NOTE: This is the second review of this massive game for our site, as we felt the game warranted two views from different writers. While both of us agree that it is a must play title, there are plenty of points we don’t agree on. That can be up to our readers to decide which one is right, or if we both make an equal amount of fair observations of the game. At any rate, you can let us know in the comments below. So, read both, and hope you enjoy them.
The biggest release of this year has hit and I survived the story mode. It is the largest Grand Theft Auto title to date, in both it’s scope, amount of content, and certainly it’s unbelievable sales figures (the game has already made over 1 billion dollars US). But is Rockstar’s latest the greatest in this popular series? To that question, I would give a resounding “Yes!”. But is it a masterpiece, a clear winner for 2013’s GOTY? That would be more a matter of opinion, but for me the flaws hold it back from masterpiece status. Despite that, this is still a great game, and worthy of a purchase, as it gives you a lot of bang for your buck, including a massive online mode (which will be covered in its own review, as it’s a game unto itself and it first came on October1). So, let’s take a look at Los Santos and the world of GTA V.
The first thing you will notice after booting the game up is that the map is incredibly large. Covering more square footage than the city of Manhattan and its surrounding communities (when made to scale), the map of Los Santos and its surrounding environs can take you 10-15 minutes to drive across on screen, even while driving at high speeds. Walking from one end to the other can take upwards of an hour or more. So, it’s a big game. To Rockstar’s credit, they did not make it an empty one. Every bit of space is filled with something to see and do. The world of GTA V is a living, breathing world, populated by plenty of people and animals. Yes, animals, much like they did in Red Dead Redemption, make their appearance here for the first time in the franchise’s history. For the most part, they are rendered beautifully (see the article titled GTA V: It’s all in the details) with a couple of missteps. But more on that later.
Another first for the franchise: Having more than one playable character. GTA V gives you three to play as, with the ability to switch between them on the fly. This adds a new dynamic to the game, and works especially well during missions in which all three are present. It’s also a nice touch that two of them go about their daily business while you spend time with one. Only when you quit a play session and restart will you find a character where you left him. Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll be, which adds to the immersive feel of a living world instead of a stagnant computer generated game space.
The three characters all come from different backgrounds, with two of them having worked together before the game’s events. Franklin is a brash young African-American trying to escape the ‘hood. Michael is a former professional thief who tried to start over in Los Santos but gets drawn back into the life. And Trevor- Well, Trevor is the wild card. He’s a man who can be fiercely loyal an doesn’t take being crossed lightly. Of the three, he is the most psychotic, the one most likely to go overboard with violence, and the one who in between bouts of psychopathic rage spouts off some very comedic lines. All three characters are fairly well voiced, though Trevor can slip into the cartoony villain mode on occasion. He has a curious depth to him, and it’s understandable why he has become a fan favorite. And yet, there are times playing Trevor where things really feel, well, uncomfortable. It makes for an odd inconsistency in a later stage of his character arc, where just as he starts to be a bit more likeable he goes and does something quite heinous which sets him back a bit. It makes him a bit more cliched and cartoonish rather than menacing, even when the menace is clearly present in his voice.
Michael and Franklin are a bit more consistent, but both are not without problems of their own. Franklin often comes off as cliched, though at times a better developed character shines through, particularly later in the game where he tends to be the one who holds the trio together. Michael comes off the best, as the most developed character. He shows a bit of conflict between wanting to provide for his family and being caught up in his criminal past. He longs for that big score, so that he can truly retire and enjoy his favorite past-time, movies. Sadly, Michael is saddled with a dysfunctional family, and himself in therapy. His family- lazy gamer/pothead son Jimmy, cheating shrill wife Amanda, and fame seeking and morally loose daughter Tracey- all come across as more caricature than actual characters, with none of them ever truly becoming likeable. It isn’t helped that the voice acting for these three is often poor, with Tracey being particularly grating. It makes you wish as Michael he could just ditch them all, though his character actually cares for these people. I get that the writers were going for a satirical take on the characters, but for the most part that satire falls flat.
