Grand Theft Auto V
- Street Date:
- September 17th, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- September 21st, 2013
- Game Release Year:
- Rockstar Games
- Rockstar North
- ESRB Rating:
- M (Mature)
This review applies to the single player portion of 'Grand Theft Auto V.' 'GTA Online,' which is included in 'GTA V,' launched October 1st, and preceded to take weeks to stabilize access while hosting a mess of an economy. The lack of promised features like heists further removed much of the mode's excitement. The online portion has subsequently recieved several updates.
While 'Grand Theft Auto' is one of the most visible game franchises, it has been five years since the franchise last saw a full game. In that time, surprisingly excellent if buggy 'Red Dead Redemption' has existed as the Old West cousin to the controversial series.
The anticipation for the game has easily rivaled the anticipation for the next generation of consoles. There is so much to the game, that one can get lost in it, focused on one objective or another. While there are still stacks of good-to great games that will be played on the PS3 and 360, 'Grand Theft Auto V' may be high water mark for those systems.
That potential technical and gameplay prowess of the game belies the controversial nature of the game series. Quickly stated, I think of the games as analogous to Quentin Tarantino movies, very violent and often enamored with various story sub-genres. The game's take-or-leave-it satire is not for everyone, and can be experienced with the same amount skepticism as other piece of fiction. Now, onto the game.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
With 'Grand Theft Auto V,' Rockstar's unrivaled marketing has conjured up a level of hype unnecessary for a game already hotly anticipated. That promised image of the game includes a combination of structured and free-form gameplay in an incredibly rendered environment, whose activities and topography are so vast and varied that players will become lost in all of the promised immersion. Beyond that, the use of three distinct protagonists and the introduction of user-planned and executed heists would provide an experience to trump the level of enjoyment normally achieved in Rockstar's games.
But with so much promised, there lies an inherent danger, quantity versus quality. As the sandbox title, 'Grand Theft Auto' has always wanted to offer the player the ability to either roam freely around causing havoc and discovering new notes of detail and gameplay hidden throughout game's world, while at the time offering a series of missions that since 'GTA III' have been part of a story that both imitates and surpasses films that similarly romanticize criminal behavior. All this in a game world whose very heartbeat is one of satire.
Thereby, the basic 'GTA' formulae, which this game seeks to surpass, goes something like this. Steal a car, follow the map to a letter icon and initiate a story or side mission, or just start attacking NPCs until your wanted level results in enough police to overwhelm you. Elsewise, the option is to roam around looking for mini-games, hidden packages, secret missions, and whatever other secrets and wonders the game holds.
These different approaches have varying levels of appeal for different players, but underpinning these different avenues are the some fundamental mechanics, namely shooting and driving.
Shooting is easily the most important upgrade for 'Grand Theft Auto V.' While the game strains the controller's ability to offer enough commands to execute everything that the player needs at a given moment, the combat controls, which are evolved from 'Red Dead Redemption,' are no longer an embarrassment to the series. I had to tweak both the aim sensitivity and reticle in order to feel in control, but those options are there to suit a variety of players. While the level design in various missions greatly aids this feel, it is also quite refreshing to play a game that does not limit your arsenal.
There were parts of missions where I was directed to "lose" a chopper or bad guy, and I was able to pull over and use an RPG to take out the enemies. Armored trucks, for instance, offer a variety of takedown options. After repeatedly drawing too much heat after ambushing the drivers, I found I preferred tailing armored trucks and tossing a sticky bomb on the doors while stopped at a light. This combination of not having to deal with inventory management and further having the freedom to employ the weapons in my possession was like zen, and the game's weapon customization offerings felt far more worthwhile than other titles.
While driving missions often retain that feel of either chasing an AI or being chased by an AI, enemies don't drive on rails the way that they did in 'GTA IV,' which makes for a huge improvement. Motorcycle driving has leveled up from both 'GTA IV,' and 'GTA IV: Lost and the Damned' to the point where it's fun and dangerous. Cars are no longer anxious to catch fire and burst into flames, but have easily deformed axles. This means that a slight bump can push the fender and wheel together, while a long fall will completely collapse one corner of the car. In essence, cars can take a lot more punishment from bullets, but are rendered useless by collisions. What can make this frustrating is how selectively applied these characteristics are in the game.
There is some heavy handedness in various missions. The aforementioned car deformation won't happen during certain missions, but once the mission is compete the same car will suddenly be undrivable. This selective enforcement of the game's rules also applies to combat. The player can take a lot of punishment, and can always duck into cover to regain half health, which is good since enemies can be uncannily accurate. The game just accepts that the player will be shot early and often. Most in-mission cutscenes saw my player character covered in bullet holes, and during chases the rumble of bullets on the vehicle was endless. I shied away from doing the things required to regain full health like finding the rare health pack or vending machine, or visiting a safe house. Nevertheless, it was clear on several missions that the enemy AI would become headshot specialists should I not follow whatever the mission was asking me to do.
