Review: GTA V (Next Gen)

By Josh Snyder

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Cover art for GTA V on PS4.

Please note – A copy of Grand Theft Auto V was provided for review by Rockstar Games.

Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is not an easy game to digest. It’s huge, there is more than enough content and the story is epic in the true sense of the word. After my review of the original, seventh generation release, I needed a break from the sprawling state of San Andreas (and its deranged center, the city of Los Santos). I could have sunk hundreds of hours into that world, and there would still be more to do just around the corner.

With so much to take in, and with such a complex narrative, I intended to revisit GTA V, to see how my thoughts and opinions changed over time. But then developer Rockstar Games did me one better – instead of having to fire up the Xbox 360 to revisit Trevor, Franklin and Michael, the three protagonists of this adventure, I could do so on eighth generation hardware (in this case the PS4). But this wasn’t just any old port – Rockstar added additional content, including an entirely new perspective to play the game from. Coming back to GTA V a little over one year later, I am amazed by two things – how great the initial game stands up, and how these changes, some minor, others gigantic, propel this game into must-play territory. In my opinion, after Rockstar had a chance to go back and do some fine-tuning and editing, GTA V wound up as one of the greatest games of this past decade..

Wish You Were Here

Even with all of the changes, this is basically the same GTA V everyone played last year. But with such a sprawling story and setting, it is a game worth revisiting, to check in on how the adventures of Trevor and company hold up after the hype has died down.

Immediately, the story is vastly improved the second time through, mostly because the player knows where the story is heading, affording the opportunity to sit back and soak in the twists and turns, instead of trying to figure out who is who and what their motivations are. Although GTA V tells an entertaining story, it does so at the expense of rushed storytelling, and on the first playthrough there is too much to take in, and it is difficult to fully appreciate. Yes, this means that there are inherent issues with presentation, but the journey of the three protagonists is so wild, exciting, frustrating at times, and fun that I’m willing to cut it some slack. In short, I am far less critical of the story the second time through than I was during my first go.

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The story of GTA V holds up surprisingly well, considering how rushed the pacing is.

What surprised me even further was how much I missed Trevor, Franklin and Michael. I didn’t expect any of them to be memorable characters, but their issues and struggles to overcome adversity stuck with me. It’s not that I found their tale inspiring – far from it. But GTA V provides a fascinating look inside the minds of three individuals all trying to find their place in a society that on the one hand shuns them, but on the other hand needs them. The themes Rockstar wanted to explore – the self-destructive nature of power and greed and the flaws of traditional masculinity in a progressive society, are all here and represented by three well-crafted anti-heroes, and it’s safe to say that, for many of the same reasons the story is better the second time through, these ideas shine brighter.

It’s also worth noting just how different these characters are on the surface, but how similar they are once all context has been stripped away. Michael is old and washed up, a miserable shell of his former self. Franklin is young and hungry, eager to please and desperate to make his mark. Yet both emulate the “grass is always greener” attitude, and no matter how much money they make or how luxurious their houses are, they still are not satisfied. And then there’s Trevor. He may seem like a complete lunatic when compared to the others, but he is just like them – he is willing to do whatever it takes to get that big score, even if it always falls just a bit short of truly satisfying him. This similar-yet-different dynamic makes them all easy to relate to, while also providing enough variety to ensure that the story never gets dull.

However, just as these elements shine brighter, so do the not so great elements, such as the portrayal of women. I am not referring to the lack of playable female characters – that is a different argument for a different day – but there is something to be said for how the game deals with female characters. The best example (and worst offender) is Michael’s family. While none of them are likeable people, the only one who actually criticizes Michael about his destructive lifestyle, and therefore the only one who offers anything of substance to the narrative, is his son, Jimmy. Compare that to the narrative contributions of his wife and daughter – his wife cheats on him consistently and his daughter hates him for trying to protect her from porn directors who are trying to take advantage of her naivety. These two characters do not offer any counter argument to Michael’s many failings – they simply exist to yell at the protagonist (and by extension the player), and all of their concerns revolve around sex and money. Meanwhile, the son Jimmy gets to actually care about his father, in addition to being selfish, rounding him out as a character. It’s a shallow way of portraying women, and in some ways it is actually a step back from the way female characters were portrayed in Grand Theft Auto IV – at least in Liberty City the female characters in the story were able to criticize the male protagonist in important, substantial ways.

Lastly, I am still awestruck by the scope of this game. There really is too much to see and do, but that has its advantages. With too much content, players can be picky with what content they pursue. They’re not forced to do every sidequest in the game just to get the most out of the world and characters – players can skip something if it doesn’t pique their interest. That level of freedom is rarely afforded, and Rockstar should be commended on not only the amount of things to do, but the variety of those activities.

More Than a New Coat of Paint

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Playing in first-person is a must, and the attention to detail is what sells it.

When I originally played GTA V on the Xbox 360, I was amazed at how much Rockstar was able to achieve on such outdated hardware. So it should come as no surprise that, given more time and more power, the city of Los Santos could look even better. But Rockstar did more than slap on higher-resolution textures and call it a day. The updates to this version of GTA V go so far as to make it feel like an entirely new, and better, game.

The change with the biggest impact is the inclusion of a new first-person mode. Basically, the entire game can now be played as if it were a first-person shooter (FPS), which may not seem like such a big deal at first, but after the initial firefight in North Yankton it seems as if GTA V was always meant to be played this way. I switched it on immediately and haven’t gone back since, thanks to the meticulous level of detail Rockstar put into converting this game from a third-person shooter to a FPS. The interior of every car has been modeled, and they all look different and unique – no copy and pasting textures. Each gun looks as if it is coming right out of a Call of Duty game, and even smaller things like the cell phone look incredible. The reason this mode works so well is that it clearly wasn’t rushed, and was implemented with care and dedication. Without these details, the world would seem bland from this perspective. Instead, it feels more alive than ever before.

