Grand Theft Auto V Review – When nihilism and fun collide

Grand Theft Auto IV marked what many feel was a drastic departure for the series. With a much more somber tone, a much more sympathetic lead character in Niko Bellic, and a more realistic approach in terms of all aspects of gameplay, some fans of the previous Grand Theft Auto games were left wondering if the magic had gone from the series.

Personally I quite enjoyed the story of immigrant, Niko Bellic, and how he tried to escape his violent past by traveling to America to pursue the American dream, only to find out that he couldn’t escape his past and that the American Dream was paved with blood, corruption, and loss. A point of contention with Niko is that in cut scenes and dialogue, Niko bemoaned the violence of his past while the game constantly required the player and, by extension Niko, to partake in a staggering amount of violence creating a disconnect between the narrative and character, and the actual gameplay.

That being said, a popular opinion is that the mission “Three Leaf Clover,” in which Niko and cohorts pull of a heist and escape through the streets of Liberty City and into the underground subways while the police gave violent chase was a high benchmark for GTA. It remains one of the most talked about missions in the entire series regardless of many gamers’ opinions of the overall game.

It seems that Rockstar took these comments to heart and with Grand Theft Auto V they have tried to address each and every complaint leveled at GTA IV and have stuffed GTA V with so much ridiculousness and improvements that on a purely gameplay level, there is very little for fans to find fault with. While this remains mostly true for this GTA fan, there are some things I feel have suffered due to the new approach.

This is Trevor. He’s got issues. A LOT of issues.

Three’s a crowd

If Niko Bellic’s narrative created a narrative disconnect due to his actions and the script, Grand Theft Auto V addresses this issue in spades by creating 3 different characters each with their own lifestyle, supporting characters, and problems. The first character we spend any real time with is Franklin Clinton, an up and coming repo man looking to make money any way he can. It’s through his repo job that he crosses paths with Michael De Santa, a “retired” bank robber in WitSec, living out his mid-life crisis in Rockford Hills, the GTA-ified version of Beverly Hills. Michael’s past with the FIB has caught up to him and his handler comes to him for assistance on a matter that, let’s just say isn’t entirely on the up and up. Michael sees Franklin as the son he wishes he had and takes him on the job.

Well, one thing leads to another and Michael winds up on TV getting the attention of the third playable character, Trevor Phillips – a deeply disturbed, white-trash sociopath who is prone to deadly violent outbursts who also fancies himself a CEO of his own Trevor Phillips Industries. Coincidentally, Trevor too has moved to the outskirts of Los Santos and is neck deep in meth cooking, arms dealing, and all sorts of other illicit activities. Trevor and Michael have a past robbing banks together and it seems that Michael faked his own death in order to be put into the witness protection program. Seeing as Trevor has abandonment issues (among many, many others) he takes this all kinds of personal and decides to pay Michael a visit.

As is customary with Grand Theft Auto, there are several supporting characters that offer the bulk of the missions in the game and even tie into other supporting characters, as the lives of Franklin, Michael and Trevor intersect and flesh out the narrative. The biggest issue I have is that each character suffers from the girth of the story as none of the stories really make much of an impact. Franklin’s “arc,” such as it is, is that he is leaving his friends behind for the good life, Michael is losing his family due to his repressed desires to rob banks and Trevor, well, he is dealing with the various groups of people he’s pissed off in order to make his “corporation” grow.

On paper this should be compelling stuff and probably should have been, but I can’t help but feel that huge chunks of narrative were excised in order to fit this massive, massive game into a current generation space. For example, Franklin is visited by his ex-girlfriend twice in the game, but we never get to know their relationship in any meaningful way, and his friend Lamar is immediately the kind of annoying trouble maker with no redeeming qualities that it makes Franklin’s whole arc seem incredibly trite and unbelievable. These characters are supposed to have a history together but where we come into Franklin’s story, it either doesn’t resonate (his ex) or seems like he’s better off without him (Lamar).

