Heist heist baby!
Writing an introduction to a Grand Theft Auto review seems unnecessary. If you know videogames, you know Grand Theft Auto. Hell, even if you don't know videogames, there's a better than low chance you know Grand Theft Auto. The "bad boy" of the games industry for many years, few titles have generated as much controversy -- and sold as many copies -- as Rockstar's premier crime series.
It's been twelve years, however, since the seminal GTA III, and times have changed. As videogames become more mainstream, and the inherent violence in many of them reach a point of normalization, the once shocking world of Grand Theft Auto isn't quite so hair-raising anymore. In an age where game budgets have skyrocketed and scale is everything, the idea of a huge immersive world doesn't impress as GTA: San Andreas once did. No longer the rebellious firebrand, GTA is a part of the old guard -- it's been around forever, and we know its tricks by now.
Grand Theft Auto V, to its immense credit, seems to embrace this. It's a story about old men who aren't what they used to be -- and worse, never changed -- in a world of younger competitors and a society that outpaced them. GTA V does, in many ways, act as a gleeful celebration of the Grand Theft Auto series, and a slightly smirking self criticism.
Oh, and of course you can still run people over.
Grand Theft Auto V (PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Grand Theft Auto V tells the story of not one, not two, but three criminal degenerates, whose paths cross in the San Andreas city of Los Santos. LS is a city of superficiality and vapid trends, a dumping ground for both the liberal hipster and the exploitative corporate suit, and it's here that our three protagonists embark on a series of flamboyant crimes in order to clear debts, settle scores, and eventually get out of their respective ruts.
Franklin is a small-time gangbanger and repo man, desperate to innovate and change the way his old fashioned friends go about their lives. Michael is a former bank robber and murderer, now retired after a bank job gone wrong and attempting to adjust to family life with a wife, daughter, and son who hate him. Then there's Trevor. There is Trevor.
GTA V, more than any other game in the series, reduces the focus on supporting characters to fully emphasize its main antiheroes. There are no wacky crime bosses and accomplices with their own unique story arcs in this one, replaced instead with a more comprehensive running narrative that switches focus between Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. Franklin becomes the son Michael never had, learning the criminal arts in ways his former lifestyle could never teach him. Michael, meanwhile, is attempting to avoid his old lifestyle, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he revels in it deep down, and his expressions of regret are mere hypocrisy.
Trevor, meanwhile, is jaw-dropping. A composite of Hunter S. Thompson and every character Jack Nicholson ever played, the meth dealer and gun runner who operates out of Sandy Shores is everything wrong with Grand Theft Auto, dialed up to gloriously entertaining proportions. He represents everything a mainstream news pundit has ever thought about GTA, the quintessential videogame psychopath -- a drug addict, a murderer, an omnisexual driven almost entirely by libido and bloodlust (and yet possesses a perverse sort of nobility). His involvement in Grand Theft Auto V brings some of the series' darkest moments, as well as its most lighthearted. He's disgusting, he's disturbing, and I think I love him.
GTA V's story is about irredeemable people doing unjustifiable things, but balances this against genuinely intriguing characters who, despite their stereotypical foundations, remain at least affable, even if they never stop being terrible. Each character has his own narrative arc, weaving in and out of a joint story that develops their relationship to each other, from uneasy allies to even less easy friends, and it's often hard not to sympathize with characters who, through all their murder and mayhem, ultimately wind up as rather sad and pathetic creatures.
Whether it's Franklin constantly being burdened by his idiot friends, Michael's quiet desperation, or Trevor's highly evident mental problems, each character is rendered tragic in some way, but not in the same kind of oppressive depression that drenched Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic. GTA V allows itself to have a lot more fun, especially where Trevor of Trevor Phillips Industries is concerned, and tells a darker story than GTA IV did, in a far less bleak way.
Taking place in the series' biggest map yet, GTA V allows us to switch between all three characters in a massive representation of Los Santos, as well as its surrounding mountains and the coastal town of Sandy Shores. At any time (save for plot-driven restrictions), players can jump from Franklin to Michael or Trevor and back again, each one in a different part of the city for a range of reasons. You may drop in on Trevor while he's drunk and wearing a dress in the mountains, or swing by Franklin's while he's playing with his dog, Chop. When you're with a character, you're free to engage with Los Santos as you've engaged with every GTA city for the past decade -- use it as your criminal playground, jacking cars to get about, slaying pedestrians for fun, indulging in a wide variety of distractions, and completing story missions.
One major improvement in GTA V is the driving. Cars control so much better than they did in the last installment, no longer sliding across the tarmac with soapy recklessness. Vehicles are a joy to drive around Los Santos, turning elegantly, and allowing greater air control to make stunt jumps and high-speed car chases far less frustrating to pull off. Of course, some cars handle better than others, with top-heavy trucks and the fastest sports cars proving harder to use, but everything is immensely more pleasurable to drive this time. It's just a shame that the same cannot be said for planes and helicopters which, after all this time, still handle terribly -- and are still shoehorned into far more main missions than is necessary.