But there’s more to this version than a change in perspective and some nice looking cars – all of the more practical changes really alter the way this game is played. For starters, there is an increased amount of traffic on the highways, which is very welcomed. In the original, there was always a bit of a letdown when getting into a high speed chase, because eventually the roads would clear out and it felt as if the player was running from the cops in a desert, not a bustling metropolis. But now each chase feels intense and exhausting because the player has to fight both the cops and the environment. With such a simple change, GTA V feels like the culmination of every game in the franchise before it, as if this was the game we were all meant to play this entire time. This franchise has always been about freedom – freedom to move around in a large environment, freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want. But now we can add another item to that short list – immersion. GTA V’s biggest evolution is how the focus has now been shifted from freedom to immersion.

One element that I did not anticipate was how Rockstar would take advantage of the unique hardware options made available to them. I have previously remarked that developers need to think about how they can tailor their experiences to the hardware their game is made for, and Rockstar has provided a solid example of this with the PS4 controller. The speaker on the controller is now used for cell phone calls and police chatter. This change is on par with adding rumble into the controller – not only do we now feel the game in our hands, but we can hear it communicating to us, right in the palm of our hand. This just adds to the already high level of immersion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other developers took advantage of this speaker in future games.

Rockstar also used the light bar on the back of the controller in a useful and helpful way, proving that there are still a number of ways games can communicate information to the player without having to clutter the screen with messages or navigation points. The light bar will change color depending on which character the player is controlling, which is useful when in FPS mode because it isn’t always immediately clear when the game switches characters for a specific mission. It is an easy way for players to figure out that they’re currently playing as Michael, and they know when the game has switched over to Trevor, because the light bar has gone from blue to orange. Also, when being chased by the cops, the light will flash blue and red, which may sound impractical but with all of the chaos in GTA V it can sometimes be a little too easy to get the cop’s attention, and it’s nice that the game will tell you the cops are chasing you before they gun you down in the street. With these additions, Rockstar once again lights a path for other developers, and I hope they follow.

Getting it Right (and Wrong), the Second Time

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The learning curve for flying aircraft is unnecessarily high, and it’s a shame it wasn’t remedied for the re-release.

It’s not every day that a developer essentially gets to redo a high-profile game, so its interesting to see what Rockstar did and didn’t do with the opportunity. Focusing on immersion was a welcomed surprise, and I hope this is a sign that open world games will spend more time focusing on the world and less time focusing on what has already been refined, the openness of these worlds. The state of San Andreas is huge, but none of that matters if there is nothing of note out there in the wilderness. With the increased level of detail also comes incentive to explore the entire world, meaning more players might see more of the game than they typically would.

The most important note Rockstar hit with this re-release was the amount of options at the player’s disposal. I wrote about this in my review of Super Smash Bros. Wii U – the more options players have when it comes to how the game is played, the more likely that said game will attract a larger audience. Maybe playing in third-person is easier for some gamers – if so, allow them to play that way. Maybe some aspects of gameplay are better in first-person, but others work better in third-person – allow for a hybrid of styles. These options lower the barrier for entry, which is always a great thing for the industry.

While I applaud the changes Rockstar made, there are some areas where GTA V still struggles. Although the story may be enjoyable, there is still no getting around the convoluted way it is told. The first time through, very little of what is going on makes any sense, and I recall more than one moment where I paused the game simply to figure out who this new character was and why I had to do what he said. As video game stories become more complex and expansive, they need to adopt more elements and techniques from the world of film. GTA V would have benefited greatly from scene transitions, establishing shots and an overall slower pace when dealing with exposition. I am not saying that the writers and developers have to hold the player’s hand and carefully tell us everything, but the storytelling in GTA V is overly complex and harder to understand than the Lord of the Rings films. When a game features a fraction of the characters of a blockbuster film and requires nowhere near as much background to understand the story, yet is still somehow more difficult to grasp, then there is a serious problem.

Last, but certainly not least, flying is still somehow a complete pain in the ass. I’m not sure why there wasn’t an attempt to refine the controls, and as I said in my original review, developer Bungie, Inc. showed developers how to handle flying vehicles in Halo: Reach. Yet I still cannot land a single engine plane without blowing it up and having to reload over and over again.

A Quick Note Regarding GTA Online

When I originally reviewed GTA V, I wrote a separate review for the online component, ending that review on a somewhat skeptical note. I wondered if I ever would come back to the online game again, seeing as there was plenty of potential, but little content seizing on said potential. Reviewing this version of the game, I dived back into online for the first time in over a year, and not much has changed. The most fun players will likely have is to create their own, by either coming up with random gameplay types (demolition derby on top of a skyscraper or a version of operation with exploding buses) or by just randomly killing other players. I am officially past the point of waiting for this mode to get better, even if Rockstar does eventually add heists. GTA Online will always be a minor distraction to help break up the single player story, and one that I am not dying to get back to anytime soon.

The Final Score

GTA V is a game best played twice, because of its issues with storytelling and pacing. With the improvements Rockstar has made in this new version, GTA V has been propelled into a new category – this is a must-play game, and in my opinion one of the best, if not the best, of 2014. But more importantly, it is an interesting peek inside the world of video game development, and how developers can learn from their past mistakes. It is still not a perfect game, but it is damn close, and the lessons learned here are invaluable for other developers who most likely won’t be so lucky as to get to revise their game post-release. But maybe the ultimate lesson here is to take your time and perfect it the first time, avoiding a re-release altogether.