I understand that this game is very well written and has an engrossing game world, but to me the large amount of mechanical problems it has, and the surprising lack of progress it made within the more than 5 years since the release of its predecessor, make it hard to recommend outright.
This is honestly, and without hyperbole, one of the least mechanically sound AAA games I have played since the very early days of this console generation.
Technically speaking, while Grand Theft Auto V is not quite the "next gen now" showpiece its devs have been touting, it looks pretty solid. There is some pop in, some objects (especially vegetation) betray the game's aging tech, but it looks surprisingly crisp for something of this magnitude. The game's art direction, which makes the region on offer look like an archetype more than a caricature, greatly helps to push the visual experience higher.
The writing is sharp, and the characters are compelling, especially Michael because he truly breaks the mold with his exasperating cast of relatives and out of shape physique.
Trevor's wanton madness was a bit annoying at first because he felt more like a storytelling device than a person. But his weirdness won me over. He's a funny guy, and at least he consistently brings tension to a sometimes leisurely paced game.
Franklin is the most Niko Bellic-like character of the trio, with Niko's dry wit replaced by slightly more in-your-face streetwise derision.
The hardships faced by black youths and their families, as well as their speech mannerisms, feature prominently in his early segments, so it's probably logical that as a counterpoint, Franklin was made the most psychologically normal of the trio, striking a balance between his troubled social background and the need to avoid outright racial insensitivity.
Similar to Red Dead, it's not just the dialogue that's sharply written. Some of the situations are too, like the very direct and understated ways Michael is introduced to Franklin, and Trevor reunites with Michael. It's somewhat reminiscent in spirit of the way Marston father and son bonded through daily chores towards the end of Red Dead.
A character from a previous installment is also re-introduced under a harsh and unflattering light, which is another bold move, although said character is probably more of a semi-major protagonist than one of the series true headliners to most people.
There are also some parodies of real life properties and controversies. Most of them are fairly obvious, and while the game's straightforward allusions to Facebook and data mining come across as pretty bold, other criticisms of more traditional institutions like right wing politics may feel a bit tired. But they remain tongue in cheek through and through, so the game generally steers clear of pretentiousness, from a narrative standpoint at least.
At any rate, such writing quality is rarely found in video games other than Rockstar's, and it is a joy again here. The constant sway between absurdity and glimpses of more personal struggles is one you should experience.
However it doesn't always translate into great mission design. The necessities of story telling and the necessities of mission design are two different things, and despite taking place in an open world, missions can bear all the trappings of your token modern "cinematic" game.
Certainly, the devs have taken great lengths to provide missions that are either big in scope, or at least make it a point to incorporate an "exotic" touch (for example, a gunfight while lying on the wing of a plane preparing for takeoff) to keep it above the usual "waypoint chase" these kinds of game are known for.
Other missions are more in line with your average open world game, in that they largely try to carve an identity by focusing on one of the game's pre-existing mechanics (the tow truck mission, the heavy truck mission, the stealth bombing mission...).
These often border on mediocrity, but the solid narrative context keeps them from being a complete drag.
A possible exception to that are some prep missions for the heists, which I found to be quite poor.
Maybe the devs felt like the player's anticipation for the big heist exonerated them from fleshing out those objectives, or that they fit into some sort of crescendo. Some of the more espionnage-focused tasks are in fact pretty immersive despite not amounting to much gameplay, but others felt like pure fetch quests.
The random city events are also pretty basic, and I was expecting the game to push the genre forward a bit more in this respect.
Nevertheless, the long dev cycle has been put to good use and some exciting situations have been devised. It's the realization of these ideas controller in hand that can be surprisingly limited.
You still have a ton of missions that will fail if you don't aim right where the devs want you to, right when they want you to, if you don't drive just the car they want you to, and stop right on that yellow dot, or veer too far off a path, or even spill gas elsewhere than on the predetermined trail that appears on your HUD during an arson objective.
The larger missions let you pick between explicit violence and a more deliberate modus operandi. You can also select henchmen according to their degree of expertise and salary demands. But these factors only influence specific, predetermined events.
They don't compensate for the missions' rigid framework, and it's even conceivable that the necessity to accommodate these "henchmen moments" contributed to the restrictiveness.
If you are looking for so called "emergent" gameplay, despite the game's size you won't really find it in GTA V's actual missions.
The comparison that immediately came to mind was Assassin's Creed III. Make no mistake, the mission design on offer here is better than in ACIII, the setups feel less artificial. Some sequences manage to maintain a visceral feel through the obvious scripting, and combined with the characters' grit, can truly make for engrossing moments. Just not in the long haul.
Rockstar has again deemed pertinent to force you to hold A/X all the time just to jog, requiring you to switch your right thumb on and off the right stick constantly to both move at a decent clip and adjust the camera.
In combat, you do get an auto jog, but if you move away just a little bit from enemies to flank them, it will be deactivated, and then reactivated when you move back within a certain enemy range, past an invisible trigger. Oh, I have auto jog now. Oops, i don't have it anymore. Oh gee, I have it again now.
Because it's so much better than just giving the player an "always jog" option, ha.
It comes across as nothing more than an ostensible effort by franchise helmers to "set their own path", and feature a unique control scheme reflective of the franchise's supposed ethos at any cost.
Some fans eager to gloss over any of the franchise's failings justify it in the name of realism, as a replication of the effort it takes to jog in real life. But then again realism doesn't seem to be at a premium in a game that allows you to carry a full array of weapons, including grenade launchers, without wearing so much as a fanny pack to hold them.
