Tuesday, October 8, 2013

REVIEW - Grand Theft Auto V.

Grand Theft Auto V, I expect, needs no introduction.  Rockstar Games are the granddaddy of the open-world genre, and Grand Theft Auto is their flagship.  It is an absolutely massive game, with at least forty hours of content to flesh out the main game (and many, many more if you want to get 100%), and a gigantic multiplayer component tacked on top of that (assuming you can play it).

GTA V is the best value-per-dollar game thus far in 2013 (unless you favor the tight combat and more confined adventure of Dragon's Crown), and a heavyweight contender for Game of the Year.  Before we get too deep into this, let me first say
"When I was a kid and I played my first driving game - before I understood that it was a game in which you drove a car straight down a single road with a few curves in it - I saw a very different game in my mind.  I saw a game in which I was free.  Free to cruise down the highway in my chosen car, free to come to a crossroads and pick the direction I would drive in.  Free to pull in to a gas station, go inside and buy a chocolate bar (I was like nine, I had my priorities straight).
It took fifteen years for somebody to make the game I imagined as a child, and they called it San Andreas." 
It goes without saying, then, that there is a very special place in my heart for the fictional state in which GTA V is set, and its ambition as a whole.  If you don't want the details - if you want the short version - rest assured that V is spectacular and you should go buy it (on the off chance you haven't already).

Still here?  Let's begin.

First impressions count for a lot.  You can never make a new first impression - but you can overcome a bad one.  For example, the first time Kayla and I hung out socially, she labeled me an arrogant asshole.  Two and a half years later, we exchange saccharine Catbug-based kissy texts on a daily basis.  A bit of substance and familiarity go a long way.

Grand Theft Auto V does not boast the deeply immersive, technologically stunning first-impressions of San Andreas or IV.  It's distant.  Standoffish.  You assure yourself that there's something valuable here, beneath its reserved surface - something worth taking the time to discover - and in the long run, you'd be right.  It's just not the be-all-end-all greatest video game evarrr we had anticipated.

That being said, it's still pretty damned incredible.

I've long felt that Rockstar are the Hank Rearden of the video game world.  Every few years they produce a product of such remarkable quality that all their competitors must just throw up their hands and walk away, 'cause there's no competing with this.  This was certainly true when Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Vice City ('02), San Andreas ('04) and IV ('08) dropped.  It was even true when Red Dead Redeption (2010) strummed its definitive riff on the spaghetti western - doing something no one could or would even attempt to do - but it's not quite as true, any more.

In terms of quantity, Grand Theft Auto V shames all other open-world action games.  Soundly.  There is so much to see and do in V's San Andreas that it goes straight past your run-of-the-mill lunacy and comfortably sits at a place of such insane over-indulgence that Willy Wonka would look upon its mad excess and nod, approvingly.  Yes there are cars to steal, hookers to give your custom to, Taxi jobs to fill and strip clubs to visit - the old standards are all here - but there's also hunting with a trusty elk call for assistance.

You get paid better when it's a clean shot, straight through the heart.

Sharp shadows, gorgeous skies, photo-real lens effects.  Gorgeous.

There's golf and tennis, there are bike races and triathalons.  There's swimming and games of darts.  You can go into a movie theater and watch weird little movies.  You can sit on the couch, smoke a joint and watch Rockstar's hit-or-miss comedy lampooning American culture.

There's even yoga.  Not kidding.  There's yoga, and these are just optional side activities you may never even stumble across if you stick to the central campaign.  They're sprinkles on top.  Fantastic sprinkles - each less tasty than one would find in a game dedicated to the activity's particular mechanic, to be sure - but delicious nonetheless.

I'll admit, though, I was expecting more of the cupcake beneath.

Not more quantity - again, that cup runneth over - but after Batman: Arkham City, Prototype and Sleeping Dogs I was expecting snappier melee combat.  Higher standards for open-world brawling have been set, after all, but it's the same airy, disconnected fisticuffs we've had in previous GTAs.  After inFamous and Rockstar's own Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 I was expecting tighter shooting, with a pleasant feel to the reticle's movements - again, new standards had been set - but here it's about the same as it was in GTA IV, entirely reliant on the simple but less-than-satisfying snap-to aim mechanic the series has long employed.  At least cover still works well.

Driving has seen a bit of an upgrade.  While it's still physics-based, it leans less heavily on it and becomes easier as your character develops their driving skill, quickly becoming second-nature.  As in San Andreas, you can really feel the road in GTA V.

