By Marty Mulrooney
Grand Theft Auto V is an open world action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. One of the most highly anticipated video games of all time, players take control of three different characters throughout the game’s story – Michael, Franklin and Trevor – in a game-changing first for the series. Set in the fictional state of San Andreas (Rockstar’s version of Southern California), the map comprises the sprawling metropolis of Los Santos (based on Los Angeles), the surrounding countryside and mountains, and even the ocean floor – all coming together to create the breathtaking set for an epic crime drama that’s larger than life.
The opening mission of Grand Theft Auto V does an effective job of setting up the story and introducing players to some of the basic gameplay mechanics, but unfortunately does a lousy job of introducing the game as an experience. Opening in the dull grey snow-swept Ludendorff, North Yankton, Michael Townley and Trevor Philips (along with two accomplices) rob a small-town bank with firepower and explosives before meeting the local police force head-on. The accomplices are killed and Michael is left for dead, with only Trevor escaping.
9 years later (after a funeral for the very much alive Michael, who is now in witness protection with the surname De Santa), the game and the story shift to sunny Los Santos, San Andreas. It’s at this point that players are introduced to a young black man named Franklin Clinton, who is working with his foul-mouthed friend Lamar Davis as a repo man for a not-strictly-legal car dealership. Driving a repossessed sports car in a race against Lamar through the endless streets and back alleys of Los Santos is an incredible experience, the city packed with incredible detail and the overhauled RAGE engine providing an expansive draw distance with minimal pop-in that Grand Theft Auto IV could only have dreamt of.
It’s during these moments that the game truly comes to life – long before the story has kicked into high gear and hours prior to one of your favourite tunes playing on the radio (‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints), you’ll be taken aback by the technical marvel streaming before your eyes. The Grand Theft Auto games have always been impressive on a technical level of course, but Grand Theft Auto V is the first game in the series that can truly be called beautiful. The lighting and shadow effects add a new layer of depth and realism to the visuals, with a staggering level of detail applied to each individual house, street and pedestrian. This is next generation, now.
Of course, it isn’t long before retired professional criminal Michael and the wet behind the ears street thief Franklin cross paths. Their relationship – complete with well written, genuinely witty dialogue – immediately makes the storyline stand out from previous games in the series. The core plot is the same as always: the bad guys that the player controls are actually the good guys, and they must kill even worse guys… because that’s how video games work. Both Michael and Franklin are strong enough characters to have warranted their own individual GTA games. Then Trevor Phillips is introduced, the rulebook is torn up and all bets are off.
Trevor is a monster. His introduction is sickening and it only gets worse. At one point in the game, Trevor must torture a man with a variety of tools while making sure he doesn’t have a heart attack. This moment isn’t played for laughs – it’s genuinely disturbing. There has always been a stark disparity between the stories Rockstar Games tells (the moral struggles of reluctant killers) and the player experience (killing hookers, running over pedestrians, shooting cops). Trevor is the answer to this problem – he isn’t a nice guy, and he has no problem chopping people up. He’s the character that always remains in character, making it okay for players to be very, very bad. He’s a guilty pleasure that lets you cut loose, and perhaps even more surprising… he is likeable. There is just enough humanity beneath the sociopath to make him – and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this – endearing, despite being an extremely scary individual. Now that’s good writing.
Trevor would have been too much to handle on his own, but combined with Michael and Franklin, the balance remains just right. Each character has their own unique ability, accessible by clicking the two analogue sticks at the same time once a special bar has filled up. Franklin can slow down time when driving, allowing his vehicle to weave in and out of traffic as his tail lights trail behind in a stream of red light. Michael can also slow down time, allowing him to pop off headshot after headshot à la Max Payne. Trevor’s special ability sends him into a rage whereby damage taken decreases and pain dealt out increases. Swapping between each character is done with the click of a button – during missions this adds a whole new layer of strategy, the perfect example being during one particular mission where Michael is abseiling down a skyscraper while Trevor flies a helicopter up above and Franklin provides sniper cover from a nearby rooftop.
