GTA V – Review

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Available On: Xbox 360 and PS3
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Take-Two
Singleplayer: yes
Multiplayer: yes (available on October 1st)
PEGI: 18+

Regardless of the words I type, of those spoken in a video or written by a professional critic, you’ve already played Grand Theft Auto V. Simply said the reviews never mattered for Rockstar’s latest epic, because millions and millions of people would nonetheless purchase it. Like Halo, Gears of War, Uncharted and Call of Duty Grand Theft Auto is nearly bullet proof because of its name. Countless reviews are splattered across the internet already, and in so many of them I’ve noticed a worrying trend in which they do nothing but praise the game while never touching upon any of the flaws, treating it with a godlike status simply because of the name of the box. So, grab a coffee, kids, this is going to be a long review, because Grand Theft Auto V does have flaws, and is a masterpiece nonetheless.

Rather than going down the more traditional route of having a single protagonist who is surrounded by a cast of support characters, Rockstar have chosen to instead  have three main characters who share the spotlight equally, a move which proves to be brilliant for several reasons. The first character on the roster is Michael De Santa, a retired bank robber and all-round brilliant thief. Having hung up the boots Michael now lives in a big house watching old movies with his unfaithful wife and completely idiotic children, and hating every single moment of it. He attends thereby to try to deal with his own self-hatred, all while secretly missing the good old days in which he never had to try to fit into normal society. It’s not long before Michael meets street hustler Franklin, a street kid born and raised in the hood looking for a way out. While Michael offers some interesting new story elements to the GTA franchise and a seemingly never-ending supply of sarcasm, Franklin is the more traditional character template, reminding me considerably of CJ from GTA: San Andreas. The final cog in the machine is Michael’s old partner in crime Trevor, a deranged lunatic and possibly one of the most enjoyably dark yet hilarious characters to have ever been written. He’s the kind of guy who’ll run down pedestrians with nary a thought, mug hikers on a mountain, shoot people for simply breathing and cause carnage simply because he wants to. Deliberately or not he almost feels like a personification of your average Grand Theft Auto player – just like the player Trevor is a somebody that revels in the freedom to cause chaos, and yet he sometimes comes out with the most unnerving observations about the world and has some of the best lines in the game.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor.

Michael, Franklin and Trevor.

Having three main protagonists quickly proves itself to be a fantastic idea, both for the narrative and for the gameplay. With three characters to choose from at any given time Rockstar are able to continuously mix up themes and ideas based, and therefore keep a nice pace to the story throughout. My only regret is that this seems to have come at the cost of character development: the Michael, Trevor and Franklin at the end of the game of are almost exactly the same people that they were at the start of the game, and some things go unresolved or explored, such as Franklin’s loss of his friends and he moves up in the world and tries to escape the life he was born into. There’s plenty of room for an interesting story arc for Franklin, and likewise for Michael with his own self-loathing, family problems, thereby and joy of the heist game, but Rockstar never delve into these, and that’s a shame as they miss a prime opportunity to flesh out their personalities further and provide a little more substance to these otherwise fairly shallow crooks.

It’s important to realise that Michael, Franklin and Trevor aren’t likable characters, nor that they were ever written to be. Though they show infrequent glimmers of goodness, of warped morality and the potential to do the right thing, they are stone-cold killers and criminals, and their actions throughout the game make this very clear. It’s understandable, then, that many players can’t relate to them, and have struggled to enjoy the game because of this. But personally I find characters like this fascinating to watch. The overall plot of GTA V isn’t all that strong, and is fairly predictable in the directions it takes, although along the way Rockstar to tackle a variety of subjects including torture, materialism, government control, corruption, greed and almost every major problem with today’s society in their usual satirical and fun way, but the real enjoyment comes from the interaction between the three main characters, from their strange relationship. They are, for the most part, well-written and wonderfully acted, and so even though they are exaggerated they feel like believable people. More importantly by introducing characters that are clearly on the darker side of the morality line Rockstar have avoided the disconnect between Nico Bellic’s cutscene personality and his in-game action that plagued the last game. This is a story about horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people.

