Grand Theft Auto V Review
It might not seem like it's been five and a half years since Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto IV, but yep, that's how long it's been. So much has changed in gaming since then, but when you think back, even more has stayed the same. Developers like Rockstar North are targeting the same platforms (PS3 and 360) for their big games, no one has really properly challenged GTA for the open-world game crown, and if the selection of livestreams to watch on Twitch are any kind of indicator of the most memorable and well-loved console games of the last fifteen years, then this venerable series is still enjoying popularity beyond even the most classic of franchises. Of course, none of this matters much for the prospects of the quality of an upcoming game in the series, especially considering how in retrospect, many gamers don't love GTAIV like you'd expect a Rockstar game to be adored. Where GTAIV faltered wasn't in its ability to generate atmosphere and a living, breathing world to run around in - Rockstar basically never fails at that - but instead, it was in the developer's ability to maintain or escalate the variety and craziness of gameplay from the previous era of Grand Theft Auto from GTA3 through San Andreas. But that's the past, and Grand Theft Auto V will very likely put Rockstar back at the top of the heap. (Again, not that many other companies have done that much to dethrone them. Saints Row got really close, but Volition clearly went in a different direction with their latest.)
GTAV puts the player in control of three specific characters in a criss-crossing tale taking place in an Los Angeles-styled Los Santos along with a large section of surrounding area. There's Michael, a "retired" career criminal who was successful enough in the past to buy his family a mansion in the Vinewood hills, but he's bored of sitting around and sick of his annoying family who feel entitled to the lap of luxury that his days robbing banks have now afforded him. Franklin is a young gangster with street smarts and an ambition that will soon elevate him beyond the projects and menial, law-skirting grunt work he's been doing. Finally, there's Trevor, an ex-military psychopath with just enough ambition and good sense to keep him busy and looking for a new opportunity rather than a new fix. Players do missions as all three characters and, aside from a few long scripted sequences, can swap between them - both during the missions where more than one is involved, and when just hanging out in Los Santos when not on a mission. Each character also has a unique set of missions and many can be tackled in a player-decided order, and there are a ton of unique activities throughout the city for all three characters. If you thought GTAIV was mildly lacking in stuff to do, then look no further. This sequel's got you covered.
This game gives you plenty to do with your money, from going down to Los Santos Customs to trick out a car, to Ammu-Nation to attach all kinds of fun gadgets to your guns, or to a new corner to buy property that can bring a profit back… eventually. You can play the stock market, have new aircraft delivered to the hangars you own, and plenty more. But the focus of the game and the biggest source of cash I think many players will rely on is on a set of heists that the three guys start putting together. These heists serve almost as chapter breaks for the game, but they're also much more interactive than you might expect - the player picks the crew to run with and makes several choices as to how to plan each heist or robbery. You can pick cheap, inexperienced crew to increase your take of the cash, but you might run into some… snags on the way. You will get the choice of going in loud and violent or use some form of stealth or trickery, too. These will have set-up missions that you'll have to complete in order to get to the big heist, and these preparation missions are based around the choices you made in the mission planning. The heists themselves have had no expense spared in their execution by Rockstar and while some will disagree, I think they wind up being the high points of the game as they were likely intended to be.
Veteran Rockstar fans expect to be wowed by the atmosphere created in these games, and that bar is getting significantly higher for each major release - and in this case, GTAV makes that jump easily even if the horsepower budget that current-gen consoles have allowed Rockstar has stayed exactly the same since GTAIV. I don't live in Los Angeles, but in my travels I've spent a good couple of months there on various trips, and what I'll say is that Los Santos absolutely takes me back to the real-world Hollywood, Venice Beach, downtown, and other parts of the city. Without a doubt, Rockstar has captured the look, sound, and feel of a city full of culture in a way that few game developers could even begin to match. The massive and diverse soundtrack of more than a dozen radio stations covering many genres and eras is fantastic, and while Rockstar seems to have decided to focus more on solid B-side songs and underrated gems, their choices were still great. Along with that, you'll find plenty of criticism of American culture and politics both on and off the radio, and nearly all of it is fair, although Rockstar does overdo it a bit once in a while. Still, they managed to make their commentary fun and lighthearted even as they hit hard against just how weird America - and California, especially - can be.
As for recent push-backs against the series' hallmarks, there's one big one I want to go over. Yes, GTA still stars only morally-challenged men who, amongst the hundreds of activities and missions that can be participated in, do kill a lot of people and can just assault or murder anyone they see on the street. Some have spoken out on this as one issue or as two separate ones, but I don't necessarily consider any of this to be a real problem, as GTAV is clearly intended for adults and not every single game requires complete gender equality. (My complaints about this generally point to the roles of women in games less about realism, and also to the vastly overwhelming amount of digital testosterone and disrespect for women in all games collectively.) To me, it's silly to get out the pitchforks for one big game series specifically and arbitrarily decide that here, with GTA, is where the line must be drawn and where every playable character needs male and female counterparts. Plus, these are generally despicable characters, as charming as they can sometimes be, who will kill and even torture those who wind up in their way; I don't know why anyone would so desperately want themselves to be represented as playable characters in a game so full of murderous anti-heroes. And as for the wanton violence the player can perpetrate and the possibility of random killing in the street, well, that is only started by the player at his or her discretion, not forced by the game itself. Rockstar may have spent considerable effort making those scenes look and sound accurate and detailed, but there's little in-game reward in acting them out; it's up to the player to commit those crimes and pay for them.