One big addition for the game is the stealth system. Rather surprisingly, the stealth has been added to the game without adding the aspect of drag that prevents most stealth games from being enjoyed by a large segment of players. Stealth is an encouraged option for many missions, but did not feel forced most of the time. (More on that later.)
The major change that stealth does bring is when evading the police, which is as fundamental to 'GTA' as anything else. For the first time in the series, I no longer was really tempted to antagonize the police. The reason being, because evasion by stealth, e.g. "losing the cops" was so much fun. When wanted, but not in direct view of the police, the police appear on the radar with vision cones. This implementation places a much bigger premium on getting out of sight, than simply outrunning the police. Alleys and yards suddenly come alive with little hiding crooks, and Rockstar has restrained the ability for police to spawn right next to you.
Traditionally, the games have asked the player to play enough main missions to unlock the full map, but this time around the full map is open from the very start. This openness can be quite misleading, as access to various weapons and mini-games is limited by game progress. For example, the stun gun. In order to get access to the stun gun, I had to complete a Strangers and Freaks side mission, which was only available to one of the protagonists and involved helping characters that I would otherwise not wish to help. The three protagonists are not all available from the start of the game, and the mission icon only came up as a character colored question mark on the map.
That mission that netted me the stun gun forced me to help some unpleasant characters, which is one of my big gripes with the game. While there are some tiny "help catch a mugger" type missions that involve choice, much of the game forces you into working with annoying and obviously untrustworthy characters. While there may be some lesson to learn from getting repeatedly screwed over by characters that you would rather have dispatched right off, the glaring truth is the lack of freedom in the game's design.
Which brings me right to the game's heists. Outside of sheer scale, variety, and visually impressive world, Rockstar promised heists beyond the scope of previous games. For a heist, the player would gather intel, devise a method, assemble a crew and material, and then execute the heist. Sadly, this aspect is one of over-promise.
Hopefully, GTA Online can take the heists to another level, but the single player only offers a handful of heists. Of those, only a few offer two methods of execution. While a big deal is made about choosing the right crew, this only applies to a subset (and barely at that) and several heists fail to deliver even a dollar. Several missions don't even offer the heist-style prep, despite seemingly perfectly suited for such. Even so, the heists are a highlight of the game.
Heists involve so much of the game's mechanics including: shooting, driving, customization, stealth, planes, helicopters, swimming, and even the more mundane car towing, cargo loading, and floor mopping. Heists involve some, but far from all of the game's big landmark buildings. Heists are also where character switching is put to the test.
It is fun to jump around from character to character for a variety of reasons. Just jumping during free-roam shows the characters doing their normal thing, such as being passed out on the beach surrounded by fallen foes. It also offers just one more change-of-pace option. Bored of this character, his neighborhood, his cohorts? Then switch. While people will be quick to say "this is a great way to move around the massive map," I found it was more of a random way to move around. Most missions are specific to a give character, and I often looked at the map, saw that my current character's mission starts were several miles away, then switched to another character (who would be at a random spot) to see if that character's missions were any closer.
Also unique to each of the three characters, are their gear and stats. That's right, the game now has character skill stats. One session at one of the gun ranges brought one of my character's gun skill to max while I medaled in each challenge. (More on medals later.) Another session was spent with a different character at flight school. But while I learned how to fly and shoot better, I only built skills for one of three characters. Even more bothersome was dealing with different characters gear. For the longest time, two out of three of my characters had parachutes, sniper rifles, gasoline, etc. And the disparity would reveal itself at inopportune moments. During heists though, when all three were together, switching between three from say driver, to shooter, to sniper could be really fun. (Each character has different bullet-time/dead-eye like ability, which seems half-heartedly implemented.) It is just a shame that the game does not allow this more. When paired with normal NPCs, such as Franklin's buddy Lamar, it's easy to miss the character switching ability, especially with regards to an ally NPC causing a mission failure.
Speaking of shame, my playthrough of 'GTA V' was plagued at times by some mission-breaking bugs. There is a lot going on the game, so some extra wonkiness is forgivable. For instance, when driving in a convoy during a mission, the NPC ally driver in front of me bumped a pedestrian, who then fell down in front of my vehicle. The ensuing instant police alert and "Mission Fail" screen were forgivable, I just restarted from the check-point and moved on. In another example, a NPC ally was supposed to dismount a jet ski and climb a ladder, but instead stood dumb until deciding to climb on the back of my jet ski, which borked the mission. That's a one-off. No big deal, except for the forced restart.
In two other missions, 'Construction Assassination' and 'Monkey Business,' both exhibited mission breaking bugs that I wasted hours on. For whatever reason, whether it be difficulty or possible buginess, the game offers a skip option for mission segments. While I eventually got 'Construction Assassination' to work, I was forced to skip two segments in 'Monkey Business.' Replay after replay, the ally NPCs would stop moving forward, and essentially all the mission scripting would cease. While these bugs will likely eventually be ironed out, they represent a lack of finish and spoiled two of what might have been great missions.
