Review: Grand Theft Auto V

By Josh Snyder

Please note – this review will tackle the single-player portion only. A separate review for GTA Online will be posted on the site shortly. Because this review will focus on the single-player story, there will be significant spoilers. Please read our spoiler policy for more information. A copy of Grand Theft Auto V was provided for review by Rockstar Games.

At the beginning of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the audience is treated to one of the most gorgeous battles ever rendered in a computer lab. Hundreds of ships dart in and out of frame, shooting colorful lasers at each other as random stars and planets colorfully compose the background. The sound comes at you from all angles, explosions tear across the screen. And for a moment the audience watches in awe, marveling at the scene’s richness and complexity.

But that awe only lasts for a moment. Before long, questions are raised, with no answers. Who are these people? Why are they fighting? And why do I care? It’s the biggest flaw with the Star Wars prequel trilogy – everything looks amazing, but none of it matters, because we, the audience, are not made to care about the pretty shiny things. We simply watch, eyes glazed over, a dumb expression glued to our faces as we move from one emotionless CGI scene to the next.

Unfortunately, I thought about this scene from Revenge of the Sith, right around the time I was asked which weapon Trevor would like to use to torture a man who may (or may not) have information about a (supposed) terrorist. Who is this man? Who are the people telling me to torture him? And why do I care?

Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) might end up just being the most divisive game of this generation.

What a Wonderful World…

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The city of Los Santos certainly is a sight, especially on eight year old hardware.

Before diving into the polarizing story, it’s best that the other major aspects, the gameplay and characters, be addressed first.

Let’s get one thing right out of the way – from a technical standpoint, GTA V is amazing. Set in the state of San Andreas, GTA V is the definitive open world, surpassing the reigning champion, Red Dead Redemption. The size of the world is staggering, and the amount of detail packed into every space is mind-blowing. Traditionally, the trade-off for open world games goes along these lines – the bigger the world, the less detail and less life-like it will feel. Just Cause 2 is a great example of a gigantic world that feels empty, whereas Batman: Arkham City is a perfect example of a small open world filled to the brim with detail. Somehow, on eight year old technology, developer Rockstar Games managed to combine the best of both. As far as I am concerned, Los Santos is a living, breathing city, a real one that goes on, lives its life, even when I am not actively playing the game. There are countless reasons for this – the number of voice actors and character models ensure that you will almost always be running into new people with new things to say. Sure, you’ll end up seeing the same overweight lady in blue and pink sweatpants a couple times over the course of your stay in Los Santos (as of this writing, my total playing time is around 50 hours), but it’s nothing when compared to the repetition in both character models and voice actors that you encounter in any Bethesda game.

And the sheer number of things to do is beyond insane. Odd jobs, purchasing and maintaining property, quests from the many Strangers and Freaks spread across the world – there is almost too much to do. The inclusion of a player-influenced stock market is brilliant – the shares on this market react to how everyone is playing the game, so if gamers are purchasing a lot of guns and ammo from Ammunation, then their stock will go up. It adds to the idea that the game world exists even when you’re not playing – buy some stocks one night, wake up in the morning and check their progress. The world has changed, and it didn’t need you to sit there for hours to make it happen.

Then there’s the variety in the landscape – even in the city, each section has its own distinct look and feel. The countryside unveils a similar diversity – desert gives way to mountain ranges, wind farms, run-down, meth-riddled trailer parks – you name it, it’s there. And the cars, nearly all of which are customizable, are a real pleasure to experience. Of course, you will find different vehicles in Los Santos than you would in Sandy Shores, the decaying town protagonist Trevor calls home. And each car is host to a ridiculous number of radio stations, all of which are home to some truly excellent songs and commercials. It all adds up to a world that feels real, one that, if I were to visit it in real life, I would instantly be familiar with.

To Live and Play in Los Santos

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Getting that five-star wanted level is ridiculously easy, thanks to refined gameplay mechanics.

Interacting with that world will, naturally, be the focal point of all gameplay, and thankfully Rockstar has delivered here, with a few unfortunate exceptions. Character movement feels more fluid than Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV), and the handling of the cars is drastically improved. Using free-aim with weapons is still a bit clunky, and the other two auto-aim options make gunfights just a tad too easy, but it really doesn’t impact the experience, considering the Grand Theft Auto series has never really been known for its challenging and rewarding gameplay. The overwhelming majority of series fans simply want to go on a rampage through a virtual world, and the controls in GTA V allow anyone to do just that.

