Grand Theft Auto V
Back when Grand Theft Auto V was originally released, it seemed as if it was milking the very last drops of power out of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Los Santos made the dingy, depressing world of Grand Theft Auto IV feel obsolete by comparison; it was a return to the overstuffed and uninhibited game worlds of Vice City and San Andreas. A running line of cynicism before GTAV‘s original release was questioning why Rockstar didn’t just wait until the new consoles were released – after all, the PS4 hit shelves only two months after GTAV. Of course, anyone who played the game discovered the answer: Rockstar didn’t need to wait. They had worked some sort of dark magic on the aged seventh generation consoles.
Much like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, though, it was obvious that GTAV could benefit from a facelift on a more powerful platform. The already excellent graphics are really given a chance to shine at native 1080p on PS4, and the framerate no longer buckles under constant stress. While it’s obvious that the game originated on older hardware, seeing everything in crisper detail goes a long way towards making the whole game look fresh. There are a host of small improvements across the game that perceptive players will instantly appreciate – for example, the improved texture work and lighting on Michael’s face during the game’s early scenes with the therapist. Textures all over the game have been improved, in fact, as well as brand new rain effects that leave shimmering puddles across roads and terrain. Flora and fauna are more abundant in the game’s northern wilderness areas, too. It’s clear that lot of work went into all this, but many of these improvements are subtle tweaks that are more likely to stick out when comparing this new release to the original. The new graphics strictly adhere to the original game’s art direction, meaning that people coming back to the game will likely find things looking just as they remembered. Looking back to the PS3 and 360 versions, however, it’s obvious that just rendering the game at a higher resolution and calling it a day wouldn’t cut it. These small changes to textures, lighting, and detail are an indispensable layer of polish.
The most obvious change is the addition of a first-person camera. Here, the changes are immediately obvious – there are new animations for virtually every action in the game, from obvious things like driving and shooting to smaller touches like smoking, adjusting hats, and flipping the bird. It’s a bit of a shock to play the game from this perspective; most missions feel entirely new, and it’s easy to find yourself admiring some small object you may never have even noticed with the camera pulled further back. It’s a seemingly small addition that almost entirely changes the feel of the game. When I originally played GTAV, I treated cars as battering rams; in first-person, I find myself driving more carefully, approaching corners the same way I would in a game like Forza Horizon. It’s also surreal and unnerving seeing combat from this view at first. While it’s not like GTAV is any more graphic than your typical M-rated action game, the third-person view obscures the incredibly detailed expressions of horror and pain many characters in the world express while being attacked. Gleeful crime sprees feel a whole lot less gleeful from your character’s eyes, and in fact, it made me feel more inclined to play the characters rather than just goof around. While playing in first person – which I did for most of this playthrough – I would do my best to avoid crashes while driving, and avoid hurting anyone who wasn’t directly involved in the story. Of course, not everyone will have a reaction like this, but many players will find the first-person view intense and game-changing. I imagine somebody on a Rockstar design team somewhere will be taking notes on how much of a successful emotional impact the camera shift will have on players.
From a more technical point of view, first-person is also mostly successful. Unlike a typical first-person shooter, GTAV‘s view still gives priority to the character’s physical body, meaning that actually moving around in the world feels exactly the same as it does when controlling from third-person. GTAV has the typical weighty feel to it that Rockstar games have had since their Euphoria physics-based animations made their debut last generation, so running around in first-person is occasionally awkward. Turning can often feel slow, since the camera won’t move further than the character’s head physically can. It can sometimes feel like you’re getting caught on invisible restraints, but once you get used to how characters move, moments like these become less frustrating. It’s obvious that the game’s missions were originally designed for a much wider camera angle, but surprisingly there aren’t too many moments in the game that feel poorly laid out for the more intimate view. While shooting, the game still locks onto enemies (by default, at least) when initially aiming, and cover works surprisingly well, apart from on small corners (which I found a bit finicky). Luckily, the mode is incredibly customizable, with options for changing field of view, lock-on behavior, and forcing the camera into third-person while in cover.
Seeing the immensely detailed world of Los Santos is a trip in first-person, even if it shows some of the texture and model work a little closer than originally intended. Even if it gets you closer to otherwise hidden blemishes, it also re-frames the whole game world, making it fascinating to explore all over again. I do wonder if people playing for the first time will opt for third-person or first-person view – while it’s clear that the original view is what the game was initially designed around, first-person potentially has a more nebulous something that many players will appreciate. Either way, there’s no wrong choice.
Not much else has changed. GTAV is still the excellent game it was a year ago, with the same staggering breadth of content and entertaining character-switching mechanics. The story is still a fun ride, although its wild tonal shifts are still occasionally off-putting, and it’s surprising how dated some of the more targeted hot-button humor (hipsters! Apple products! Facebook!) already feels a year later. All three characters have their charms – Michael as the Sopranos-esque family man, Trevor as the powder-keg redneck, and Franklin as the no-nonsense, determined gangster – that tie a trio of crime movie genres together into one massive script. It’s definitely bloated, and not all of the humor plays, but it’s at the very least a great vehicle for a huge amount of mission variety.
Likewise, the multiplayer holds up just as well. When GTAV originally shipped, GTA Online wasn’t available, and while it had a troubled launch (and still lacks the heists originally touted as a feature) it morphed into an incredibly popular multiplayer game. That’s unlikely to change for this release – provided the game launches smoothly, there’ll be a lot to dig into. Characters can be transferred from previous versions, and the new release features a revamped character creator that provides a much better platform for designing an online crook. The bizarre heritage system – where two “parent” characters provide a base look for your own – is still in place, but there are tons of tweaks to be made to virtually every aspect of a character’s appearance. The multiplayer will take a life of its own eventually, as it did on PS3 and 360, but suffice to say that it feels far more fleshed out than the modes in GTAIV or Red Dead Redemption, and should keep those inclined entertained for just as long as it has on previous-generation consoles. Fingers crossed that the recent re-confirmation of heists means we’ll be seeing them soon, however.
Normally this is where I’d make a cynical crack about how sad it is that one of the best games available this year is a remake of one from last year, but that’s really not as bad as it sounds. A spit-shined re-release of one of the most ambitious games of last generation is nothing to be flip about, especially with just how polished this version feels. I only ran into two noticeable bugs in my playthrough: – one involving a cutscene where a door stayed shut (complete with characters amusingly walking right through solid wood) and another error where the entire world disappeared for a moment in first-person, before switching through camera views corrected the problem. Bizarre one-off moments like this are drops in the bucket, considering the glitches we’ve seen in countless Rockstar games past. GTAV on PS4 feels like a game given room to breathe, room to look good without making the PS3’s poor fans scream. It’s also thrilling that Rockstar saw it as an opportunity to experiment. The first-person view isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting that such a huge feature (incidentally, a feature that was previously a popular mod for the PC version of GTAIV) would get a testbed like this. This latest release of GTAV provides the best experience possible for a familiar game, and also includes an experimental feature that has the potential to flip the whole game on its head. How cool is that?