewhere I’ve been a dozen times is starting to get just a tad aggravating. It bugged me in GTAIV, as much as I loved that game, but part 5’s Blain County is way bigger than Liberty City could have ever hoped to have been and the time spent simply going from here to there is noticeable.
Here’s something else that’s noticeable- open world affairs tend to sacrifice looks for freedom most of the time, but that’s as far from the case as you can get in GTA5. This game is gorgeous. It’s so close to next-gen that if you were to tell me it was running on an Xbox One or PS4, I would probably believe you (for a while at least).
GTA5’s world runs from the hillsides and relatively rural areas outside of Los Santos (Blain County), to the heart of the big city and the beachfront that helps make the real-world California such a special place. With all that variety in the visual style you might think that somewhere, something suffered, but it didn’t. All the various areas of Los Santos and beyond are flat out beautiful and super-detailed. It’s actually pretty easy to get caught up in the scenery and lose track of what you’re doing it looks so good. One of the pitfalls of the open world game for me has always been simply getting lost in the world and forgetting about the actual missions or quests- and that definitely happened here too.
Fortunately, the sheer amount of things to engage you as a player kept me on track. Missions in GTA5 aren’t of the cookie-cutter variety at pretty much at any time during the game and can run you all over the city doing any number of things. Planning heists is something that you probably already know is in the game, but you’ll also be towing cars, kidnapping gang members, running contraband and more. And I’m not even talking about all of the minor stuff that you can get into like the random events that pop up all around the city as you play. This is a massive game with lots to do.
That variety can be a little bit of a double-edged sword at times because it’s honestly somewhat daunting from a gameplay perspective. That’s not to say that it isn’t incredibly impressive though, because it is. GTA5 showcases the strengths of the franchise in some of the best possible ways and epitomizes its ‘go anywhere do anything’ attitude. Oh, and the entire play area is open to you from the start of the game by the way, did I mention that?
So in the end, what didn’t I like about Grand Theft Auto V?
Well, the characters weren’t as solid as Nico Bellic or as fun as Tommy Vercetti, and I did feel like the story itself jumped around a little too much for my tastes at times… Are these things in any way ‘big issues’ or problems? Not really. Moreover, both are more a case of personal preference than anything else, which I’ll openly acknowledge.
As far as Grand Theft Auto titles go, part 5 is a masterstroke. Actually, as far as games in general go, GTA5 is an instant classic that closes out a generation of game consoles in style and it’s a title that fans of the series and lovers of good video games should eat right up. I can’t wait to see what Rockstar has cooking for the next one.