So, having played Grand Theft Auto V
, I've got to say I was left with mixed feelings. It's undeniably a well put together game with some excellent acting that sells the hell out of a patchy script, and it's got a lot of side activities to love. Yet I couldn't help feeling that in almost every respect, there's been a game in the past couple years that has surpassed some of its gameplay systems, and many of them are also sandbox games. I wouldn't be surprised if Grand Theft Auto 6 or 7 ended up playing second fiddle to one of these games.
Here's my breakdown of aspects where I feel GTA has been outclassed.
Open-World Scale: Just Cause 2
Much fuss has been made about GTA 5 being the biggest of Rockstar's games, but if you want to talk about pure size, Just Cause 2 utterly dwarfs it. While the case could be made that much of the landmass of Panau is empty forest, that same criticism could be laid at GTA V. There's a whole lot of open desert, hills, and mountainside in GTA V with nothing much going on. In that sense, it actually ended up feeling smaller to me than even GTA IV.
A Living World: Yakuza 4
While I appreciate that soda machines and telescopes are functional in GTA V, I couldn't help but feel like the world was just a giant movie set. If there was ever an unmarked building that could be entered, you could bet that it was part of a mission. Anything advertised on TV was unpurchaseable, the lottery was unplayable, phone numbers on billboards do nothing when called, and the casino's doors are basically painted walls. You can only go in maybe one out of every hundred shops. While Yakuza 4 has a much smaller world, it's also a much more detailed one. Restaurants have unique menus and interiors, arcades are full of playable games, convenience stores have browseable magazines, and the hostesses in the bars each have a large amount of unique dialog. There's just so much detail in the small things you might not even notice, like claw machines with about thirty different prizes and real world brands of alcohol with detailed explanations from the bartender. And those explanations will change subtly based on the bartender you order them from.
Collectibles: Batman: Arkham City
While collectibles in GTA often have the odd reward for completing the collection, tracking them down often feels like busywork. In Arkham City, locating a Riddler Trophy is the easy part; the hard part is figuring out how to get at it. Every trophy is a puzzle of some kind: a logic puzzle, a Metroidvania-esque item lock, or a riddle pointing to an object in the environment. In other words, it's a heck of a lot more fun than just stumbling around looking for a Maguffin.
Activities: Saint's Row 2
One big disappointment for me is that Grand Theft Auto has actually shed activities or removed the fun element from them (looking at you, taxi minigame). Saint's Row 2 on the other hand has continued, improved upon, and added to the activities you used to enjoy in Grand Theft Auto games. Taxi driving works like Crazy Taxi again, but with some odd curveballs like hijackers, customers requesting a smooth ride, or having to beat a rival taxi to a customer. That's to say nothing of its unique innovations like the Insurance Fraud minigame where you play hackey-sack with your body in traffic, Trail Blazing, where you race a flaming ATV between checkpoints while lighting things on fire to earn time, or Septic Avenger, where you man the hose on an AI-driven poo truck to spray shit everywhere. For reasons. And unlike recent GTA games, you'll actually get useful perks
for reaching certain levels in these activities.
Combat: Sleeping Dogs
I didn't include Sleeping Dogs here just for its melee combat. If we were focusing solely on melee, I'd actually give the edge to Yakuza 4. I'm talking about both melee and ranged combat. While the guns aren't especially interesting, they do require actual skill to use as opposed to the lock-on fest that the recent GTA games have been balanced around. And when you shoot out an AI car's tire, it goes careening through the air. It never gets old. That's to say nothing of the fun in slamming a fool's head on a table saw, but it's kind of a moot point since melee isn't really a focus in GTA V.
Heists: Payday 2
I'm kind of cheating a bit here, but given how directed the heists in GTA V are, I feel like it's an apt comparison. I'll also confess to not having tried the co-op heists in GTA Online, because if there's another way that Payday 2 triumphs here, it's in having its online work at launch. That said, Payday 2's heists are a lot more involved in terms of what you're actually doing and the choices you have to make. At any moment, you could be managing hostages, barricading doors, healing teammates, calling out special enemies, grabbing loose loot from the environment, or setting up the equipment. And, of course, shooting messloads of cops. Ultimately, GTA V's heists are fun once.
Payday 2's heists are fun many times
Writing: Sleeping Dogs, Saint's Row 2, and Yakuza 4
I'm not even going to touch on GTA V's attempts at political humor, except to say that they're written by people with a very shallow understanding of the themes they use, and of American culture in general. The Daily Show this ain't.
But what upsets me more about the game is that the overarching plot is just a mess. Most missions are ultimately so inconsequential that they could have happened in any order with no impact on the plot. It felt a lot like Uncharted 3, which was a self-admitted Frankenstein's monster of setpieces
stitched together with varying degrees of success. The narrative flaws were especially obvious during a train robbery mission, which comes completely out of left field and ends with the most blatant deus ex machina I've ever seen in a videogame.
Sleeping Dogs and Saints Row 2 both have a real sense of escalation to go along with the plot progression. In the former, you're rising through the ranks of a Triad and becoming more emotionally invested even as you work undercover to dismantle it, while in the latter, you're warring with rival gangs and often suffering the consequences of picking a fight with them.
Saint's Row 2 also shows how to do a villain protagonist well. I simply loathed Trevor Phillips. His arcs, and especially his introduction, felt like a slap in the face to fans of a certain previous GTA game and were about as tasteful and relateable as a Jeffrey Dahmer biopic with a laugh track. At least in Saint's Row 2, even when I was doing terrible things to people, they ultimately felt justified in some twisted way. And I never saw any cutely-titled goals for gold medalling a torture mission either.
While Yakuza 4 is a bit disjointed and nonsensical itself, it uses its multiple characters effectively to get different angles on the story, and their self-contained narratives ultimately fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The characters are also a lot more interesting than GTA V's. The cast includes a kindly loan shark with a unique brand of Social Darwinism, and a man who murdered 18 defenseless rival Yakuza for all the right reasons and hasn't stopped paying for it. To be sure, they're all crooks of various types, but you never end up hating yourself for progressing their stories.
In spite of everything I've ragged on it for, I still think Grand Theft Auto V is a good game, if not a great one. What do you guys think? Am I being too harsh on GTA V? Did I leave any games out? Is Trevor Phillips the best character ever?