A Year of Crime and Debauchery: Grand Theft Auto V, One Year Later- A Retrospective

*The following contains spoilers for Grand Theft Auto V. If you haven’t played it yet, what are you even doing here? Go play it! Unless you’re on current-gen consoles, then wait. Or PC, wait longer.*

Crime and murder never gets old, which is immediately apparent from all the gruesome, ultra-violent shooters and hack-and-slashes coming in left and right. We get our fix of ultimate violent voyeurism pretty regularly, and we’re never left jonesing for too long. Yet, every generation, we’re all eagerly awaiting the next action-packed comic crime-drama farce from the British developers Rockstar North (formerly DMA Productions), Grand Theft Auto. Last year today, Rockstar’s debatably greatest game ever, Grand Theft Auto V, was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. That’s the good news. The bad news is, besides the current-gen and PC releases, we’re years off from Rockstar’s next gut-busting gem.

Grand Theft Auto was a revelation in game design last-gen, proving you could still get a lot of mileage from those decade-old boxes. It managed this by installing 8GB onto your console, which meant a lot of users last-gen couldn’t play it at all without a sufficient hard-drive.

It didn’t have the biggest world last-gen, but it definitely had the most-detailed, and that’s where it counts. San Andreas is a very dense state, packed with buildings, foliage, animals, and people. As an imitation of real-world Los Angeles, a main source of its humor is both the satirizing of all facets of show-business and vapid wealth, as well as the urban population. It succeeds greatly in its dry execution of this humor in very well-written and acted dialogue in the narrative and its awesome in-universe ads, while sort of fumbling with the rambling idiocy of the radio talk shows, which almost seem to exist in a different dimension entirely.

While I don’t recall much about the radio shows, I remember Lazlow having a diminished role, and that’s a damning sin for any game to commit. He does however get a funny minor role in the story, and has a moderately humorous role on an in-game TV series called “Fame or Shame”. While the radio shows have taken a major step-down from their all-time high in Grand Theft Auto IV, the soundtrack is my favorite in the series. Robbing a store and escaping to Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” is a great time. I didn’t know what the hell Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” was before (thought it was going to be a stand-up act), but I knew what it was afterwards, believe me.

Let’s talk about the shining grace of the story, the characters. Not every joke hits with a barrel of laughs, but these characters should always be commended for their amazing delivery and oozing charm. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor bounce their personalities off of each other regularly, and possess this great chemistry between each other that makes each of them indispensable. The rest of the characters are hit-and-miss. Lester, Lamar, and Dave Norton are all worthy supporting characters and hilarious, while Trevor’s crew Wade and Ron are underutilized and lack the same comedic wit. The villains are all lame, but they serve their job with little-to-no character and accomplish their role in the narrative, if statically. There’s 4 villains, and only two of them are developed characters. It’s a problem many entries in the series have suffered, but here it’s especially saddening. Regardless, the true ending is still one of adrenaline-filled satisfaction.

I was in shock when I first held this game in my hands, it’s like I couldn’t believe the next GTA was in my hands. The scope was so empowering and butterfly-inducing, and I had no idea how big it was or what the narrative held for me next. Delivering the two cars to Simeon through a pseudo-race with Lamar in the first mission after the prologue was jaw-dropping. It looked incredible, ran incredible, and controlled like bliss. The set-pieces happening throughout that first mission was a total integration of the game world into the mission in a way I’d never seen in a Rockstar game before (besides L.A. Noire, but that was only published by Rockstar). Playing as only Franklin those first few missions made me imagine just how unfathomable the scope was, not just in size but story, and while it never completely hit the highs I expected, it still blew me away.

The moment of truth was around 10 missions in, a mission known as “The Long Stretch”. You can read all about it as my favorite mission in GTA V here, but basically it was the point where I fully grasped Rockstar’s method of bombastic, linear, set-piece driven game design, treating the open-world as a living, breathing hub world, and utilizing it perfectly. The incredible original score, first for a Grand Theft Auto, by Tangerine Dream enhanced the moment while searchlights from the police helicopter directed toward the back door we escaped through brought attention to lighting and textures which currently put most current-gen games to shame. I remember escaping out to the desert swamps, and being eviscerated by dozens of cops from every direction. It was an incredible experience, and set the stage for the entire game.

This retrospective is on the single-player experience that is Grand Theft Auto V, but I suppose I’d better comment on Grand Theft Auto Online quickly before wrapping this up. Almost a full year later, and Grand Theft Auto Online is still a massive disappointment. This isn’t all on Rockstar, though. A lot of it is, of course, for Rockstar hyping up this game (it’s marketed as a separate game packaged with GTA V) as something revolutionary, but I’m disappointed on how little the players take advantage of what great gameplay systems are in place. It’s all just messing around downtown, and I can hardly ever get into any desired games because of a lack of players. Couple this with the leveling system which unfairly segregates new and veteran players by linking weapon unlocks to level, and you get a very unbalanced, disappointing experience.

Grand Theft Auto V released right before current-gen consoles, and wasn’t in the least affected in sales. Now it’s coming to next-gen consoles, where it’ll be even better. A year later, and it’s still a riot to play through. It has lost a bit of that magic I felt playing through it the first time, but it’s still a solid great game. I prefer linear, controlled experiences, but I love me my open-worlds, and Grand Theft Auto V delivers the best of both worlds. It’s not my favorite game of last-generation, but it’s still rightfully deserving of its high praise, and I will continue to praise this wonderfully-written, densely-packed, and gracefully polished experience. Let’s hope we aren’t made too wait too long for the single-player DLC, but they can take as long as they want on the next core game if it ends up anything like this one.

James Flaherty

Video Game Reviewer/Critic at Leet Gamers Asia
Two things I love with a passion are video games and writing, and what's a better combination of those two things than being a game reviewer? 'Cause that's what I am. A reviewer for Leet Gamers Asia.

My tastes in games breach all genres, though my fortes are platformers and first-person shooters. My favorite game series is probably Super Mario, specifically the 3D games. I also love Rayman, Hitman, Bioshock, Half-Life/Portal, Uncharted, and Grand Theft Auto. As for my favorite game, it's hard to say: I love Portal 2, Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Resident Evil 4, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Rayman Legends, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Grand Theft Auto IV, L.A. Noire, Fallout 3, Journey, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence all so damn much.

James Flaherty

Two things I love with a passion are video games and writing, and what's a better combination of those two things than being a game reviewer? 'Cause that's what I am. A reviewer for Leet Gamers Asia. My tastes in games breach all genres, though my fortes are platformers and first-person shooters. My favorite game series is probably Super Mario, specifically the 3D games. I also love Rayman, Hitman, Bioshock, Half-Life/Portal, Uncharted, and Grand Theft Auto. As for my favorite game, it's hard to say: I love Portal 2, Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Resident Evil 4, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Rayman Legends, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Grand Theft Auto IV, L.A. Noire, Fallout 3, Journey, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence all so damn much.

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