The pull comes with every new GTA. That desire to just veg out in a chair in front of a TV and lose myself in the somehow very real world that Rockstar manages to craft out of their digital clay. Every time a new entry in the series comes out, the trap gets deeper. With the PS2 trilogy, I lost hundreds and hundreds of hours spread across three games and when GTA IV came out, even though I was a more responsible (arguably) and older (not arguably) adult I still had trouble pulling myself away. Now, here we are in 2013 at the launch of GTA V. Even older, even more (arguably) responsible, full-time “big boy” job, family, no time and yet all I want to do is wreak havoc in Los Santos. This is why Grand Theft Auto is among the most powerful forces in all of entertainment media. It’s not the violence (although it’s there). It’s not the storytelling (although it’s great). It’s not even the game play (although it’s a blast). It’s the pull. It’s the fact that the series drops you into its world and dares you to fight your way out of it, and I’m pleased to report that GTA V is the best world Rockstar has created to date.
The first thing that really sticks out to me is just how much performance Rockstar has managed to squeeze out of eight year old hardware. Los Santos is enormous, vibrant and frequently gorgeous. While there are still some expected issues with pop-in and the occasional frame-rate hiccup these are mostly very minor and very rarely pull players out of the experience. In fact, the only really noticeable issues I’ve had with pop-up have been during the opening cut scene. Part of this is helped by the fact that both versions of the game require at least a hefty 8GB install. Players can improve performance even further by installing both disks (those of you on Xbox with a smaller hard drive or less room can try installing disc one on a USB drive and disc two on your system’s hard drive). Even without the optional install, the game performs better than one would expect a game of this size on current gen hardware to behave.
The visual side of things is very important because immersion fundamental to this series. Character models are expressive, unique and (coupled with the high quality voice over work) breathe life into the main and supporting cast. I felt immediately connected to each of the three primary characters, although in different ways. Each of them has his own very unique personality. Michael is the aging gangster with the big mansion, unhappy family life, and an itch to get back in the game. Franklin is the young hustler, trying to make a name (and some money) for himself and learn something along the way. Trevor, well, Trevor is a psychopath.
What I found though is that not only did I connect to each of the characters, but that I also ended up role playing as them. I am much more likely to go on a destructive rampage with Trevor than with Michael just because I feel like it matches his personality. When I want to go on a high speed cruise through the city on a motorcycle, I’m most likely to do that as Franklin. The fact that the world is open regardless of who I was playing with, yet I purposely chose to play different ways with different characters speaks volumes for how real each of the three main characters feel. This is something that we never really got with NiKo in GTA IV. It was difficult to do some of the random activities in that game because they felt out of character for his personality. Adding additional main characters allows them to solve this problem while also taking the story in some interesting directions.
Adding additional main characters also allows them to take the greater focus on a tighter story in some interesting directions. Each of the primary characters has missions that are theirs and theirs alone, but as players progress through the game they find a lot of interesting situations where others are drawn in. On missions that do involve multiple people, players can easily switch between characters when necessary. This coupled with some interesting uses of the cinematic camera (as a tip: if you’re chasing someone in a story mission, check out the cinematic camera for some interesting commentary from the chasee), allows Rockstar to tell a story from multiple perspectives. I would imagine that we’ll see this idea stolen quite a bit going forward.
Speaking of story, I won’t spoil anything but I believe this is the tightest, most complete story that Rockstar has ever told (including in the phenomenal Red Dead Redemption). What’s almost more impressive though than the writing, the voice acting and the narrative itself is how well it integrates with the missions involved. Story missions actually feel like necessary reveals from a character or event standpoint rather than filler. When preparing for a large heist for example, players go through the whole process from scouting out the location, choosing a tactic, gathering the equipment, choosing a team and ultimately executing on all of this for a big score. Anytime developers offer something this expansive, there is often an opportunity for some of this stuff to feel disconnected or like time wasting filler. That doesn’t happen here. Each of these missions is interesting and engaging.
