“Good things come to those who wait.”
I never intended to play Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. I was confident that a PC release would debut shortly after the initial console release. Nine long months later, in June of this year, Rockstar officially confirmed the existence of a PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC versions of their 2013 best seller. The PC version wasn’t going to make it this year and since I didn’t want to roll the dice on that version, I decided to go with the PlayStation 4 release.
I approached Grand Theft Auto V with the belief that Rockstar learned many lessons since the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. I hoped they borrowed the world building techniques practiced in Red Dead Redemption. I wanted them to incorporate the mechanics and fluidity of Max Payne 3’s third person shooting action. And finally, I cherished the idea that Rockstar was finally doing away with the single protagonist. Not everyone of my hopes and dreams came came to pass but a lot of it did.
Los Santos felt huge but not overwhelming. It was filled with a large number of things to see and do. Sky diving? Base jumping? Tennis? Golf? Shooting galleries? Land, air, and sea races? That’s just a slice of activities to interact with. However the true beauty of Grand Theft Auto V involved driving around at night and soaking in the world that was crafted for me. It didn’t matter if I was driving through city, on the freeways or out to the middle of nowhere, Grand Theft Auto V featured some of the finest vistas ever envisioned for a game; I felt it was a convincing interactive brochure for California.
Much like with Red Dead Redemption, wandering off the beaten path yielded morsels of entertainment. It could be a hitchhiker with tall tales or a drunk who convinced Trevor and I that they’re awful and needed to spend time with a cult in the middle of nowhere. I approached every blue blip on the mini-map because I never knew what Rockstar had in store for me.
It was tempting to fast travel around with taxis but I loved the atmosphere enough to keep my hands behind the wheel. The radio stations weren’t as captivating as the ones in the past but it was good enough to keep it on while I drove around. I toggled between first and third person driving and would often find myself respecting traffic laws even though the cops didn’t give a damn. I simply enjoyed participating and playing the part of a Los Santos citizen.
I didn’t expect Rockstar to veer off their excellent world development path. I was hoping they took cues from Sleeping Dogs and incorporated strong gameplay mechanics into their open world game.
Rockstar’s effort was passable at best. I was hoping for Max Payne 3’s controls sans the bullet time but instead I was given an evolution of Grand Theft Auto IV with bullet time. They nailed the driving feedback across all their vehicles but dropped the ball in the on-foot action department. I was able to get through the game if I stuck with tried and true methods but I any time I wasn’t hunkered behind cover and using the lock on targeting, I was asking for a world of hurt. Navigating between cover in the heat of battle was a crapshoot at the best of times; I never felt confident that I was going to position myself the way I wanted.
I’m glad the first person view exists and I’m grateful that Rockstar put in a tremendous amount of effort into grafting this view into this version of the game. I only wish it wasn’t beholden to the mechanics of the third person game. I wish characters were able to duck and not simply get into a “sneaking” position. I feel that first person controls and conventions are too ingrained and established to be ignored. As a result everything feels a bit off.
I still want to play through the entire game from this perspective though. Rockstar’s adherence to maintaining the first person immersion made me wish other first person shooters were as bold. Dropping from a height causes the character to automatically perform a bracing roll. I didn’t expect Rockstar to maintain that roll in the first person perspective and I love them for it. It’s disorientating at first but I appreciate the fact that there’s some kind of penalty for taking that risk.
The story and motivations of the protagonist in previous Grand Theft Auto games lost steam through the course of 20 hours. The characters would evolve too quickly and convincing initial motivations were replaced with money making schemes and gang related violence. Grand Theft Auto V solved the wayward story issue by introducing three playable characters at once. Their story threads interwoven frequently but they also had their own issues and lives to deal with.
Switching between each character was painless and was rewarding in itself because I never knew where exactly Michael, Franklin or Trevor was up to. If I quickly switched between characters, I would find them where I left them. If I gave them a bit of breathing room before switching, I was able to find them in the middle of their own business. I often found Franklin at home. Michael was often seen sitting on some bench somewhere smoking is misery away. (I also found him waking from night terrors which was always a treat.) Trevor was the gross enigma of the group and for quite some time, I never knew where I was going to find him. Was I going to find him puking his guts out? Rummaging through garbage? In the middle of a dispute with an NPC? It was always a treat and a wonderful touch by Rockstar to give the illusion that these characters were living breathing humans.
I liked all the characters in Grand Theft Auto V. The three protagonists balanced each other out. Middle aged suburban rich white man, Michael De Santa was desperately trying to find both excitement and normalcy in his life. Franklin struggled to exit the ghettos while trying to balance his aspirations and who he was. And Trevor? He was the source of zany fun that I wondered if we would ever see again in a Rockstar game. He was the crazy killing sprees, aerial acrobatics and lunacy of Grand Theft Auto’s underbelly that was all but snuffed out in IV.
We needed all three to retain the different identities of Grand Theft Auto. We needed all three to cover the spectrum of lifestyles that pseudo California had to offer. We also needed all three to pull off this game’s main story hook, the heists. Rockstar knew they nailed it with the Heat-esque heist mission in IV, so they decided to create a game dedicated to nothing but heists. They’re a lot other missions in the game but the main story thread moved from heist to heist. I appreciated being offered the choice of how to approach each heist even if it was nothing more than “quiet” vs “loud”. The prep work was nothing more than glorified fetch quests but I bought into the context which is a lot more than I can say for other open world fetch quests.
I enjoyed every heist mission. They were scripted but there’s a big difference in knowing the strings are being pulled and the strings getting in the way of the fun. Each protagonist had a role to play and the game would often require me to switch to each role to set things in motion. It wasn’t always just mow down waves of cops. I could play the role of driver as the other heist mates took care of that. Sometimes had to be the pilot in order to transport the goods and didn’t have to fire a single shot. Roles depended on the approach and I’m curious now each differed.
Los Santos and its surrounding area is so vast and even with three characters, I feel they only covered a third of what’s available. There are more stories that could be told through future expansions and I’m sure there are more to be unearthed on this disc alone. I didn’t finish everything on the single player side and I’m sure there are some nuggets of entertainment in Grand Theft Auto Online that I didn’t even catch a whiff of.
I wish Grand Theft Auto V played better. It’s a marked improvement over IV but the game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the past, you could argue that Saints Row wasn’t encroaching on its turf but with the arrival of Sleeping Dogs, playability standard for this sub-genre have been raised.
That said, Rockstar is also unmatched when it comes to open world building and story telling. It’s tough to envision any other studio eclipsing or even taking a convincing swing at Rockstar in these areas. Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos was made by possible resources and skill. And with each successful instalment, I can only see them continue that march towards that real world simulation that they aim for. I’m all for that kind of ambition, I just hope they remember to invest just as heavily in the fundamentals in the future.
For more information on Grand Theft Auto V, visit the official website.