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of the gameplay that needs to be called out, and that is flying. There are two types of vehicles you can pilot – planes and helicopters. Taking off and flying in a plane is actually quite simple, and an awesome way to wrap your head around the scope of the game. That said, landing is a pain, so much so that any mission that required me to safely land at the conclusion was a nightmare. The fault lies with the controls, specifically when it comes to precise movement. Having to bank and line your plane up directly to a runway is much more difficult than it needs to be, especially when considering that you can bank with the analog stick and turn with the two bumper buttons (L1 and R1 on the PS3), meaning that you have multiple ways of aligning your aircraft with the runway, and yet you still manage to fail more often than you succeed. If you take your time and are patient, it becomes slightly easier, but really it shouldn’t be this difficult.

But these issues pale in comparison to the hell that is piloting a helicopter. The controls seem straightforward – right trigger (R2 on the PS3) allows you ascend, left trigger (L2) to descend. Left and right bumper (L1 and R1) allow for turns, and the analog stick allows you to bank left or right, or move forward or backward. Simple on paper, downright infuriating in execution. Between the touchy controls and turbulence, your helicopter will sway wildly back and forth, all while Trevor yells at you to line the vehicle up perfectly with a specific point atop a skyscraper. On more than one occasion I wanted to toss the controller across the room, simply because I would be just feet away from my destination, only to have the helicopter flung uncontrollably away from my target.

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Seriously, piloting one of these things should not be that difficult.

What’s even more frustrating about this is that other console-based video games perfected air-vehicle controls. And they’re not some little independent games Rockstar could have missed, either. Anyone who has ever played the campaign to Halo: Reach will feel the same anger I did when using aircraft in GTA V. Developer Bungie perfected the controls, and yet for some unknown reason, other developers shy away from using their mechanics. It’s on par with a developer playing a traditional two-dimensional Mario game and saying “yeah, the D-Pad works great for moving your character left and right, but Nintendo already did that, so let’s have our character movement assigned to the A and B buttons, and jumping can be executed by pressing Select.”

Ultimately, the gameplay feels like a polished, refined version of previous GTA games, and is quite enjoyable, flying controls aside. But what really stands out regarding gameplay is the biggest innovation to the franchise in years – the inclusion of not one, not two, but three playable main characters.

Michael. Franklin. Trevor.

The mechanics of playing as three characters work surprisingly well. Once everyone is unlocked, it’s only a matter of holding the down on the D-Pad and using the right analog stick to select your character of choice. The animation only takes a few seconds, depending on how far away the character you are switching to is to your previous character, and dropping in on either Michael, Franklin or Trevor is always a delight, as you never know what randomness they’ll be up to.

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Trevor might be the most insane character ever featured in a Grand Theft Auto game, which is an accomplishment of its own.

Each character has a series of stats that you can work to increase, such as driving, shooting, strength and stealth, among others. They also each have a unique ability that makes them feel different from each other. Michael, when engaged in a gunfight, can slow time down, similar to Dead Eye in Red Dead Redemption. Franklin can slow down time as well, but only when he is driving, which might be my favorite ability in the game. Trevor, being the meth-fueled crazy that he is, essentially has a berserker rage mode, in which his damage output and damage reduction is increased to a ridiculous amount. By including these special abilities, Rockstar has made three protagonists that all feel different, and they all play great, justifying the need for all three.

In actual missions, switching between the three criminals feels natural and simple. One of the benefits of having three characters to play as is that it opens up gun fights, leading to bigger battlefields and more enemies. You can strategically place each character, and switch between them as needed. Have a swarm of enemies about to flank you from the left? Switch over to Franklin, who is in cover behind a barricade, and can jump out and surprise them with a barrage of shotgun shells. Need to take that sniper out across the street? Switch to Trevor, take the sniper out, and go back to Michael, who is mowing down enemies with a machine gun. Best of all, when you’re not actively playing as Trevor, the character will still pick off enemies, which only increases the notion that the world moves on, with or without you.

There is also one more major benefit to having three characters, although it might not be apparent at first. As anyone who has played one can attest, the amount of quests and activities one can engage in any Elder Scrolls game is simply staggering. On a recent play-thru of Skyrim, it was common for me to have twenty missions in my journal at any given time. When I finished a long day of work and wanted to sit down and unwind with a video game, the choice of what to do next was more frustrating than liberating. The same issue appeared in every Mass Effect game – you look over an ever-growing list of tasks, and it begins to feel more like work than play.

