What truly makes a game special? For some it can be the story, while others purely care about gameplay. Every person has their own preferred aspect of gaming, with some — myself included — having different qualifiers restricted by genre. Often times it is the story that sells a game — which can be explained by my personal affection for the works of BioWare — something that may not have seemed likely when I started my gaming career 20+ years ago. Ultimately, in the land of the open-world sandbox games that special ‘touch’ comes down to the games’ attention to detail; the nuances that make a game more than a game. In the end this is just another side of the story coin, something that Rockstar Games is all too familiar with.
Last week Rockstar released their insanely anticipated follow-up to 2008 through 2009’s Grand Theft Auto IV, and let’s just be honest up front: you’re probably already playing it. The game is doing phenomenally well, which sadly diminishes my job as a reviewer in this instance, as why review something that nearly everyone is playing? This ultimately is the burden of not receiving review copies of games as large as Grand Theft Auto V ahead of time, as the game is so massive that one simply cannot play it all within 48 hours to get a decent review out. Hell, in the first 98 hours of the game’s release I had played 56 hours of GTA V, and it was another 12 real life hours (maybe 3-5 played hours) before I had completed the main story. I’m now fast approaching 75 hours of played time before Grand Theft Auto Online has even released, and I see no end to the tunnel in sight.
Now, you’re not here to listen to me bitch about the politics involved in reviewing games ahead of time; you’re here to read some thoughts on GTA V:
Three Man Army
Grand Theft Auto V at its heart is a tale akin to most GTA narratives. You play a gangster-type character with little-to-no aversion to maiming and murdering people, that is working their way up in the world by doing jobs that would make most of us collapse into a heap of sadness and fear in the real world. Now, GTA V takes this formula, but tears it apart, creating three separate protagonists of sorts; each representing a different kind of player, while being a gentle homage to a prior GTA main character.
Franklin is the first person we truly get to play as, ignoring the prologue which is more of a tutorial and intro to the world, and ultimately he is meant to appeal to the driver/explorer-type of gamer. Most of his early-game missions are driving based — which works well with his special ‘boost’ ability that allows him to slow time while driving — while his character is focused around being a carjacker trying to work his way out of the low-class areas of Los Santos. For many reasons, above just race, Franklin is reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ protagonist CJ. Both characters were trying to better themselves as individuals, distancing themselves from their families as they tried to get out of the ghetto for the ultimate purpose of bettering themselves. Hell, Franklin lives down the street (in an alternate universe) from CJ, which in of itself is worthy of note.
Michael De Santa
The consummate professional thief (retired), Michael is the amalgamation of many other GTA main characters; showing bits of both Tommy Vercetti (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) and Toni Cipriani (Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories). Michael is representative of the player that focuses on the story in GTA, as most of the events of this world focus around his actions. Without going into spoilers, it is Michael’s actions that lead to him befriending Franklin and Trevor joining the ‘party’ as well. Michael brings in just about every major character to the story, while still having an entire family life that you can opt to manage and work with. Story is the name of the game for the man in front of the heists in GTA V, which is part of why Rockstar likely made him the front-runner for introduction at the game’s announcement.
How does one even begin to describe Trevor Phillips? That question is not rhetorical; I seriously have no clue. The man has the most in common with Tommy Vercetti’s penchant for insanity and violence, but he is beyond his own living, breathing character. Trevor speaks more to the type of player who enjoys racing into oncoming traffic, flying through the windshield, before landing and opening fire on a group of pedestrians with a minigun. He is the character that most of us become when we lose our temper during a difficult mission, or have simply had a rough day at work. While creating wanton carnage is the territory of all characters in GTA V, it is truly Trevor that relishes in it. Plus, let’s be fair here, the man looks amazing in woman’s lingerie.
Three’s Not a Crowd
The question on most people’s minds when GTA V was formally announced, was how were we going to play as three separate characters in a game such as this? The answer, not surprisingly, is fairly well. During missions you’ll usually be restricted to a single character, until running across a point where the game tells you to click down on the directional pad, so that you can do something like taking control of a sniper rifle to eliminate a target for another person. Other times the game will abruptly force you to take on another character simply because the story dictates the switch. Then there are the missions where you’re in an all out firefight being given the option of whom to play as freely. You can switch between Franklin, Trevor, and Michael to take advantage of their unique skill sets or vantage points depending on the mission, while exploring any options open to you. There are even some missions that play out differently (minorly) depending on who you’re playing as; usually these take on a race where you choose which character you want to play as.