The three are brought together in a story that, while well done, holds no real surprises. It starts off well, beginning with a bank robbery in North Yankton in a prologue mission that goes wrong. The cut scenes are very well done here, lending a cinematic flair that Rockstar has gotten practiced at presenting in their games. It then moves the proceedings to ten years later in Los Santos and its surrounding counties. Franklin works for a shady car dealer, using him to repossess cars when people can’t make the exorbitant payments on their vehicles. It in this line of work that Franklin meets Michael, when Franklin repossesses Jimmy’s car. The two strike up a budding friendship, and decide to work together. Meanwhile, Trevor is out in the desert, trying to get his own enterprise working, wreaking havoc among those who stand in his way. He thinks Michael is dead, falling in the botched bank heist a decade earlier, but then discovers his old partner still lives. So off to Los Santos he goes for a most unwelcome reunion. Despite Michael’s unease at the reappearance of his old partner, they begin working together again, bringing Franklin into the mix. Along the way, the trio encounter a variety of characters, including corrupt government officials, crossing a private militia group (clearly modeled after Blackwater), a street gang that will be familiar to GTA veterans, and a Chinese Triad. It all plays out quite familiarly to anyone who’s watched their share of crime movies, with the dialogue trying to mimic a Tarantino film, but coming off as more of a Tarantino wannabe. The dialogue itself indulges in an overuse of both the F- and N-word. Yes, I know some people talk that way in real life, but it’s not brilliant dialogue in real life either, and while tolerable for a 2 hour movie, it becomes tiresome after 30 hours or so with the game.
Despite the missteps, there are some genuinely funny lines peppered throughout the massive script, and the radio stations that have been a staple of the series since GTA III are here again to provide much of the comic material. Not everything lands well, but there’s a great deal that makes for the spot on social commentary that the series is known for. Once again, the licensed soundtrack is terrific, delivering songs from all types of music, from rap to pop to classic rock to country to punk. Unfortunately, towards the end of the game you may find yourself just switching the radio off as you begin to hear the same songs over and over again. On the plus side, the ambient score by Tangerine Dream is wonderful, harking back to great crime movies such as Heat and Thief. It’s never overwhelming but always draws you in, making you feel more a part of the game world. Definitely one of the game’s strengths in terms of its sound, along with the varied dialogue you’ll hear from the pedestrians and other NPCs you’ll encounter in your travels. Even animals get in the mix, with dogs barking, coyotes howling, mountain lions snarling, and deer bleating. It all works well, and shows the amount of detail Rockstar applies to bring the game to life.
Speaking of detail, there is an incredible amount of it within the game’s environments, from city streets to mountain trails to the ocean floor. The lighting effects are especially well done, accurately depicting the time of day or the weather, which randomly changes over the course of the game. Rain, snow, and fog are all depicted nicely. As it rains, you’ll even notice puddles forming on the streets, or little rivulets cascading down a hill. Country roads show the wear and tear from their use, with cracks and patches all evident. I won’t go much more into this, as I’ve covered this aspect in another article (GTA V: It’s all in the details) but I will say again that Rockstar has gotten it mostly right. There are a few missteps here and there, and you will notice a fair amount of pop-in at times, though that has become common in large open world games. Many scenes have a cinematic quality to them, making you feel as though you’re actively manipulating a movie than just playing a game. But its flaws do remind you it is a game, as you hit some framerate slow down in later missions. For the most part the flaws don’t really impact the enjoyment of the game, but they are noticeable.
Glitches also can be found, some being quite humorous. Reported ones have had planes stuck nose down into mountains, making a very different type of tree. Sharks swim on top of the water like a boat, even swimming onto the beach in this fashion (reminded me of the bad SyFy Channel movie Sand Sharks). Cops can often see beyond their cones of vision, spotting you behind walls and homing in easily, though bushes sometimes will shield you. I’ve watched cops run each other over too, as well as repeatedly smash their cruiser cars into an obstacle before driving around it. Again, this can be expected in a large open world game, and mostly don’t affect gameplay. I say mostly, because I did have two instances of the game freezing on me, making it necessary to restart my PS3, and had one character lock up, also requiring a restart. An odd mission marker wouldn’t appear at times or something vanish from the map, only to come back later. There was nothing game-breaking, but these things did add some frustration.
