September 16, 2013
Cast your mind back all the way to 1997. Grand Theft Auto was some weird little game that whipped up a storm of controversy because you could run people over and gun them down. It looked pretty crude, with its top-down 2D graphics, and almost didn't see the light of day. If you'd have told us at the time that it would grow into the biggest, most hyped, all-conquering franchise that it is today, we'd have suggested a lie down and some sort of medication. But GTA is effing huge. The hugest, in fact.
Grand Theft Auto V itself is effing huge too, with a map that takes in a sprawling city, a vast countryside with hills, valleys and dirt trails, and an ocean, ripe for exploration. It's not just the surface area of Los Santos and Blaine County that's impressive; it's the depth and the verticality of the world too. And at its centre are three miscreants; partners in crime with their own backstories and motivations for turning to a life of larceny, murder and general lawbreaking.
Initially, Franklin, Michael and Trevor seem unsympathetic, hard to relate to, and not generally all that likeable. But like any good, multi-faceted characters worth their salt, spending time with them soon becomes a pleasure, and missions in which you're playing as and switching between all three on the fly are among some of the finest GTA moments you're ever likely to experience. And spend plenty of time with GTA V's trio you will, planning and executing heists, some of which are hare-brained, some of which you can pull off without a hitch with careful planning and execution. They're superbly orchestrated three-handers, requiring quick switching between characters to cover all of the angles and put their expertise to good use.
Off-mission and during certain missions, you're able to switch between playing as Franklin, Michael or Trevor, and when you drop in on them, they could be doing any number of things. You'll often find that Michael or Franklin are out taking a stroll, leaving the Vanilla Unicorn strip club, waking up, watching TV or doing something relatively normal, but Trevor might be shirtless and inebriated, howling at the moon, practicing meditation (doing the crane from Karate Kid) in a pagoda, being thrown out of a bar wearing a dress, or some other unpredictable and often bizarre activity. Trevor pretty much steals the show in GTA V.
Trevor is evidently the loose cannon, where Michael's the Tony Soprano figure, saddled with a dysfunctional family, a shrink, a fiery temper and any number of other problems that refuse to go away, including a dark secret that threatens to screw things up should it get out. Franklin meanwhile, provides a moral, relatable centre, like Jesse in Breaking Bad. He's the guy you root for, picking himself up from the Los Santos streets with his buddy Lemar, but never forgetting where he's come from.
Each character has their own quirks and temperament, as well as other defining characteristics, like Michael's lumbering gait, Franklin's confident swagger and Trevor's... well, everything about Trevor is unique. All three are much easier to control than GTA IV's Niko Bellic and Red Dead's John Marston too, in every respect. The aiming and gunplay has been tightened up, and movement in general is far smoother. Franklin, Michael and Trevor each have their very own special abilities, keeping things interesting, while giving the trio their own distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Franklin can slow time while driving, enabling him to effortlessly weave between traffic and his driving skills are effectively maxed from the outset. Michael can slow time in a gunfight, meaning he can pick off a whole gang with successive headshots if you aim carefully enough. Trevor, meanwhile, sees red and turns his psychotic tendencies up to 11, taking less damage while doling out more against enemies. He's also a dab hand in an aircraft. Using certain skills will see them gradually level up, so taking Michael or Franklin to flight school will enable you to boost their flying abilities, while skilful driving will enhance your handling. Trevor's stamina is at rock bottom when you begin, meaning some bike riding, swimming and running will pay off, while Franklin will benefit from firearm training.
Together, the three protagonists make a brilliantly mismatched but ultimately endearing team, keeping you invested and immersed in the story while it lasts. It's the game's world that's truly immersive though, the urban sprawl of Los Santos a gateway to an expansive desert and surrounding rural countryside, with farmland, quarries, saw mills, a military base, a forest, mountain ranges, Trevor's Sandy Shores trailer park and a number of spit and sawdust bars and dives. It's a massively diverse playground utterly laden with detail, where there's always something to see or do, and there's always something new waiting around every corner.
Quite how Rockstar has managed to pack so much in and retain such a high level of visual fidelity is beyond our comprehension. It's a truly astonishing technical feat for sure, but beyond that, Los Santos and the surrounding Blaine County feels like a living, breathing world, carrying over Red Dead's dangerous wilderness with coyotes and cougars that'll happily rip your face off.
There's less dangerous wildlife too, and you can go hunting for elk as Trevor with fellow redneck buddy Cletus, if you like. Franklin can partake in extreme sports, you can play golf and tennis (both of which are almost as accomplished as full golf and tennis games), perform yoga and see your shrink as Michael, and so much more besides. Property returns too, so you can purchase various businesses to supplement each character's separate coffers, simultaneously unlocking relevant mini-missions to protect your investment. You can also make cash by playing the stock market, doing a spot of bounty hunting or by robbing armoured trucks.
If you're just playing GTA V for the story – and if you are, you're frankly missing the point – there's a good 25-30 hours of narrative-related missions, fairly evenly split between Franklin, Michael and Trevor. And it's certainly eventful to say the least, but you'll find no story spoilers here. What we will tell you is that the game's heists are scripted and part of the overarching narrative, but how you approach them, and the crew you take along for the ride is down to you. The planning, the setup and then the big score itself is all part and parcel of the entire affair, which you can then replay at your leisure without affecting your progress. You can replay any mission and strive for a gold medal on each, by completing certain goals revealed after you complete the task for the first time. This adds a nice bit of additional replay value.