Michael’s arc is basically the center of the story as most, if not all of the conflict and bonding centers around him, his family, and his FIB connection. Most of the meatiest missions of the game stem from this root and basically thrust the narrative forward. Unfortunately, again, we don’t see anything worth fighting for in his family. His wife is cheating on him, his son is an obnoxious wannabe who does nothing but play video games, and his daughter is a gratingly annoying teenager trying to make it as a reality TV star. They’re all pretty 2 dimensional and aren’t very likeable, which makes Michael’s whole familial plight seem like a necessity and a plot device rather than establishing characters with any real value and sympathy. We care because it moves the plot and the game forward, not because the characters have made any sort of emotional impact.

Lastly, Trevor’s external conflict is arguably the most superfluous. Basically he pisses off bikers, Chinese drug dealers, and a private army due to his gross disregard for anyone other than himself. His primary conflict comes from his past with Michael and his wanting answers now that Michael isn’t dead. This could have been a truly interesting conflict for the game itself had it not been hindered by the constant yelling and aggressive pissing contest that happens every time Michael and Trevor are onscreen. Instead, Trevor is a much more interesting character when he’s on his own causing all sorts of trouble with gleeful yet violent abandon. Trevor actually has some the best, laugh out loud, darkly comic moments in the game.

Each character’s arc offers some resolution but none of it is earned or satisfying on their own. In fact, one character is presented with a choice that seems out of character to go with anything but one option (confirmed by watching how the other options play out on Youtube, once I completed the main story). Instead each character either has a resolution written for them because the story demanded it or just kind of ends.  The only really satisfying ending is the one for the three central characters as a group which leads me to believe that the subplots were again, either wholly trimmed for length or added to pad it out.

The only inaccurate thing about this shot is the severe lack of people. Hollywood Boulevard is the Time Square of Los Angeles.

Rockstar presents The Meaning of Life

While the story does leave something to be desired overall, playing the game is another matter entirely. The standard template remains unchanged. You take your sociopathic avatar from place to place in an open world completing missions while the tasks escalate with the story. Here Grand Theft Auto V delivers in spades upon spades upon spades.

What is amazing is how well the missions tie into the characters themselves and serve as a commentary on the various types of gamers that will be playing this game. Unfortunately Rockstar still hasn’t learned to put their best foot forward because once again the early missions which feature Franklin are fairly rote and even downright boring. Sorry, but towing a car from point A to point B is hardly compelling gameplay by any stretch, let alone in Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully this only lasts about the first hour and once Franklin and Michael meet, the game becomes immediately and infinitely better.

Franklin represents the old school GTA games in that he is an up and coming criminal looking to make the big score and harkens back to the traditional Rags to Riches formula of the earlier GTA games. Michael, middle-aged and represents the new school access in which he has it all but wants more. He’s not happy unless he’s getting the big score. And then there is Trevor who is 100% the embodiment of chaos. Clearly a reaction to criticisms that Niko Bellic would bemoan the violence required of him and yet having the option to go on rampages, causing as much death and destruction as possible. With Trevor this is no longer an issue because only Trevor can access the Rampages in which he’s tasked with killing a set amount of enemies in the given time limit. Trevor is very much designed for the player that just wants to blow things up and kill things. Sure, all 3 characters can cause this level of destruction, but at that point it becomes the player’s choice and only they can be responsible for any disconnect between the character’s motivations and dialogue and the actions partaken. It works incredibly well and serves the gameplay in a way that the previous games never have.

Making all of this possible is what I think may be Rockstar’s best innovation yet: character switching. By pressing down on the D-Pad, you are presented with a wheel on the lower right corner of the screen showing Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. Using the right thumbstick you can then choose which character to switch to. Switching to another character will zoom the camera out to a bird’s eye view of the map, then pan and zoom over to the chosen character. Not only is this much more seamless than I had ever anticipated, it’s also handled incredibly well story-wise. My fear was that I would have to replay the game three times to avoid missing the character’s life or story beats. This fear proved to be completely unfounded. Instead what happens is that a brief scene will happen picking up with the character in their day to day life. For example, switching from Michael to Franklin, I would witness Franklin walking out of a strip club, or working out on the beach. Switching to Michael will find him contemplating life on the pier, sitting in his car, or walking out of a hotel with regret for his latest marital indiscretion. Switching to Trevor is always a highlight as you really never know what he will be doing. You might find Trevor waking up drunk on the beach, surrounded by dead bodies, or in the middle of a 3 star car wanted level. Chances are switching to Trevor, you’ll find him doing something wrong, and incredibly funny.

