Grand Theft Auto V Review

Grand Theft Auto V

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Release: 17/09/2013
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Genre: Action
PEGI: 18+
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9.5 - Gameplay
           
 
10 - Video
          
 
10 - Audio
          
 

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Grand Theft Auto V Review – Introduction

Ambitious, evolutionary, generation-defining: these terms have all been applied to Grand Theft Auto V, most of the time before anybody actually had their hands on the title. And with over $1 billion in sales reported within the first week of release, there’s no denying that GTA V will be viewed as an undeniable success. But id it worthy of such descriptors? The answer – like the game itself – is anything but simple. 

Yes, GTA V is ambitious: but in some ways, it’s also one of the safest entries in the series. Yes, it does take the open-world genre in some interesting new directions: in others, it almost feels like a regression of the genre, and big-budget games as a whole. Regardless, there’s one thing that nobody can deny: GTA V is a hell of a lot of fun to play (and gorgeous, to boot) – in the end, isn’t that what matters the most?

Getting Lost in GTA V

The lasting appeal of GTA is always in its world: the places one can go, the things they can do and see, and the hidden jokes and secrets scattered throughout. In that sense, GTA V takes the series above and beyond any of its predecessors, constructing a massive San Andreas for players to cause mayhem in – and an extensive list of activities to participate in when not committing felonies or banging hookers. From tennis, to yoga, to buying real estate and playing on the stock market, there are hundreds of side distractions to find in the world, many of which play into a character’s given ability. 

Yes, GTA V is ambitious: but in some ways, it's also one of the safest entries in the series

For example, taking Michael on a triathlon will improve his stamina and swimming ability – just as driving around town recklessly with Franklin or Trevor behind the wheel will improve their driving skills (more on the characters themselves later). Although these systems are somewhat limited compared to our last endeavour in San Andreas (like a character’s fitness affecting his physical appearance), it gives incentive to partake in the game’s many, many activities (a few more: street/sea/offroad races, pot smoking, strip clubbing, golf… the list goes on and on), at least until everyone’s skills are maxed out.

As one might expect, there’s a lot to do and see in the game: smartly, the game parses these activities over the first two-thirds, introducing players slowly to the many different side missions, minor character arcs, and pointless-but-still-addicting activities that makes perusing downtown Los Santos a vibrant experience. Dynamic in-world events help play into this too, whether it’s walking into a clothing store that’s being robbed, or stopping to help a woman whose purse was stolen by a local “youth” (cue Schmidt from New Girl voice). 

 

But even though there is more to do in the city of GTA V, it doesn’t always feel quite like the transformative experience it sounds like. The highlight is easily the game’s big story missions, the multi-tiered heists that integrate multiple characters and different, complex plans for players to choose from. In these missions, players are given two basic approaches to choose from, and select a crew with varying skills and demands for their percentage of the take. This is the real highlight of GTA: pulling off a multi-million dollar robbery while switching back and forth between the three protagonists at will, managing situations and escaping by the skin of your teeth to take home a huge reward. It’s in these often two-hour long missions (if you include the numerous ‘prep’ missions that come beforehand) where GTA V truly feels like something new and exciting.

The other new ancillary activities are a mixed bag. Some activities lose their novelty after a few rounds (like yoga, which is cool at first, then tedious), and there’s often a sense of deja vu to some of these time-wasting, money-earning endeavors (and not just from the fact we’re returning a city we’ve seen before). Many of the jokes (on the radio, in the story, or told off-hand by strangers in the world) retread the same stereotypes, cultural reflections, and personalities of previous games. Juvenile humor still runs king in GTA, whether it’s the complete dismissal of all female characters as over-emotional distractions or scenes of Trevor having sex with a stuffed animal. The world is impressive, both in size and variety – but when it comes to the game’s story (and overall tone, for that matter) GTA V feels like more of the same, taking the safest, simplest narrative route in telling us three stories we’ve seen various shades of in the series before.

Three stories, one narrative, lots of familiar feelings

A violent meth head, an up-and-coming thug, and a grizzled, supposedly-retired “family man”: there’s been millions of words written about the characters and story of GTA, which weaves three masculine narratives through one large plot tinged with betrayal, government corruption, and other predictable, goofy stories about old wounds, new friendships, and the cruelties of being a willing criminal. It’s worth noting that the game does it quite well (especially when it comes to organically overlapping the three different narratives, often with nifty missions or surprising cut scenes), but there isn’t anything particularly new and fresh about the backstories of Trevor (the crazy one), Michael (the guy trying to get out of the game), and Franklin (the young buck on the come-up). 

GTA V takes the series above and beyond any of its predecessors, constructing a massive San Andreas for players to cause mayhem in

This spreads to the ancillary characters as well, which are the usual smattering of corrupt cops, dirty businessmen, and low-life scoundrels. There are a few interesting additions to the cast – like Lester, the wheelchair-bound accomplice to the three-man crew – but even his character suffers from a lack of dimension, both in his personality and behavior through the game. Others can be just painful to be around: like the game’s revolving door of airhead bimbos (including two in Michael’s family), and a ICP-paint wearing redneck named Wade who Trevor threatens with sexual assault on a regular basis.

The creators of GTA V have said that “masculinity” is the foundation of their story: but there aren’t many points in GTA V where its characters seriously consider their own ideals and philosophies: the challenges and personal tragedies simply pile further and further as the narrative stakes are raised. Even though they aren’t the most well-written characters, there were moments where I found myself identifying with Michael’s family more than him – and more often than not, I just wanted to see Franklin get away from the two sociopaths that were teaching him the ways of “the game”. 

