Change is the name of the game in Grand Theft Auto V. In this thrilling video-game experience, Rockstar brings to fruition several of the gameplay mechanics that they have been evolving through the history of the franchise. What they manage here, while crass and overly violent, is another landmark testament to the argument for games as artform. As Michael de Santa, Franklin Clinton, or Trevor Phillips, Rockstar Games casts a spell on the player, and invites them into the insanely addictive Los Santos.
Having three protagonists is a decision that works on many levels, allowing Rockstar to subdivide mission types, with Trevor often taking the craziest obstacles head on. Michael De Santa is a frustrated middle-aged father in witness protection who yearns for a life of crime that came to an end after a botched job, acting as a surrogate throwback to Tommy Vercetti of the 80s themed Vice City, as well as Tarantino antiheroes; Franklin Clinton is an ambitious repo man who brings to mind CJ of San Andreas and is most enjoyable when interacting with Lamar “LD” Davis; finally, the demented Trevor Phillips of the burgeoning Trevor Phillips Inc. is introduced a few hours into the game in an overt tonal shift to insanity, killing the protagonist of the Lost and the Damned in his first of many vendettas.
Throughout the game, players can switch on the fly between perspectives, zooming out off the map and into a different character. When this happens, players will find their characters engaged in their day to day activities, whether taking a dog for a walk, washing a car, or in the case of Trevor Phillips, racing with a friend against traffic on the highway, or waking up in his underwear in a pigsty. Utilizing this tactic, Rockstar better builds bonds between player and character, without overwhelming the player with the sort of pointless subcharacter littering GTA IV that often became a nuisance or were discarded.
Every character is tied to their weapon loadout, and have unique special skills that can be activated on the fly, such as Franklin’s ability to slow down driving, allowing him to weave in and out of traffic, Michael’s Max Payne lite ability to slow time during gunfights, or Trevor, who can choose to go into rage mode, taking less damage and giving his shot’s the effectiveness of an explosive shell. Barbershops allow players to choose specific haircuts and facial hair, and shops throughout Los Santos sell various types of clothing in attractively redesigned functional interfaces. They are also tied to character-specific vehicles, and have extremely streamlined RPG mechanics, with the ability to improve driving, shooting, stamina, strength, lung capacity, and flying skills, as well as other factors. Players will come to empathize with all three protagonists, as they have uniquely specific dramatic story arcs that carry out across an easily 30 hour game. When online multiplayer is factored in, the replayability skyrockets into never ending.
As a reference point, the world of San Andreas is partially recreated in this title, as a tiny patch dwarfed in the staggering world map. Mountains loom far into the sky, tributaries lead into Oceans and bodies of water have depth, explorable in submersibles. Ecosystems are built and teaming with animals, that include swamps, vast deserts, urban and rural environments, day-night cycles, a fantastic weather system with a perfect implementation of lightning. Much of it feels hard earned, drawing from Rockstar’s experiences it titles such as the vast frontier simulation in Red Dead Redemption, or the excellent lived-in visual quality and gunplay of Max Payne 3. If one of the greatest aspirations of art is to perfectly mirror our world, then Rockstar defiantly holds up a mirror and challenges us to take a good hard look.
This title is the best of the Grand Theft Auto series, a series that came from humble beginnings as an open-world 2D isometric title on Playstation, evolved into a brilliant 3D open-world sandbox during the Playstation 2 era (GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas), until most recently when they entered a new generation of realism in the flawed but excellent return to Liberty City through the eyes of GTA IV’s slavic war veteran, Niko Bellic. And now this: a miraculous encapsulation of our world, staged with flair and moxy by a more than capable studio, Rockstar Games.
The world they have created is impeccable, mounted into a clockwork series of systems, that govern how pedestrians fill the spaces and the traffic flow on a highway. Stock markets can be invested in and taken advantage of by the player at various points, as they receive tips, or purposefully effect the market. One early Michael mission sees him break into the Facebook analogue, LifeInvader, in order to sabotage their stock for his associate, Lester, with disastrous results.
Cops react in their typical 5-star way to criminal actions, but the player is better able to evade thanks to an escalation system relying on field of vision. Enemy AI is wonderful, leading to epic chases on veering outdoor environments, pitched highway battles, or encounters with tanks via the military. GTA V better reflects our changing times, set firmly in the 2010s, with an economy reeling from financial devastation, prescient about changing mores on sex and drugs, exhibiting a profound lack of judgment in the subplots of Michael’s daughter, Traci, and her cinematic aspirations, or in the case of extreme personalities (i.e. Trevor Phillips) that nonetheless have undeniably human souls. As a testament to the sheer quality and variety of the experience, as soon as I finished the single player experience, I immediately restarted the campaign.