I wish Rockstar would swallow their pride, and offer an additional config with jog mapped to "left analog pushed all the way", sprint to "hold left or right bumper", and cover to "A". They won't because they don't have to, but it would greatly streamline the GTA experience.
The controls are very loose. Characters still turn like freight trucks, and bounce awkwardly when you collide with certain obstacles, GTA IV style. Transitioning to the stealth posture is slow and visual feedback is not optimal. And even in stealth mode, you still need to hold A to move slightly faster, which doesn't lend itself to the more delicate nature of such objectives. The damage indicator, which has you counting bullet impacts on the character's body, is also less than practical and feels gratuitous.
The cover system feels heavy and cumbersome. The strong pull applied to your character when you get into cover may be deemed acceptable by players looking to get out of harm's way quickly, but it's also very approximative. Unfortunately cover-to-cover movement won't let you adjust your placement easily, since it has still not been implemented. It's about as bad as in GTA IV, which itself was functionally outdated in 2008.
The shooting also feels close to GTA IV. At least the crosshair's dot doesn't jump like a magnet anymore when you're aiming close to a target, like it did in GTA IV. But the proposed aim assists still feel very sticky.
The game also didn't make it clear how you equip a gun while driving, although that may have been an oversight on my part.
Driving makes a poor initial impression, because in a bizarre twist, your first true driving mission as Franklin puts you at the wheel of one of the more slippery vehicles in the game. But fear not. On average, the handling has indeed improved over GTA IV, although the flight model looks like it got the short end of the stick. Some trailer trucks are also a bit unwieldy, and strike a perilous balance between realism and the accessibility that is needed from models most players are unlikely to have spent a lot of time with before encountering them in a mission. It's much easier to lose your trailer than you'd expect to when making a sharp turn, and getting things back in order can be arduous when it's stuck.
Vehicles have a handling stat, but apparently it's only visible at select locations pertaining to their maintenance. I would liked to be able to get the stats in-game when I am about to climb in a car, at least for the models I've already driven.
The character swap mechanic, which was touted as an elegant, less obviously gamey fast travel device in previews, does not really alleviate any travel frustrations.
You cannot know if other characters are closer to mission start than the character you are currently controlling, and whether they will be allowed to perform the mission you are looking to do, before actually swapping your current guy for the other one.
For example, say you control Michael and want to travel to the blue M icon symbolizing one of his story missions. Unfortunately, you are very far from there and you'd rather cut down driving time. Hey, maybe Franklin is closer to that M icon. And maybe Franklin can actually trigger that mission since some of them, even if they start at one character's crib, can be triggered by other characters.
Problem, to the best of my knowledge, you can't know that before actually making the swap, which requires a (disguised but still apparent) load time.
The devs should have let us know where others characters are on the main map, and whether they can tackle a mission, before actually swapping to them.
Taxis are not as neat as a more polished character swap system would be, but they do make it easier to wander around town in your free time, or when your current mission objective is not too stringent. The company is called Downtown Cab, but regardless of where you are (on the condition that it is close to a passable road), a taxi will materialize close to your position after a symbolic waiting time.
(Note: The original version of this post criticized the fact that you could only pick from a short list of destinations when using a taxi. This was a mistake. Although this is not explained in-game, you can in fact open the main menu and place a waypoint on the map, the location of which will then appear among possible destinations on the taxi's dashboard once you resume play. My apologies, and thanks to SlyKill for the comment.)
During missions however, there are a number of mundane trips that require you to drive, and cannot be skipped. Sure, San Andreas is a varied place, but not varied enough to justify even the majority of such errands.
Most of these mandatory peregrinations are padded with amusing conversations on the phone or with a passenger. They make for nice time killers, but I increasingly found myself enjoying or dismissing these interludes based on the mission they featured in (even if the two were largely unrelated) rather than the banter itself. While serviceable, most of these anecdotal conversations do not justify the game's structural patterns so much as they make them workable.
Sometimes, the video game community sees titles that hold the power to legitimize gaming as a creative medium, and celebrates these titles without rhyme or reason on the basis of compelling characters or one bold design choice.
And then they throw by the wayside any mechanical or design flaws these games may have as to not detract from a pristine image of artistic triumph.
In my opinion, there is a functional dimension to gaming that, while not be the most gratifying or emotionally relevant, is inescapable.
Some of the fundamental gameplay systems at work in GTA V are poor. They just are. Maybe you are so invested in these characters, or even in the GTA franchise as a social phenomenon, that you can and want to look past these defects. Or maybe you can't. I can't.
But it's the quasi-unanimism that I find scary. In a way, GTA V is to sandbox games what Bioshock Infinite was to FPS earlier this year.
Bioshock Infinite's looting grind and repetitive enemy encounters are not just old school stylings inherited from the pure RPGs it descends from. THEY SUCK. The whole game doesn't suck, but enough parts of it do that it should not have been rated nearly as high as it was by nearly as many people as it was.
Dark Souls' camera is not just a footnote in a deliciously perverse gaming experience. IT SUCKS.
GTA V's gunplay, controls, cover systems, and some core design choices can't be mere footnotes in the superb story of Franklin, Michael and Trevor. They are key mechanics in a game that has been in gestation for 5 years to the rumored tune of around a quarter billion, and THEY SUCK.
That has to amount to something.