I've taken issue with past entries in the GTA series having characters whining about wanting to live a legitimate life, all while the game is forcing them to do despicable things like kill dozens of cops, but Rockstar seems to have dealt with that issue this time around by not constantly relying on those kinds of gunfight standoffs - sure, cover-based shooting is smarter now than it has ever been and the game gives players tons of auto-aim, but it's still a lot of cover-shootin', which can get dull quickly. Thankfully, you spend less time in these shootouts and much more doing a wider range of things that lead up to big crimes.
As far as the cops go, Rockstar has centered more encounters with law enforcement around police chases that are more dynamic and interesting than ever before. Now, escaping the cops is left to the player, and it's just as much about finding a good alley or parking garage to hide in as it is just speeding away from them in the city. And if you do get caught in a gunfight with the cops, you'll find they're accurate and deadly, shooting first and asking questions later - even if you've only carjacked someone with one wanted star. Overall, I like it, because it adds challenge where many of the game's main missions have become at least somewhat easier than past GTA games. Either way, Rockstar has leaned heavily on their revamped police system for many missions, and for me, avoiding law enforcement stayed exciting and fun throughout the entire game. Oh, and it is true that some missions can be frustrating, but a little observation or, in the missions with multiple player characters, a swap between them at the right time can mean a world of difference, and I like that a bit of experimentation in a tough mission often pays off.
From a technical perspective, Rockstar has gotten GTAV running so close to the current consoles' limitations that nearly any hiccup will break the experience entirely. On the plus side, this is one of the best-looking games on current-gen machines, but the one issue is that it feels a little like a very pretty (and fun) house of cards that can fall apart at any moment. Nothing explains this better than the fact that on both consoles, running the game entirely off the hard drive results in severe issues with the game failing to keep up with loading in its highest-quality textures. What this means is that if you get the game on 360, do not install the Play disc - just do the install for the first disc like the game requires. And over on PS3, I recommend that you do not buy the game on PSN. Get it on disc, as the game will automatically install some data to the hard drive and load the rest as-needed from the disc. This might seem backwards, but it's because on both consoles, GTAV needs the maximum speed of the hard drive and the optical disc drive working together to keep up with what the player's doing. Once you have that settled, the texture quality that's delivered is so diverse and the streaming of data off of whatever media the game's running off is very smooth. Once in a while, you might even feel like you're actually playing a next-gen game in some cases. (It's not actually true, and the PS4 or XB1 could likely render this game much better and with vastly higher resolution textures, but GTAV does put on a pretty good argument that you don't absolutely have to buy a new console this fall.)
Between the two versions of the game, I've spent many hours with each, and my conclusion is that for most gamers, GTAV is better on 360 if you want a slightly more stable frame rate, and it's better on PS3 if you want slightly better image quality. But also consider taking into account the upcoming GTA Online, which is scheduled to start running in October - if you have friends you want to play with online on 360 or PS3, then go wherever your friends are going, because the differences are otherwise small enough that I think that being able to play with your friends, rather than with strangers, is an even bigger difference than any mildly blurry texture or slight frame rate hiccup.
Does GTAV live up to one of the pedigree of one of the best franchises gaming? There's no doubt for me that it does, and a few minor issues here and there don't get in the way of this game delivering such a lively and large world to explore or from presenting such an entertaining way to do dozens of activities - and I love that for the first time for GTA in nearly a decade, the developers aren't relying so heavily on mind-numbing, straightforward gunfights with thugs and cops. Rockstar are masters of putting attention to detail in all the right places so that you're both having fun and marveling at all the things they've built at the same time, and there aren't many game developers out there that can give you that unique combination of feelings.
I've been spending a lot of time with independent games lately, but GTAV's overwhelming amount of pitch-perfect atmosphere makes it the perfect example of a game that no indie studio could really make because it just takes so much time and effort to recapture a city the way that Los Santos feels so much like the city it aims to mimic. All I can hope is that as more blockbuster developers and publishers re-evaluate what they're doing in big-budget games, that they look at what Rockstar can do that no one else can, and to really think about what they themselves can do that's unique. Can they deliver a game that's vastly beyond the abilities or resources of what two ex-college students in a basement or a couple dozen shivering guys in Kiev can put together? Because gamers know the difference now and they're voting with their wallets more keenly than ever before; if these publishers know they can't make games that are bigger and badder than what the indies can make, then why should they bother spending a hundred million bucks to prove they can't?
Disclaimer: This review is based on both a bought Xbox 360 copy and a PS3 retail copy provided by the publisher.