My arse did indeed look big in those pants.

My arse did indeed look big in those pants.

From a gameplay perspective Rockstar use the three characters well, shifting control to each of them in order to keep a quick-fire pace to the missions and present a variety of gameplay types  to keep you on your toes. A prime example comes when you play as Michael rappelling down the side of the building. Once you reach your target you smash through the window you find yourself in an intense gunfight with several men while trying to grab your prospective victim. You land a few headshots and the action shifts to Franklin sitting with a sniper rifle across the road  providing covering fire for Michael, mowing down fools with well placed shots. Again, the action shifts perspective and now you’re Trevor piloting the getaway chopper. This is just one example, and there’s plenty more brilliant missions that make great use of this mechanic to ensure that you’re never bored.

And what a variety of missions there are. Even if you choose to stick solely with the primary storyline missions you’ll be offered a cornucopia of gameplay types to keep you interested. Of course driving and shooting are still at the core of the series so a lot of your time is spent in gunfights or escaping from the cops while sliding around corners, but you’ll also find yourself beating up celebrities, escaping on jet skis, piloting helicopters, stealing submarines, using submarines to explore the depths of the sea, flying massive transport aircraft, tailing people and even trying your hand at some stealth. Because the GTA games don’t focus on one or two specific times of gameplay not everything is as polished or works as well as you could hope for in a perfect world, but considering how much variety there is in the melting pot it’s hard to complain and you’ll never be left feeling bored, except on a few missions where I would say the structure or design wasn’t up to snuff, or during some rare occasions you’ve got to spend ten minutes driving to a location. More impressively Rockstar tie all of these crazy missions together well so that going from intense gunfights to bat-shit barmy rarely feels jarring or out of place.

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Outside of missions you’re able to freely swap between Michael, Trevor and Franklin, eliminating the problem previous GTA games faced of players being forced to trudge for miles on end should they find themselves in a remote location at the end of a mission of because their ride blew up. Now, you can simply hold down a button and swap to another character, getting you straight back into the action. In a neat touch when you swap to one of the three crooks you’ll often find them in a variety of odd situations. One time I swapped to Trevor only to find him waking up from a drunken stupor on a beach, dressed in naught but his horrifying pants, while another time I swapped to Franklin who was staggering out of a medical marijuana shop. Perhaps my favorite It’s a small detail, but gives you the impression that these characters go on existing and living, regardless of whether you’re controlling them. Each of the characters also have their own money, clothes and weapons, and for the first time ever they’ve also each got their own specific vehicle. I found myself naturally tuning into certain radio channels, dressing certain ways and behaving certain ways whenever I swapped to a different character.

While the many diversions and interesting missions are great fun the real focus of the game is the much-hyped heists, elaborate plans devised by the three main characters and their planning guru Lester to rob various places, starting with a jewelry store and getting bigger from there. Oddly these end up being both the most disappointing aspect of GTA V thanks to Rockstar over-hyping the amount of player choice would be involved, while at the same time being the most exciting and enjoyable sections within the entirety of the game.

Is this too subtle a hint that Trevor is evil? No. No, it is not.

Is this too subtle a hint that Trevor is evil? No. No, it is not.

Why disappointing? In the build-up to the game’s launch Rockstar made it seem like the player would be involved in every aspect of setting up a heist, allowing them to plan it intricately from start to finish, when in reality your control over the plan is fairly limited. But lets delve into the details. After casing your potential score Lester presents you with his findings, detailing the security systems and potential weaknesses before asking you to choose between one of two plans of attack, which usually boil down to taking the more subtle approach or going in the direct and messy way. The initial jewelry heist is the best example of the sort of choices the game offers: you can either storm the place with guns, or you can get yourself some handy sleeping gas and drop it into the ventilation system. Whichever way you choose the next step is to select a crew, and here a thin layer of strategy is introduced: picking a skilled crew member improves your chances of doing well during the mission, but they’ll want a bigger cut of the total score in return for their services, while  taking a less skilled person costs less but may result in some of the total profits being lost due to ineptitude. However, crew members gain a 25% increase in skills for every completed heist. Once you’ve picked out a crew you need to take on a series of preparation missions which involve doing things like picking out a getaway car or stealing certain equipment that you’ll need, like disguises or weapons. Once you’ve done that it’s time to execute the heists, and god damn are they fun! A highlight is robbing a bank while wearing heavy armor and wielding a mini-gun. Pulling together a successful heist feels glorious, and losing a crew member of chunk of cash feels like it was your fault for not doing it better.