Driving has drastically improved in Grand Theft Auto V, to the point that it is no longer something you don’t want to do.

It’s like the movie Heat, only better

Missions vary wildly this time around, ranging from simple assassinations to stealth infiltration to performing heists. Oh those heists. While Grand Theft Auto IV‘s “Three Leaf Clover” mission serves as the jumping off point, Grand Theft Auto V expands upon the concept to the Nth degree. Now players will plan their heists in almost staggering detail. From the outset, players will scope out the target, making note of security measures and call response time. From there they’re presented with an option of going in guns blazing or getting in and out with the score before anyone notices.  They’ll even get to choose a crew for the missions, reviewing each potential crew member’s stats which directly affect their take. The higher the skill level, the higher the percentage of the score they will take upon completion.

There is a huge risk-reward in this decision because choosing a lower skilled crew member will greatly affect not only the mission but also the final take of the heist. For example, on my first heist I chose the stealth approach and opted for a gunman with lesser skills because I felt they wouldn’t be needed since my plan was to not kill anyone and make a clean getaway. This was a mistake. In the escape, this low skilled gunman wound up wiping out and with him went a huge portion of the score adding up to much more than the 12% I would have paid to have a more skilled crew member. Needless to say, I went all in on the best possible candidates for each consecutive job.

After the plan is chosen and the crew selected, it’s on you to gather the necessary equipment for the job. These tasks include selecting and hiding the getaway vehicle, picking up outfits and disguises for the crew and nabbing specific vehicles as transport to the job and back to the getaway car. Once all of the pieces are in place, you can begin the heist proper.

Here is where Grand Theft Auto V really sings. Each mission is unique and presented me with a thrill unlike any previous GTA game. Tension builds to a near breaking point as I had mere moments to gather as much loot as I could before the hacked security system would kick in or the police became wise to our intentions. Making matters all the more dire is a take counter on the bottom of the screen showing how much of the take is left as you make your escape. I can safely say that there was no greater feeling in the game than making that clean getaway with all of the score intact and making out with an enormous amount of money. On the other hand, there was no greater bummer than seeing a large portion of my take lost because I was greedy and didn’t want to pony up for that more experienced crew member.

Each of the playable characters have a special ability unique to themselves, some of which prove invaluable during some of the game’s more tense situations. During a stealth mission, Michael can perform a bullet time type move where time slows down allowing him to get off a head shot in the event he’s spotted to prevent the alarm from being raised. Franklin’s driving skills are so preternatural that using his ability allows him to navigate tight spaces and make on a dime turns when being pursued by the police. Finally Trevor’s special ability let’s him withstand and deal more damage with fire arms. In retrospect, Franklin’s special ability proved the most useful, while Trevor’s remained the least – using a shotgun pretty much solves any issues with NPCs taking more damage. This is, of course, with the caveat that I decided to take the path of least resistance during the heist.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in which each character’s ability didn’t come in handy. Quite the opposite actually. Using Michael’s bullet time during a late game ambush allowed me to chain head shots, drastically thinning the opposing herd while Trevor’s higher resistance to receiving damage came in handy while trying to pick off targets with my sniper rifle. All in all, each ability will eventually serve a purpose, just not as frequently as Franklin’s when getting chased by the police.

And get chased I did. Another change to GTA‘s formula is how losing the wanted level works. It is no longer required to remain outside of a search radius, instead I simply had to avoid their vision cones as displayed on the minimap. This is much more difficult than it sounds once you get above a 2 star wanted level. No longer can you simply hide your car in an alley or under an overpass as the police will drive there in search of you. Instead you have to keep driving and turning down the various streets, boulevards, freeways and alleys at your disposal. It’s a nice addition and makes getting away much more of a game of cat and mouse than simply parking your car and waiting for the radius to dwindle away to nothing.

