GTA is America. Those are the words of Rockstar Games’ co-founder and lead writer for Grand Theft Auto V, Dan Houser. After years of rumours, months of hype and countless reams of praise, Grand Theft Auto V is finally upon us. It’s wasted no time in claiming top ten charts the world over, becoming the fastest selling game in the UK and amassing $1 billion in revenue within the first three days. For a game to have who’s intonations and culture are inherently American; its cultural phenomenon and language, right down to the dressing styles of its characters, being rooted in Americana, to be this universally loved is amazing.
But the over-reaching elements and tones of GTA V are universally relatable, whether you’ve been striving for an opportunity to prove yourself or just never feel like you’re making enough coin. It’s not so much that this is the biggest Grand Theft Auto game yet – even though it is, thus beating out many other open world titles like Saints Row IV, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire by default – but that the world of Los Santos and Blaine County is a proper world. It never feels like a map or playground bound by borders, and that’s only one of the greatest things about the experience.
Grand Theft Auto V starts nine years prior to the main story, which sees Trevor and Michael working with their trusty crew to complete a bank heist. Things go north fairly quickly, as Michael is left for dead and Trevor is left with no choice but to escape. Of course, in the present day scenario, Michael is actually alive and revealed to be an informer for the FIB. He comes across Franklin, your atypical gangbanger looking to rise above his hubris and earn a sizeable income to justify his so-called worth. From there, the two interact back and forth, even pulling off a heist. That’s all that’s necessary to get the attention of Trevor, who’s been living in Los Santos for the better part of the decade and is now motivated to seek out his friend.
Unlike previous GTA titles, the narrative never feels heavy-handed or forced. Conversely, it never feels light-hearted or disposable. This is a game where you can “Screw context!” and go wild, sure, but following these insane characters and their friends is so rewarding. Each of the three protagonists has a subtle depth to them, which only expands further the closer you decide to look.
Trevor’s psychopathic urges and bouts of quick anger are interspersed with methodical and calm conversations; Franklin isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but always appears as the more sane-minded of the trio; and Michael, while being the front-runner and connoisseur of a fabulous lifestyle is often left wanting and lost by the world around him. Nonetheless, the key aspects that unite the three – money, crime and action – are believable and compelling.
Grand Theft Auto V consists of three key “areas”: the city of Los Santos, a sprawling metropolis highly reminiscent of Los Angeles in both geography, architecture and personality; the out-lying Blaine County, occupied by The Lost motorcycle gang and with your typical hick population; and the underwater ocean which you’ll visit a few times for missions but is expansive enough to spend hours on. Developer Rockstar North has poured an immense amount of detail into the world and its denizens – the transition between Los Santos and Blaine County feels natural and you won’t completely feel it into you see most citizens on ATVs.
Each civilian has their own style and activity they are engaged in. Whether it’s Barry, who’s campaigning to legalize weed in the state, or Lamar, a feather-brained yet dedicated gangbanger, there are all kinds of colourful characters in GTA V. But the details are nearly innumerable. Trash scatters everywhere, in individual scraps of paper and waste when you run over the containers. Civilians will take a step back and flinch if you make a slight movement towards them in a vehicle. The police will investigate a crime scene thoroughly and search for you based on any descriptions they’ve received from passers-by – thus ensuring that murders be carried out in solitary locations lest you deal with the brunt of the cops.
And these officers aren’t in a mood to arrest you – they’ll go straight for the kill and won’t let up, unless you can legitimately outrun them and avoid detection for a good long while (or duck into a garage to spray-paint your vehicle). Every time you score a legit kill, the screen flashes with a subtle hint of blue, thus confirming your kills for you. You can toggle between an action camera in key moments which allows you to maintain focus between different targets. If a robber has suddenly emerged close by, you can hit the B button to find out which direction they went in (after which you can either keep the money for yourself or return it to the deprived citizen). You can also toggle between different perspectives in key missions such as when you have to rescue Michael’s son from a particularly wacky boat deal gone wrong.
If that weren’t enough, Michael the rich protagonist uses an iPhone-like device (known as iFruit in the game), while Franklin, typically more grounded and cash deprived, uses an Android-like smartphone. And the crazy Trevor? He uses a Windows Phone device. Let that say all it needs to about their personalities and respective preferences.
There is so much going on at any given time and enough to observe that you can spend hours driving across Los Santos, simply noticing details. Vespucci Beach is modelled after the real-life Venice Beach and captures many of its signature details without fail, though a clever spin has been given to some key elements. No two areas feel alike, no matter where you go, and as a result, Grand Theft Auto V’s world feels more like a city that has been built over the course of its lifetime rather than a randomly created level or environment to play around in. No offense meant to games like Saints Row IV or even Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs, which all took a completely different approach to their level design based on the story at hand, but Grand Theft Auto V is just a cut above the rest.
