Los Santos is a jungle.
Grand Theft Auto is one of the few figureheads in the gaming community. Whether it is the ever-present controversy that has pursued the series since its inception, its biting, exaggerated commentary on American life, the enormous innovations that the series has made on open-world, sandbox type games, or any manner of things, Grand Theft Auto has never strayed from being the premiere experience within its genre. Every major entry in the series has introduced pioneering innovations to the gaming sphere as a whole, whether it has been the implementation of seamless, gargantuan, open worlds to explore or crossing boundaries into very “adult” territory that video games had not delved into much. Also, each game in the Grand Theft Auto series conceives new concepts and attempts new endeavors in an effort to always present something unique. I like to think of Grand Theft Auto V as the pinnacle of the series. Every signature aspect of the series is present; from the dry, witty commentary on American life, the brash, mature themes, and to the vivid, grossly detailed, mammoth recreation of Los Angeles. Grand Theft Auto V takes every trademark element of the series and raises the bar, resulting in a near masterpiece.
The world received Grand Theft Auto V at a time where it seemed as if every “first-rate” AAA game releasing was obliged to have a huge, open world filled with enough collectibles and side missions to appear with apparent depth, but a truly shallow experience. The phrase “open world” is straightforward, meaning exactly what it purports to; that instead of the game existing in a linear, mostly undeviating setting, it takes place in a largely unrestricted environment that encourages exploration and can offer a potentially individual experience from others playing the game. As technology evolved and permitted more expansive and dynamic universes to be created in video games, most games had some element of an open world aspect to them. It’s potentially easier to create immersion for the player if they are permitted to roam the world as they choose. Along with this skew toward “everything is open world,” the novelty of the unbridled, explorable setting of a game became worn and occasionally even felt tacked on. I won’t throw any shade at particular franchises or games, but a few immediately come to mind as games that were open world “just because” and there was no immersion or realism gained in that decision, not that verisimilitude is always the goal, but I feel that it commonly is. The open world is mostly implemented and used as a tool for making the world feel expansive and real. While some series have the open world feature nailed down, I think it’s almost a fact that no one does it as well as Grand Theft Auto.
The Grand Theft Auto series is known for having incredibly detailed, sweeping recreations of huge, metropolitan, real world cities and for seeming as lifelike as the real cities themselves. It’s almost as if GTA exists within a “clockmaker God” type universe, where the inhabitants of the game world persist entirely on their own until death or they’re phased out of the game. Grand Theft Auto V is once again at the summit of this franchise, as having the best qualities of the entire family of games. GTA V’s world quite literally feels alive. Like any number of random activities or events could be unfolding across Los Santos (Los Angeles) at any given time. I’ve always been of the mindset that the world of a Grand Theft Auto game is the true star.. The vast, beautifully created, breathing world is what brings players back time and time again. GTA V’s Los Santos is home to a menagerie of vibrant, unique characters, locations, and activities to partake in. You can walk, run, jump, drive (cars, boats, bikes, jetskis, etc) fly and more all over the city. There are races (in the air, land and sea) to participate in, a murder to investigate, aliens to prove (or not prove) may or may not exist, property to buy, maintain and profit from, golf games to play, et cetera. Grand Theft Auto V is jam-packed with fully fleshed-out options for entertainment. You could even skip the majority of the campaign and still have enough experiences to last you hundreds of hours. I myself played nearly thirty or forty hours of just goofing off, trying to kill myself in the funniest ways possible and experiencing all of the secondary activities, before I even touched the story mode.
That all being said, the campaign of Grand Theft Auto V is stellar and absolutely worth playing through. The plot follows three primary protagonists: Michael, Trevor and Franklin. Each of the characters are developed at least to some measure across the course of the story; all three of them feeling fleshed-out, distinguished from the others and genuinely interesting. While they are all very unique from each other, the one thing that all of them have in common is that they are horrible, murderous individuals. After a certain point, early in the story, the player can freely switch between all three characters. Each character has individual missions that only apply to them and the side characters in their life. Some side missions provide more insight into the characters’ lives, introducing you to friends and family of the protagonists. The campaign traces Michael, Trevor and Franklin as they scheme, kill, threaten and do anything they must in order to get rich; a true Grand Theft Auto story if I’ve ever heard one. The standout in all of GTA V would have to be the entirety of the character Trevor. Without spoiling too much, Trevor is a brilliantly written character; one that will make your skin crawl, make you cry from laughing and completely shock you in disbelief at some of the things he says or does. He is a loose cannon with zero restraint whatsoever; it’s no surprise to find him defecating in public, drunk out of his mind, or just half naked surrounded by dead bodies. Trevor will either disturb you enough to turn you off from him entirely or intrigue you so much that you can’t wait to see what he does next. Whether you love him or hate him, Trevor is a fascinating character; especially because he would typically be cast as the psychotic villain in most games, but GTA V has him as a protagonist.