There are a huge variety of cars, each with their own attributes and quirks.

Satire and nihilism in the Aught-teens

Satire has always been a signature of the Grand Theft Auto series, with American culture being the target. Modern day America has no shortage of satirical fodder and Grand Theft Auto V comes at it with some of the broadest strokes the series has ever seen. Nothing is sacred as the game takes shots at social media, reality shows like American Idol, technology obsession, video games, the legalization of marijuana, gang violence, the hunger for 15 minutes of fame, hipsters, and more Los Angeles specific things like Scientology. All of it is fair game and Rockstar pulls no punches.

Like always and all humor, not all of it hits and some of it is less scathing than others, but when it does hit, it hits big. The most notable moment of deeply and darkly satirical humor comes during an early mission in which I had to torture someone for information on an assassination target. A lot has been made about this scene being too grotesque and seemingly out of place in the game, but I can say that for myself, it was the single most biting commentary in the entire game given our current climate regarding torture and things like waterboarding. I wouldn’t dare spoil the outcome, but I do think that the mileage will vary depending on the player. There are incredibly dark moments of humor like this throughout the game and as a fan of pitch black humor, there were moments in which I genuinely laughed out loud.

You will blow lots of stuff up and blow it up good!

The city that never sleeps

All the core gameplay improvements wouldn’t mean much if the sandbox to use them in wasn’t very interesting. Fortunately Rockstar has outdone itself. Personally, I preferred the vast expanse of the original San Andreas to that of simply Los Santos and Blaine County but what GTA V lacks in environmental variety it makes up for in not just ambition but also content. Unlike real life Los Angeles, which is pretty much a ghost town after 2 am, Los Santos is constantly thriving. There is such an unprecedented amount of things to uncover and discover in Grand Theft Auto V that even now as I write this, having completed the game with 75%, I haven’t yet seen everything there is to see or have done everything there is to do. The sheer breadth of activities, side missions, dynamic events, and overall things to do is staggering.

In case you simply want to get away from the killing and crime (what game did you think you were getting), you can take a leisurely stroll on the pier, ride a functioning roller coaster, a ferris wheel, go deep sea diving, sky diving, mountain biking, or ride your mountain bike off a mountain, then sky dive into the ocean. You can also play golf, tennis, darts, take in a movie, get a drink and visit a strip club.

But let’s face it, no one buys GTA and wanders its open world to simply do athletic activities and watch movies. They want to commit crimes and meet crazy and interesting characters. Well, needless to say, Grand Theft Auto V has everyone covered there. Players can rob ATMs, liquor stores, armored cars, steal cars, and cause general chaos at every turn. I simply cannot put too fine a point on the fact that there is a ton of things to do in this game.

For my money, the most impressive thing about the game are the dynamic missions and the Freaks and Strangers missions. First seen in Red Dead Redemption and used to a lesser degree in L.A. Noire, the dynamic missions offered mini-missions that in previous games really had no impact on the overall game and sort of felt like color added to the experience while getting around the landscape. In Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar has once again expanded this system to nearly epic proportions. These mini-missions will spawn and flash on your mini-map while traveling through Los Santos and Blaine County offering either minor distractions like stopping a robbery, to robbing an armored car , or, they can even effect the gameplay by giving you huge rewards. The simple task of getting a stranded businessman to the airport in less than 3 minutes pays off with a lucrative stock tip. Rescuing and dropping off a mobster’s daughter will give you a 5 digit cash reward. You’ll even be able to drive unsuspecting, but wholly deserving hitchhikers to the gates of a cannibalistic cult.

Freaks and Strangers, on the other hand, are side missions that fall squarely in between story missions and the less meaty dynamic missions. Each character has their own unique set, with only one shared between all three. Most of them are goofy and inconsequential but go to great lengths to add even more game to an already bursting at the seams package.