Cutscenes also change based on who you’re playing as when they start. Oftentimes the player is given a mission that can be started by either two or even all three characters; a choice that doesn’t initially seem like much of a choice. However, the first time you drive to a location as Trevor and walk in midway through a conversation between Michael and Franklin, you’ll suddenly realize that it takes on a whole new meaning. Now, this may sound like an obnoxious thing, removing story for you, but truthfully it’s one of the coolest things as it adds that previously mentioned nuance to the world. Most players will become fond of one character over the others, which will cause them to likely play them more; starting missions with them more often. It makes perfect sense that Trevor wouldn’t see the entire story from his perspective, which means the player wouldn’t either. It takes some getting used to, but it adds an interesting element to the game, plus grows out the re-playability.
Building a Better San Andreas
San Andreas, the fictional representation of California, is bigger and better than ever in this outing of Grand Theft Auto. Arguably there has never been a bigger, more realistic world in video games. No, I’m not talking about the visuals of the world here — which are vastly improved over Grand Theft Auto IV’s dark, dreary landscape — instead I’m looking at the people in the world, and how it is put together. Walking the streets it feels like you’re walking in a real world, one where not everything is about you. This becomes evident immediately the first time you hear police sirens, your eyes glancing to the ‘wanted meter’ and noticing you have zero stars, before watching a car plow through an intersection, cops hot on their trail. The criminals hop out of their car as a shootout starts in the streets. A stray bullet fires off, killing a nearby gang member, which brings a whole new group into the mix. The carnage in the streets grows as more people get caught in the crossfire, as pedestrians trying to get to work slam on the brakes before plowing into the hostile intersection. Meanwhile you and the other surrounding people simply stand at a distance snapping pictures on phones to upload to Snapmatic (the game’s version of Instagram).
The above was something I experienced very early on in Grand Theft Auto V and it set the tone for the world I was living in. This was a living, breathing world where anything truly could happen. From a car chase gone awry to interactions with people of all classes, sizes, and personalities, the game delivers on a world that itself is the true story.
Thievery in the City
The focus of the GTA V narrative is the art of theft and pulling off the perfect heist. Rockstar took the most popular mission of GTA IV “Three Leaf Clover” and made it an integral part of the follow-ups narrative. Heists allow you to recruit a crew and choose how you want to go about accomplishing the task; something that had me the most hyped up of anything else during preview time. These are by and far the best sections of the game as they cause you to question your choices of who you brought along, or how something may have gone differently if you chose a different route. The issue, if there is one, is that there are only roughly 3-4 heists in the entire game. Now, having an excessive amount of these as full-length mission may have become cumbersome and diminished the experience, but it becomes frustrating when the best aspect of gameplay is seen in such a limited capacity. Personally, I would love if at the end of the game you could put together randomized heists as an additional source of income, above the semi-random stock market. It wouldn’t be the full experience of pulling the perfect heist, of which the final heist mission ranks among the best things is gaming ever, but it would give players an opportunity to pursue a new ‘career’ in their games. For that we’ll probably have to wait until a likely DLC announcement down the road.
One topic not addressed in detail during this review thus far is the game’s actual story; which is odd since that is typically my focus in all reviews. The simple truth is that Grand Theft Auto V, while having an enjoyable narrative, does not have the phenomenal story one expects from a Rockstar title. In a world where games like Grand Theft Auto IV and most importantly Red Dead Redemption exist, GTA V simply comes across as lackluster. Elements of characters’ stories are alluded too early on, before being cast aside and forgotten until the ending of the game; then only being addressed almost in passing. While elements of the main story work well, they mostly just come across as a series of heist movies strung together as a box office film franchise.
Honestly, while this may sound negative, it’s not meant to be. We’re given one of the best heist stories in either film or gaming, which is nothing to complain about. The simple fact is that as a long time fan of Rockstar I simply expected more, with perhaps more closure on some elements.
Ultimately, Rockstar Games pulls off something absolutely astounding with Grand Theft Auto V as they weave together one of the best games of this generation, with entire other games inside it, and give us an enjoyable, albeit not perfect story. If my graphic artist had taken the time to construct for me a ‘bushel of bananas’ graphic I would likely bestow in Grand Theft Auto V immediately upon completion. Alas, that is not the case today:
5 out of 5 bananas
Grand Theft Auto V is a bloody masterpiece that everyone should play. If you’re looking for more thoughts, or to hear some stories of what we’ve seen while playing, check out today’s Constantly Calibrating; it’s loaded with meth-fueled (not real life) stories that are good for the soul.