Review Context: I’ve played every Grand Theft Auto game since Grand Theft Auto III, as well as Red Dead Redemption, Sleeping Dogs, and the first three Saints Row games. This is a genre I like.
Date Playthrough Started: February 2014
Developer: Rockstar North
The Grand Theft Auto series has been one of the most beloved, and simultaneously reviled, franchises in video game history. The latest entry, Grand Theft Auto V, is pretty good. It plays with the formula a bit, but it won’t convert anyone who has been put off by the series in the past. On the other hand, if you’ve ever liked an open world action game, you should probably pick this up.
The big back-of-the-box feature this time around is the inclusion of three playable characters, instead of just one. Nine years after a heist gone wrong, middle-aged retired criminal Michael De Santa is drinking his days away in witness protection. Young up-and-coming gangster Franklin Clinton loses his job as a repo man and becomes embroiled in Michael’s involuntary return to the criminal life. And psychopath Trevor, an old partner in crime of Michael’s, tries to reconnect with his old friend.
This is not your typical crime fiction. The story is really well done, and it goes in a lot of different directions. Each playable character has his own issues to work on, as well as the main storyline. Trevor attempts to build up his meth operation. Franklin wants to escape his neighborhood and make something more of himself. And in the most interesting subplot, Michael tries to bond with his philandering wife and spoiled, twenty-something children. Young Jimmy De Santa just sits in his room and plays violent video games all day in a way that hits a little too close to home.
One thing I’ve noticed over a decade or so of playing Rockstar games is their tendency to make the main, player character just a little bit more self-aware than the weirdos and crazies they interact with. I’ve noticed this in everything from Bully to Red Dead Redemption, and all the GTA titles. Michael and Franklin are through-and-through Rockstar characters in this tradition. But Trevor turns the trope on its head. He’s cast as the depraved stock crime fiction character that has no sense of decency or morality and often kills people for no reason. Think Joe Pesci’s character from Goodfellas. The difference is that Trevor is fully aware of exactly what he’s doing and why he’s such a horrible person. He’s an intelligent, utterly terrifying monster.
The multiple protagonist setup affects the gameplay as well as the story. Once you’re a few hours in, you can easily switch between any of the three main characters anytime you’re not on a mission. Everyone continues to have his own life even when you’re not playing as him. You might switch to Franklin when he’s taking his dog for a walk, or to Trevor when he’s already running from the cops. It makes for a nice change of pace to do a few missions as one character, then switch to another to see what he’s up to. And on missions where two or more of the main protagonists participate, you can sometimes switch between them to take on different tasks. For instance, if one character is driving and the other is hanging out the widow shooting at cops, you can switch between them to do the task you like best. However, this only seems to work intermittently. I found that sometimes, the game simply wouldn’t let me shoot, and I would be forced to play as the driving character with no way to switch.
The missions themselves are fun, but they don’t offer a ton of new gameplay mechanics. Drive here, shoot this, chase this guy, race that guy, and so on. We’ve seen it before, but it’s executed almost flawlessly here. Driving doesn’t have the “floatiness” of past entries; the cars handle great. Escaping from the cops works better this time around, as well. The individual police cars and their vision cones appear on your mini map, and you have to avoid being seen by them for a short time. This means you can either gun it at 120 mph down the freeway, or ditch your car and hide in an alley. It’s a core mechanic of the series, and it’s endlessly fun finding new ways to escape. The gunplay also handles well: pulling the left trigger automatically points your gun to the nearest enemy, making head shots a breeze to pull off. This might make the gunplay too easy for some players, so this can be turned off in the options menu. The checkpointing is fairly generous, so if you fail a mission, you usually won’t have to repeat more than a few minutes. There’s even an option to skip a mission (or sections of a mission) if you fail too many times.
Also new to this entry are the heist missions. These are large, involved missions that require a lot of preparation and planning. You might have to find the getaway car the crew will use, or acquire a specific kind of weapon before you can start the heist. And usually you can choose an approach: do you want to kick open the front door, guns blazing, or sneak in the back and stealthily take the guards out? I found the heist missions to be a great addition to the formula; I only wish there we’re more of them.
The open world city is the real star here. Set in Los Santos, this universe’s version of Los Angeles, it’s a sight to behold. A large downtown city area, residential neighborhoods, a sprawling wilderness, multiple lakes and rivers to explore by jet ski and boat. I often spent time simply exploring, taking in the sights. Also worth mentioning is the general lack of loading times. When starting a mission, for example, there’s no load time at all; it’s completely seamless. There’s a lengthy load when you first load up a save, and a short load when you switch characters, but very few loading times otherwise.
Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t go in a crazy different direction from the formula, like Grand Theft Auto IV or Saints Row: The Third. It’s more like Sleeping Dogs; simply a really well made, iterative entry that will more than please genre fans.