So, once again we come back to why I’m a little disappointed, and the simple truth is that it’s because as good as the heists are, they could have been better. There’s only six heists in the game, and while that may sound like enough given the length and scope of the game it really feels like there needed to be more, especially since those fabled big scores that earn lots of cash are nearly non-existent. A few optional heists would have been most welcome The crew members you pick are just faceless goons, so really you’re doing nothing more than choosing between some numbers. I also became frustrated by the fact that certain crew members are seemingly scripted to die or lose you a chunk of cash: in the very first heist the cheap gunman would always crash his bike. While hiring a crew I had decided against the expensive gunman as I was going in quiet, so it annoyed me that something unforseen like this could cost me so much money. Surely, I feel, picking a cheaper crew member should mean a higher chance of failure for them, rather than scripted failure? I fully admit that I may be wrong about the scripting, but it certainly seems to be the case Other frustrations include the fact that for half of the heists you don’t get paid, leaving a sour taste in my mouth, and in several of them you can’t pick an approach or even a crew. Side missions let you gain access to new crew members, but what’s the point when I barely get a chance to use them? And why bother spending a heist or two levelling up cheaper crew member? Finally, non of the other heists felt as well put together and executed as the very first one.

So yes, I found heists to be the most exciting moments in the game, yet I wished for more and found that they could have bee done far better with just a few tweaks.

Shooting from vehicles is bloody awkward, but thankfully generous checkpoints and the option to skip sections can easy any potential annoyance.

Shooting from vehicles is bloody awkward, but thankfully generous checkpoints and the option to skip sections can easy any potential annoyance.

For your pleasure there’s the vast and sprawling city of Los Santos to explore and marvel over, and outside of that there’s miles and miles of rolling countryside just begging to be explored via dirt bike, although should you wish for a quicker means of transport you can always steal yourself a helicopter or plane. What’s more you can traverse the entirety of the map, including interiors, with nary a loading screen in sight, ensuring that you’re never dragged away from your sense of immersion within the world. Graphically the game brings the city to life well. Sure, there’s some texture pop-in and aliasing problems, but GTA V is a technical masterpiece on hardware this old. The sheer amount of detail packed into every street is impressive enough, but more than that Rockstar have managed to carefully craft a city that feels real. Trashy houses and gangsters give way to skyscrapers and businesses, which in turn transition to lush gardens and opulent houses before you finally drive up the Vinewood hills, marvelling at the expensive properties, and once you’ve put them in your rear-view mirror you’ve got green countryside to enjoy, while further out lies the desert. The transition from one extreme to the other feels perfectly judged and executed, again just one more way in which GTA V keeps you immersed in its world. Unlike past games the entire map is open to you from the start of the game, so if you don’t feel up to taking on a few missions you can simply jack a car and head off into the sunset. Like all GTA games, a lot of the fun comes not from following missions or partaking in set activities but making up your own fun, like mountain biking down a mountain or performing the most insane jumps you can.

Getting around the world of GTA V by car is more entertaining than it has ever been before thanks to some seriously revamped handling. Cars now have a satisfying sense of weight and momentum, but the actual handling still remains nicely in the arcade landscape so that you can weave through traffic and slide round corners while feeling suitably awesome. It take some skill, though: drifting around a corner in a sports car is actually tricky, and thus mastering the handling takes a little patience, bringing a shade more depth to the overall game. The variety of rides on offer is also astounding, although at the moment there is a glitch which stops cars from being saved properly in your garage. Oh, and did I mention that you can modify cars and bikes? Well, you can, and that’s awesome.