The core of the game - driving around, getting in fights and shooting up cars and coppers - is about as fun as it was in GTA IV.  This is by no means a fatal strike against the game, as driving around, getting in fights and shooting dudes is still a lot of fun - but it's worth noting that where Grand Theft Auto was once the gold standard for all things an open-world game could be, others have pulled ahead when it comes to melee combat and open-world shooting.

The driving remains awesome.

It's also gorgeous, the fidelity of its game world second to none in the open-world space - a near-flawless mix of masterful tech bent to the service of stunning artistry.  Details are sharp and richly drawn, but it's positively jaw-dropping when larger atmospheric effects come into play - a lightning strike illuminating a broad swath of real estate, for example - and Grand Theft Auto V's sunsets are always the loveliest you've seen in a game.

It's rare for the tech to buckle under the weight of its own ambition - occasionally pop-in will happen, and once my game started having a little panic attack as I was blasting through town in a sports car after several hours of play, with buildings, streets, trees and cars all popping in and out like a digital acid trip - but that was only once in my 50-plus hours with the game.

You've likely read elsewhere that GTA V sets itself apart from previous entries by way of its three protagonists - but its impact is greater than you'd expect.

On the surface, having three protagonists is a pointless gimmick.  Ever since ownership of property was introduced in Vice City, the sense of progression in Grand Theft Auto has been tied not just to what guns they have access to, but how much of the game world the player owns.  If you have ten safehouses, an air strip and five money-making properties, one feels, you're doing quite well for yourself.

In V, some properties may be exclusive to certain characters - only Trevor can buy the airstrip, while only Franklin will purchase the medical marijuana shop - and this has the troubling effect of fragmenting the player's sense of ownership over the game world.  I may have a sweet new safehouse in the Vinewood hills as a certain character, but I still have to drive back to the other side of town to access the garage only he can purchase and store cars in.

This is the only unfortunate side-effect of the three-character choice, however.  In terms of narrative structure and payoff - and so, the player's involvement with the game world and its narrative - it's a step forward for the series.

Trevor, Franklin and Michael.

Each of the three have their own style, attitude and problems, making them feel nicely distinct as they lip off to the driver they just rear-ended in their own special way.  More importantly, the game's epic scope - one which more accurately mirrors a season or two of a crime dramedy than the less-focused, sprawling epic-poem style of previous GTAs - feels tight and vital thanks to the ability to create narrative peaks and valleys for one character before switching to another.

After a touch of time with one, their narrative will end on a cliffhanger as the action sweeps away to another - now resolving old threads of narrative as new storylines are weaved in.  This effectively creates a Grand Theft Auto narrative with the strongest momentum the series has ever seen.  Unlike the soupy, general arcs of previous entries - CJ goes from Grove St. banger to king of the state (remember how awesome James Woods was as Tenpenney?), Niko arrives in New York to escape his past, only to confront it - Grand Theft Auto V's narrative cannot be summed up in a quick quip.  It's actually involving and interesting, and by halfway through I was so absorbed I couldn't wait to see how it would end.

It also, wisely, takes a bit of a step back from the sour-puss seriousness of Niko's adventure in IV, allowing its stories to grow from the same fertile, cynical, colorful soil as Rockstar's constant spoofing of American culture.  There's no great disconnect here between the insane actions your characters take and the insane world they find themselves inhabiting - it's tonally consistent, and always entertaining.

You end up loving these guys.  Even Trevor.  And he's a monster.

Aside from Trevor and (Franklin's childhood friend) Lamar - who are excellent - the voice cast is very good, across the board.  Writing is sharp and never over-indulgent, and while the in-engine cutscenes' beauty never matches those found in the standard-setting inFamous 2, the decent facial animation, comfortable mo-cap and strong voice work carry it through, and leave the player involved.

The larger missions, for their part, are very orchestrated, set-piece heavy affairs - often giving you shades of classic heist movies along the way (this moment is straight out of Heat, while another recalls The Italian Job or the canal chase in Terminator 2: Judgement Day). GTA V employs the trick of letting players think they have a choice in how things play out (selecting one of two very different approaches for each of the game's highlight heists), but once a game plan has been selected and preparations have been made, you'll find yourself locked in to a surprisingly linear sequence of actions to accomplish your objective.

The linearity of the missions themselves escape with a bit of the sense of accomplishment the heists are meant to impart, but doesn't stop them from meeting their objective as big tentpole moments - huge, grand crime-happy adventures, sprinkled as they are throughout the campaign.

