Hey! Are you one of the hundreds of thousands of white-knuckled GTA fans biting their nails in anticipation for tomorrow's launch of Rockstar's next big thing in their flagship Grand Theft Auto series? Yes? Then you're probably already dead set on a purchase and probably don't need any more convincing. It's grand time full of debauchery, chaotic chases, and maniacal mayhem and is definitely well worth the inevitable "sick day" you'll call in to get out of work for a full day of GTA this Tuesday. Likewise, gamers that have never loved these titles can rest assured that the fifth numbered entry is more of the same - albeit prettier and a bit more refined.
Once again returning to the fake-Californian city of Los Santos, gently nestled between the immense Pacific Ocean and imposing Rockies, is a city littered with opportunity - especially for those willing to grab it by any means necessary. The bright lights and sandy beaches invite all manner of people from yuppies, hippies, criminals, wanna-be starlets, and sociopaths alike. It's never a dull moment in LS and its surrounding county is ripe for the taking for the fiduciary felonious fellow.
For those others who are wavering between play or don't or who may never have played a GTA before read on for my full review of "Grand Theft Auto V."
Before diving right in let's touch on "GTA IV" for a hot sec.
I'll be the first to admit the "Grand Theft Auto IV" left a slight bitter taste in my mouth. Yes, it was finally "next-gen." Yes, it was gorgeous. Yes, it was fun (for the most part). But something was missing. Rockstar took the leap from the criminal whimsy of "Vice City" and "San Andreas" for a decidedly grittier, grounded experience. IV was a GTA for mature grown-ups much like Christopher Nolan's darker Batmans were for an older audience but somewhere along the lines it got "too real" for its own good, ultimately failing at providing a deeper message or moral reflection for the gaming populace. "GTA IV" could never be our hero to combat the old guard media, finally nailing the games as art debate; and I don't think it was ever meant for that anyway. While the fantastic "Gay Tony" DLC was a return to form, vanilla "IV" strained with its attempt at levity and drama. I'm straying quite far but what I'm getting at is the charm of GTAs past as come back and Rockstar's latest is better off because of it.
The general gameplay, as well as major story beats, centers around a half dozen or so large-scale heists in which Michael, Franklin, and Trevor must complete for a variety of escalating reasons. In typical GTA fashion the lines of crook and cop are smudged as certain morally ambiguous entities persuade the trio into airing out their dirty laundry. Alliances and feuds come and go, as each new score brings more drama upon the houses of out heroes (villains?); it always seems to get a little worse before getting better. Throughout the story, friendships are tested, allies become enemies, the bad guys get worse all while the innocent suffer. But this is the world of Grand Theft Auto - it pays to be bad; everyone else be damned.
Heist consists of a series of missions leading up to main the event. Before all that though, Lester (the brain behind the operations) asks you to assemble your team and choose your approach - either guns blazing or a much subtler precision strike. Who you choose to tag along affects your take away as more experienced criminals take a bigger slice but also command a smoother getaway. You can cheap out on lesser experienced thieves but it might bite you in the ass later.
Although the heists are the main focus and are quite thrilling, it's a shame that you're not given more freedom in their execution. I can't think of a better way of testing your thievery skills than by planning out your own personalized burglary employing all the lessons you learned over the course of the game. Perhaps, this will come through in "GTA V"'s multiplayer portion over the next few weeks. I'm hoping this is the case despite the mixed bag that was "Red Dead Redemption"'s open world online component that devolved into a grief fest.
Controls get a noticeable bump as pulling off stylish shots and daring vehicular maneuvers seem much easier with this installment. Not to harp on IV so much but many of the cars were too squirrely, wildly bobbing over the road. Furthermore, shooting was equally awkward as Nico struggled to line up shots efficiently. Thankfully, "V" pulls it down a notch as cars have a more arcadey feel and are generally less ungainly, smoothly hugging the road at any speed - Franklin's unique power (I'll talk about this more in a sec) is especially indispensable during hectic chases - while shooting and cover controls are tweaked in favor of responsiveness. Locating, targeting, and taking out enemies are more polished. There's also a simple cover ability that works well enough to keep battles engaging without undue frustration.
Each character has their strengths and weaknesses; however, a simple leveling mechanic is prevalent under the hood. As you shoot, drive, run, pilot, etc. you'll become slightly more proficient. There are a few schools with challenges that will help you become stronger but these aren't really necessary to complete the game. Additionally, the trio has unique powers activated by pushing in L3 and R3. Michael gets a bullet time effect slowing down the action in gun fights; Franklin gets a similar power that effects his driving ability for maximum control, and Trevor gains limited invulnerability and hit harder with weapons. While the powers are all useful, Franklin's was probably the most impressive allowing you to pull of ridiculous automobile stunts with ease.
The big gimmick this time is you'll not have just one maladjusted main character, but three criminals intending on taking over Los Santos. Without going into much spoilers, you'll eventually get a peek into the lives of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor and all their interweaving trials and tribulations. While "V" allows you freedom between choosing which character to play as, specific story and missions require certain characters. The freedom really comes into play when off-mission. I found myself playing a few basic side-quests as Franklin and when I had enough of him would jump into the body of Trevor or Franklin. What's neat about this is that each character has their own side-missions that make sense for them. For instance, Franklin participates in street races as Trevor has the classic GTA Rampages we all know and love. It keeps the pace quick and the gameplay changing enough that you'll always have something to do.
Variety is the spice of life they say and GTA is not short on flavor. Dozens of vehicles are at your disposal - from muscle cars, dune buggies, choppers and rice burners, to prop planes, turboprops, jets, and helicopters. You'll have a navy at your fingertips with sailboats, dinghys, jet-skis and even a mini-submarine! That last one is new for the series opening open a number of oceanic scavenger hunts. Here you'll take a plethora of missions from typical drug deals and shoot outs to quests that take you further off the beaten path, such as spying on celebrities.