Even something like picking a squad is expanded beyond just choosing stats from a list. Players can find new crew members by doing random events in the world. These crew members level up as they perform more heists and are paid a cut of the take dependent on their starting skill set. There’s some real risk here. Pick a weak team member and he’ll get a lower cut of the haul, meaning more money in my pocket, but he’s also more likely to screw something up. The nice thing is if players can get his skill set leveled up a bit his cut will never increase.
When on the street (either on foot or behind the wheel) players will notice some changes and updates to the controls. Shooting has been modified to be more like another of Rockstar’s titles, Max Payne 3. There are three options: Free-aim, classic GTA, or Assisted Aim (I would suggest either Free or Assisted Aim). With assisted aim, characters get snap lock-on when targeting enemies. The reticule feels more responsive than in IV and weapons overall seem to have more impact. Perhaps the biggest improvement is in melee combat, which is incredibly satisfying. Keep in mind that each of the main characters has a skill set that can be continually improved in areas like driving, shooting, flying, stamina, etc. That means that similarly to the Elder Scrolls series the more players do a certain activity, the better that character will get. This has a real impact on the game play beyond crunching numbers. Driving with Franklin (the best driver of the three) FEELS different than driving with Trevor; smoother, more in control. Likewise shooting with Michael FEELS more responsive than the others and likewise when it comes to flying with Trevor.
Speaking of driving, this is a major change from GTA IV. People were split on the behind the wheel action in IV because of the increased emphasis on weight and inertia. Some (myself included) loved the increased challenge of perfectly navigating sometimes difficult to handle vehicles through packed traffic. Others longed for a more arcade like experience. I’m pleased to report that the driving in GTA V is a nice mix of both. There is clearly still some weight, inertia and skill involved in piloting the chosen set of wheels down a narrow lane while running from the police, but it doesn’t exactly feel like the controls are fighting against me like it sometimes felt with IV.
Each of the main characters also has his own special ability. For example, clicking in on both sticks as Franklin while behind the wheel slows down everything except turning ability, allowing Franklin to weave in and out of ongoing traffic with ease. Michael has a bullet-time like special that emphasizes his experience with weaponry. Trevor’s special is a rage mode that allows him to take and deal more damage, necessary when players get into the kind of trouble that Trevor tends to get himself in.
Of course it wouldn’t be GTA if there weren’t a ton of distractions, side missions, and non-story related activities to get into. Many people were disappointed in the lack of real “fun” extra stuff in GTA IV. The series had just jumped to the next gen, had a greater emphasis on story, and eliminated some of the zaniness from San Andreas. This entry manages to up the ante even further with the sheer volume of side activities on display here. In addition to the side missions that tie into the main story and characterization, there are great little time wasters like Tennis and Golf. Rather than being hastily cobbled on afterthoughts these modes have great mechanics in their own right and can certainly suck up the time.
All of what we’ve discussed so far is in the box at launch, but the promise of something else is on the horizon. Purchasing GTA V also grants players access to GTA Online when it launches at the beginning of October. Rockstar is promising big things for this content and if it lives up to the hype, it could radically effect how we view both this series and open-world multiplayer. Look for a write-up on that when it launches.
One of the biggest factors in any new GTA is the soundtrack. I’m pleased to report that while it isn’t my favorite in the series (that honor still belongs to Vice City) it is an incredibly varied and well pieced together soundtrack. Accompanying the familiar radio stations (complete with the sometimes stale, sometimes hilarious Rockstar satire) is a lights-out score that matches up perfectly with the action on screen.
There is so much else here I could talk about. I could go into intricate details about some of the incredible things I’ve seen and done in Los Santos so far. I could gush over the characters, the setting, or the story for another 1500 words. I could even launch into some hyperbole filled discussion of GTA V’s place in the pantheon of gaming history. I could do all of those things, but I’d rather just say that GTA V is as close to a perfection of the Grand Theft Auto formula as has been created thus far. If you have any interest at all, it should already be installing on your system.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.