Like most other Grand Theft Auto games, this entry is a blend of various game genres. GTA V does everything that its predecessors do, and magnifies it. I have always felt that the GTA games ride a middle line between third-person, cover-based shooter and a driving simulator, never quite favoring one feature over the other and doing both of them adequately. The driving is smoother than ever; handling is about as well as you can drive. While it is not quite as immersive an experience as a bonafide driving simulator like Need for Speed, it brings the depth where it counts. The Playstation 4/Xbox One version of GTA V even has a first-person mode, which when used in driving, feels almost indistinguishable from a “real” racing game. The interior of each and every car feels unique and carefully detailed. The other main feature of most Grand Theft Auto games, including this one, is the third-person shooter aspects. Grand Theft Auto V once again does the combat better than its predecessors. Guns feel more accurate, you can get a huge variation of different types of weapons: from grenade launchers, to pistols, to fully automatic assault rifles, sniper rifles, hunting knives and so, so much more. As long as you have the money, you can turn each of the protagonists into human armories. Each weapon can be heavily customized as well, from silencers to camouflages, different underbarrel attachments and more, allowing you to hone your gun into the style in which you prefer, a la Call of Duty. The shooting takes a cue from Rockstar’s last huge open-world masterpiece, Red Dead Redemption, giving a slight handicap to gunplay by making you lock onto targets as you blast through them. It makes combat significantly easier, but can be too easy sometimes.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was perhaps the most radical of the mainline series, following Grand Theft Auto III’s literally “game-changing” transition to fully 3D animation. San Andreas introduced an RPG-esque element to the formula, allowing you to gain experience points in endurance, strength, accuracy, handling while driving, breath while underwater and more. Most people saw this as too intense of a pendulum swing in a vastly different direction for the Grand Theft Auto series, and it probably was, but it opened up a creative avenue for the series to pursue. Both GTA IV and GTA V had RPG style skills to improve, though it was handled much more efficiently in the subsequent entries to San Andreas. The inclusion of things like stamina for how long you can sprint, breath for how long you can be underwater, gun accuracy, driving handling are all more natural skills to improve in in Grand Theft Auto V as you increase them as you play the game. Each of the protagonists also have a special skill that relates to one of the skills present in the game; whether it be temporary “bullet time” shooting, slow motion driving or otherwise.
Grand Theft Auto V is a gorgeous game. I know I’ve touched on that a few times throughout the course of this review, but I really can’t stress it enough. For as huge as the world is, I was expecting some noticeable corners to have been cut in quality. It seems that a lot of massive, open-world games do look far less impressive when looked at it in close detail, as opposed to the whole package. GTA V doesn’t suffer much from that condition. Besides most storefront windows being tiny images instead of real, in-game items, the visual world of this game is truly immaculate. I have played this game on both Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 and I cannot emphasize the difference is quality is mind-boggling. The PS3 version already looked outstanding and impressive, but the PS4 version should certainly be regarded as the definitive version of the game.
The soundtrack of GTA V is yet another home run. Most games in the series have iconic radio stations; whether it be the crazy hosts of the stations or just fantastic tracklists. I’m a 1980s nut, so I was obsessed with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s soundtrack, but GTA V still had a solid selection of music. They implemented a host of modern pop and hip-hop songs for a few of the stations, but there was still quite a bit of classic rock, old school rap, punk and more. The actual music that appears in the game, apart from listening to radio stations, is mostly ambient.
I would be remiss to not mention Grand Theft Auto Online. This is a fully realized and open version of Los Santos, just like in the base game, but consistently online and open, almost like an MMORPG. It’s comparable to Red Dead Redemption’s online mode in many ways. The story and side missions have been removed, and you can now join myriad online game types, like Team Deathmatch, helicopter races, bank heists, etc. Players can also purchase enormous garages and homes all over the city, to use as bases of operations, of sorts. Many fans have less than favorable opinions of Grand Theft Auto Online, citing reasons such as the extremely delayed inclusion of heists, and that they do not operate in the same manner that they were advertised to, as well as a toxic player community, roughshod player-created game modes that do not work well and microtransactions. I can also verify that it can sometimes take upwards of twenty minutes to even get into a lobby for deathmatch modes or any of the other traditional game types. On the bright side, GTA Online is still updated constantly, as new content is added in and optimization continues to make the experience a better one. It is certainly worth exploring Grand Theft Auto Online.
Grand Theft Auto is synonymous with replay value and Grand Theft Auto V is no different. As I mentioned earlier, I played the game for dozens of hours before I even made a dent in the campaign, and the campaign can take fifteen to twenty hours to complete, on its own. So if you’re like me, you could milk a steady forty or so hours out of just completing the campaign and goofing off around Los Santos. There are countless side objectives and missions to complete, all of them different from the last. If you get lonely, hop on GTA Online and hunt down other players or just have fun with specific online game modes. Grand Theft Auto V is like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in that you could almost play these games in perpetuity. I feel that they could have easily charged one hundred dollars or more for this game, and be completely justified in that choice.
Grand Theft Auto V once again proves that Rockstar does open-worlds better than anyone. Everything that you can do in GTA V is worth doing. They have raised the bar on sandbox games, and while there will be countless games pumped full of Grand Theft Auto’s DNA over the next few years, I think that the whole of the gaming sphere is waiting with bated breath for Grand Theft Auto VI. How could they possibly out-do themselves again? I don’t know, but they’ll find a way.