What is there to say about Grand Theft Auto 5, by Rockstar Games, which has not been said already? Its release was a record-breaking one, making so much money so extremely quickly that the comparison to the Avengers movie seems particularly apt, making well over $1 billion which is an insane figure no matter which way you slice it. According to Wikipedia the game’s sales figures are only topped by the truly ridiculous giants of games like Minecraft and Tetris. It’s a game which received wide-spread acclaim and approval, pretty much all of it entirely deserving. As such, writing a review for it feels more than a little tricky considering that I’m just going to be adding more praise on top of an already too-big mountain of praise. It feels like the exact opposite situation of the “pissing-into-a-sea-of-piss” metaphor.
GTA is a series I actually have a somewhat hit and miss relationship with. I played San Andreas way back when on the PS2 and I certainly remember enjoying my time in it, even if I never managed to finish it. Since that though literally every other game in the series, including the pretty huge release of GTAIV, has bypassed me with barely a nod in it’s direction. Sure I was aware of the release of GTAIV but I never felt overly much desire to go out of my way to play it. I know, fuck me, right?
Even without this background on the series, the hype for GTAV was still pretty real with me. I was aware that it was going to be the biggest release of last year and the build-up for it was pretty insane as well. It’s right here that I would like to briefly direct some comments towards Ubisoft and Rocksteady. Do you see guys…? Do you SEE what happens when you don’t release a new version of the game EVERY year? It means there’s more build-up, more hype and more time to actually make the game awesome. Why does nobody actually LEARN this shit?
Starting with the basics, GTAV is absolutely gorgeous. I can’t even pretend to understand what kind of witchcraft they used to make something which looks so good run on an ageing Xbox 360, but I’m pretty certain that if I were to weigh the Rockstar design team that they would all weigh the same as a duck. It happened more than once that I would be flying across the huge map of at sunrise, sunset or in the middle of the night and I would actually, literally, exclaim out loud at just how pretty the game could be, the sky, the sun on the mountains, the city lit up in the dead of night. And, keeping me sane by proving that this wasn’t just some brief moment of insanity, I was actually present when my flatmate had a couple of his own moments of cooing over the game’s graphics.
There isn’t really much to be said about the gameplay, you get guns, rocket-launchers, the ability to steal any vehicle you want and then get pushed into a map that still takes around 10 minutes to get across even in a supersonic jet, and then you’re just told to go nuts. Everyone who plays GTAV will come out of it with their own stories of awesome moments of daring and bravery and sheer, utter, mind-fuckingly ridiculous stuff. I mean, to this day I remain inordinately proud of the time I stole a plane from the city airport (getting me an automatic wanted level of 3 stars) was halfway across the map without losing the police when my engines got knocked out. I then succeeded in gliding over a mountain before leaping from the plane to parachute down onto a train. Said train then lead the police on a 20 minute chase all the way back to the city, at a 5 star wanted level, with helicopters being sniped from the sky with unwavering accuracy and extreme prejudice before finally losing my wanted level as it passed through a huge tunnel they could not follow me down. I mean, I then had to make the journey all the way back north again, but the time I wasted just to get that story was so, SO worth it. It was glorious.
In fact that story sort of sums up how GTA is meant to be played in a rather neat nutshell. You’ll start off with an objective on the map and be heading towards before you get side-tracked doing sweet FA and before you know it, it’s two hours later, you’re in a strip-club surrounded by dead bodies and you’ve completely forgotten what you were wanting to do in the first place.
I swear I once decided that I wanted to fly to my next story mission, so I went and stole a plane from the airport only to have the plane take critical damage during take-off. I could still have reached the marker on foot or maybe via some skilled gliding, but I became fucking determined that I would fly all the way there, and I spent a few hours just making absolute fucking sure I did it perfectly. It was awesome.
Even aside from the standard “messing around causing carnage” method of gameplay, there is still so much additional stuff, side missions, collectibles and mini-games that really you could easily sink near hundreds of hours into the game and still not do everything on offer. I mean, some of the stuff is utterly ludicrous… I mean, like, fucking yoga? SERIOUSLY?! But I love that they included that shit as well, somehow I don’t think the game would be the same without it.
I have to admit as well that I absolutely love it’s character system, where you play one of three main characters and (for the majority of the game) you can switch between the 3 at will. It’s a mechanic which I actually don’t think ever got as much praise as it deserves, especially because you can do it in real time and then you can bring all three characters together and they will actually meet up and interact. Plus, when you switch to another character you haven’t used in a while he will be doing something befitting of his personality, for example you might see them leaving a strip-club, drinking some whiskey by a pool or throwing up into a pond.
Franklin is, I think, as close as possible to the main character of the game, because he is the one who has the largest variety of options of customisation. He starts off as a lowly street hood and works his way up to become a bigger player in the city. Michael is a middle-aged man with an unsavoury past (which is the centre of one of the games major subplots), an unhappy home life and a constant desire to do better with his life whilst constantly still killing and blowing up everyone who crosses him. Trevor is essentially a white-trash, meth-cooking, drug-selling, gun-running, batshit-mental, trigger-happy murderer. In essence, Trevor has exactly the mentality of anyone who ever plays GTA… I spent most of my time playing Michael (although I did divide a fair amount of time between the other two as well) but I have to admit that not one of the three characters ever felt very relatable. Franklin comes across as a bit of a whiny little bitch, constantly complaining about how he doesn’t get enough from his criminal ways and also complaining about how dangerous his criminal ways are. Michael is an exercise in frustration, constantly upset that his ill-gotten gains from earlier in life never brought him happiness he decides to try and get more ill-gotten gains to cure this. Equally he manages to piss off every member of his family, gets confused by why he’s pissed them off, and then proceeds to piss them off further. Trevor is just generally unlikeable, but then again, he was pretty much designed to be utterly despicable and at least is amusing enough to play and mess around with.
