Rockstar grab the open-world genre by the throat and kick it until it shines.
By Joab Gilroy on September 16, 2013 at 11:31 pm
It is great to be back in San Andreas.
Grand Theft Auto V takes players back into the world of Los Santos, the capital of the GTA universe’s California parallel, and it feels just as good as I remember. Certainly there’s no Las Venturas or San Fierro in GTA V, but that doesn’t matter at all — thanks to a sheer density of attention to detail, Los Santos (and its neighbouring Blaine County) are much larger.
Unlike other games which boast massive maps, GTA V isn’t hollowed by an emptiness. Unlike Altis or Panau, the map here is chock full of life, and it’s all intensely aware of your presence. Deer frolicking in the Vinewood hills startle and flee as you drive past. Coyotes chase them. Gangsters have shootouts with cops, causing pedestrians to run for their lives irrespective of your involvement.
Lessons learned from Red Dead Redemption have forced Rockstar to lift their game when it comes to ambient life, and it pays off because the game keeps you wondering what will be around the next corner. Will you intervene in a mugging — and if you do, will you give the money back? Will you spot, hunt and bag an elk for a decent payday from Cletus (the not-so-slack-jawed yokel)?
This is what being in Los Santos is all about. Diving into the world. And that doesn’t even scratch the actual diving portion of the game — where Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas let you swim for the first time (in previous games touching the water was a death sentence), in GTA V you can swim below the surface. You can either free dive, SCUBA dive or use a submersible vessel to explore the world beneath the waves, and thanks to sharks and a fairly accurate diffusion of light it’s a fairly tense prospect.
Just as tense is taking to the skies, but for an entirely different reason. Flying aircraft — helicopters in particular — is an awkward proposition in GTA V. The plane’s camera sits too high for the player to fully gauge altitude, and I found myself slamming into the ground or ocean too many times when forced to fly below radar range. But this was nothing compared to the helicopter, which wobbles to-and-fro with normal movement which makes flying them a massive pain in the arse. Especially when you need to hover over somewhere or land quickly. At least they can take a beating, allowing you to be a bit reckless with those elements.
All vehicles can take quite a beating, in fact. No longer will you go flying through the windscreen after a head-on collision — instead you will usually be able to reverse and keep driving. Only once did a car explode with me inside it, and that was after I had rolled it down a freaking mountain. Every other time the worst I suffered was a wheel broken off its axle, which you can still drive on if you possess the sheer force of will (and aren’t in a hurry).
You won’t get in as many crashes if you play as Franklin, our player character hailing from South Central Los Santos (where Grove Street is). Franklin is a spectacular getaway driver who can slow down time while behind the wheel to better take corners and weave through traffic. In theory this means he really shouldn’t get into many crashes, but I still found myself ploughing into pedestrians, stop signs, other cars, trees, deer and the occasional cop car.
Because GTA V has an RPG-lite system, the more you use his special ability the better you’ll become at it. What this means is that it winds up being quite helpful to lean heavily on slowing down time, and I had maxed out the ability quite early on in the game. Like GTA: SA other abilities are increased through use as well (no, you can’t gain or lose weight). The more you sprint the higher your stamina. The more you fight, the better your strength.
You can participate in a wide variety of activities around the world to increase your stats as well — playing tennis will increase your strength the same as punching, and triathlon activities exist to lift your stamina. You can also go to flight school or shooting gallery to lift your game in those areas — basically, if you want to be better at something you can easily find a way to increase your ability in it.
It’s a cool system which gives you ample excuse to leave the beaten path of the missions, but I found that even without a high Stealth stat I was able to sneak around with ease and with 100/100 in Flying my chopper would still wobble constantly.
If Franklin can take command of the roads, Michael rules on foot. Like Franklin he can slow down time with his special ability, but Michael uses his power to slow it down in gunfights — where he also gets an amazingly increased ability to auto-aim.
Michael is a family man, and sort of the whole reason anything in GTA V happens at all. He’s the heist leader and the man with the connections to make ‘scores’ happen, but he’s also got connections inside the FIB (the barely disguised FBI analogue) who complicate things for him.
Heists are what the game is all about, and they are fantastic. Do you want to go in loud or quiet? Dumb or smart? Do you want to recreate Die Hard With A Vengeance or would you rather do it like The Italian Job? These are the questions that face you in Grand Theft Auto V.
After you decide on how you’re going to perform your heist you choose your partners and acquire the goods you need to make it happen. The partner aspect is complicated, because each member of the crew gets a percentage of the take. Usually people with low skills take less, but their shitty skills could very well get you into a lot of trouble later. You need to balance the importance of a crew member’s role against their skills for the best possible results otherwise you might end up failing the heist a few times while you make-up for their worthlessness.