Rockstar has also gone above and beyond to alleviate frustration in GTA V, with you now able to save anywhere at anytime and preserve your progress, while mission checkpoints are evenly paced and always fair. Playing Grand Theft Auto V is never anything but pure gaming nirvana, whether you're playing through the 69 mission story, mingling with Strangers and Freaks, engaging in Hobbies and Pastimes or just pissing around in its enormously vast sandbox. There are fewer limits imposed on what you can do, with you now able to carry each and every weapon at once, making for some of the most glorious GTA rampages ever. There are also proper rampage missions, if you'd prefer to focus your vengeful wrath on deserving targets.
Customisation options are also plentiful in GTA V, meaning you can pimp out your weapons with scopes, suppressors and skins, and trick out your rides with spoilers, skirts, turbo injected engines and so on. The world really is your oyster. If you can think of it, you can probably do it in GTA V. Wanna spend time walking Franklin's dog Chop? You can. Just want to go off the rails on a killing spree? Go for it. Fancy scouring the ocean floor for nuclear waste in a yellow sub? Do it. Base jumping? Yes. Private stripper dances? Yup. Jetski racing? Uh huh. The list goes on and on.
As ever, GTA 's dark humour is still an integral part of the appeal, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist with vacuous celebrities, talent shows and nose jobs. There's the usual underlying biting social satire at work too, with radio chat, hilarious TV shows and commercials lampooning things we've come to take for granted, like Twitter (Bleeter) and Facebook (LifeInvader). GTA V incisively encapsulates and takes swipes at modern society, meaning there's substance beneath those pretty graphics and madcap moments. Tonally, GTA V is much lighter than GTA IV, though there are still some genuinely dark moments peppered throughout. Still there's a greater sense of fun here than there was in GTA IV.
While GTA V is practically open-world perfection, the achievement list leaves something to be desired. Where GTA IV encouraged experimentation and rewarded insane feats, GTA V's list is a lot more workmanlike, with the majority devoted to story-related achievements. The rest are attached to completing optional activities like stunt jumps and missions attached to businesses you purchase, as well as the game's collectibles, like scrap letters, spaceship parts and the aforementioned nuclear waste drums. There are one or two humorous and creative achievements in the mix too, including a Jaws reference and a poke at scientology with The Epsilon Program, which for the right price, you can become a part of. Kifflom! It's a decent list, but a little too focused on grinding out collectibles. The rest are attached to GTA Online, due to go active on October 1st.
Grand Theft Auto V is Rockstar's definitive open-world masterpiece, a magnum opus and the culmination of everything Rockstar has created to date. Almost entirely flawless, GTA V is the perfect marriage of story and unhindered freedom to explore, with the promise of hidden secrets scattered across the deserts, hills and wilderness of Blaine County. Boasting planes, trains, automobiles, helicopters, motorcycles, bicycles, parachutes, boats, submarines and a multitude of guns, Grand Theft Auto V is all things to all gamers. It's quite simply perfect in every way.
A typically fantastic soundtrack spun out across a whole range of radio stations. Only after extended play will you ever hear the same track twice, and the chat radio stuff is funny as always. If we were to get picky, we'd say there's not quite enough chat radio and not quite enough Lazlow. There's no faulting the score and radio soundtrack, or indeed the exemplary voice acting.
Performance captured performances slotted into a deep and richly detailed open-world, GTA V is the most beautiful game we've played this generation. Sunsets, god rays streaming through the ocean, rolling waves and a bustling, active city are all impeccably realised, making Los Santos and Blaine County feel like distinctive, living, breathing places that you'll want to spend time soaking up.
Addressing every one of GTA IV's issues, GTA V has brilliantly robust shooting mechanics (thanks in no small part to Max Payne 3, no doubt) making for enjoyable combat, and the character switching aspect is expertly handled. Vehicle handling is also perfectly pitched, and character movement is much tighter and less frustrating than previous games. Again, perfect.
Huge, in every respect. The story-driven portion of the game will last you a good 25-30 hours, and the rest of the game's content – including some nice post-story missions – will keep you playing for tens of hours on top of that. Not to mention the scope for simply poking around the desert, plumbing the ocean depths and taking in everything Los Santos city has to offer.
A somewhat disappointing list, but one that doesn't step on the toes of the story too much. There's no need to rush through the story for a time-sensitive achievement this time, thankfully, but you'll still need to gather every collectible in the game which can be something of a slog.
It's been more than five years since Grand Theft Auto IV, but Grand Theft Auto V is most definitely worth the wait. Memorable missions, barnstorming heists, amusing side objectives and an almost impossibly immersive world to explore, make for the best Grand Theft Auto since Vice City and San Andreas. Rockstar has ensured that we'll get to see out this generation with a bang, and Grand Theft Auto V is the perfect swansong. It's a work of unbridled, flawless genius and a game that demands to be played to death.