But that’s not all: the voice acting and facial expression are also top-notch. Shawn Fonteno and Ned Luke inhabit the characters of Franklin and Michael flawlessly but it’s Steven Ogg as Trevor who steals the show with his exaggerated tones that border haplessly between ludicrous and psychotic. We don’t know if LA Noire served as the template for the facial animations in Grand Theft Auto V, but if so, the game benefits all the more from it.
You’ll never feel any awkward transitions between talking on the phone to interacting with other characters. The flow between cut scenes and gameplay is seamless and occurs without a single misstep. It’s incredible that Rockstar has all of this happening, in a big, open world of this size and yet manages good loading times and transitions between it all.
To further facilitate the urge for instant action, you can switch between the three protagonists at any point once they’re all introduced. This comes into play during missions, where dialogue from each character will indicate who you’ll need to switch to at a particular time (thought the game helpfully indicates the same at given times). Each character will have different missions open at any given time, and some missions can only be completed by the character in questions.
Heists are a different ball game altogether and require you to put a crew together at times. You can choose varied approaches depending on the situation at hand – with a choice between the route of least resistance in a jewellery store heist or going in guns blazing. These approaches will also influence the pay-out you receive: Hire more professional crew members for more nuanced approaches and you’ll have a significantly easier time completing the mission but see a lower cut. Go for the less experienced thugs and you’ll find yourself facing harder opposition, if not risking the overall take in the process.
The controls are unlike any action game currently but fit in to several accepted tropes. You’ll be able to seek cover behind objects with RB and blind-fire from the position. Depending on the object you’re hiding behind, you could see your cover being eroded over time. You can pop out from behind cover to shoot enemies and either selectively aim at targets or flick the right analog stick at times to quickly switch between and nail targets at a rapid rate. It takes a few gun fights to get used to but you’ll be dropping pigs in no time at all. You’ll also be able to slide over the hoods of cars and vault over objects easily when seeking cover.
Complementing these new shooting mechanics are special abilities. Trevor can enter into a Berserk mode that allows him to deal double damage and reduce damage taken from attacks, while both Michael and Franklin have their own kinds of bullet-time for use in hairy situations. The difference is that Franklin can use his slow-mo when driving in vehicles, thus allowing for last minute turns and quick escapes, while Michael’s bullet-time is more refined towards gun battles. Each of the protagonists also have their own strengths and weaknesses reflected in different stats, which you can level up through different means.
It’s fairly straightforward in some places, such as running continuously to increase your overall stamina, but you can even visit a barbershop to customize the overall look of each character. A variety of clothes and accessories are also present to give that extra level of personalization. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly shift to a character and find them stripped right down to their undies at times though.
When you’re not committing heists, which will take you through banks and chemical weapons depots alike, there will be a handful of missions available. This include vehicle repossession, hunting down those who have skipped bail, fighting off waves of aliens, robbing ATMs, exploring underwater and bumping heads with private security firm Merryweather Security and just doing whatever you feel like. You could also just switch on the TV and watch the insanity unfold if you were so inclined, or just climb a mountain and go hunting.
Maybe arms trafficking is more your thing? There’s perhaps only one mission which serves as a low point in the game, and it involves ferrying crates back and forth using some very unwieldy vehicles on a construction site. It by no means dulls the overall fun you’ll have wreaking havoc across Los Santos. We’re of course not counting the weapons and respective upgrades, cars and modifications, Easter eggs, assassinations, properties, races, and other features because that would be another few sections altogether.
However, this all pales in comparison to the atmosphere of the game. For better or worse, you’re emerged in this sleazy smelting pot of pop culture and crime, where money always feels so close yet so far and the degradation of the species as a whole could happen at any second. You can ignore the subtext and the references to popular American culture, featuring everything from reality TV shows and police brutality to misogynism, useless activism and social media interactions, and still have a jolly good time. But unlike many games, GTA V makes these small nudges and touches such an intricate part of its overall identity and story so as to elevate it much higher than previous games in the series.
As with any game of this scope, there are problems to be had. You’ll come across some blurry textures here and there, along with the usual selection of glitches (one of them which reportedly causes stolen vehicles to disappear when placed in your garage). The frame rate does tend to drop when a lot is happening on screen, but keep in mind that it’s rock-steady through the majority of traveling and shooting. None of these issues manage to besmirch the brilliance of the game, however.
In a year full of excellent releases such as The Last of Us, it might seem a bit superfluous to call Grand Theft Auto V the Game of the Year, let alone the stand-out title of the current generation of consoles. However, there’s no denying that it can easily attest to that honour and it should be marked a clear contender for those honours. Take a trip to Los Santos at this time or any time of the year with Grand Theft Auto V – you certainly won’t regret it.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.