Acquiring the elements the heist requires is like a mission in itself. Hijacking armoured trucks, stealing helicopters, tracking down suitable getaway vehicles and finding a rendezvous spot are all things you’ll have to do, and instead of being told exactly where to go and what to do you’ll often be simply left to your own devices.
If I had a criticism of the heists, it’s that there aren’t enough of them. I won’t number how many there are to save spoiling anything, but I enjoyed them a lot and would have appreciated more. I know it comes down to character motivation and the narrative Rockstar wanted to tell, but I liked the way Michael, Franklin and Trevor worked together.
Trevor lives in a crappy old shack in Sandy Shores and he runs the local meth business. He likes amphetamines, and he dislikes The Lost Motorcycle Club and clowns. He really hates clowns. He’s also a proper psychopath and the final piece of your Triforce of Thievery.
He looks like a typical hillbilly, but it’s a ruse — he’s intelligent and terrifyingly ruthless. He and Michael have history together, so when you first get to know him (about a quarter of the way into the game) it’s hard to know how he’ll react to certain things. He’s the driving force for the real character interaction between the three player characters, because without him Michael and his manateeprotege Franklin would do things without conflict — but probably without ever getting out from under the thumb of those who oppress them either.
Trevor is a whirlwind of destruction, tearing through anything and everything he comes into contact with. If you were to give the phrase ‘sheer force of will’ a form, it would be that of Trevor — but only if that will was particularly messed up. As such, his special ability is a berserker mode — he takes less damage and deals more of it while it is activated. He represents the part of the player that likes to steal a tank and go cavorting through city streets — as such, he’s the only character (that I could see) who has Rampage missions available to him.
The oppressors — the gang members and FIB agents who use Franklin and Michael — are only disrupted thanks to Trevor’s unpredictability, but — without spoiling anything — it’s this element of his personality (and his history with Michael) that makes it so the heists need to stop. Still, I loved Trevor for letting me get out from under the burdens of the other two — his role as the maniac who exists within every GTA player (when they’re playing GTA) was perfect.
There are some glitches in GTA V — stuff similar to but not exactly like the now famous donkey lady from Red Dead Redemption. I saw cars fall in through the ground or warp around a handful of times, and there was a tiny bit of stuttering and pop-in when driving at speed. Not just textures would pop-in, either — entire street signs appeared before my eyes at times, moments before I would plough through them.
Luckily none of these issues ever affected my enjoyment of the game and if they had, then the checkpointing system is accomplished enough to handle it. Taking cues from the Episodes from Liberty City DLC of GTA IV the game saves checkpoints after key moments in missions — failing and restarting in GTA V means you might have to shoot the same handful of guys again, but you won’t have to drive five miles across the city before you do so.
Some pop-in and maybe four non-game-breaking glitches across the 35 hours it took me to finish the game (probably less if you don’t screw around) don’t matter in a game the size, scale and scope of Grand Theft Auto V.
Because Grand Theft Auto V is epic, in the proper meaning of that adjective. It’s awesome, in that it inspires awe many times. There are so many things to do, so many places to go, so many people to interact with that it will take a significant amount of time for you to be done with it.
More importantly the dynamic elements of the heist missions have changed how we see the genre Grand Theft Auto created in the first place. Obviously the missions are scripted, and obviously they’re not as open as they appear but this is what people want from sequels — full bore evolution.
When the credits rolled in Grand Theft Auto V I didn’t sit back, jaw slackened as I did after BioShock Infinite. I didn’t bond with the characters the way I did in The Last of Us. Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t leave its mark with its storytelling the way other GOTY contenders did. No, it impresses with its gameplay — the sheer depth and density of it. I’d assassinated CEOs to help me play a living breathing stock market, I’d sunk into property management for some financial breathing room, I’d gone diving for treasure… the list goes on. The story is good, but it’s the game that makes V a top tier GTA game.
- Massive world
- Filled with things to do, see, kill, steal
- Dynamic open world elements to heist missions are brilliant and here to stay
- Gameplay is king
- Character special abilities are great
- I love RPG systems done well
- Two stock markets — one that follows your actions in game, one modelled on the demands of everyone else playing GTA V
- I found out two songs I previously thought were by J-Lo weren’t in fact by J-Lo
- Windowlicker by Aphex Twin also in soundtrack
- 35 minutes of credits let me catch up on some phone banking
- West Coast Classics Station features too much Mack-10 and not enough Cypress Hill
- A few glitches and some pop-in
- Wobbly helicopters suck
Grand Theft Auto V is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360. This review completed on a PS3 copy supplied by the publisher.
Screenshots used in this review also supplied by the publisher.