What else is there to be said about the gameplay of GTA? It’s got driving, 3rd-person shooting (where using the cover mechanics is pretty much entirely optional), there are stealth elements and then there are all the other bits and pieces they decided to throw in. All the dozens of mini-games just in case you ever get bored of doing everything else. Honestly it’s kind of hard to critique it’s gameplay on the mechanics alone. When it comes down to it they are solid but nothing unique.
That said, the “heist” system is one I would like to make special mention of. In this you are informed of a specific “job” your characters will have to carry out and then you get to choose one of two approaches, followed by a few small side-missions to prepare for the job. You also have to choose NPC specialists to help you out (such as hackers, drivers or gunmen). The element of choice and almost Payday-esque vibe these missions provide is absolutely spectacular and remain my favourite ones in the game. The issue being that there are only like 5 of them throughout the single-player. When choosing specialists you are often given the choice of an amateur guy or a professional, the difference being that the professional will do a far better job but will also take a larger cut of your profits. You are SUPPOSED to be able to level up your specialists by using them more often, but in my experience, using the amateur members will result in them dying (and you losing a hefty chunk of the take) and with only 5 missions, even if they don’t die, there isn’t really much chance to level them up. It’s a brilliant mechanic, but one which needed to be used more often for you to experience it properly.
The game’s story is perhaps it’s weakest point in that a fair amount of it doesn’t really make all that much sense and a lot of the time the things you set about doing seem very disjointed from each other. It’s the sort of story that would probably get laughed out of the Bioware office. However, I feel that this is actually probably a good thing. I recall hearing that GTAIV tried to be very serious and gritty, and in a world where you can make a pile of hookers, cars and policemen and then blow the shit out of it, it’s rather hard for anything serious to fit the tone. It does it well though and never appears to take itself too seriously. It could even be pretty laugh-out-loud funny at times and definitely carried off it’s crazier moments with flair and style. It also does NOT do the Saints Row thing where it goes “Hahah! Look at me! I’m so zany and crazy and hilarious! Look! A giant purple dildo! ARE YOU LAUGHING YET?!? ARE YOU?!?!! So it’s the best of both worlds really, serious enough to be engaging but not so serious so as to affect the tone of the game.
That’s a major point I have to make about GTA, it’s really very good that they did not make too much effort to make things ever become too serious or too gritty. True there are shocking and out-right brutal moments, but even those are actually pretty fun and amusing in the context of GTA. If it ever paused to really make someone consider what they were doing then I think it would drop stone cold dead. By just being care-free, by not really caring too much about things, by pushing the player from one mission to the next without pause for breath in-between, it means that people can’t really take it too seriously. If someone took even one part seriously they would have to start taking the rest of it seriously as well, and there’s quite simply too much ridiculous shit in the game for it to ever survive as a “serious” game.
A perfect example of this is the ending for the campaign. It seemed to me that they had all these major sub-plots and story arcs, all becoming increasingly convoluted and so it eventually came down to one 5 minute meeting where someone said “Right… Seriously guys… How the hell are we supposed to END this?” In the end, you have half a dozen serious arch-enemies who you have tiptoed around the whole game, and then (spoiler alert) suddenly when it comes to the end, everyone just goes “Ah well, might as well just kill them now”. It’s absolutely bizarre, I mean, if killing the antagonists was always an option it makes no sense that the main characters don’t just go ahead and do it straight away. However, in the context of the rest of the game the ending was actually satisfying, amusing and just great. Sure one might go “But it makes no sense!” But do you know what else doesn’t make sense? The fact that you can blow up half a city, kill hundreds of a law enforcement officers and then get killed in a huge explosion only to walk out of a hospital an hour later spending $5000 or so to get completely patched up. It may not actually make sense, but in the context of GTA, it makes perfect sense.
And that’s what GTA’s heart and soul is about, it’s just hundreds of hours of just doing fun stuff! It’s nothing specific that makes it amazing, but just pack everything together and it’s absolutely, utterly, completely glorious. It’s a game that is simply designed for people to have fun with it, and god does it do it well.
A final note about the game is GTA: Online. The online play of GTAV is actually an awful lot of fun and does provide for a hell of a lot of diverting side-quests and things to do. The fact that it, and all it’s updates, are free only makes me approve of Rockstar in general and they are currently working hard on introducing a Heist system into it (which may finally allow the mechanic to truly be used to it’s full effect). I feel like there are a few flaws, for example, you get access to new guns as you level your character up and in the overworld that’s fine. However, playing a deathmatch against folk with snipers and assault rifles whilst wielding an uzi is nigh on impossible, and it’s made worse by the fact that you cannot pick up enemy guns (even only temporarily) or that there aren’t any lying around. In short, GTA: Online is diverting, but perhaps not as truly excellent as the single-player (however, when the heists are introduced I really believe I might well get properly into it, we shall see).