September 17, 2013 was the day when hundreds of thousands of people called in sick at work, while thousands upon thousands skipped schools and colleges – all to experience Grand Theft Auto 5 on launch day. To someone who is not heavily invested in the workings and happenings of the games industry, a video game release like this one might not sound like a big deal – but Grand Theft Auto 5 opened up its shop by generating $800 million in its first day and $1 billion in its first three days, breaking sales records and became the fastest-selling entertainment product in history.
You see, it’s been almost a decade since the game first came out, and Grand Theft Auto 5 still stands tall as one of the best open world games on the market. But why is it that this game continues to be a cultural behemoth all these years later, and what exactly did the game do to achieve that level of critical and commercial acclaim?
A big part of what makes Grand Theft Auto 5 such a big success is Rockstar’s understanding of what the audience truly wants out of such an experience. Grand Theft Auto 5 is everything that fans wished for, and then some more, especially if you are coming off from playing Grand Theft Auto 4 and San Andreas. The franchise has always been about spinning a ton of chaos in an open-ended sandbox, and just existing in a well-realized world that also doubles as a strong satire on relevant social themes in modern American society, and GTA 5 just ups the ante in those areas.
Grand Theft Auto 5 builds on what came before not just in terms of scope and scale, but also lines up elements like narrative with the gameplay for a more cohesive experience. The critical path is all about Michael, Trevor, and Franklin trying to pay off a massive loan, which then transcends into the trio planning to conduct the biggest heist of all time all while trying to save themselves from the hands of the FIB. Of course, it’s punctuated with familiar themes of friendship and betrayals – but by and large, it’s a story that carries its silliness as a badge of honor which works surprisingly well within the context of the game. Michael becomes a movie director at one point, and the hot-headed Trevor falls in love with the kidnapped wife of a gangster, and Franklin has his own set of life problems – there’s no shortage of such goofy moments that are sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.
And that approach to crafting a compatible narrative helps it resonate more strongly with the gameplay, which has seen a ton of improvements compared to its excellent predecessor. The shooting mechanics are a drastic upgrade over Grand Theft Auto 4, heavily inspired by the likes of Max Payne 3. Suffice it to say, combat is a lot more enjoyable than prior entries and as a result, it’s also a much more integral part of the mission design. Vehicles also control a lot better with accurate handling, and there’s a ton of vehicle types to choose from ranging from airplanes to motorbikes to boats and supercars.
All of these mechanics come together with painstaking detail in the game’s signature heists, which are multi-part missions that are a highlight of the experience. But before you actually perform the heist, you first have to do preparations like finding the perfect getaway vehicle, getting disguises or the right weapon for the job – which then leads you to the climactic showdowns. There are multiple approaches for any given heist, so you could replay these missions to see how choosing a different path will play out. Either way, the heists are action-packed missions that not only involve carefully planning out your strategies but also feature set-piece moments that make smart use of the three-protagonist structure to craft interesting scenarios that look on par with a big budget action movie.
While improved gameplay mechanics and new mission designs are part of the reason why Grand Theft Auto 5 is so good, the open world is easily the best part of the game. Any good open world is a living and breathing character in and of itself, and Rockstar’s rendition of Los Santos is no different. It’s a vast space that spans lush green forests, tall skyscrapers, urban neighborhoods, dusty outskirts, and much more. As you can imagine, there’s just a ton of variety within the map itself which feeds on a player’s natural curiosity to go out and explore every nook and cranny of this attractive virtual space.
Of course, exploration wouldn’t be much fun without enticing rewards – and Grand Theft Auto 5 understands that very well. Not only are collectibles littered throughout the map, but you can also meet up with NPCs that give you interesting side missions. The game calls these encounters Strangers and Freaks, and it’s a lot of fun to just goof around the map and come across these missions before eventually circling your way back to the main story.
There’s a lot more to the single-player component of the game like side activities and or hanging out with NPCs, but what has ultimately made the game such a big deal is the constantly evolving GTA Online component. It’s the reason why the game has been ported to not only the Xbox One and PS4 but also PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. This has pushed Grand Theft Auto 5 to be one of the most profitable entertainment products in history, with over $6 billion in generated revenue as of August last year.
GTA Online is a content-dense experience that just continues to grow big with each passing update. New heist missions, vehicles, and activities are being added at a consistent pace – and Rockstar has also introduced expansions like the Cayo Perico heist and more recently, the San Andreas Mercenaries expansion. As you can already imagine, GTA Online is just bursting with oodles of content – and fans can’t obviously get enough of it even a decade after its release, so Rockstar continues to cater to that demand.
In addition to this, the fact that GTA 5 is just so fun to play at its core also means that it’s ripe for modification, and Rockstar has done a great job of making the experience highly customizable with extensive support for mods. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of quality mods on sites like NexusMods that not only change the visual aesthetics but add entirely new mechanics or substantial content to the base experience.
All of this comes together to make Grand Theft Auto 5 an experience like no other. Plenty of developers have tried to craft similar open-world experiences since its release, but no one has even come close to nailing the magic of this wondrous game. But as we look back upon this game with love and appreciation, there’s also an inevitable hype and hopeful anticipation for the future.
After years of rumors and hopeful speculation, Rockstar has finally confirmed that GTA 6 is in the works. Unfortunately, tons of gameplay footage has already been leaked on the internet which gives us a glimpse of what to expect in terms of gameplay. Of course, that leak is not representative of the final release but one thing is for sure, Grand Theft Auto 6 has its work cut out for itself. Expectations are once again off the charts, and Rockstar will have to settle for nothing but the very best to be able to surpass the legacy of what came before.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.