I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting something. Wasn't I supposed to be robbing a bank or something? Like 30-minutes ago? Shit.

I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting something. Wasn’t I supposed to be robbing a bank or something? Like 30-minutes ago? Shit.

Speaking of bikes, though, they don’t handle so well, I found. They still have this awkward sharpness to the handling, and blasting around the streets on them never felt quite right. Joining the two-wheeled beasts is the skyborn vehicles in being awkward to handle. Helicopters wallow around the sky like they’ve been feasting on an all you can eat buffet for far too long, and planes are just downright awkward to handle at times. A bit of practice will see you get around these flaws, and skilled pilots will doubtless emerge, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.

This being a GTA game there’s no shortage of things for you to do scattered around the map. The real meat can be found in the Strangers & Freaks missions which initially show up as a question mark on your mini-map. These are tied to specific characters and are thus more focused than the primary story missions, offering up some brilliant diversions, although sadly missing out on a prime opportunity to provide some of that character development I talked about earlier. it’s within these missions that you’ll find the eccentric caricatures and more wacky missions in the style of earlier GTA games, carefully kept away from the main storyline. They’re brilliant fun to complete, and again mix up the gameplay well.

I'm having a good day.

I’m having a good day.

Strewn around the map are a wide variety of other things to amuse and occupy. You can take part in triathlons, hang out with your buddies at the cinema (they no longer constantly phone you up, demanding to hang out), do Yoga as Michael, race in street races,  go on Rampages hunt animals and sell the meat, play tennis, have a round of golf, watch TV, visit the strip club or much, much more. LIke you might expect the mechanics for tennis or golf and such thing aren’t the most refined and well-developed, but the fact that you can do these things and that they’re fun is impressive. If that’s not enough you can browse the in-game version of the Internet. There’s even virtual stock exchanges, which you’re going to need if you want to purchase some of the most expensive property in the game. That’s right property is back, and from time to time you may even get a call asking for some helping running it. Small hint, one of your first purchases should be Smoke on the Water, a medical marijuana shop that Franklin can buy.

If all of that wasn’t enough then there’s even a whole underwater world for you to explore out in the ocean. It’s a shame that only a single story missions makes use of this fact, but it’s there and it’s just waiting for you to check it out.

A new evasion system for ditching those pesky policemen has been introduced and it feels far more natural. It all works around a cone-shaped line-of-sight system: if they can’t see you then you’ve got a chance to hide yourself, it’s that simple. With this system in place police chases feel far more natural and dynamic. You can slid around a corner and while briefly out of their line of sight duck into an alley. As the cops prowl the area you can see their cones of vision and the tension mounts as they can and will sometimes search alleys and the like. The only complaint here is that it does take a little long to fully lose the cops – more than once did I find myself sitting in a parking lot or under a bridge for several minutes, patiently reading a few pages of a book or something to pass the time, because while cops will check locations like that on occasion, they don’t really do it enough to keep you on your toes. Mind you, police choppers do make things more interesting.

This screenshot fails to capture the terror of flying a helicopter for the first time.

This screenshot fails to capture the terror of flying a helicopter for the first time.

Random events like those seen in Red Dead Redemption also take place throughout the city, giving you reason to pause and divert your attention. It may be that a thief has stolen a purse, and upon retrieving the item in question you can return it or keep it, or you might even find yourself rescuing a kidnapped woman who turns out to be the daughter or a big crime boss. More often than not events are just simple little things, but there are some truly brilliant ones to be found throughout your travels, including helping out victims of a strange cult or helping a guy get to his wedding after he was left tied to a pole the night before.