For the most part, controls have been improved from GTA IV. Driving is among the most improved, making it once again enjoyable to cruise about town without fighting a stubborn camera. Melee combat feels like it has real weight to it, and the gunplay is much more enjoyable, though the auto-aim can sometimes be imprecise. Flying is a mixed bag. As you practice more it does become easier, but the learning curve can be a bit steep. Helicopters are wobbly in the air, and an odd choice of controls to lower the landing gear on planes can result in more crashes instead of perfect landings. Some gamers will have an easier time than others, but flying might have been better had they opted for a more arcade style of flying, rather than try to be realistic. Boats generally handle well, and the submersible is a neat addition, though that too can take some practice in learning how to operate. Whatever your preferred means of transportation, you’ll have plenty of choices to make, from motorcycles to ATVs to sports cars to large tractor trailers. In the air you can fly a chopper, a Lear jet, or a bi-plane, and on the water there are jet skis and speedboats. All are nicely detailed and handle differently, which is a nice touch.
You also get a wide range of weapons to choose from, and shooting skills can be improved at firing ranges. Other skills can also be honed by running, swimming underwater, driving without hitting anything, etc., adding an RPG-lite element into the mix. And if you’re tired of being a thug, there are plenty of non-crime activities to partake in, like golf, tennis, bicycling, and going to the movies. Of course, this being GTA, there are strip clubs and prostitutes to visit as well, if that’s your thing. Drug use by main characters also appears for the first time in the franchise, and there are several missions that play out as psychedelic head trips, adding things like aliens and gun-toting clowns for you to deal with. There are plenty of collectibles to find, though you will be required to complete a specific mission in order to trigger their appearance.
Speaking of missions, there are plenty to keep you busy. There are 69 story missions, 58 Strangers & Freaks missions, 59 Hobbies and Past-times, 57 random events, and 16 miscellaneous missions, giving you a grand total of 259 missions to accomplish. Oddly, you don’t need to complete all 259 to get 100%, but that may be due to the fact that there are three distinct endings. Reaching that 100% completion goal is a definite time suck, as the story alone can take you between 35-40 hours to complete, and you can expect to double that easily with all of the side missions. There is an odd structure to the missions though, as the side quests are supposed to be optional, and yet you will need to do some to get main story missions to pop up. In one sense it’s a strange choice, but it’s not too bad as some of the side missions can be quite enjoyable. Others though, can be more of a chore (like the towing missions) or more seemingly useless (the yoga minigame). Even with those few bits that aren’t quite as fun, this game gives you an incredible amount of content (I won’t detail all of it here, so you get the joy of finding it on your own), and with the online (which will be covered separately) this game more than delivers its worth of your hard earned cash.
For all the good, there is some arguably bad to go along with it in terms of the game’s content. Misogyny has always been a hallmark of the series, and this entry is no exception, as there are no strong female characters to be found. To its credit, the game does poke fun at this fact, especially on one of the talk radio stations. Courting controversy with a GTA game is nothing new for Rockstar, and they’ve done it again, angering some by reportedly recruiting real gang members for roles instead of actors. Some may say this adds realism, but I would have to disagree. Real actors reading lines from interviews of gang members would’ve worked just as well. In the end, it’s not noticeable in the game as to who spoke what, and the dialogue ranges from outright bad to very good, so no real effect was made by this decision. Also, there is an unpleasant mission that forces players to do some very unsettling things, without the option to skip it and use an alternate method. The game does somewhat address the actions performed, but was it really necessary to force players into going through it? Even the “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 gave players an option to experience it or not, and I think Rockstar would’ve been better served by doing that as well.
All in all, this is one incredible game, but it falls short of being the masterpiece that so many want it to be (and will claim it to be, no matter what I say) due to multiple flaws that include those that are technical in nature, those found in the gameplay, and those in the performances and writing. The flaws hold it back from excellence, but despite them, this game is a ton of fun, and definitely worth your time. It’s a must play, if not a must buy. and with options on how to approach heists (the planning of which are a definite plus) adds some replayability to the story mode. GOTY? Not quite in my book. But it is the best GTA to date, and shows the promise of what Rockstar could do with the next outing on the next generation of systems.
Welcome to Los Santos. You’ll be glad you came.
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