Grand Theft Auto V
As we approach a new console generation, it’s interesting to look back at the bookends of the previous one. Specifically, compare 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III to 2004’s San Andreas. Look at the sheer difference in scope between the two games. When it first came out, GTA III‘s Liberty City was mind-boggling. Not even four years later, it could fit into one corner of San Andreas. That’s not even comparing the vast gulf in features between the two games – San Andreas has so much to do compared to III, it practically renders it obsolete. That situation is upon us again. Just barely closing out this generation is Grand Theft Auto V, a game that dwarfs its predecessor in every regard. Considering that GTA IV was actually an uncharacteristically restrained GTA game, the difference might even be bigger than last generation’s.
“A game that dwarfs its predecessor in every regard”It’s a game that we probably should have seen coming, too. In fact, looking at Rockstar’s portfolio as a whole this generation, each major component of GTA V‘s gameplay can be traced back to a different game. Starting with GTA IV‘s base game, there’s Midnight Club: Los Angeles – GTA V‘s driving is much tighter than IV‘s. There’s Red Dead Redemption‘s focus on creating a more dynamic world, with ambient events and smaller, character driven “strangers and freaks” missions (taken whole-cloth for GTA V, name and all). Then there’s Max Payne 3‘s slicker combat and more viciously detailed gunplay. Granted, all of these games came from different divisions of Rockstar – but it’s hard not to imagine the developers taking very detailed notes on these other projects. Hell, there’s even a tennis minigame in GTA V – although it’s not quite as good as Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis.
The sneakier test-bed, however, was GTA IV‘s two DLC expansions. Combined, those three campaigns told three stories winding in and out of one main plot, each from a different character’s perspective. This is the crown jewel of GTA V‘s list of new features: three protagonists at once. It’s actually not an insane idea at all – it’s not the first game in the world to feature different playable characters – but in practice, it’s incredibly clever. Most of what it brings to the table is flavor; each character represents a distinct culture in the game’s depiction of San Andreas, as well as representing different crime story archetypes.
“Each character represents a distinct culture in the game’s depiction of San Andreas”Franklin is a ambitious young gangster eager to rise out of petty neighborhood crime, Michael is mafia-film-favorite “just when I thought I was out…” crime genius, and Trevor is an unhinged-but-oddly-charming menace. None of these are particularly new or inspired character traits, but when forced to work together, they have excellent chemistry. There’s a rich history between Michael and Trevor, and some earnest bonding between Michael and Franklin, and, well… Trevor is Trevor. Somewhere, an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia writer is going to point to GTA V as proof that every team needs the brains, the muscle, and the wildcard.
This dynamic trio is the highlight of GTA V‘s writing, and each character is impeccably voiced. Their journeys as characters are great, too. While GTA IV‘s turn at a more introspective crime story is still admirable, this is far more nuanced. Perhaps it’s because the story has a more complex set of interactions at its core, as opposed to Niko’s fairly constant straight-man act to everyone else in Liberty City. The cutscenes are still a tad incongruous with the nature of the game, although at some point we’re just going to have to throw up our hands and admit that no action game is ever going to have a reasonable body count. While each character is at least called out for their violent tendencies in the script, it’s still a little amusing to walk into a cutscene centered around father-son bonding after accidentally rolling a car over seven pedestrians and a deer on the way to the house. That’s part of the genius of Trevor’s character, at least – he’s probably the closest thing to an earnest portrayal of what a real-life GTA protagonist would be like.
“This dynamic trio is the highlight of GTA V’s writing”Los Santos is equally as nuanced as its core characters, too. While Liberty City is still an impressive rendering of fictional New York, GTA V‘s Los Angeles-alike blows it out of the water. While there are the expected technical graphical improvements – the dynamic lighting is especially good – it also feels more artistically robust, both more diverse and more cohesive than GTA IV. While the previous game only covered a metropolitan area, V represents a downtown area and a huge chunk of the surrounding countryside. And desert. And mountains. And ocean. GTA IV, in retrospect, is often bemoaned as having not much to really explore; I doubt this will be the case with its sequel. It’s fitting that a return to the state of San Andreas means a return to San Andreas‘s ambitious sprawl.
GTA V also addresses another of the common complaints about its predecessor – namely, its grounded and restrained mission design. In keeping with its grimy underworld story, IV never really branches out from chasing guys, shooting guys, or chasing then shooting guys. While many (if not most) GTA V missions eventually end with guys getting chased and/or shot, there’s usually some far more compelling twist on the whole thing that makes it fun. Generally, it’s a cheekier adventure than Niko’s tale, with missions often having some amusing, satirical, or downright bizarre twists on the proceedings, or an unexpected payoff at the very least. Even the stranger & freak side missions are unpredictable.
“It’s a cheekier adventure than Niko’s tale”It helps that, in general, shooting and chasing bad (badder?) guys in GTA V is vastly improved from its progenitor. While IV‘s mechanics are a huge step up from San Andreas, it feels a little sluggish and simple. Combat in V is snappier, with more precise movement and a much better cover system. Weapons can also be customized to feature bigger magazines, flashlights, scopes, and other touches. The pool of weapons, in general, is massive in comparison. Michael and Trevor have combat-specific special abilities, too, which are always fun to take advantage of – Michael can channel his inner John Marston and slow down time while shooting, and Trevor can activate a rampage mode that makes him take less damage and dish out more. Melee combat is swifter as well, and far more impactful than anything previously.
