I apologise for two things: first, for not blogging since June last year, and second, for not bothering to write this review until over a month since I finished the game. GTA V is my sixth experience with the series, following (in order I played them) Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories, San Andreas, IV and Chinatown Wars. Although I was as addicted to this most recent instalment as to past games in the series, I must admit for the first time in my gaming career the experience gave me considerably less satisfaction than both earlier games in the series and other Rockstar games of a similar mould (notably Red Dead Redemption, which I loved).
This is not to say that V is not a game with a great deal going for it. Graphically, it is a vast improvement on its immediate predecessor, not to mention other games in the series. Gone is some of the awkward lighting which plagued Liberty City, while the textures throughout are sharper and more realistic. The size of the in-game map is similarly impressive, not only in its size but also in its range - the contrasting urban and scenic locales give the player far greater choice, as do the expanded range of vehicles, which aside from the usual cars, trucks, helicopters and motorbikes also includes planes (which handle like a dream) and pedal bikes. Sports bikes find a whole new purpose on the game's three mountains; riding down them is like a PS2 game in itself, and even when you veer off course mid-way through, die, and lose $5000 it never feels like time wasted.
But beneath this impressive surface polish, V does not always feel as satisfying as previous games. Part of the reason is that, although the world is more open than ever before, many of the new avenues are rather dull. The one truly interesting diversion in the GTA series - pool - is gone, while the tedious darts remains, complemented by such boring diversions as triathlons and tennis. Similarly, the side-missions remain as low-key as ever, but this time they form mini story-arcs of their own which drag on - such as one which involves a lot of smashing 'For Sale' signs in Vinewood - and frankly there is next to no incentive to complete them.
Of other side features which seem to have wandered since IV, perhaps the most disappointing is the cultural parody. The radio stations are markedly less entertaining (though, I stress, still good), the in-game internet is smaller and more gimmicky, and the stand up comedy has been replaced with three movies of generally low quality (only a faux art-house film called Capolavoro is remotely entertaining, and then only once). The only constant is the TV, which has been slightly expanded. I should also mention the much vaunted inclusion of an original soundtrack in certain missions (while of course the radio stations remain the default). Given the massive success of Red Dead Redemption, which had a soundtrack to rival Tiomkin or Morricone, I had high hopes, but the occasional use of a score in GTA V was unremarkable and quite often fell flat.
The main story left me feeling equally flat. Of the three main characters, two were quite bland, while Trevor was rather like Tuco from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the first half of the storyline - which is to say extremely entertaining if not particularly complex - but soon became an almighty bore thanks to his constant whining in the second half. Outside of the protagonists, the range of characters was far more limited than IV, with only the comically inept Lamar Davies sticking in mind, and the narrative arc rather more prosaic and dull (including a choice between three anticlimactic endings). This is not to say that the main story is a fun experience. The missions are more varied than in any previous entry into the series, although the heists are less exciting than promised and the preparatory missions at best prosaic, and the three protagonists are used particularly well. Not only do they allow you to play out different parts of a complex operation without it feeling forced, many missions featuring two or three of them also give you the choice of who to control. The result is that missions can be played more tactically and, perhaps more importantly, replayed totally differently.
I realise that I have focussed a little too much on the negative, but make no mistake, GTA V is a strong game. It simply suffers from not being the sort of overhaul which was promised, and which the series, predicated still on patterns from two generations ago, is starting to show signs of needing.