Review: Grand Theft Auto V

GrandTheftAutoV

I took a week off of work, a vacation of sorts, to take a trip. A trip to a land of sunshine and beautiful beaches and deep blue water. This vacation offered a chance to golf, parachute from helicopters, race ATVs and jetskis. But for all the fun and beauty this vacation offered me, there was also a darker side. Brutal murders, violent car-jackings, drug use, private dances with exotic women. I also got to meet three new friends. 

This vacation is one that I won’t soon forget. This is Grand Theft Auto V.

Grand Theft Auto V takes place in Los Santos and an expanded countryside region of San Andreas, and follows the story of three would be heroes: Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Returning to a city that fans of the series are familiar with offers plenty of subtle references to the past, but also allows for less of a need to establish the basics of how the city is laid out. Familiarity allows for comfort, even if everything has received a dramatic facelift and expansion in the almost ten years since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released. Being familiar with a setting allows for the story to be the focus, particularly the development of each character. The question that comes up first and foremost, though, is whether the characters are relatable and worth getting to know.

I’ve never been in a gang. I don’t live in a particularly dangerous part of the city so having a connection with Franklin felt like a stretch at first. Until I realized I identified him to my younger self, wanting more from life than what I currently had. But the choices he makes and the ones I made obviously led us down two different paths. Franklin is a smart guy who is willing to do dirty things to escape a life that sees him constantly under threat of gang shootings, drugs and an overall lower quality of life. Everybody wants something to make their life better, but more often than not have no idea what that “something” is and have no way of going about finding it. Franklin stumbles through GTA V doing what is asked of him with the hopes that he will find that one thing to make his life complete.

Michael is in the same situation, sort of. He already has everything material he could ever want, but in his quest to get everything he has alienated his family and is miserable. Quickly falling back into his former life of high stakes heists, Michael finds a part of what is missing: the thrill of the moment. Camaraderie with the other members of his heist crew brings out a side of him that he tries not to let out around his wife and kids. When this side comes out, his family leaves him. GTA V does a pretty decent job of playing up how lonely and miserable Michael gets while wrestling with his inner conflict of missing his family and the love he has for them, even though it took getting back into a dangerous, bloody world of heists to make him realize this. Which one does he love more: money, danger and excitement, or the banality of family life?

Of course the catalyst for Michael’s broken family is the introduction of Trevor, an old friend and former heist partner. Without spoiling the past shared between the two, GTA V introduces Trevor in what is one of the most jaw dropping character reveals I’ve ever seen in a video game. The dude is not a nice guy. Yet, Trevor is equally one of the best characters in the GTA series, because his duality and zaniness provides the most grounded excuse to cause all the mayhem and destruction that is the cornerstone of the series. Trevor hates everything equally. Good or bad, right or wrong, if something is an obstacle to Trevor’s goal, he hates it. But for all of his speed freak madness, there is an underlying charm that is revealed every once in a while that brings a tortured human element to an otherwise complete maniac.

While GTA V focuses on these main characters, eventually allowing you to freely switch between them as you choose, the game is much more than the story of three bad men. From the city to the northern desert to the coastal towns, GTA V‘s virtual sandbox has a wealth of activities that offer a great escape from normal everyday routines. Don’t want to wait at a red light?  Drive into the oncoming lane or onto the sidewalk without reprieve from the law (unless of course you hit a pedestrian—or a cop car). Challenge the mundane with off-road races or illegal street races. Fly packages of guns across the desert. Even help out movie producers by keeping the talent in line. Wide and varied activities help keep the game from ever feeling too repetitive.

Heists are central to the game and unfold over a series of unique challenges which can be completed in several ways. An example is that of robbing a jewelry store, which can be approached with smarts and subtly or guns blazing brute force. In addition to multiple choices, the heists are performed with the assistance of additional crew members beyond Michael, Trevor and Franklin (M, T and F as they call each other during heists). These crew members can be selected from a group of well regarded (and higher paid) gunmen, drivers or hackers or from inexperienced (and thus lower paid) accomplices. Playing out a heist with higher paid crew members means that chance encounters that could end poorly don’t happen nearly as often. It also means that the split of what is stolen during the heist is paid in greater amounts to these better crew members.

