I beat Grand Theft Auto V last night -- the main story, anyway.
I was originally only going to play enough of it to be able to contribute meaningfully to our recent LiveTopic on the subject -- Mike played it all the way through for our review -- but found myself utterly hooked after a few hours.
It's worth pondering why I went into the game with such negative preconceptions -- I described my reaction to the trailer from a while back as being "indifferent" and that I was concerned about GTA Online causing Rockstar to spread the game content too thinly. These concerns have, as you've probably guessed, been well and truly laid to rest having played the game's story mode to completion -- though I still have my doubts about the viability of GTA Online, particularly as it's looking increasingly likely it will be stuffed full of free-to-play-style microtransactions.
My negative preconceptions about GTA V were largely due to disappointment with GTA IV -- not crushing disappointment as some people have expressed, mind, merely that it wasn't quite as good as I was hoping it would be -- coupled with the ridiculous, ridiculous amount of hype for GTA V. We're talking about a game in which "Developer Releases One New Screenshot" was picked up as a news story by numerous outlets across the Web numerous times, lest you forget -- and a market in which readers would happily lap up every dribble of information there was on the upcoming game, despite the fact it was, at the time many of these stories were published, still a long way off.
Since GTA V launched, it has attained some very positive reviews and the hype from press and public alike has continued. At the same time, it has also attracted a number of critical articles expressing concern at everything from the belief that the game is inherently misogynistic to the fact that some people feel the gameplay hasn't moved on enough in the intervening years between installments. Some of these are more reasonable than others; some have attracted the ire of the very worst denizens of the Internet. There's a problem, though, and it's a bit of a Catch-22: the seeming rush to criticize the game now that it's out has a similar effect to hyping it too much prior to release -- it causes people who might have been on the fence about trying it for themselves to make snap judgements about it without even trying to make up their own mind. I've lost count of the number of people I follow on Twitter who have either been snarky about the game or only selectively retweet negative comments and articles about it while openly and unapologetically proclaiming that they're not going to play it and have no intention to.
That's unfortunate. So at the risk of adding to the hype, I'd like to share two specific things about the game that particularly pleased me as a counter to some of the negativity that's flying around at the moment. As ever, if you'd like to discuss your own thoughts on the game, feel free to make use of the comments and notes as usual.
So here we go then, starting with the thing that probably kept me playing through the story more than anything else. Some mild spoilers ahead.
A Test of Character
This, of course, flies in the face of Jaz's editorial from a short while back, but what is life without a little friendly disagreement? I found Grand Theft Auto V's cast to be by far the most interesting group of characters I've seen in the series to date, and a sign of how far the series has come from the days of Grand Theft Auto III's silent protagonist Claude.
You can look at Franklin, Michael and Trevor in a number of different ways -- ego, superego, id; lawful, neutral and chaotic evil; protégé, mentor and nutcase -- but I've found the three-character structure to work very much in the game's favor for a number of reasons, the main one of which is the fact that they're each used for distinctive narrative demands. They're far more than simply new skins with new stats; they each have a reason to exist. Franklin's tale is one of rags-to-riches, and of using his smarts to escape from the hand fate dealt him; Michael is suffering a classic mid-life crisis, spending his days bored by the pool as his family becomes increasingly dysfunctional around him; Trevor, meanwhile, is the most honest of all the characters -- he says it like it is with little regard for the consequences, and is always prepared to follow through on the situations his smart mouth and aggression gets him into.
Each of the three are far more than just different types of asshole, however, and by the end of the game I found them all quite likeable -- even Trevor, whom Rockstar took pains to humanize somewhat with a subplot revolving around Stockholm Syndrome and a hilarious post-game "Strangers and Freaks" event back at his house.
Let's talk about Trevor specifically for a moment. Initially, I thought he would be little more than the personification of the open-world chaos that typified earlier installments in the Grand Theft Auto series, but it's much more complex than that. Yes, he is the character that plays host to the most violent side missions -- most notably the rampage and hunting challenges -- but he's also home to some of the most genuinely amusing content in the game, largely due to his seeming talent for attracting the more eccentric side of the population to him. The side missions involving Nigel and his companion Mrs Thornhill, for example, show us a Trevor who is willing to help others out -- albeit arguably more for his own amusement than anything else.