When not on a mission, switching between characters is even cooler. Selecting one of the characters you aren’t currently controlling makes the camera view zoom up high into the sky – a visual effect reminiscent of Google Maps – before moving across to wherever the newly selected character currently resides and zooming back down. Loads times are hidden by this seamless effect and it never gets old. Even more impressive, the character you’re dropping in on is often doing something – for example, Trevor might be in the middle of a police chase with a two star wanted level. This effect is also used during missions to switch between objectives, cutting down drastically on long stretches of mundane driving to a waypoint.
The gameplay itself is vastly improved. The boat-like cars of Grand Theft Auto IV are a thing of the past – Grand Theft Auto V’s vehicles aren’t necessarily realistic, but they’re a nippy joy to drive and it’s finally possible to get from point A to B within denting your ride. The police seem more aggressive this time round, but losing them is now a lot more dynamic thanks to a line of sight mechanic that shows each police car on the radar with a cone of vision. Take the backstreets and alleyways (or climb up to the rooftops) and you have a much greater chance of escape. If you do get cornered, rest assured that the shooting is now much more responsive and the lock-on/aim assist doesn’t make the entire game feel like you’re just holding down the trigger until everyone is dead. Headshots are a must and shootouts finally feel as much fun as cruising around in your favourite car – which can be customised to within an inch of its life.
It’s not just the cars that can be tinkered with. Michael, Franklin and Trevor can each be dressed to suit your own unique interpretation of the characters. You can choose whether they have a beard or present themselves clean-shaven. You can decide whether their unique vehicles have armour or low suspension. The stock market can be played (and manipulated) and properties and businesses can be bought. Even the missions offer a degree of flexibility – there are several heists throughout the game and these can be approached loud or smart. You can choose who to hire as a getaway driver, or as a backup shooter (just remember, they get a cut of the score). Furthermore, the approach you decide to take also has an effect on the missions prior to the score, where you case the joint and make careful preparations. The bank robbery in Grand Theft Auto IV was the best mission of the entire game – Grand Theft Auto V tops that mission time and time again.
Even when not on a mission, there is so much to do – and so much happening dynamically – that the world always feels vibrant and alive. Wildlife can be hunted, mountains can be climbed and strangers can be met. One of the most surreal moments of the game for this reviewer occurred when playing as Trevor. A man in his underpants was chained to a post at the side of the highway. Stopping my truck, I got out and ended up rushing him home to get dressed, before dashing against the clock to ensure he got to his wedding on time. The mini-games are actually enjoyable this time round – including tennis and golf – and many of the activities available aren’t even highlighted during the 69 main missions. Exploration is always worthwhile and the massive game world, larger than the maps of San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption combined, is a work of interactive art. In truth, this review only scratches the surface of Grand Theft Auto V.
The central missions will take roughly 30 hours to complete and even then you’ll only be about 50% done with the single player campaign. That’s not even taking into account Grand Theft Auto Online, which unfortunately was still having connectivity issues at the time of this review being published. Are there any problems with Grand Theft Auto V? Absolutely. The female characters are either hypocritical nags (Michael’s wife) or standing at the side of the road turning cheap tricks – with the multiple protagonist approach, Rockstar should seriously consider a strong female lead for the next game in the series. Furthermore, the three available endings are all too clear-cut and not particularly satisfying. The real story being told is between the three protagonists, not the numerous antagonists – so why not take this tense dynamic to a more satisfying, and canonical, conclusion?
Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t resonate during its final moments like Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us did earlier in the year… but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. In terms of sheer fun, enjoyment and entertainment value, this is right up there with the very best games of 2013. The music is diverse, full of mainstream hits and obscure gems – you’ll be humming ‘Sleepwalking’ by The Chain Gang of 1974 as you play and by the time the final credits roll you’ll have the unbelievably catchy ‘Old Love/New Love’ by Twin Shadow stuck in your head. The main characters are all superb and voiced to perfection (where does Rockstar Games find such talented, relatively unknown voice actors?), the setpiece moments are jaw-dropping and the game world itself, as previously mentioned, is an interactive work of art whether shown in blinding sunlight or pouring rain. The final score doesn’t indicate a flawless experience – nothing is perfect and Grand Theft Auto V has its fair share of problems. Instead, it reflects the towering achievement of a stunningly realised virtual world that ends the current console generation with an almighty bang, accompanied by the sardonic wit of hotshot Michael De Santa, the cool as ice driving skills of Franklin Clinton… and the bloodstained boot of one very angry Trevor Philips.
10 OUT OF 10