Paying for inexperienced crew members does have a few benefits. First and foremost is that they take a smaller percentage of the cut, which means more money goes to M, T and F. If you are the sort of gamer who enjoys a challenge, having an inexperienced crew typically provides a snag in an otherwise well planned heist.  Poor hacking skills means less time is available before alarms are triggered. Sloppy drivers can get into accidents. Bad gunmen can’t hit the broad side of a barn when shooting becomes critical. These downsides can offer players a chance to step in and overcome deficiencies or live with the consequences and end up looting less money for the final split.

Heists generally have two or three stages which provide players a chance to use each of the main characters’ special abilities. Michael can enable a bullet-time mechanic that slows down everything around him, but provides him with quick reflexes and hyper accuracy when aiming. Trevor goes into a rage mode which allows him to receive a much higher level of damage while at the same time dishing out a greater amount of damage with whatever he is shooting. Franklin’s special ability is more broadly useful in that he can slow down time while driving and has amazing accuracy and control over any vehicle he drives. This special is a delight to trigger while racing away from cops at full speed and turning a tight street corner without spinning out or ramming into other vehicles.  Of course the chasing cops have no such ability and continue at full speed and less control (and likely into oncoming traffic or environmental obstacles).

Driving in GTA V is a blast. Stealing an exotic car and driving at high speeds in the city or on the coast or out in the desert is a total rush. Every car handles differently. Let me repeat. Every car, truck, bike, plane, helicopter and boat handles differently. Weight to each car offers a realistic feel to how a car performs taking a sharp turn or racing fast on a straight away. Front wheel drive vs rear wheel drive makes a huge difference in how a car responds during a sudden acceleration or when being bumped while taking a turn.  In addition to the specials that M, T and F have, all three also can hone RPG-like skills in driving, stamina, shooting, flying and more. The better the skills, the better they can handle weapons and vehicles. For example, flying a helicopter as Franklin is a wobbly, roller coaster experience, whereas Trevor handles flying vehicles with a grace that could parallel the work of a surgeon.

GTA games have become synonymous with a wide selection of radio stations and unique DJs to populate the airwaves. GTA V is no exception to this. Satire pours out of the speakers in between songs and the radio stations provide a varied mix of rap, hip hop, rock, reggae and local talk shows. One thing I really like is the fact that some radio stations can only be heard while driving or flying around in certain parts of the game. Additionally, if a radio station is not to a particular character’s liking, they will change the station automatically out of disgust. These little touches add a depth of realism that adds to the experience like no other game can. One thing I wish the game offered more of is the opportunity to listen to the original score when choosing to not listen to one of the radio stations. The original music is fantastic but typically is only heard in tense moments such as heists or when a wanted level starts bringing the heat from the cops.

If I could fault GTA V for anything, it is the cynical and sarcastic approach it takes in trying too hard to be over the top and push the boundaries of a “mature” game. Anything and everything is a target of reproach or scorn at some level. Squarely thumbing its nose at politics, media and gaming, GTA V satirizes almost to a point where it can be off putting. Most of the time the satire and sarcasm only appears for a brief moment and then the bombast and excitement take over. GTA IV offered background satire with a heavy dose of seriousness and Red Dead Redemption towed the line of mature themes without losing sight of humor and levity when appropriate. GTA V is awash in the non-stop barrage of satire and cynicism, to the point that it is almost best to just tune out the radio and go on a long, fast drive to escape from it all.

GTA V is a game that is not only a visual treat, but a robust collection of random but well-structured and crafted daily activities. Gunplay feels good and a large variety of weapons provide a wealth of options for attacking cops and private military or just wreaking havoc upon everyday citizens. Driving is an absolute blast (in missions and just random strolls about the city and countryside) and taking a dip into the ocean for some under water exploration is a surprising treat. Combining a compelling story and a cast of varied characters with an incredibly well realized open world of endless gameplay possibilities, GTA V is an experience that should not be missed.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Massive open world with a staggering variety of activities to enjoy
+ Driving is blast
+ Rich and varied characters
+ Fantastic music (original and licensed)

Cons:
– Sarcasm and satire feel forced and overdone at times

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar
Developer: Rockstar
Release Date: 9/17/2013
Genre: Open World Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.