It's 2020, and somehow we're still talking about Grand Theft Auto 5 like it was released yesterday. Its free release last week caused such a sensation that it actually crashed the Epic Game Store-all for a seven-year-old game that is available on every platform this side of Nintendo Switch and mobile.
The fervor surrounding its release put an exclamation mark on an unprecedented run that cements GTA 5 as one of the most popular games ever made; eclipsed only by Tetris and Minecraft. It remains a mainstay on sales charts, and is typically one of the first games that anyone picks up when they purchase a PS4 or Xbox One. It generates more search traffic than almost any other game.
Its popularity is such that it's easy to forget that it's not even a "current-gen" game. Rockstar's opus was released in early 2013, right at the tail end of the PS3 and Xbox 360 era, and was subsequently remastered for PS4 and Xbox One. I still remember sitting through the very, very long loading screens as my Xbox 360 wheezed and struggled to bring GTA 5's vision of Los Santos to life. It wound up feeling far more at home on the current generation of consoles.
Its staying power can be chalked up to the success of GTA Online, which is equal parts loved and loathed by the community; loved because no game offers a sandbox quite like it, loathed because of its onerous grinding and microtransactions. It's sustained by large content drops, like 2018's Nightclub DLC, and a neverending succession of highlights on YouTube. Its "mature content" and vulgar sense of humor has managed to remain edgy amid the continued maturation of the medium, making it a kind of rite of passage for many teenagers.
Today, GTA 5 is basically one giant online toybox fueled by mods, making it a perfect encapsulation of the modern gaming landscape. Guides writer Joel Franey wrote of this strange evolution, "No, [GTA 5] wasn't too grounded; not when people kept cheekily crashing into the local airbase to steal fighter jets, but if you started a fight with somebody, you could be assured they'd retaliate with weaponry made on Planet Earth. Now all bets are off on what to expect. Gun down a player and you could get blasted from space by an orbital doomsday cannon ten minutes later."
Recently, an alien gang war erupted in the streets of Los Santos. It was fueled in part by Rockstar, which made its alien costumes free. Grand Theft Auto has always been ridiculous-GTA San Andreas had you invading "Area 69" (... hah) to steal a jetpack-but GTA Online is perhaps the purest distillation of its insanity. Being set in the modern day certainly helps, giving it a naturally higher ceiling for chaos than its slightly more grounded sister series, Red Dead Redemption (which coincidentally celebrates its 10th anniversary today).
Overwhelmingly popular as it is, though, it's hard to ignore the undercurrent of fan discontent that pervades its broader community. There's no question that Rockstar has fully embraced microtransaction culture, with all the grinding that entails. As with other massive microtransactions schemes, fans have been willing to open their wallets, but not without a fair amount of grumbling. Many fear that GTA 6, whenever it arrives, will tilt even more heavily toward the franchise's online component.
This feeling is reinforced by the conspicuous lack of single-player content for GTA 5. Where GTA 4 received two large expansions-The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony-GTA 5 has received... none. The same can be said for Red Dead Redemption 2, where fans still wait in vain for a follow-up to the original game's popular Undead Nightmare. It seems that Rockstar no longer cares much about the single-player content that once made the series such a sensation; online alien wars are now the order of the day. Forever.
In creating our Top 100 Games of the Decade list, we tried to discern between "quality" and "popularity," which is one reason we ultimately chose to leave GTA 5 off the list. Huge as it is, there's a sense that the franchise is declining creatively. The online aspect has come to dominate everything, to its detriment. Even the single-player aspect is troublesome at points, which is owed in no small part to two of the most obnoxious protagonists in Grand Theft Auto history, and a mandatory torture sequence that ranks among the worst gaming moments of the decade.
But for 120 million people and change, scenes like a rigged cell phone blowing a "Lifeinvader" executive's head off on live TV is part of the appeal. GTA 5 continues to thrive because it's the game that your mom doesn't want you to play. It thrives because, like it or not, people want microtransactions and a steady drip of new content. Add in Rockstar's typical production values; a thriving modding scene, and a heightened version of our modern reality in which basically anything can happen, and you have the recipe for a historic success.