One thing in particular that pleased me where the one-off stranger missions where you'd meet a weird LS native prompting a short but inane and bizarre side story. They functioned much in the vein of the "Red Dead Redemption" stranger missions. They don't have any bearing on the game but provide moments of genuine laughter.
Additionally, "V" might vary well have the most optional distractions than any of the previous games combined. I can't tally how many hours I've wasted off-mission with golf, tennis, biking, triathlons, diving... even yoga! Granted most of these are just there to mix it up a bit and aren't as polished as I would like; however, tennis and golf a robust enough to warrant a few moments to blow off steam. The smart phone once again plays a major role in the game. Apparently, Rockstar must have listened to the phone haters as it's not nearly as annoying as "IV"'s infamously needy device. No more bowling-loving, stripper staring cousins will be bugging you through your gameplay. In fact, nearly all social obligations will be initiated by you if you want and really have no bearing on the overall story. However, if you neglect the phone too much you'll miss a lot of what "V" has to offer with the more subtle plot elements.
Graphically, this is one of the most beautiful games for current gen consoles. Rockstar's command of the tech required to render awe inspiring vistas, as well as dingy suburban streets proves that they're at the top of the game. You can practically grab any still image during any moment and see how brilliant this game looks. Everything from the reflective surfaces ("V" has some of the best water for consoles, seriously) to detailed textures to face and body animations (that "L.A. Noire" face tech certainly pays its due) is a delight for your eyes. Several times throughout my 40 plus hour playthrough I would trek up the highest mount and watch the sunset. Not many games can inspire the warm feelings that a simple skybox effect can offer but this is one of them.
However, this comes at a price to frame rate. Several times - mostly while boating or flying - the game becomes quite choppy. Occasionally, you'd also get some weird pop-in as the draw distance competes with texture loads. Thankfully, car chases kept up pace and I never failed due to any loss in frames. This is by no means a deal breaker but as a PC gamer, I would love to see what Rockstar can do on that platform. Of course, no official word as been released regarding a PC port (or next-gen consoles) but seeing as all the other GTA's were eventually brought over, we can safely assume that a better optimized PC release looms on the horizon.
From the get-go the delightfully psychotic Trevor is by far the most interesting. He's not a likable person by any means but is definitely slathered in a thick dusting of crazy sauce as his emotional tantrums often produced some of the funniest, and more disturbing, elements throughout the game. Upon switching to him, using the back-of-the-box bullet-pointed Quick Change ability, time and again produces amusing results as Trevor will have just come to in the middle of the forest after a meth bender, often with a few indiscriminate bodies lying around. Sometimes he's wearing a dress. Other times just his underwear. It's this little details that make him the more satisfying to play.
Franklin, while some might compare him as a CJ 2.0, seemed the least developed though that might be in part due to his initial neutrality between the polar ends of the Michael/Trevor stratum. He never had the mutual history from a buried past that the others had and thus seemed like an ill fit at first. Thankfully, he doesn't go the route of a typical banger, but many might balk at the movie stereotype that positions him throughout the story. In the end, he becomes an anchor of sort between Trevor and Mike and he comes into his own by the end of the game - though shallow as his story seems to be.
Michael, meant to be the straight-man, suffers from what I call GTA Antihero Syndrome whereby his wants and needs almost always directly conflict with the given story. He evens out a bit as the story goes on and ultimately his family is worked smoothly into his arc but the tonal shifts can be jarring when he's lamenting his life's work as he mows down pedestrians. It's odd that Mike feels like the main the character despite the other two playing huge roles. Maybe it's because he's a bit more prominent in ads and can be slightly more realistic as a for real life person in spite of his criminal intentions.
The characterization and story beats essentially boil down to cartoon versions of people. While some human drama may be garnered, most of the people you'll meet are one-dimensional in service to the popcorn- jawing action movie script. Despite the generic plot and totally foreseeable twists, the voice actors perform admirably and even seem to be having fun with the script. Sure it's kinda dumb, and it apes many threads from recent pop culture, it's still fun providing enough set up to keep you involved.
Since this is a GTA game, you should expect that it's not for the easily offended. "V" is no different by pushing the boundaries even more so. While nothing intensely gruesome is depicted, you'll be exposed to gratuitous bouts violence. A torture scenario creeps at one point and it might turn the more sensitive eyes. Swears, drug use, and even nudity get their screen time marking this squarely for older players. Don't mistake this as a mark for maturity, however, as a good deal of the humor stems from juvenile jokes. Still there are plenty of funny parts that might usher a chuckle or two but your mileage might vary.
At the end of the day, "Grand Theft Auto V' is precisely what you'd expect it to be - a highly polished, ambitious title that more often than not delivers on its promises. Rockstar consistently swings away with another homerun for fans of the series. While the three person tag-team of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor seems like a hassle, it ultimately provides a variety of missions and experiences that a single character arc might not have. In a way, "GTA V" is like a semi-serious HBO series, especially with the transitional gameplay between the trio of ne'er-do-wells. There's literally a world of stuff to do between missions and enough open road to keep you exploring for dozens of hours. Half the fun is entertaining yourself by aggravating the police and seeing how long you can last. Every minute is an absolute blast.
Score: 9 out of 10
"Grand Theft Auto V" is available tomorrow for PS3 and Xbox 360. Review copy provided by Rockstar and played on the Xbox 360.
For more "GTA V" stay tuned with us tonight at midnight as we'll be live streaming "Grand Theft Auto V" on our Twitch account!