Rockstar may have found a way around this problem by tying certain jobs and missions in the game to specific characters. At first I was a bit bummed that Trevor couldn’t purchase the Smoke on the Water property, and expand his drug empire beyond Sandy Shores and into Los Santos. But then I realized that, at any given time, no character had more than six active quests available. Granted, when you tally up the total number between all three characters, you approach Skyrim-like numbers in terms of missions to accomplish, but GTA V helps you prioritize them. So when you want to tow cars with Franklin, you don’t feel bad about neglecting those drug-running missions, because those are not Franklin’s to worry about – they belong to Trevor. When you’re done with Franklin, you can switch to Michael, do some yoga to increase your strength, and then switch to Trevor and bomb some of the drug-running competition. It’s a solution to one of the remaining problems of the open world game, and it’s going to be interesting to see how other developers, and Rockstar themselves, respond to this advancement in future games.

A Tale of Two Stories

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Story missions involving Michael, Franklin or Trevor are a lot of fun, especially when they involve Juggalos and bikers.

In recent years, Rockstar has set themselves apart from other developers by delivering stories and characters that immediately resonate with gamers, becoming instant classics. John Marston, the protagonist from Red Dead Redemption, won over gamers instantly with his struggles to control his dueling personalities: his present self, a man who is deeply sympathetic and cares for his family, and his past self, who was an outlaw through and through. His personal story rivals that of many games’ plots, on top of which Rockstar delivered a compelling plot that pushed and tested Marston, and gamers, to their limits. Would Rockstar be able to capture that magic twice with GTA V?

The answer is, they got half of it right. The implications of this, however, will drastically affect how favorably GTA V will be viewed years from now.

First, I should address why I placed such heavy emphasis on story in a series that, traditionally, isn’t known for its plot. GTA IV was the first game in the franchise to tell a serious story, and rightfully so – after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the gameplay and world design had reached the point where any advancements would be seen as minor tweaks to an already successful formula, and not ground-breaking revelations. Both Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City were games that could rely on minor advancements to cover up any holes in the story, but by GTA IV, Rockstar knew they needed something more than an open world to keep gamers coming back.

Without a story, GTA V becomes a polished game that, ultimately, offers up nothing new. We need a reason to care about venturing into Los Santos, because the fact that Los Santos exists simply isn’t enough anymore. And Rockstar accomplished this by telling great stories, whether it’s building up unique and flawed characters, or in crafting a story that alters your perceptions of the world of San Andreas. Without this, GTA V is just another pretty open world game, and there are plenty of those on the market.

As I mentioned earlier, Rockstar got half of the story right. The three main protagonists are all amazingly crafted individuals, who all present their own personalities and traits, and grow and develop in ways that surprise gamers, allowing them to develop emotional bonds with the cast. Michael saw himself in a dead-end situation, and with a family to raise, made the bold step of giving up his life of crime, but the consequences of his actions will always haunt him, even as he sits inside his luxurious, sprawling mansion in Rockford Hills. Franklin is young and eager, and desperately looking for a way out of his dead-end environment, but needs guidance. And Trevor, the clear fan-favorite, is by far the most unstable, and the most complex. Abandonment issues and meth fuel a man who lives by his own code, one who will use people for his own ends, one who won’t hesitate to kill someone standing in the way of him and a paycheck, but will flip out at the mere mention of a man disrespecting a woman. His story is what moves the characters along and forces them to face their realities, while also threatening any chance at redemption or salvation at every turn.

Whenever the story of GTA V turns to these characters, the game soars. The pacing and delivery of each character’s’ arc is pure brilliance, so much so that I catch myself thinking about specific moments from the game as if they were scenes from a great film. Remember the time Trevor conned Michael and Franklin into stealing an experimental weapon from the U.S. Government, only to have his plan thwarted before he could sell it to the Chinese? That moment where Trevor stands alone at his own private airstrip, the seeming indifference he expresses at nearly handing over a deadly weapon to a potential enemy for no reason other than to make a profit? His desire to reunite with his long-lost friends, to pull of just one big score, no matter the consequences? Scenes like this stand out – a world of chaos and death surround these men, but it’s the quieter moments, when it’s one man reflecting on his actions, that pull you in.

That’s the half of the story Rockstar got right. The other half … is an entirely different matter.

What Are We Doing Here?

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See these cars? Some rich guy wants them. Yeah, I don’t care either…

I knew something had gone wrong when, at the start of a mission that tasks you with stealing two valuable cars and returning them to some whacked-out billionaire, I said aloud, “I don’t care.”