The vistas in Grand Theft Auto V are simply breathtaking.

The sights and the sounds of Los Santos

As a transplanted Los Angelino, I can safely say that Grand Theft Auto V nails their parody of the City of Angels in Los Santos. I spent hours driving around familiar locations visiting famous landmarks, well, their spoofed version of them anyway. The famous Whiskey A Go Go, where bands like Motley Crue got their first big break, is now the Tequi La La. There is the obvious Hollywood sign now posing as the Vinewood sign, overlooking the debauchery of Vinewood from it’s similar mountainside perch. Pershing Square, The Beverly Center, Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, all are on display and are immediately recognizable to the Los Angeles locals. Geographically, this is Los Angeles, albeit in an extremely truncated form (sadly, my street and apartment building are nowhere to be found).

Los Santos and more to the point, Grand Theft Auto V is a really good looking game. Pushing current gen consoles to their absolute limit, the landscape, the cars, the lighting are all jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Character animations are incredibly well animated and life-like as well. Cut scenes show character’s expressions and emotions and seemingly insignificant details like the way sunglasses rise and fall on the character’s nose due to facial contortions  Knocking an unsuspecting bystander out with a punch (don’t judge me) will cause them to realistically slump over headfirst. NaturalMotion’s Euphoria Engine really brings the characters and the denizens of Los Santos to life and give the whole world a true to life feel.

Sure, Grand Theft Auto V is a great looking game, but it sounds even better. Ambient dialogue peppers the environment with a truly lived in feel and depending where you are, the NPCs all speak with a regional dialect that truly immersed me into my surroundings. So much so that it became almost like a pleasant background noise for the goings on in the game. Car engines roared as I gained speed, and purred when I sat idle. Beach sounds filled my surround sound system as I took a leisurely stroll, taking in the view or when I chased down a possibly hapless victim to one of my Trevor inspired outbursts. City life bustled as I could hear neighborhood dog’s barks echo in between the narrow spaces between houses in South Central Los Santos. Guns and explosions provide just the right cinematic boom you would expect and silenced weapons give a satisfying “thoomp” when fired. Yet again, another technical marvel emanating from this incredibly impressive presentation.

As a fan of late 80’s and early 90’s hip-hop and 80’s radio, and a lover of late 80’s and 90’s hardcore, I have always been incredibly impressed with the soundtracks in the Grand Theft Auto games, with each radio station providing me the right amount of nostalgia and glee. Also impressive is how deep Rockstar will dig to find (extremely) underground gems like Maximum Penalty’s “All Your Boys,” or Underdog’s “Back to Back” in GTA IV. There was always a ton of music for me to enjoy… that is until now. Obviously musical tastes are subjective, but I just don’t like 90% of the music offerings I found on the radio. Sure I have a couple of up-my-alley classics like Suicidal Tendencies’ “Subliminal” or Circle Jerk’s “Rock House” but by and large I found the soundtrack to be sorely lacking in genres or tunes that I enjoy. A minor quibble for sure, but considering how much I’ve enjoyed all of the previous game’s soundtracks, it was disappointing to say the least.

Micheal is pensive as he gazes at the Los Santos skyline.

Mostly fame and wee little bit of shame

While I’m on the subject of slightly disappointing things, there are some odd omissions in the game that I found to be distracting on the whole. For starters, the game gives you customization options for each of the characters including specific hairstyles, facial hair and clothing choices that cater to each character’s individually. For example, shopping for Franklin and Trevor, while in the same store, gave me wildly different options regarding their wardrobe and do a fantastic job of reflecting the characters themselves. Franklin’s options for jeans are either baggy, fitted or skinny, while Trevor’s are all loose and tattered. Franklin will be able to choose between all current and stylish sunglasses, while Trevor gets wire-framed or aviator options. It’s an incredibly neat touch that goes to show how far Rockstar goes to establish their characters.