Attempts have been made to improve the typically clunky combat, though to a less successful degree. The auto-targeting system is twitchy and unreliable, while cover mechanics still come off as dated and unwieldy. However, there are lots of weapons to play with, as well as upgrade, with light attachments, extended clips, and paintjobs to add. It's nowhere near as varied and wild as something like Saints Row, but the weapons feel powerful in the hand, and it's especially delightful to get hold of the heavy artillery, from the classic chaingun and rocket launcher, to the amusing remote-controlled sticky bombs.
There's a new way to shake off the cops this time around. When "wanted" by police, players will have to escape out of the line of sight of incoming cops, and then stay hidden. Once out of the line of sight, the map will highlight nearby filth, with a cone of vision representing what they can see. Stay out of the cones, either by hiding in alleys or driving smartly, and the cops will be lost. It's a much nicer idea than what GTA IV did, and I love the stealth aspect of it. I just wish it didn't take so long to lose the cops entirely -- having to engage in stealth for protracted periods of time, just because a cop saw you jack a car, can grow a little tiresome.
Each character can level up various stats by engaging in activities that use them. For instance, the more you run, the more your stamina improves, the more you drive, the better your driving gets. These stats have a subtle effect on the game, allowing you greater control of cars or to sprint for longer, and while leveling them up isn't essential, it certainly doesn't hurt, and doing so is natural enough that you never have to worry about it. Michael, Trevor, and Franklin also get one unique special skill each, activated by pressing in both analog sticks. Michael can slow down the world during combat, Franklin can do the same for vehicles, and Trevor can boost his damage and defense after getting really angry. Again, these skills are far from essential and make no major impact, but their inclusion is not unwelcome.
With its hours upon hours upon hours of content, GTA V provides some incredible new story missions full of explosive setpieces and increasingly frantic scenarios. Each character has a unique series of missions, some of which cross over with other characters, and bring with them a unique flavor. Franklin finds himself embroiled in assassination plots and carjacking objectives, Michael's missions see him juggling his family life and his criminal dealings, while Trevor's experiences all end with equal amounts of carnage and chaos. A lot of classic gameplay, from surreptitiously tailing enemies to sniping key targets, are represented during the course of the campaign, with a few new twists thrown in.
Missions are graded depending on completion time, and the fulfilling of optional objectives, and each one may be replayed at any time for a better score. If you fail a part of a mission three times, you also get the option to skip at in exchange for a lowered mission grade. While some may lament this "casualization" of the series, I consider it one of the best things to come to GTA. Open world games regularly suffer from "that one mission" syndrome, that one thing that hamstrings and gets in the way, or a mission type that drives them wild. Being able to sidestep that one infuriating helicopter sequence or hated street race is a nice security option -- and nobody's forcing you to take it.
The biggest addition to the mission structure is the presence of heists. These are major missions involving all three characters, in which large theft jobs are undertaken. Before a heist can be pulled off, players meet up with Lester, an old associate of Michael and Trevor's, and plan out the attack. Heists usually give our antiheroes one of two choices -- being smart and stealing the goods with little fuss, or shooting their way in and escaping with all the subtlety of Rockstar's satire. After choosing a method, players then pick up a crew, choosing extra characters to act as drivers, gunmen, and hackers. Experienced crew members take a larger cut of the end score, but will ensure the job goes more smoothly. Conversely, you can pick less skilled allies for less cash, but their abilities may make the mission harder (for instance, your choice of hacker can mean the difference between thirty seconds or a full minute to rob a store before the cops arrive).
When the plan is in place, a heist will usually require extra equipment to be procured by the player. For instance, if you choose to rob the jewelry store the smart way, you'll need to complete a mini mission to procure a pest control van full of gas, which will be pumped into the store's venting system and render the opposition inside unconscious. If you take the violent route, you'll instead be required to rob a cop truck of its rifles.
Heists are some of the lengthiest and most action-packed missions in the GTA series. The ability to switch between three characters also works really well in making them more engrossing. One moment you'll be in Trevor's shoes, sniping cops as they descend on the crew from rooftops, before switching to Franklin to mow down the ground-level opponents. Sometimes you'll be forced to play from one perspective before being thrust into another, while other missions give you a choice.
These big jobs are fantastic and include some of the more enthralling missions I've ever played through in an open world game, and the way they change depending on your choices are quite clever indeed. It's just disappointing there aren't more of them. Entire new systems seem to have been included for the sake of heists, but the story includes a comparative handful of them, with a greater majority of missions being more traditional GTA-style experiences. Each heist is unique and memorable, but the unlocking and ranking of crew members, as well as the various choices heists bring, feels a little wasted. What's there is thrilling, but there was so much more potential.
