Grand Theft Auto V is a game that leaves me conflicted as a person. Rockstar has gladly brought back some of the life I felt was missing from Grand Theft Auto IV, but at the same time it does things that disturb and anger me. You never quite know what you’re going to get from minute to minute, and the journey through GTA V has its highs and lows.
The Grand Theft Auto series and I haven’t always been friends. My entry into the series came with Grand Theft Auto III, a game that was the pioneer of an entire genre. I look back on it in reverence, but I feel no need to replay it. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City built upon GTA III’s technical mastery with a story that grabbed me a bit more and that great 80’s setting. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the franchise’s high point for me: CJ was a great character, I dug the additional RPG elements, and the three cities gave you a lot of room to play in. I’m not one to return to older games once I’ve completed them, but I still load up San Andreas from time-to-time. The game will always hold a special place in my mind, because I was playing it the morning I was arrested for stealing my own car. Hard to forget.
So, I was surprised when Grand Theft Auto IV left me cold. Niko Bellic’s tales of a former soldier falling into Liberty City’s criminal element bored me. I felt no connection to Niko, and his friends and family actively turned me off. Liberty City was wonderfully realized, but it wasn’t a fun sandbox; it felt more like an amazing simulation than a game. Some of that disappointment was probably because of Saints Row 2, which came out two years earlier and had taken a direction that differentiated it from GTA. After playing that, Liberty City just felt lifeless. I only lasted a few hours and, stopped. I only returned to it to try out the crazy community-created mods.
So what about Grand Theft Auto V?
This time, the game's story is split between three protagonists: retired career criminal Michael De Santa, small-time hood Franklin Clinton, and murderous psychopath Trevor Phillips. The game is slow to build: after a prologue showing a failed heist ten years ago, you play Franklin and Michael through separate sequences that eventually lead the two together. The mentor/protege relationship between the pair carries the game’s early plot: you really do feel as if each provides the other with something that’s missing in their horrible lives. It's a powerful element that keeps you playing in a story that otherwise feels like it just meanders along.
It's a few hours before you’re introduced to Trevor, who is a complete tonal shift from the other two. While Michael and Franklin are played mostly straight, Trevor is insane and strung out on speed most of the time. He throws off a few things, but more on that later.
Grand Theft Auto V goes to great lengths to emphasize that each character is their own person. Outside of larger missions, each has their own set of missions, their own property they can purchase, and their own supporting casts. While Franklin may help a paparazzi stalk movie stars or run into gang-related problems with his best friend Lamar, Michael is busy keeping his family out of trouble or helping his favorite film director. Trevor is always trying to steal things with the help of lackeys Ron and Wade, or participating in the game’s more unsavory activities like hunting illegal aliens or murdering random groups of people that cross him. You’ll probably gravitate towards certain characters and missions: I avoided Franklin’s tow-truck missions and Trevor’s crazy killing Rampages like the plague, but I usually completed all of Michael’s missions.
Another thing that differentiates each character is their individual special abilities, which can be charged up and used in certain situations. Michael can slow down time in combat, and recharges by doing stealth takedowns and headshots. Franklin can slow down time while driving, with near misses and top-speed driving filling his special meter. Trevor’s special lowers his incoming damage and raises his outgoing damage; killing enemies and taking damage keeps his meter topped off.
Rockstar boasts that being able to switch between all three characters during the game is a ground-breaking innovation, but while the mechanic has been done before, the real strength in the system lies in the storytelling. If you switch to one of three, they're usually in the middle of doing something particular to that character. Once, I returned to Michael sitting with his head on his car’s steering wheel in alley just a few blocks away from his house. I could tell that this was a guy who didn’t want to return home just yet, but he didn’t have anything else to do. It hit me as a strong, sympathetic moment for the character. These moments flesh out the characters, though Trevor’s are mostly being drunk, recovering from being high, or in the middle of killing someone.
The rest of the characters are there and gone. When you get down to it, Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are all horrible people, and their supporting cast extends from that. It reminds me of Breaking Bad: no one here is clean. Michael’s family is vapid, Trevor’s friends are sycophants, and Franklin’s neighborhood is comprised of stereotypes. Some characters do stand out, but it’s only because of their humor value, not their emotional one: Michael’s tech guy Lester and Franklin’s friend Lamar are hilarious, but two-dimensional. And if you’re hoping for a positive or sympathetic woman in the cast, the closest you get is Franklin’s ex-girlfriend, who you spend most time speaking to only via email.
Rockstar’s new Los Santos is better than Liberty City was in Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s larger and there’s more variety in the areas you get to traverse. The citizens also feel like they have their own lives. Cops bust crooks that aren’t you, people are conversing as you walk past, there’s even random muggings you can stop if you’re so inclined. One of my stolen rides was even stolen from me by a random citizen! It’s a convincing illusion that breaks down if you try to pay too much attention. I spent 15 minutes tailing one citizen and all he did was walk around a few blocks randomly. When I turned my back for a moment, he disappeared. It’s very Truman Show: as long as you don’t look too hard, it works really well.
