Grand Theft Auto V is a huge, sprawling game. It is one of—if not the—largest game worlds ever created that’s not called Azeroth. It’s a full and complex environment stuffed to the brim with, well, things. The review, however, is short and simple: Grand Theft Auto V is the ultimate refinement of everything Rockstar Games has been doing with the series since it went into the third dimension.
That’s not to say, however, that it is perfect. In fact, it is far from it. You have to realize that Rockstar has not been striving for ultimate gaming design, for a flawless diamond we can point to when we want to discuss the pinnacle of all video games and the industry and theory behind it all. For the past 16 years, they’ve been aiming to make the best subversive do-anything-you-want open world games, even back when they were called DMA Designs and it was a top-down affair.
For those of you that crawled out from under your homey rock jus to read this review, Grand Theft Auto V is a third-person action game featuring three different protagonists in a virtually condensed and satirized version of the real modern Los Angeles and the surrounding area, collectively the in-game state of San Andreas. Although it’s less accurate than the historical imagining of the same city as in L.A. Noire, it is immensely more precise.
Every major landmark of the bustling town has an equivalent within Los Santos: Pershing Square, the Hollywood sign, Third Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Pier. And though these are parodic analogues, many of them are either exceedingly evocative or precisely representative of the real thing. Venice Beach, for instance, is a spitting image.
The detail of the gigantic map (seriously, it’s bigger than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto IV combined) is staggering and contributes a great deal to the feel of being in the game. Wild animals roam the countryside, the desert is both barren and lively at the same time, and pedestrians seem to live their own lives, ones you can watch and stalk up-close and from afar. (The number of activities you can do across this wildly diverse landscape is also astounding, including hunting, entering triathlons, serviceable golf, and surprisingly engaging tennis.)
From a distance, the graphics degrade in a wonderfully redolent way. Headlights past a couple hundred yards bokeh into beautifully glowing orbs and mountains seem to get appropriately hazy. As beautiful as things are face-to-face, this distance filter is almost more attractive. No loading between the plethora of intricately designed and decorated interiors and broad, varied exteriors really makes the entire game feel wholly contiguous. It seems as though Rockstar has squeezed the most power out of the current generation of consoles for an open world game.
The faces of characters are especially well done. Eyes flit and dart around, full of life and bringing a sense of vigor to the usually dead peepers of video game characters. Faces have characteristic craggy features and humanly imperfect in their slightly off asymmetry. When you see the three main characters emote, you tend to really feel the scene.
Speaking of which, the three main characters are actually quite strong in terms of the narrative and with what they bring to the gameplay. You have Michael De Santa, a retired bank robber with a failed realization of the American Dream among Beverly Hills (in-game as Rockford Hills); Franklin Clinton, a former gangbanger now working as a repo man for a swindling car dealer; and Trevor Philips, the closest we’ll get to the Platonic ideal of a Grand Theft Auto rampage-inclined psychopath in the form of a desert-dwelling drugs and arms dealer with an amazingly disregard for social norms and public safety.
Their three storylines eventually converge (emphasis on eventually; the game has a very slow burn to start where you don’t even see Trevor until 10 hours or so in, when the rest of the game’s systems and mechanics like property management and stock markets also unlock) and cover several twists and turns in a rather satisfying way. Some of the developments are kind of predictable, but seeing them unfold is nevertheless fun to see, especially because the entire game is mercifully more mirthful than Grand Theft Auto IV‘s dour tale.
There’s also a distinct lack of interesting female characters, a fact even more disappointing given that we know Rockstar is fully capable of creating one (see: Bonnie MacFarlane in Red Dead Redemption). They’re all either massively inconsequential, shrill harpies, or objects used within the plot. (To be fair, though, many men also fit the same template of wet blankets and utilities.) It’s still a good story, but the lack of meaningful femininity also feels like a missed opportunity.
Having three main characters also allows for a more manageable variety of missions. The structure of Grand Theft Auto V is largely similar to the rest of the series—go to a guy, talk to him, drive somewhere else, shoot some people, and go back to talk to the guy again—but now the impetus for having the wildly differing types of missions like driving, shooting, chaos, and whatnot doesn’t have to fall on a single catch-all character. Michael tends to deal with slick narrative missions, Franklin drives cars (he does repossess them, after all), and Trevor blows things up and flies planes, specializations that also inform their individual special abilities.
At just about any time, you can hold down on the D-pad and switch to another character in a Google Maps-esque zooming sequence, each of whom leads their own lives and has their own stats to develop like shooting, driving, flying, and stamina. When you switch outside of missions, you’ll often find them in a little vignette that fleshes out their lives. Michael might be stuck in traffic, Franklin might be walking his dog Chop, and Trevor might be waking up in a dumpster.
In missions, though, the switching serves to always offer up the player the most interesting thing to do at any given moment. You’ll occasionally be forced to play a certain character, but you’ll often be able to freely switch among the trio. It solves the problem with the previous generation of Grand Theft Auto games where you frequently find yourself running between spots just to find stuff to shoot.