The introductory mission is immediately exciting, throwing players into the shoes of Michael and Trevor as they play out a bank robbery set years before the proper campaign. The new driving and shooting systems are explored, as is the ability to leap between different character vantage points. Rockstar Games initially teases the player that they will fall back into old patterns, with relatively tame repo missions that kick the plot into gear once Franklin comes into contact with Michael.
Taking him under his wing, Michael enlists the aid of Franklin in bringing down the house of Mexican druglord Martin Madrazo, after he mistakenly follows his wife’s cuckolding wedding instructor back there. However, this setup is merely a ruse to introduce the true meat of the campaign: getting heists together. Heists are ingeniously constructed and incredibly fulfilling, ranging in diversity. They are also wildly replayable, with multiple options on how to fulfill objectives, the ability to choose a crew based on different attributes including take percentage, plus the choice of setting up getaway vehicles and many other factors. While playing these heists, the game will organically shift between characters, allowing for an extremely varied ability to enact each heist. These multilayer missions are some of the best in any genre.
Missions are far more varied than in the last iteration, which tended to devolve into go to this location and shoot at these cipher enemies. Players will be asked to steal various special vehicles including a yellow submarine, chase after boats dangling family members as Michael, board and derail trains as Trevor only to pilot a boat as Michael while Trevor engages in a battle against helicopter and boats, fight against rival gangs as Franklin, drive motorbikes down empty sewage canals, rob banks, pilot helicopters and planes, don Call of Dutyesque armored suits to fight off tanks, and take on various duplicitous organizations. Perhaps the best mission in the game is when Michael forces a plane to land, switching to Trevor as he must follow the smoke trail of the downing plane, maneuvering down a twisting desert road on a motorbike. Hilariously, some missions force the player to do manual labor, such as moving cargo at a dockyard or acting as a janitor in order to get access to a well-guarded facility.
GTA V frequently leads the plot into outstanding set pieces, in which stakes are dramatically altered. The game never feels like it is coasting, but follows along at such a pace that the player is inevitably swept along, eager to experience more. Writing can lean on the outlandish towards the end, as Trevor and Michael’s discussions tend to dissolve into screaming matches, with Michael playing the voice of conscience in the trio.
If there is one mission that feels deeply morally wrong , it would be the level of implication in an unskippable interactive torture sequence that aspires to be a virtual Milgram’s prison experiment. The overall political nature of the sequence speaks to the inherent flawed humanity in everyone, especially indicting any country’s willingness to expand limits on interrogation practices, replete with an achievement that unlocks after the sequence is finished labeled “It’s legal!” Trevor also has some choice things to say about the subject as he forces the prisoner to flee the country.
Improvement has been made to all levels of the GTA experience, including the many side-missions which are incredibly fun and fully detailed, often taking you through escalating sequences of events that last all game long. Throughout Los Santos, the player will also have random encounters ranging from stopping a simple theft or being held up themselves, to actively providing getaway services for a bank robbery that unlocks Packie McCreary to use in a heist crew.
There are also fully feature games of tennis, golf, and darts that are well worth a round or two. Additionally, property can be purchased again, allowing players to unlock even more sub-missions for money. Rampages and assassinations return in clever new wrappers, while virtually every store you visit is filled with colorful clerks that offer a word or two of wit to help flesh out nameless attendants. As always, pedestrians have amusing conversations, in this case related to the vapidity of the Los Santos environment. After missions, side characters will often continue speaking, usually on the phone to someone else, and these conversations do a lot to fill in the world Rockstar has laboriously constructed. Virtual personality, Lazlo appears for the first time, brilliantly cast as an aging celebrity willing to trade in his cache for a hosting gig on an America’s Got Talent parody.
Franklin, Michael, and Trevor all have interests specific to them: Franklin is challenged to racing, extreme sports, towing missions, taking paparazzi photos, or missions with an old friend, the scene stealing Lamar Davis. Trevor is a part time hunter, taker of celebrity memorabilia, has a run in with minute men, engages in flight challenges, and gets into fights with basically everyone, starting with the Lost and Damned gang in a meth subplot reminiscent of Breaking Bad. Michael visits his psychiatrist, saves his family from various humiliations, attends flight school, and plays sports of all sorts. All will have hilarious encounters a character known as Barry, that lead to Martian and Clown shooter minigames.
By far the greatest accomplishment of this iteration, despite the overall high quality of the heist missions, is the recapturing of that uniquely GTA feeling of rolling around a city either alone or with brothers in crime, listening to an amazing soundtrack as while the sheer thrill the drive set your aspirations free. Exploring this world just feels fun and right, whereas GTA IV took an overall hit with their attempts at vehicular verisimilitude. Planes and helicopters have been modified with simulation style controls that are well worth mastering and are a joy to handle when understood.