If you’re after something a little more criminal then there’s armored vans charged with transporting money that can be found cruising around town. These can be hijacked or broken into in order go net yourself some sweet cash, and provide brief but fun opportunities to feel like a proper heister (Shh. It’s a word. I swear). Should that seem like a little too much hard work then there’s also numerous shops that you can walk into and rob by pointing your gun at the cashier and waiting for them to fill a bag with cash. Things can go wrong, though, so keep a wary eye open. Again, though, as much as I enjoyed stealing trucks and holding up stores it just made me wish that there were a few more heists in the world. Wouldn’t it have been swell to be exploring Los Santos or a town and come across a bank, not marked on the map but discovered by yourself. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to take out your phone and call together your crew, to plan the heist, get the gear, rob the place and get out? Maybe one day…

Franklin ain't never been this high. Except for all of those times he's been high.

Franklin ain’t never been this high. Except for all of those times he’s been high.

Of course no game is perfect and despite what other review’s seem to indicate GTA V is no exception to this.  I’ve mentioned some flaws already, but there are a few more yet to talk about. Like the previous Rockstar games before it the cracks begin to show when you rip the game apart and examine inner workings more closely. Possibly my biggest criticism is aimed squarely at the combat. Indeed, the gunplay has been improved a fair bit since GTA IV, but it remains the weakest part of the series, which is a shame given how often you find yourself in heated shoot-outs. The cover system is adequate but feels slow and clumsy, and  movement, especially in interiors, equally so, a problem that past GTA games and Red Dead Redemption suffered from. At times it feels like you’re controlling someone wearing lead boots, shuffling around from cover to cover in a rather ungraceful way. On the default setting you simply need to pop out of cover and the game will automatically target the enemy for you, leaving you to simply pull the trigger, and even on the second setting the aim assist is incredibly generous, making you feel you’re actually a hinderance to the game and that it would be better off without you. You can turn aim-assist off entirely, but then more problems arise: aiming feels heavy and imprecise. Finally, the aiming reticule is just a tiny white dot, and is easy to lose in the confusion. Combat is certainly better than it was in GTA IV, or even Red Dead Redemption, for that matter but I honestly couldn’t say I ever had fun during a firefight – they were just things I had to do in order to progress the story, but then to be fair I never hated nor disliked combat, either, I was just largely indifferent to it.

I would also accuse the game of having some sloppy writing and design with a quite a few scenes and conversations that felt poorly put together. Conversations between Franklin and his friends tended to be nothing more than streams of “motherfucker” and “nigger”, and while I’ve got no problems with those words I do have a problem with so many conversations and scenes being made up almost entirely of them, leaving no room for any other meaningful dialogue. Likewise with Michael and Trevor I found that too many of their scenes simply came down to hurling insults and arguing. I get that Rockstar are going with a realistic approach to the dialogue and that this is a group made up of explosive personalities, but after just a few of these scenes I began to tire of them and in the end I feel like it was just sloppy writing used to cover up the fact that the writers had nothing else to say and needed to flesh out the playtime a little more. Worse still the insults weren’t even usually very interesting., with such highlights as “you fucking fuck”.

Something may have gone every so slightly wrong. But it's totally under control.

Something may have gone every so slightly wrong. But it’s totally under control.

Doubtless by now you’ve already heard of a certain controversial scene within the game. I won’t spoil it here in case you haven’t, but I would like to briefly touch upon: I’ve got no problem with the actual contents or nature of the scene, but I do feel like it was very poorly written and inconsistent with the character involved, as well as in what Rockstar were trying to say. It simply felt like it was clumsily done from start to finish. On the same general topic there were a few other moments when Rockstar’s usual cutting satire failed them, and that resulted in some things feeling like they weren’t in the game for any other reason than to court shock from the player. Indeed, to be fully honest I would say for as many tough topics Rockstar tackled well with finesse and sharp wit, there were quite a few that simply felt like they were there for Rockstar to wave around without ever delving into anywhere near enough.

There were also other moments in the game that didn’t come together very well, didn’t always make sense or decisions that characters make, and actions they take, don’t seem to be in keeping with their characters.

Finally, as I stated earlier in the review there were some character plot threads that fell by the wayside which I feel really could have done with more attention. Michael has serious problems with his family, something which the game focuses on earlier, but eventually it just sort of gets dropped and the resolution to that little arc feels rushed. Trevor gets a potentially fun little story involving a woman and again it’s never really taken anywhere. And Franklin could have had so much more done with him!