The missions in this new Los Santos are all over the map, literally and figuratively. You’re faced with the good, the bad, and the ugly. The heist missions are a new addition to the series and are my definite high-points. Seriously, if GTA V was nothing but heist missions, it’d probably be one of my favorite games ever. These missions offer you options on how to pull off the caper, sometimes give you the choice between the rest of your crew, and set you about collecting what you need to succeed.
Once you’ve lined everything up, it’s time to actually execute the job. The heists have you switching between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor in different positions. Michael is usually the inside man, Franklin is a driver, and Trevor either takes aircraft or adds to the general mayhem with explosives and firepower. During heist missions, switching between characters gives you options: I’m horrible at sharpshooting, so in one heist I chose to go with Michael’s submachinegun to take out pursuers, instead of using Franklin on a far off building with a sniper rifle. GTA V plays around with a number of different combinations and situations, keeping the entire idea fresh from beginning to end.
Adding additional depth is the fact that you can also choose your crew. Do you go for cheaper neophytes, or experts who require a larger cut of the spoils? For my first big heist - a jewelry store - I chose a less-experienced driver and gunman. During the escape phase, the gunman actually fell off his bike and got caught by the police. Not a big loss, except for the fact that he was carrying a third of the take. The new driver also got lost in the tunnels for a good 30 seconds, whereas an experienced driver would’ve probably had us through in no time. It all feels like an Ocean's Eleven game, and I loved every minute of it.
If heists are the good, some vehicle missions are the bad. You drive an endless amount of vehicles: cars, bikes, ATVs, boats, jet skis, planes, and more. Halfway through the game, GTAV was still showing me brand-new vehicles and situations. Unfortunately, all of these vehicles are true to life. Ten minutes spent gliding slowly through San Andreas’ harbor in a submersible isn't exciting gameplay. In the same vein, it’s cool that Rockstar was able to model a dock crane, but it’s not something I needed to play.
And speaking of something I didn't need to play, we’re left with the ugly. A third of the way through the game, there’s a mission called ‘By The Book’. The Trevor part of the mission involves torturing an innocent man to gain information. This is unskippable. There’s no out. You choose your implement of torture: a jug of water, a pair of pliers, a large wrench, or jump cables attached to a car battery. Each weapon has its own control scheme, and you’re even given a ghastly achievement for using all four during the mission.
If you have strong feelings about torture, this mission is hard to stomach and there’s no option to skip any part of it. It’s just Trevor, you, and the torture victim pleading you to stop. Sure, the rest of the game is spent murdering people, but this is close and intimate. It’s a few minutes of controlling the suffering of a (simulated) human being. If I had been Redbox-ing this, it probably would’ve been the moment I returned the game. For some, this will be the deal-breaker, and it makes other ugly missions - like the creepy strip club mini-game - look tame by comparison.
I’m completely in the dark about Rockstar’s intentions about this mission. If it’s supposed to be parody, they came far too close to the real thing. If it’s meant to played straight to show the gravity of the situation, then Trevor’s actions during and after the mission ruin that tone. In fact, Trevor ruins the serious tone of most of the game - but it’s just far more apparent in this particular mission. In his own missions, Trevor’s actions and insanity makes sense; in Michael and Franklin’s missions, he sticks out like a sore thumb. I would've preferred him in his own game or standalone expansion, instead of his placement here.
When it comes to craft, Grand Theft Auto V is Rockstar’s masterpiece, but the game exists beyond the wonderful world on display. If you were to cut out a few missions here and there, it would be an amazing game. But those missions exist and act as speed-bumps, interrupting the the above-average fun of just running around the world, and the excitement of doing the Heist missions. And for some, those aforementioned speed-bumps will be brick walls. If you’re absolutely opposed to torture, or you need a positive woman character in your game, Grand Theft Auto V is a complete non-starter.
Despite my feelings about those things, however, I still found myself having fun outside of them. The rest of the game is good enough that I was up until 3:00 am one night playing mission after mission. It’s a guilty pleasure: part of me wants for stop because of the deeply problematic elements, but another part is using my reviewer status as a reason to keep enjoying all the rest. Grand Theft Auto V left me deeply conflicted morally, but if I’m being honest, I still want to keep playing it. So I guess that means I’m recommending it - but with strong caveats.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: It's not next-gen, but Grand Theft Auto V is as close to next-gen as the the current generation can get.
- Music: A great mix of classic tracks and brand-new songs. It's worth letting the radio play even if it's on stations you may not prefer.
- Interface: In the in-game UI is as minimal as possible. It gets out of the way and lets the rest of the game do its thing.
- Lasting Appeal: You'll be finding new sights and missions for a long goddamn time.