Trevor's focus on his own amusement and gratification extends to the notorious torture scene, in which play alternates back and forth between Michael, who is hunting down a target, and Trevor, who is torturing a victim who knows the details of said target -- at the behest of someone else and under duress, it's worth noting. Trevor doesn't flinch at the opportunity to inflict torture, unsurprisingly, but after the sequence is done and Trevor is ordered to kill the victim, he doesn't; instead, he puts him in the car and drives him to the airport, explaining that "torture is for the torturer" and is a "useless means of obtaining information" -- a fact backed up by the fact that the victim was willing to talk well before Trevor started pulling his teeth out and attaching jumper cables to his nipples.
Short version: GTA V's cast is an intriguing bunch who are all far more than one-note thugs. Each has their own place in the story, and Rockstar's sensible decision to focus the majority of the missions on the core three rather than third-party mission givers allows them each to be explored in far more detail than any previous Grand Theft Auto protagonists -- and without all the flow-interrupting social stuff that plagued GTA IV.
I Want to Go to There
I talked a little about this a few weeks back, but it bears repeating, as GTA V's Los Santos and surrounding countryside is by far the most impressively realized, "alive-feeling" game world I think I've ever stepped into in a single-player game. It's a world that, like GTA IV's Liberty City, I'm more than happy to just wander around and take in the sights on foot; a world that's recognizable enough to feel like reality, yet with enough of a satirical twist to make it clear that it's clearly an exaggerated depiction of the worst things about modern culture.
Where this really hit home for me was during an early mission that requires you to visit the offices of LifeInvader, a company that is something of a blend between Apple and Facebook. This isn't a mission where you're blasting your way through hordes of enemies; it's one where you're simply tasked with posing as an employee, infiltrating the building and... well, to say what you're there to do would be a spoiler. The objective became irrelevant for a few minutes, though, as I wandered around the interior of the building -- a setting that you only see for a few minutes in this single mission -- and observed what was going on.
In a reception area, a prospective new employee was being attended to by a secretary; he complained of a bad back and asked if it would be all right to sit on a normal chair instead of a beanbag, but the secretary quipped that the job description had asked for someone who was "relaxed and at ease," causing the increasingly uncomfortable new hire to painfully sink down onto a beanbag with a groan. On the way back out, the same employee was there with the same secretary; this time, there was another person attempting to teach him how to kick a hacky sack. ("If you want to work here, you've gotta footbag, dude!") Elsewhere in the office, you could catch snippets of obnoxiously Silicon Valley-esque conversations filtering in from a meeting room, and you get dragged aside by a programmer to help him run his antivirus software on a computer infested with pornographic pop-ups.
This level of detail isn't just in the "scripted" areas, though; it extends to the city streets, too. Follow an individual pedestrian and you'll hear them engage in full conversations rather than throwaway one-liners as in previous games; stare too long at some people and they'll get uncomfortable, occasionally threatening to phone the police and then actually doing it right in front of you.
One of my favorite moments came later in the game, however, during a mission that required me to acquire three getaway cars based on vague photographic information. Unlike most of the other missions in the game, there are no blips or marks on the radar to help you -- all you have to go on is a blurry photograph, the name of the area and a tiny fragment of the overhead map. By this point, you should have more than a passing familiarity with the major landmarks in the game, and finding the cars is more practical at the slower pace of moving on foot, encouraging the player to walk around and look at the city up close rather than screaming past at 90 miles per hour. By taking my time to explore while searching these cars, it really made me appreciate the level of effort Rockstar had put into rendering, say, a multi-storey car park that was completely irrelevant to the rest of the game.
The fun thing about the world is that what you choose to do in it is largely your decision. If you just want to wander around and be a good citizen, you can; traffic reacts realistically to influences like traffic lights and other road users, and you can engage pedestrians in simple conversations by tapping right on the D-pad. Similarly, if you want to be a murderous ass, you can do that, too; even the story is largely optional, since it's always your decision as to whether or not you choose to actually advance the plot or whether to let Michael, Franklin and Trevor live in peace for a while -- playing tennis, cycling through the mountains, hunting wild animals.
The quality of the world's realization is one of the reasons I've become a lot more curious about Grand Theft Auto Online. Will the online mode offer more freedom than the single-player, or will it simply be a different twist on the same thing? That remains to be seen.
So those are the things I found myself liking most about the game -- that and the improved shooting mechanics; the new-style cop chases; the ridiculous, dramatic setpieces (most of which, unsurprisingly, revolve around Trevor's unique brand of chaos) -- but what about those of you who have also been playing it? What have been your favorite things about GTA V so far?
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