Unfortunately, no matter how much shopping you do to give your characters a makeover, the game inevitably reverts the characters back to their prefabbed clothes which causes me to either revisit a store to again select the clothes I already bought, or go back to the character’s respective safehouse to retrieve the clothes from their closet. Yes, I am aware that this is nitpicking a game that does so much incredibly well and it really shouldn’t impact my enjoyment of the game, and it really didn’t, except for Franklin because before I got my hands on his wardrobe, he dressed like a reject from 90’s era hip-hop. Trust me, I live here and that’s not how people dress.

Money is never really an issue in this game either. While there is a fully functioning stock market in which I could invest my money, I rarely used it because I never needed to. If I wanted a car, I would steal it. If I wanted bullets, they weren’t too costly so I could stock up and never really have to replenish. Buying property has returned but again, outside of the desire to make as much money as possible, I only purchased a few. Perhaps if there were new digs to buy or upgrades to the safehouses supplied by the game, this would have been a much deeper experience. As it stands, there is very little need or consequence to earning money outside of the few mission mandated heists. And while the payouts for a few select heists are incredibly sizeable, there are only a handful overall. Hopefully this is something that will be rectified in the inevitable DLC down the road. I would gladly fork over real money to be able to steal more fake money.

Quicksaving has been introduced to Grand Theft Auto and I sincerely hope it never, ever goes away. Words can’t express how invaluable quicksaving is in this game. No longer having to rely on auto saves for driving all the way across town to return to your house to sleep, the quicksave option allows me to save anywhere, at any time as long as I’m not in a mission. Starting up the game again leaves my character right where I left him, vehicles intact.

The flipside of this is that there is no option whatsoever to restart a checkpoint or mission while the mission is in progress. Instead I would have to become suicidal and blow myself up in order to fail and restart the checkpoint once I realized I made a race losing error, or lost sight of a target.  My only other option would be to wait for the fail-state to trigger and play out. It seems like an odd omission this late in the series.

In continuation, games have long since innovated in regards to navigating open world cities. Be it through translucent arrows showing where to turn, a turn signal on your car automatically blinking left or right, or even a spoken voice, like an actual GPS, telling me where to turn and when. Funny enough, the voice directions was a feature in the higher end cars of GTA IV. All of these incredibly useful innovations are absent from Grand Theft Auto V. Instead I still have to make sure I turn where the mini-map highlights which has been the case since the original Grand Theft Auto. Sure it’s a staple of the series, but with so many other improvements to the formula, this one, very current advancement being left out seems like a glaring oversight.

Get used to this image. Playing as Trevor, this is gonna happen often.

To Live and Die in a reasonable facsimile of L.A.

Over 4900 words in and I never even mentioned the fact that there is a full ocean to explore, with sunken treasure and replete with Great White Sharks. The reason for this is because outside of two missions, I never went underwater during my time playing the game. There is a prison and a military base I never visited, a murder mystery to unravel, and whole swaths of land I never traversed in my 40 plus hours with the game.  A true testament to how robust, impressive, and grandiose this game is in terms of content to experience.

So the story didn’t knock my socks off, and the game has some minor issues that will most likely only be an issue to me. The fact remains that Grand Theft Auto V is a stunning achievement in ambition, scale, scope as well as execution of concepts and gameplay. Come for the heists, stay for the sights. I’ve had a blast with my time in Los Santos circa 2013 and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Sean completed the single player campaign in approximately 50 hours with a little over 75% completion. He received a review copy for Xbox 360 from Rockstar for review purposes.

9/10+ Core gameplay improved in nearly every way
+ The heists
+ Character switching
+ Tons of things to see and do
+ Dynamic missions
+ It’s gorgeous
+ Viciously dark humor
+ Trevor on his own
-Trevor with Michael
-The story is just OK
-Only a handful of songs on the soundtrack stand out
-Money is of little consequence
-Customization hampered by some design

Available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Version Reviewed: Xbox 360

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0 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto V Review – When nihilism and fun collide

  1. It’s better than 4, the story good be better. The idea of 3 main characters is interesting, first in a GTA. Going to try the online next week, since the online right now is not good.

    Like

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