Driving is what you’ll do the most of, though, and it’s received a similar overhaul. GTA IV‘s heavy, unruly handling is still controversial among fans, but returning to the PS2-era’s simple driving would have been too much of a step backwards. Rockstar compromised with V‘s driving model. It still feels heavily physics-driven, but cars are far more responsive than before. Driving feels more akin to an arcade-y racing game than IV‘s jalopy simulator. It at least still has a good deal of weight behind it (in case you’re wondering, Franklin’s special ability grants slow motion and even more control over the vehicle for a brief time, adding Akira-style taillight trails for good measure. It’s awesome), and it’s definitely an improvement overall.
“GTA V is massive, sometimes too massive for its own good”It’s difficult to really list everything that GTA V has to do. The story and its series of detailed heist gigs is long, for starters. Then there are the stranger & freak missions for each character, and the ambient events (“Damn, I’m such a hypocrite…” – Franklin, on returning a woman’s stolen purse), and the hunting, and the rampage missions (cleverly offloaded to resident psychopath Trevor), and the races, and car customization, and smuggling missions, and property management, and petty robberies, and… well, you get the picture. GTA V is massive, sometimes too massive for its own good. Did anyone ever ask for a tennis minigame? Probably not, but it’s there, because by god there are tennis courts in this city and you should be able to play tennis. Or, good lord, do yoga. Or hey, take a rip the bong on Franklin’s table. There’s an almost Shenmue-esque approach to detail. Any complaints about IV being relatively devoid of things to do were clearly taken to heart. In some ways, GTA V almost feels like a direct middle finger to IV‘s naysayers. By the time you unlock the ability to go to flight school, you’ll probably have driven cabs, competed at a gun range, and sunk $500 on a new horn for your car that plays the Mexican Hat Dance.
In fact, part of what makes the game so generally appealing is that, for the most part, it drops the nagging feeling of “good for an open world game.” Previous GTA games have ended up being accepted as more than the sum of their parts. There were better shooters in 2001, but none of them had the huge city and range of other gameplay modes that GTA III offered. San Andreas launched around the same time as games like Metal Gear Solid 3 and God of War, and there’s really no competition there, graphically. While there are some features that are still relatively throwaway – the aforementioned tennis minigame isn’t exactly competing with Virtua Tennis, and the games rank-up system that improves each character’s skill with weapons, driving and so on isn’t always as noticeable as you might hope – the core mechanics of movement, shooting, and driving are more than serviceable. Grand Theft Auto V is a good shooter and a good driving game with responsive character control. While some of the extras might be spread a little thin, there are no compromises with these central mechanics, which is a feat for a game of this breadth.
“It makes strides in both quantifiable content and more ephemeral improvements like atmosphere or immersion”This kitchen-sink approach also applies to GTA V‘s writing, which is a little bit of a double-edged sword. At its best, the game can swing from ’80s-movie heist antics to genuine character drama. At its worst, it flips between madcap humor and grim social commentary so fast the emotions kind of bleed into each other, at which point it somewhat fails to deliver on either. The characters and situations are sometimes just real enough to be genuinely uncomfortable, but then some silly joke will break that moment, and end up making things the wrong kind of uncomfortable. There are moments of misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence, and political commentary that aren’t quite cleverly satirical enough to really fly. Funnily enough, it’s Trevor who is involved in both the highest highs and the lowest lows of GTA V‘s satire. His character being who he is, his scenes walk the thinnest razor between expert portrayals of tasteless-but-pointed madness and just plain vileness. Still, while it doesn’t always stick the landing, the game at least delivers a more complex range of emotions than previous entries in the series.
What else is there to say? Lots, probably. It’s hard to describe how massive GTA V really is. It’s one of the first games in years that I’d consider a strategy guide valuable for, except for the fact that it might ruin some discoveries best made without help. What’s most admirable about GTA V is that it makes strides in both quantifiable content and more ephemeral improvements like atmosphere or immersion. There are tons of open world games these days, but there’s only one that quite captures the feeling of being in a city. Walking down the street, you can hear sports cars revving in the distance, or maybe see cops chasing a criminal that isn’t you. Climbing a hill in the countryside at night, you can see the lights of the city spread out in front of you. Then you get in a car and drive, and it feels good.
“Grand Theft Auto V looks better, sounds better, plays better, and feels better”It might be a little intangible to point to things like “the guns sound more like they’re there than they did in the last game,” but there’s no arguing with better shooting controls. It’s probably possible to argue for ages about which GTA actually had the best story, but it’s not hard to see the improvement between IV and V‘s missions. The only things here to remind us that we’re still playing on the same consoles are the framerate (which can take a slight dip during action sequences) and the jaggies, which obscure some of the game’s finer details in the distance.
Grand Theft Auto V looks better, sounds better, plays better, and feels better than Grand Theft Auto IV, running on the same engine on the same console. What will the next GTA look and play like? Perhaps more importantly: what will the GTA after that game look and play like?