This isn’t to say their adventures aren’t entertaining – though Franklin does get the short end of the stick with some side missions, getting stuck with a paparazzi douche chasing around famous people and boring tow truck jobs with a crackhead. At times it felt like the writers could have reached higher, adding a level of moral complexity to the characters and their situations.

However, the game’s lack of narrative creativity is overshadowed by the sheer amount of content packed into Los Santos and its surrounding areas, all enhanced by GTA V’s single coolest feature: the character wheel, accessible with a simple press on the d-pad. Doing so brings up the three main characters, which can be switched between freely (save for when someone’s being chased by the cops or off on a solo mission of some sort, of course). After selecting a character, we slowly zoom out into space, then back in on the character you’ve switched to, accompanied by a quick opening scene establishing where and what they’ve been doing.

There’s nothing more fun than skydiving off a cliff with Franklin, landing in North Los Santos, then quickly switching over to Trevor, who is tearing up the county roads in his pickup. Cause some mayhem with him, and then switch back to Franklin: he’ll be doing something else, making a stop at the local medical marijuana shop (or in Michael’s case, getting frustrated sitting in traffic or sitting on a bench, cigar in hand). It not only makes exploring the world more efficient (since these characters are spread out most of the time), it adds another to the philosophic foundation of GTA V: absolute freedom in a constantly-changing, always-breathing metropolis. In that sense, the game is an undeniable success: a game that rightfully earns its place along Red Dead Redemption as Rockstar’s finest work.

Each character also has their own special ability: clicking in both sticks on the controller will activate these for each character, which add a nice reminder that we’re still playing in a fictional video game, even if it looks and talks like a real world. Franklin’s is probably my favorite: Michael’s ability to slow time on foot and Trevor’s invincibility are great, but Franklin’s ability to slow time while driving leads to some of the most thrilling moments driving around the city: activating his ability just in time to swerve around an impending collision, cutting a sharp corner and speeding around traffic in slow motion is one of the thrilling moments where GTA V truly feels like a new, evolutionary action-adventure experience.

The audio/visual splendor of GTA V

With an 8GB install required to play the game, it makes sense that GTA V was going to look gorgeous: but it still manages to amaze, giving players an insanely beautiful, vibrant West Coast world to run around it. From the mountains of the northern county, to the downtown plazas and beach-front stores, everything in GTA V was painstakingly crafted to create the most life-like third-person experience we’ve ever seen. It sets the final benchmark for the 360/PS3 generation, humming along at a mostly-smooth 25-30 frames a second (though sometimes I would experience some slowdown, usually on the water). And the sheer amount of detail crammed into the visuals of GTA V is stunning: from static objects like architecture and car models, to the customizable character clothes/hair/accessory options, the attention to the smallest of graphical details is impressive (like Michael/Trevor/Franklin’s cell phones, which are iPhone/Windows/Android-inspired, respectively).

GTA

And as expected, it sounds terrific: a small cast of voice actors give numerous enthusiastic (and as always, sarcastic as hell) performances, and a stunning soundtrack – whether the radio tunes or the in-mission music, which contains some of the finest GTA compositions I’ve ever heard. With five years to record audio, tweak sound effects, and add layers of audio ambiance to the world, it’s no wonder that the San Andreas of GTA V feels like such a living world.

Again, the snarky satire of GTA V mirrors its predecessors, never really aspiring to go beyond simple cultural observations, which provide some short-term laughs, but ultimately reveal themselves to be thin gags that don’t really add a whole lot to the world’s personality. San Andreas can be loud and pretty, but it’s never subtle: for some, this is undeniably a strength of the series: but for a game that is attempting to transcend the boundaries of cinematic and interactive entertainment, there are times when I wish GTA V went for something more than frat-boy humor (the Social Club-connected stock market is called BAWSAQ, one of a thousand jokes of its kind) and simplistic portrayals of modern life.

GTA V: Hard not to Love

Yes, there are things I wish GTA V did better: but it’s lack of nuance is second to the pure joy of playing the game. Even though it’s a game we’ve played four times before, nothing compares to the huge, beautiful world Rockstar spent $260 million and five years creating. It’s time well spent, both on the part of the creators, and the 50+ hours I’ve already spent in the world of GTA V – and I can easily see myself wasting another 50 before Grand Theft Auto Online hits in a week and a half’s time, even if I’ll be rolling my eyes at a lot of the jokes and minor characters I’ve still yet to meet.

In the end, GTA V is a beautiful contradiction: a world that is as amazing and dense as its characters are one-dimensional, a game where the complexities of narrative and cultural satire are invisible, but the creative care in construction of the most enjoyable sandbox game I’ve ever played is in plain sight at every moment. Like everything in the world (both ours and the digital , GTA V is flawed, : and I’m ok with that, because it’s the most fun I’ve had playing a video game in a long time.

Positives

  • Improves on the mechanics of GTA IV in every possible way
  • Absolutely gorgeous, and sounds terrific
  • One of the most ambitious games of the generation, in terms of gameplay
  • Three characters, three perspectives, hundreds of hours I’ll be losing in this world

Negatives

  • The list of characters is big: the list of interesting, original characters is much shorter
  • A lack of narrative ambition makes the story of GTA V feel a little too familiar
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