In one particular mission, I had Michael rappel down a skyscraper before Franklin had to snipe out impending guards, all of which culminated in Trevor pulling them out via helicopter. It was somewhat orchestrated but still spoke to the core tenant of the mechanic. Another mission later on that really stood out to me was when the three characters had to hold down an alley. By positioning each one strategically, switching allowed for maximizing protection of the area and made the entire ordeal agreeably intense. It’s hard to imagine any Grand Theft Auto game (or any Rockstar game) without this switching mechanic going forward.
This, though, is perhaps the only true innovation of Grand Theft Auto V. The rest is pure refinement, taking a raw gem and slicing and sanding it into a few shining facets. When you hit top speed in a car, the camera shakes in a delightfully out-of-control way, and when you navigate stairs, turns are automatically managed; all you have to do is hold forward and you’ll go straight to the bottom or to the door. Backfire from cars can ignite gasoline trails. The details of the game culminate into a masterstroke of interactivity.
The divisive driving of Grand Theft Auto IV has been tweaked in a much more pleasant way. The cars now handle tighter while the road physics have been loosened, basically inverting the way they were before and it is much more agreeable. Slamming both the brake and the handbrake is no longer the only way to take corners and boy does it make driving a lot more fun.
The humor has also been refined, but only in the sense that it’s been hewn into Rockstar’s grand intent of being topical and satirical. The gags in the story are usually fantastic and laugh-out-loud (one involving a petition to legalize marijuana is especially great, albeit casually racist) but the radio is what can only be described as child humor.
The radio soundtrack is pretty fantastic, though. And now when you switch stations (done by holding down left on the D-pad), you can see what every station is playing in a similar selection wheel to how the weapons are managed. There’s great electro, old school hip hop, talk radio, and ranchera. And the original soundtrack composed specifically for the game adds a great deal to it. Moments that otherwise were filled with silence are now adrenaline-pumping with an orchestral score of thumping bass and lighthearted, West Coast horns.
This holds especially true with the heists, which are the clear standout of the game. At various points in the story, certain outside influences force the threesome to reengage in the thievery they’d left behind, which plays into the nature of planning heists, something akin to the blueprint stages of The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.
You’ll be offered options in your approach, often a dichotomy between a loud and brash approach with guns blazing or utilizing your smarts to avoid unwanted attention by police and security. Then you need to select your crew among characters of varying statistics and positions, some of which you find out in the world via Strangers and Freaks missions (special one-off tasks unrelated to the main story) or as you progress through the campaign. You’ll need a hacker, a driver, and a gunner, and the better they are, the bigger their cut of the take will be but also the better off you’ll be as the job unfolds.
For instance, if you pick a bad driver, he’ll source bad bikes and it’ll make your getaway a lot more difficult. However, if you plan on going the stealth route, you won’t need a gunner, so you can skimp on that role since, if things don’t go belly-up, you won’t need a precision shooter. It adds a lot of customization to what would normally be a stock mission and it is spectacular. (It’s strange, though, that your personnel upgrades through use, but you don’t have enough heists to make their growth feel meaningful.)
If you need to source a getaway vehicle, you pick any four-door car and you choose where to park it. And once you architect your robbery, you then embark on missions to gather the necessary materials like an exterminator van or a submarine. And then once the heist begins, things can unfold in any number of ways due to the open world nature of the game, but also based on the decisions you make. The time you have available to pilfer valuables or how you’ve leveled up your flying abilities will affect the chaos that ensues. It’s absolutely sublime.
This is enhanced by a now enjoyable set of shooting mechanics. The lock-on system has been polished to include an aiming structure no longer defined by feeling lethargic, imprecise, and tedious. The reticle, however, is still just a tiny little white dot, which can be rather difficult to see in certain environments. (You can change it to a crosshair, but that obfuscates the discretely more accurate and singular dot, so neither one is a winning option.) Firefights, basically, are fun now.
There are some sequences, however, that aren’t so fun from a tonal perspective. In one mission, you have to torture a seemingly innocent Middle Eastern fellow whose sole transgression is knowing where a guy lives through a variety of disturbing means. At the same time, you have to switch to scoping out the fellow the torturee is giving up who, as the mission goes on, is revealed to likely not be anyone of importance. This—and a few other scenes—was far more gross than satirically laughable.
Aside from that and the poor characterization of females and the culturally stale cynicism peppered throughout the game, Grand Theft Auto V is a wonder. It’s a feast of mechanical polish and a belly-busting buffet of audio and visual treats. After two generations of refinement and experimenting with other franchises, Rockstar has managed to crest the peak of open world shenanigans. This is definitely a game to play.
+ An impossibly comprehensive and realistic virtualization of Southern California
+ The three main characters are interesting, compelling, and ripe for carrying a massive, 30-hour story
+ Shooting and driving have been greatly improved and now rather enjoyable
+ Heists and switching between characters are an unbelievable highlight in a game already full of fantastic stuff
– Some of the social commentary feels stale and the radio humor belongs to a different time while some scenes are especially disgusting for no particular reason
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V
Release: September 17, 2013
Genre: third-person action open world
Developer: Rockstar North
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Players: singleplayer offline, 16 players online (launching October 1, 2013)