As excellent as the missions tend to be (and they are), Grand Theft Auto V is, as usual, at its best when you wander off the beaten path.

I heart the Sabre Turbo.  In black, please.

In GTA V's case, I'm happy to report, it's better in that regard than any previous entry in the series. V employs the random encounters Rockstar experimented with in Red Dead Redemption to wonderful effect.

Your minimap will flash (impossible to miss) and a blue dot will appear.  You're free to approach it to see what's up or ignore it - no pressure - but if you swing by you may discover a pair of drunks in need of a ride home, a man who's just had his wallet stolen, a girl whose car has just been jacked - and in a lovely fit of irony, you can chase down the car thief and bring him to justice, returning the car to its owner for a cash reward.

The best of these are the ones that go even crazier.  There is a scene you can stumble across that is straight out of the failed deal that begins No Country For Old Men, leading to a highway chase with carloads of drug runners desperate to get their cash back. Once, the blue dot was a van that tore out of a driveway.  I had no idea what was going on, but I pulled a 180, swooped behind it and put a few rounds through the rear window and into the driver's head.

The van crashed, gun-toting goons poured out and I returned fire, barely scraping by with my life.  Then, a bound woman emerged from the van and told me she was trying to escape a gang she'd foolishly joined.  I agreed to drive her home when a half-dozen bikers descended on us, shotguns roaring.

"I told you they wouldn't let me go!" she called, just before one pulled up to the driver's side window and unloaded a barrel of buckshot into my face.

After I respawned, I never saw that lady again.  I hope she's okay.

In the ways that really matter - comfortable gameplay with tons of variety, sprawling scope, involving story, lovely visuals, ambition - Grand Theft Auto V is a success, and a strong step forward for the series.  I am absolutely in love with the fact that I can go to my garage, get behind the wheel of a gorgeous old muscle car and tear out of the city, through the desert, around a mountain lake and up into the forests beyond.

The serviceable gunplay remains serviceable and the soundtrack (while it has highlights and a lovely original ambient score) isn't as uniformly impressive as any previous GTA from here to Vice City.  [update]  Two months later : y'know what?  No - it's a great soundtrack.  It just took time to grow on me.  [/update] That said, when what's on offer is so broad and so broadly accomplished, it's hard to get hung up on the details.

The hugely ambitious online component, as of this writing (one week after its launch) still doesn't work.  Not really.  You might spend a day or two enjoying yourself (and it is hugely enjoyable as you feel real ownership over your mute character, climbing the rungs of organized crime and free-roaming mayhem with fifteen friends and strangers) and then log in to find your character, all the weapons and vehicles you unlocked, and all the property you bought - poof! - gone, perhaps never to return.  Assuming you can even log in at all.

Why Rockstar simply didn't (a) save online profiles locally and (b) have a nice, long open beta to iron out the kinks in their hugely ambitious online component is beyond me.  Okay, maybe they didn't allow local saves because of hackers, but either way they come across as the rather arrogant assholes who deleted my hard-built character.

But bad first impressions can be overcome, and a bit of familiarity and genuine substance go a long way.  Even taking all its imperfections into account, Grand Theft Auto V remains deeply impressive - its gorgeous presentation and massive and consistently entertaining single-player campaign, alone, would place it in strong running for the best game of this (or any other) year - and Grand Theft Auto Online is stunning (when it works).  Beyond its staggering scope and beauty, it's a game that's comfortable with everything, though perfect at almost nothing - but for any game that's designed with hundreds of hours of playtime in mind, comfort is key.

This is a game that's deeply comfortable to snuggle in to for hours of mucking about, sticking up liquor stores for a grand or two, HALO jumping into military bases to steal fighter jets, or just tooling around the boonies in a car you'll never afford in real life.  A game world of remarkable texture and breadth.

Like any good relationship, there will be growing pains.  Its true value won't come in to accurate focus for months (or perhaps years) - but the very fact that I can skry such a long-lived association speaks volumes.


  1. It's hard for me to pin point the exact moment I thought this was a great game. But it was probably when I switched over to Trevor as he was bailing out of a flaming crop duster.

    "Shit's Fucked." I believe he said.

    Nice review by the way. That Kayla anecdote really made it for some reason.

  2. I think for me that moment came when I realized I was having as much fun in V as I did in San Andreas.

  3. Right?! I think I was about two thirds through IV when it hit me:

    "San Andreas was fun and these tool booths are bullsh*t"