Rockstar games and unbridled ambition have always sat in synonymic harmony. But as of late, the company’s successes have been thanks to something much deeper than gargantuan cityscapes and the lively streets that accompany them. The tale of a tragic hero – or anti-hero in the case of Grand Theft Auto – with Niko Bellic and John Marston being Macbeths of their respective times. Though over the years it’s become a tired formula. A “hero”, a problem, and an end, though a minimalist descriptor for two of the most highly-acclaimed story-centric games of late, it’s a fair one. So having a Rockstar narrative – recurrently focused on the thorough development of a single character with others acting primarily as supplement – include three protagonists, is as flashy a proposal as it is a daunting one. Many of the developer’s devout refused to think twice about the challenges related to the additional player-characters, fully trusting in Rockstar’s moxie to pull-off the feat. While they don’t do so with perfection, they don’t stray far from it.
Through insidious government schemes and outright gang warfare, the three partners in crime each act as the necessary instruments in what is a fascinatingly – and intentionally – flawed consort. The trio seldom plays in unison, but they get the job done. Michael is the leader of the cohort, a has-been thief who now makes frequent visits to his psychiatrist, and longs to get back “into the game”. Trevor is the wild card, he used to run with Michael, but never put a stop to his own criminality. Franklin is the new guy, a street hustler who meets Michael by happenstance, and is thereafter pulled into his decision to reenter the world of lawlessness.
But by what means do you play all three of these characters? Switching. When you aren’t playing them, each character is (in theory) living-out their own life. You might switch-in on Michael watching a classic movie, Franklin stealing a car, or Trevor… well, there’s no telling what you’ll catch Trevor doing. When not playing a mission, you can switch to your either of your compadres at will. But while taking part in a heist, or any other sort of activity, you can only switch if the game lets you. While some disappointment does come with being locked-out of switching during missions, it’s probably for the best, as you’re always playing whoever is doing the most entertaining thing at the given moment.
Driving down its many meandering highways is the optimal way to appreciate the living, breathing city that is Los Santos. When the sun is up, sidewalks teem with life, each citizen navigating through alleyways and crosswalks, distracted by the hustle-and-bustle of city life. They yell at each other, converse, and occasionally fall prey to the odd purse-snatcher. But when the sun goes down, the city lights up. Driving down a highway, heading back to the city of Los Santos from the desert-like Blaine County spawned one of the most memorable visually-supplemented moments of this generation. I began to see the city’s skyline peek over the bend in front of me. At the peak, I could see distant throughways lit by headlights as they slowly moved along their merry way. Don’t mistake this world for mere window dressing, it’s a character of its own.
While the magnitude of land to explore in Los Santos is a grand achievement on its own, scale alone is of little importance when it comes to gameplay. Just Cause 2, Red Faction: Guerrilla, the list goes on of games large in scope, but severely lacking in quality content. What’s truly impressive about GTAV‘s world, is its density. Let the in-game map be a testament, Los Santos is chock-full of activities, and side-missions, most of which sport a similarly high quality. But some of the most interesting ones, are those that aren’t scripted. The ones you can’t deliberately trigger. Random events similar to those in Red Dead Redemption have returned sevenfold. You may hear a frustrated citizen call out that their vehicle has been stolen, or that they’ve just been mugged. But the decision to help is yours alone. Either chase down the perpetrator and take the person’s property back, keep it for yourself, or just ignore the ordeal entirely. Note that these situations are not used in a ham-handed manner. You wont find yourself entombed by the requests of passersby, but rather you’ll appreciate the spontaneity they offer.
An important thing to realize in the making of GTAV is that it cannot just be “another Grand Theft Auto”. We’ve gotten to a point where the copy-cats have mastered their craft. Another hook was needed to make this game stand apart. What element of criminality has yet to be explored in a game of this scope? Organized heists. Although the freedom at which you can take part in these capers was embellished a bit in preview content, they are still wholly impressive.
In the young hours of the game, our band of thieves plan to exerciser their sticky fingers at a local jewelry store. There are two options for holding-up the place. First is the “loud and dumb” method, which basically just consists of walking into the shop with powerful weapons in-hand. The second, is no doubt the more satisfying approach. You must track-down and commandeer a van full of bottled sleeping gas, and then throw the bottles into the store’s ventilation system. Then you proceed to steal the jewels while keeping things cool, quite, and clean. During these heists, I discovered that the more covertly I approached them, the more fulfilling they felt. Most all of them offer the choice of either cloak-and-dagger, or guns a’blazing.
Most of these big jobs require more hands than our three crooks can offer, but luckily(?) the city of Los Santos is crawling with criminals in search of work. As such, you can choose individuals for all kinds of different jobs, but the more skilled they are, the more payment they’ll require. The varying skill levels can cause different things in the heist to happen. For instance, if one of your hired guns is a bad driver, and they need to drive a motorcycle to get away from the crime scene, they might end up crashing. That said, these small variances are for the most part inconsequential, but serve as a nice flair to the often-tense affairs.
Keep in mind that the game’s atmosphere is an archly comic one, a far cry from the ultimately straight-faced excursions that were GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. Several of the in-game situations have spawned controversy that feels little more-than baseless. The game’s satirical tongue is sharper than most any game’s overall wit. Fictional news outlets on the game’s always-entertaining radio stations talk openly about vexed subjects that are often danced-around by real-life anchors. Though they are presented in comical ways, and are in no way diluted by political-correctness. The name of the game is social commentary, and when in context – though some scenes are chilling – everything fits appropriately into the game’s world. But when put inside the media’s vacuum, so often full of hyperbole, it’s no wonder these games are so infamous to those who haven’t played them.
Perhaps a casualty of the game’s goofy disposition, some of the plot-points that closely tail the game’s climax fail to hold much weight. Although some incredibly unexpected set-pieces do impress, once a certain thread hits, predictability begins to set in, and doesn’t really let up. Multiple endings also sully the experience, as they are engaged by a binary choice. One of them is quite clearly the canonical conclusion, but the other two feel like alternate-endings on a collectors edition DVD that require hours worth of context-giving deleted scenes to begin making even a lick of sense. They’re so tonally divorced from the rest of the narrative, it’s a wonder they were even included in the final-cut as viable endings.
Excruciatingly funny and similarly intense throughout, Grand Theft Auto V stands as the most impressive open-world game to-date. Oddly enough, that’s mostly because it doesn’t have many of the characteristics often associated with open-world games. It doesn’t feel like the games that are looped within that sub-genre. It feels like a fantastic shooter, and an equally incredible driving game, that just happens to be set on an open map, begging to be explored. Although the game stands on its own as one of the best of this generation, it also feels like a dazzling proof of concept for Rockstar’s future endeavors on the next-generation of consoles. It’s a triumphant first-showing of what open-world games need to be moving forward, and had best not be missed.
Version Review: Xbox 360
We'll have our impressions of Grand Theft Auto: Online in the coming weeks.