For all the controversy surrounding its violence, sexuality, and vindictive portrayal of American culture, it’s ironic that the Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most mature and thought provoking in gaming. Grand Theft Auto V, the latest in Rockstar Games' long-running open world franchise, is no different, offering its usual take on modern day Americana, using the backdrop of Los Angeles, California to explore our obsessions with celebrities, narcissism, and the glorification of crime and violence. Grand Theft Auto V uses the same similar tactics of controversy, shock, and awe to get its ideas across, but does it in the most expansive, well-realized, and fun sandbox world of the series yet.
Previous Grand Theft Auto games have granted us multiple trips to Liberty City and Vice City, but Grand Theft Auto V brings us back to San Andreas for the first time since the 2004 title of the same name. Like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto V gives us the entire state of San Andreas to explore; a huge landscape of cities, hills, forests, deserts, mountains and ocean. Rockstar has always excelled at making worlds that feel alive, and Grand Theft Auto V’s San Andreas represents the epitome of this talent.
It’s no surprise that Grand Theft Auto V features one of the most well-realized and immersive sandboxes in gaming, but the way in which you inhabit it is new for the series. For the first time, you play as multiple protagonists, each of whom carry their own unique story, style, and gameplay mechanics. First, there’s Michael, former career criminal turned unfulfilled middle-aged family man retired under the Witness Protection Program. Next up is Franklin, who exists on the opposite end of the spectrum - an impoverished youth from the streets of Los Santos with dreams of moving up in the world. He sees this opportunity through Michael, who takes him on to be his protege during Michael's relapse from retirement.
And then there’s Trevor. Entire academic essays could be written about Trevor, the homicidal, maniacal, sociopathic, cannibalistic, bisexual sadist with just a hint of an Oedipal complex. More so than any protagonist in the series, Trevor emits an exuberant glee as he performs the awful tasks that these games have you do, holding a mirror up to the players who have enjoyed the series thus far. “This is the kind of insanity a Grand Theft Auto protagonist would exhibit in REAL LIFE,” says Grand Theft Auto V, and we are simultaneously horrified and entranced by the results.
It’s through these characters that Grand Theft Auto V showcases its most innovative new gameplay mechanic. At almost any time during the game, you can switch between the three characters, each of whom have their own money, houses, missions, and vehicles independent of each other. Switching between the characters during free roam allows you to peak into their lives. Switch to Michael and find him in the midst of an argument with his wife. Switch to Trevor and find him woken up naked on a beach surrounded by dead bodies. Through this seamless mix of character and gameplay, Rockstar is able to produce the most memorable and well-defined protagonists in the series.
Michael, Franklin and Trevor are fun to play as on their own, but each of their abilities really shine when working together on the game’s many story missions. For as fantastic as Rockstar’s previous Grand Theft Auto iterations have been, a common criticism for many of the main story missions has been that most of them boil down to “drive here, kill X amount of guys, escape from cops, rinse and repeat.” Grand Theft Auto V takes this criticism to heart, keeping every single mission feeling fresh, new, and exciting. The character switching mechanic helps vastly with this; often times the game prompts you to switch from one character to the next, quickly giving you different perspectives on scenes and even extending missions throughout the entire city.
The most captivating of these missions are the heists. Throughout the story mode, the gang will get together to plan and execute various heists, from the initial stakeout, planning an approach (usually between stealthy or full blown assault), picking out your crew, and then the getaway. Throughout the game, you can find fellow criminals who want to join your crew to partake in your heists, each with their own stats that level up the more you use them. There’s a risk/reward system at play, however, as lower level crew members will take a lower percentage of the haul, but are more likely to screw up when things in the heist inevitably go south.
Like the characters that pull them off, the heists come and go far too quickly. Throughout the story mode, there are only about half a dozen heists to pull off, and only a few of which allow you to pick out your crew members. Re-using crew members is interesting as it causes the characters to discuss how well they did on previous heists, where they either voice their concern or their confidence, but it just feels like a wasted opportunity as you really only get one or two chances to see your crew members grow. Going back to replay the heists with different approaches and different crew members definitely adds replayability, but perhaps we will see the heists expanded upon in the upcoming Grand Theft Auto Online.
As engaging each of the three characters are, it’s a shame that they don’t find themselves in a better told story. The way the character’s stories intertwine is certainly innovative from a gameplay perspective, but never quite comes together to form a completely engaging narrative. Perhaps it’s not fair to be so harsh on Grand Theft Auto V’s story, in a series known more for its style and humor and less for its narrative finesse, but coming off of Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 (lead writer Dan Houser’s previous two credits), perhaps I was expecting something more than what essentially boils down to a retelling of the stories of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City.
Everything else, however, is a return to everything that was great about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Beyond simply returning to the setting of San Andreas’ namesake, Grand Theft Auto V also features the return of many features that many complained were missing in 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV - more character customization, more side missions, greater landscape variety, buying property - the list goes on and on. Often the sheer amount of stuff to do can be overwhelming, but sometimes the best part of Grand Theft Auto is simply driving around and enjoying the sights.
The absolutely gorgeous visuals and realistic animations push the console hardware to their uppermost limit. This is easily the most beautiful game that Rockstar has ever made, and it takes a toll on the engine. For as breathtaking as the countryside of San Andreas can be, not even the sunny paradise can cover up the ridiculous amounts of aliasing employed just to make sure the game runs. The game chugs along at a smooth frame-rate that rarely drops, but you can tell that the game is barely making it. The technical wizardry Rockstar pulled off to get this game running on current-generation consoles is simply remarkable.
Of course, it wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto without Rockstar's legendary commitment to sound design, and Grand Theft Auto V is no different. There is never a dull moment driving through the streets of Los Santos, be it eavesdropping on the lives of the various pedestrians or listening to the hundreds of hours' worth of satirical talk radio, music, and advertisements. The licensed soundtrack continues Rockstar's penchant for choosing great music, again providing a variety of music radio stations to listen to as you cruise around the city (my personal favorite being the surprisingly awesome country station). The licensed soundtrack is also used brilliantly to enhance the emotional resonance of scenes, such as when Phil Collins' "I Don't Care Anymore" plays on the radio as one character drives away from a relationship-shattering conflict.
Despite the heavy drama, it’s worth noting Grand Theft Auto V’s return to the more zany, surreal elements that defined the series’ earlier entries. One of the most divisive elements of Grand Theft Auto IV was the greater emphasis on realism. Grand Theft Auto V’s world is still one (relatively) rooted in reality, but also a world that contains hallucinatory drug trips, crashed UFOs, and a Sasquatch hidden within San Andreas’ forests. It never gets quite as out-there as, say, Saints Row IV, but fans longing to return to a Grand Theft Auto that takes itself less seriously will find a welcome home here.
I put in over 30 hours into Grand Theft Auto V by the time I finished the main story mode and sat down to write this review, and I know as soon as it’s published I’ll jump back in for countless more. To be honest, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything Grand Theft Auto V has to offer. Slight technical and narrative issues do little to diminish what is one of the most engrossing and immersive games in the series. Grand Theft Auto V is a stunning addition to Rockstar’s library, and an almost perfect send-off to this console generation. And with Grand Theft Auto Online set to release next month, it looks like our trip to San Andreas isn’t anywhere close to being finished.
This review is based on a retail copy of Grand Theft Auto V for the PS3, provided by the publisher.