One way or another, Grand Theft Auto 5 will remain a colossus; a game that will undoubtedly dominate the charts until GTA 6 comes along. There's no doubt that it's one of the most important video game franchises of the past century. As for whether that's a good thing, that's a conversation for another time.
Major Game Releases: May 18 to May 22
Here are the major releases for the week of May 18 to May 22. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- The Wonderful 101: Remastered [May 19 for PC, PS4, Switch]: The heroes are back, 101 strong in this Kickstarted remaster of an often-overlooked Wii U game. We'll have more thoughts sometime soon, but at this point, are there any major Wii U games left that haven't made the leap to the Nintendo Switch in some manner? When's a Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water remaster going to happen?
- If Found... [May 19 for PC]: The latest out of publisher Annapurna Interactive is a drawn and dreamy adventure called If Found... Developed by DREAMFEEL, it's about one girl's return home and the conflict that ensues, all while a black hole threatens to envelop the world. Its synth-y, emotive trailer already has me hooked.
- Saints Row: The Third Remastered [May 22 for PS4, Xbox One, PC]: The city of Steelport is getting a brand new coat of paint. The Saints Row entry that elevated the series from the usual crime sandbox to an open-world mayhem simulator is getting remastered for high definition, and early screenshots already look fantastic. This remaster looks like a pretty great way to kick off the summer.
- Maneater [May 22 for PC, PS4, Xbox One, Stadia]: Woah-oh here it comes. Look out boy, it'll chew you up. It's a shark video game where you play the shark itself. Explore undersea depths, upgrade abilities, and chomp down on unsuspecting beachgoers, all as one big, mean aquatic powerhouse. If the thought of a Jaws RPG has ever crossed your mind, you probably owe it to yourself to keep an eye on this one.
Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week In Gaming
- A number of games celebrate some anniversaries this week. The original Red Dead Redemption turns 10 today, as does Alan Wake. This Friday, Daikatana and Perfect Dark both hit their 20-year milestone, and on Saturday, Super Mario Galaxy 2 will be 10 years old as well. The time truly flies. If you're feeling nostalgic for the days of riding through the west as John Marston, be sure to read up on our feature about its memorable ending and how music played a role in it.
- It'll be awhile before we see what Anthem 2.0 looks like. BioWare's beleaguered looter shooter has only been out for just over a year, but it's already gone back to the drawing board. The project's lead posted the first of likely several updates to come on what the Austin team is working on, but says it will be a "longer process" taking Anthem apart and putting it back together again.
- Epic has unveiled Unreal Engine 5 and its plans for next-gen. Alongside an impressive tech demo, the company also confirmed that Fortnite would make the jump to both next-gen and Unreal Engine 5, though the latter will happen sometime in 2021. Epic is also pushing to unite the coming console generation in cross-play via its Online Services. A unified friends list sounds great, even as it starts to blur the lines of consoles and platforms.
- Evo is back, online, and a little different. Rather than an official Evo 2020, this year's fighting game tournament will be called Evo Online, and feature five weekends of exhibitions in the previously announced card-except Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, whose absence is conspicuous unless you've played it online. The open tournaments this year have moved to other games with stellar netcode: Mortal Kombat 11, Killer Instinct, Skullgirls, and the pony fighting game Them's Fightin' Herds. It's not quite the same, but five weekends of fighting games still sounds like a good time to me.
- Most of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater's classic tracks are returning for the remaster. Due to the usually messy process of licensing music for games, not every track has made it back for the upcoming remaster of the first two games. That said, Vicarious Visions got the tunes that mattered: "Superman" by Goldfinger and "Guerrilla Radio" by Rage Against the Machine are back in. While the omission of some tracks hurts, as long as I can drop into a pipe to the ska-tastic tunes of Goldfinger, I can live my best Pro Skater life.
Axe of the Blood God for May 18, 2020
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.
There's lots to talk about in the news, so Nadia and Kat take some time to talk through the recent PS5 tech demo, the Ghost of Tsushima gameplay reveal, and the surprising controversy around Paper Mario. Then Kat shares her thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, and listeners get to weigh in on the failed RPGs they want to make a comeback!