GTA V cops will pull a gun and chase your ass down for simply accidently bumping into their car. Although, to be fair, in this instance I had made a "yo mamma" joke.

GTA V cops will pull a gun and chase your ass down for simply accidently bumping into their car. Although, to be fair, in this instance I had made a “yo mamma” joke.

Before the game’s release Rockstar commented that they hoped reviewers would examine GTA V as a cohesive whole, rather than picking it apart like a checklist. That’s interesting because truthfully that’s exactly what most games do feel like: a checklist of features loosely tied together through the narrative, and thus it feels natural and easy to review them as such. Grand Theft Auto V is one of the few games to me that does indeed feel like a cohesive whole, something in which each elements blends nicely with the next, and so in truth ripping it apart to delivery my criticisms above felt almost wrong, and yet I cannot in good conscience not mention these things because they are, in my mind, at least, flaws, small blemishes on an otherwise beautiful game. Pick apart the game and there’s far more than just these problems, but when you play the game you’ll only ever experience it as a whole, and as a whole it works wonderfully.

As I finish writing this review, and by writing I mean having a break down as I desperately hope it’s actually of decent quality and worth your time, it’s just one day until Rockstar release GTA: Online,  a free download for anyone that owns GTA V which adds a massive multiplayer component to the game. I briefly pondered holding off on reviewing the game until it had released, but for the sake of getting this out in a vaguely timely fashion I decided against it, as it would have taken at least another week of testing the online before I would have been comfortable trying to talk about it. Suffice to say that GTA V is already utterly awesome, so we can all probably just add another layer of awesome on top of that for the multiplayer stuff. Rockstar are promising so much that if even half of it turns out to be true then it shall be fantastic.

Five-seconds later I was chasing a deer down a dirt path and screaming "DEER RAPE" at the top of my lungs. Because why not?

Five-seconds later I was chasing a deer down a dirt path and screaming “DEER RAPE” at the top of my lungs. Because why not?

The final thing I really want to mention before rounding off this review is Rockstar’s almost worrying attention to detail. There’s so many little things that they’ve added into the game, details that most players probably won’t ever notice. If you don’t have your lights on while driving at night on the freeway other drivers will flash their lights to let you know. Cars run out of petrol if you shoot the gas tank. You can go on a tour bus around Vinewood with full commentary. If you try to force Trevor into listening to certain radio stations he’ll get pissed off and change the radio himself. One if my favorites is if you pull up at a red light in a sports car next to someone else in a fast car and rev your engine, they’ll often race you when the lights turn green. This focus on adding in small details really is astounding.

Was there ever any real doubt that GTA V would be a bloody brilliant game? Still, during this review I did want to make a point, and that’s that no game should ever be impervious to criticism just because of the name on the box. Having read numerous reviews I can’t help but feel that GTA V has gotten nothing but praise from professional reviews who seem unwilling to admit that the game does have flaws. So yes, Grand Theft Auto V  has flaws, some of the fairly substantial, and others minor, yet that does not stop it from one of the greatest games of this generation, and possibly of all time, although that’s a debate for another time. It’s vast, detail and utterly brilliant, constantly mixing up gameplay and providing wonderfully satirical commentary on just about every possible touchy subject, while taking the piss out of all the small ones as well, casually insulting numerous technology companies, the worlds addiction to social media and more. It doesn’t always hit the nail on the head, but when it does it’s fun and thought-provoking.

But then, you already know this, because you’ve already played it.

The Good:
+ A vast world filled with detail and things to do.
+ Heists are awesome!
+ Lots of gameplay variety.
+ Moments of truly brilliant writing.

The Bad:
– Some moments of sloppy writing, too.
– Overall plot isn’t all that great.
– Gunfights still aren’t up to par with the rest of the game.
– Dude, where’s the rest of my heists!? I want MORE!

The Verdict: 5/5
Are you surprised? Of course you aren’t! A couple of slip-ups don’t stop this from being a brilliant game packed with content, and that’s not even counting the free online component!

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