Let me back-up: At the opening of GTA V, players experience a botched heist from ten years prior, in which partners Michael, Trevor and Brad attempt to raid the vaults of a bank. But things go awry when an army of cops show up, and in the ensuing shootout Trevor escapes, while Michael is presumed dead and Brad supposedly ends up is in prison. At the start of GTA V, it is heavily insinuated (and later confirmed) that the job was a set-up, that Michael wanted out of his life of crime, and that his death would be faked and he would go into witness protection. Brad is the one who actually dies, but to help keep tabs on Trevor, the Federal Investigation Bureau (FIB) continues to contact Trevor over the course of ten years, pretending to be Brad.

This storyline is brilliantly told throughout the game, as each of the three protagonists learns all of the lies and reasons behind their deceit. But in an attempt to show the player how that one ill-conceived heist ten years earlier still has ramifications, Michael, Franklin and Trevor are pulled into a conflict involving the FIB and the International Affairs Agency (IAA), two government agencies who are out to do … something.

Before this story can even begin to be developed, it breaks down into rushed cut scenes and sloppy storytelling. Apparently, Michael has a contact at the FIB, an old corrupt agent named Dave Norton, who helped Michael out with the botched heist ten years prior. Dave is the person who initially draws Michael and company into the conflict, although we aren’t told what the conflict is. Suddenly, more and more characters are thrown at the protagonists. Two antagonists, Steve Haines and Devin Weston, are introduced so quickly and with so little backstory that their only function it to simply yell at the characters, instructing them to go to point A, do something and return to point B … or else. The or else is never really explained, and instead the player is dragged along on a government feud between two agencies who may or may not be stopping terrorists from doing … something evil. Then Devin wants you to steal some cars, even though he is a billionaire and can buy as many as he wants, but whatever, you steal the cars and then some more things happen and Steve yells at you a lot and – wait a minute, who is this guy? Why do I care? What’s going on?

It’s the single biggest fault with GTA V – a gigantic portion of the game, spanning from the conclusion of act one and into the beginning of act three, involves characters that are underdeveloped and shallow, and a conflict that has zero impact on the world or the protagonists. But the frustrating part is that it didn’t have to be this way. Missions involving the FIB and IAA are told at such breakneck speed that most of the time it isn’t even clear what the protagonists are doing until the mission is complete, at which point it all makes sense and has some interesting implications on the story. But why this information isn’t conveyed upfront is baffling. The audience needs a reason to care about this conflict, and one way to do that is to mimic how the three protagonists are introduced – carefully plotted out story missions that take their time to set a tone and lay the foundation for a compelling narrative. This is simply absent when the game is dealing with the corrupt government storyline, and it’s why I thought of the Star Wars prequels more often than not when grinding through these missions.

It does occur to me that the larger point Rockstar is trying to make with these characters and their storyline is that, for far too long, Michael, Franklin and Trevor, three men looking for a way out of their miserable existence, are unable to do so because they are being manipulated by outside forces, who are only after their own personal gain. This could actually make for a very compelling story, and all of themes are present. But the problem is that this story is told in such a sloppy, rushed way that you wonder if it was shoved into the game last minute, or if an entire other team of writers conjured up the story. It’s not on par with what Rockstar typically delivers, and unfortunately it brings the entire game down.

How much it brings the game down will vary on your reliance on a story in a GTA game, but for me it took what was easily the game of the year, if not a top-three contender for best game of the seventh generation, down to a top-five game of the year, and one that will be recalled favorably for some time. That may seem like high praise, and it is, but the fact of the matter is that Rockstar dropped the ball here. Instead of sinking that three-point shot from downtown and winning the game, they settled for a layup that tied it.

At Least We Go Out With A Bang

Fortunately, the story of GTA V ends on a high note. By the time the player learns who is who and what everyone is after, the game kicks into gear and starts wrapping up loose ends and bringing closure to these characters’ lives. The final heist, the one that far and away nets you the most money, is an absolute blast. And when it comes to the actual ending, the game may provide three options, but only the final option, which sees you hunting down and killing antagonists Stave Haines and Devin Weston, among others, provides the biggest payoff. I may not have liked the way these characters were handled, but killing them was a real treat, if only to permanently end the possibility of more unnecessary filler.

There is so much to see and do in GTA V, and with such solid gameplay and wonderfully crafted characters, it’s hard not to love this game. And ultimately it is a great game. But the muddled storytelling actually drags the game down, which is a real shame. Hopefully, this is the game that definitively illustrates the need for great stories told in compelling ways. We’ve all had our chance to raid the most secure banks and buy the biggest houses and cars. Now give us a reason to care.