Rockstar has taken to heart the concept of freedom in this entry, allowing for an astonishing variety of options. Every car can be modified at Pay ‘N’ Spray, from the engines, suspension, transmission, armor, bullet-proof tires, customizable colors, rims, and accessories. Cars are well modeled and rendered, with healthy sheens. Unlike in GTA IV, cars are no longer so fastidious, and can be easily mastered.
In fact everything about this game has been polished to a transcendent sheen. Everything works so much better than it ever has before, including the in-game cell phone, ranging is style from iFruit to a Windows or Blackberry facsimile, and instant access to email, texts, and the internet.
Shooting, thanks to Rockstar’s experience on Max Payne 3, feels better than it ever has before, and no longer requires the game to be played so strictly as a cover shooter. The player now has access to a hip firing mechanic. Aiming feels great, particularly with a bit of auto assist, allowing for easily replicable headshots. Weapons can be bought and modified with improved magazine size, various zoom scopes, color, grip, and flashlights at Ammu-nation, returning in an increasingly complex form replete with a shooting range.
Graphically the game is incredibly intricate, built off of Rockstar’s RAGE engine. Though the engine is several years old by now, it is hard to believe given the results they have achieved. Beautiful Vistas bloom and glisten with life, as animals leap about and inhabit the world. Mountain ranges and lakes fill the vast expanses, while the city of Los Santos is an intricate recreation of Los Angeles and a wonderfully realized urban environment. Unlike, the New York facsimile of New York City in IV, Los Santos feels varied, inventive, and expansive. Every area is sprinkled with detail, and there are few other comparable environments in gaming history, although Skyrim and the Mass Effect series come to mind.
On the audio side, sound design is excellent, whether involving the crumpled impacts of a car or helicopter onto objects littering the pavement or other cars, to the crackled oomph of gunfire, and in the yelps of coyotes, sound design is excellent. Voice acting is uniformly phenomenal, with Trevor often having the standout reactions to things. He is a bizarre nightmare of a man brought to life from the likes of Ralph Steadman illustrations. His is the most human and pitch black of souls.
The soundtrack is excellent, ranging in hits from the 80s, 90s and today. Talk options include voice acting from JB Smooth, Pam Grier, and Weasel News, updating upon mission progression to highlight the destructiveness of the latest caper. One country station, Rebel Rebel, is available only in the country. Other stations play hits by Snoop Dogg that wouldn’t be out of place in San Andreas, world music, indie, trance, pop hits, and much more. The incidental music is also excellent, highly memorable ditties that play to highlight particular missions, amping up just the right moods. Combined with a weather system that they take advantage of as well and they have constructed tools that allow them to fully control the tone of their world.
While Rockstar might have been hampered in their last installment, still figuring out how to best take advantage of next generation hardware/software, allowed missions to take a backseat to their astonishing tech. Now, like Trevor Phillips, they have been set loose. Writing is far better than Rockstar has been in years, although many characters, especially women are portrayed as sneering caricatures. Some of this can be read as Rockstar’s commentary on subjectivity, some implication of the LA lifestyle, and yet much of it feels undeniably misogynistic, with the possible exception of Trevor’s late game love interest. The plot twists and turns, and revisits the past to devastating effect, but at its heart it is about three men at the crucial turn of their lives: a chance to pull one last massive sequence of heists, and thwart the forces aligned against them. The script, again by Dan Houser, is at times deeply satirical, other times crass and urbane, and surprisingly laugh out loud funny, crackling with wit.
Although the series often finds itself in danger of veering too dark or cynical, when all is accounted for, Grand Theft Auto V has a deeply uplifting humanistic message about choice, human nature, and the ability to be what you want to be. Simply put, that message is don’t limit yourself. The game challenges you to push your digital body through foot and bike races, interactive yoga, and perform various insane acts that push the limits of human endurance. If there is something you want to do, do it. Rockstar cheekily inserts the message into a videogame, a source of entertainment that is driven by “pretending,” escapism of the ultimate kind.
Few games, or really, examples in any artform are able to perform to repeated and lofty expectations, much of spurred by Rockstar itself in a series of well produced trailers that promised unparalleled freedom and excellence, while teasing the possibilities of online multiplayer. And, although online heists have yet to be unveiled, Rockstar Games has more than surpassed even the loftiest standards. It might just be the game of the generation.
Grand Theft Auto V is slated to come to PC and Mac early next year, and expected on next-gen consoles. The next part of this review will cover the ambitious integration of Rockstar’s Social Club as well as the incredibly rich multiplayer.