Perhaps complaining about there not being more in a game that does so much is greedy, however. As I said, there are hours of content heaped upon hours of content. As well as main missions, our "heroes" also encounter a range of "freaks and strangers" with their own story arcs and requests. Here, the game allows itself to really go to town in creating eccentric characters, such as the dumpster-diving, celebrity obsessed, elderly British couple who hire Trevor to steal items from movie and music stars, or the sleazy paparazzo who uses Franklin to get close to TV stars and snap candid pictures. A fair number of these encounters are hilarious, and offer many up GTA V's most bizarre missions, whether you're punching out the gold tooth of a member of Love Fist, or using a digital camera to film a sex tape.
Oh, and Trevor -- further cementing his status as a twisted celebration of the GTA series -- brings back the classic "Rampage" missions, having to eliminate waves of enemies to punish them for mocking his Canadian heritage. They're absolutely brilliant.
On top of that, random events happen across Los Santos throughout the day, with players able to get involved or ignore them. A woman may have her bag snatched by a biker, or someone may scream for help and lead the player's into an attempted mugging. These random events often carry little rewards, but there's no penalty for ignoring them, and they appear at regular intervals.
From playing tennis to watching television, more mundane daily activities are also on offer, and sometimes differ by character. Michael, for example, can do yoga in his back yard or visit his therapist for some quality Sopranos time, while Trevor may go hunting and sell the meat for extra money. The city is also full of establishments to be purchased, either to make more money from businesses, or unlock helipads, garages, and docks. Some businesses will text requests to the owner, asking for help in delivering goods. Doing so will ensure greater profits that week. Some properties can only be bought by specific characters, while others are left up to the player. Buying up the city was one of my favorite parts of Vice City, and I'm very happy to see it included here.
You can also call up your friends to go hang out -- and it'll be your choice this time, since nobody harasses you to go bowling like they did in GTA IV. You can explore the Internet on your smartphone to see the latest Bleets or LifeInvader statuses, enjoy a full fledged stock exchange to try and make more cash, and go to the strip club if you want to do the dumb things that will probably generate the most online controversies. If you'd like to further compound the teenage thrills of doing the naughty things your mom won't let you do, there is booze to get drunk off and bongs to get high from. Because you're so hardcore.
Despite all this stuff to do, it's still just fun to goof off and go exploring. While Los Santos is not a living, breathing city, Rockstar's done a solid job in creating the illusion of something more dynamic than it is -- provided you suspend your disbelief and go with it. It's obvious that Michael's not out doing loads of things while you're with Franklin, but flitting across the city to see him wandering out of coffee shop while muttering, "Everything hurts," makes you think he could've been out on errands all day. If you wander too far or get lost, switching characters is also a perfect way to get out of a jam or move more toward an area where there's better stuff to do. It's a randomized take on fast traveling, but it's never not amusing.
GTA V's visuals are a little dated, not looking that much better than GTA IV, but one can forgive that given the utter scale of the map. Los Santos is huge, dwarfing the environments of previous games, with undersea exploration and mountain ranges adding a ton of variety to the surroundings. As an analog of Los Angeles, it's also really nicely designed, capturing the overly stylish look of the big city and the darker, nastier elements of the less tourist-friendly areas.
As you might expect, the sound direction is impeccable as always. Voice acting in this series never fails to impress me, and this is some of the best yet. From Franklin's street smart seriousness to Michael's barely controlled rage and Trevor's hyperactive mania, the performances found in GTA V are some of the very best in the series. The acting is backed up by a great soundtrack. Original music in missions does a great job of building tension, while there are loads of radio stations playing delightful licensed music, from Elton John, to Def Leppard and -- of course -- All Saints. If you ever get bored of making your own entertainment, there's also more talk radio, where Lazlow and friends chatter away for your amusement as you drive.
There's no doubt this is Rockstar's biggest production yet. As well as taking place in an utterly massive open world, the storyline is at its most ambitious, and attempts to make the experience as fluid and sleek as ever are highly evident. Though aspects of the game remain old fashioned and more could have been done to switch things up, the end result of still a game of spectacular scope and density of content. And while the narrative is as morally reprehensible as ever, the underlying intelligence backing up the wanton immaturity manages to keep GTA V treading the line of acceptable. There will be much pontificating on the morality of the game, and what its story says, but in GTA V, I see a game that knows its own reputation, owns it, and makes fun of itself in a nonetheless celebratory fashion.
Grand Theft Auto V is both a reflective and deflective game, diving into the heart of the GTA series with more than a few subtle things to say about itself. Michael is tired, and old, and wants to change, but he can't, and eventually he grows to accept and even enjoy that. Franklin is smarter than his surroundings, dreaming big but held back by old fashioned ideas. Trevor is hilarious, surprising, and a disgusting degenerate. All three characters, in their respective ways, feel representative of the Grand Theft Auto series as a whole, and contribute to making GTA V what it is -- the ultimate culmination of Rockstar's beloved and despised series. Personally, I think that's a fine thing to be.
Also, Trevor regularly spoons his juggalo friend's cousin Floyd while he sobs and apologizes to his out-of-town girlfriend for what he's just done.
So, that happens.
THE VERDICT - Grand Theft Auto V
Reviewed by Jim Sterling