When the game falters like that without any attempt to break the game, gameplay goes from fun to hesitant and worrisome. In the case of 'GTA V,' it's hard not feel like these situations could have been avoided by scaling back some other aspects.
As a veteran 'GTA' player, the immediate impression that 'GTA V' gives, is not revolutionary. It takes time for the multi-protagonist aspect, stealth, heists, skills, medals, etc. to sink in, and in the meantime many missions as well as the game's core feel the same. Without 'GTA Online' the game feels like sequel by refinement. For instance, the old 'GTA' quirk of spawning the same vehicle everywhere in the player's immediate vicinity is at an all-time least noticeable. Many aspects, such as the game's real estate and stock market exchange seem less than half-baked. (Those aspects make the old graphing calculator game 'Drug Wars' seem fully realized.) The game's heists feel like a tease, and there is the story.
For me, the three protagonist narrative never really coalesces. While I have no doubt that Franklin, Michael, and (especially the colorful) Trevor will be remembered by players, their fractured story won't be. For a game quick to remind players how attention deficit our smartphone-laden culture is, its story seemed to get bored of itself, and each character's strong (singularly focused) intro doesn't transition into just another part of the game's background very well.
Ultimately, this means that the story doesn't resonate as well as 'Red Dead Redemption' or 'GTA IV,' which is hardly a crime. If the game had been focused on just one of these characters undoubtedly some portion of the audience would be less interested, which is how I felt about 'GTA IV: Lost and the Damned.'
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Again, 'GTA V' has to wrestle with big expectations, and these expectations are akin to the kind normally reserved for racing and sports games. Make it look real, and make it look better.
Aliasing and pop-in pervade the open world. What's worse, is taking to the skies, where unsubtle texture tiling and occlusion troubles are the norm. The ocean, on the other hand, makes use of a color palette to stunning effect, even if the water can be a bit too real in its nebulous darkness.
None of these issues change the fact that 'GTA V' is a technical and artistic marvel. The amount of detail visible in the world dwarves its predecessor, and the artistry in use in deciding how to employ resources is really unrivaled in third-person games, open world or otherwise. When boiled down to segments like the psychiatrist's office (clearly a showpiece), character outfits, vehicles, safe houses, psychedelic clown beasts, or just fast-roping, that smart use of simple textures and geometry usually limited to games where the engine is less capable, delivers a product that's difficult to criticize.
Character close-ups unsurprisingly reflect the tough-to-beat unhappy valley, but the game's animations, and the variety of effective character designs seem like they should belong to a corridor shooter where detail is easier to come by.
A PC version of this game will be a stunner that helps with a lot of these issues, but one problem for me was the California/Los Santos weather. The super bright sun can make some situations look unlit. Looking at a parking lot (that sadly, is typically devoid of cars) with its concrete texture underneath a red sports car can present an immediate inequity in detail that is not helped by the overbright sunshine. That typical example, combined with some murky buildings, can make it easy to frown at the game's visuals, which is a short-sighted mistake as the game has plenty of wow in its aresneal both in scripted adn unscripted sections.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
There is a lot happening in the audio department in any 'GTA' game. There is the series' radio stations with songs and DJs, engine and gunfire Foley, smartphone rings and notifications, and always the possibility that a firefight full of NPCs is happing just a ways off but still audible. The game doesn't really ever ask to the player to listen for enemy audio cues (unlike a FPS), and relegates sound to a complementary function, which for me was nicely done in LPCM.
This time around, the radio stations were less a joy for me, which may be due to an attempt to represent an authentic Californian FM band. Still, I found a few good stations. (Don Johnson's 'Heartbeat,' total classic.) But during missions when the radio goes away, the game's original soundtrack scores big in my estimatation, which, following 'Max Payne 3,' and 'Red Dead Redemption' is not a surprise.
Just by judging the game without 'GTA Online' in place, and the replay factor scores pretty high. I hit the credits screen at 73% completion and some 40 logged hours of play, with another 10 hours spent on unsaved time. There are some 30 stranger and hobby missions left for me to do, plus finding space ship parts.
The Rockstar Social Club was overloaded for much of my playthrough, but eventually starting working, and my iPhone training of Chop the Dog helped me to find a spaceship part. I usually don't bother with the packages and stunt jumps. I was sad to see find the police missions missing this time around, and I'll have to settle for the bounty missions.
I likely will never replay the story in full, and I think Rockstar decided that represented most people. Either way, the medal system is far more attractive than replaying the game from scratch.
Almost all missions have medals, and those medals are based off of time, efficiency, and other per mission aspects. This is new for the series and has several effects. For one, it can make missions seem much easier to complete overall, or at least to get a bronze. It also can be frustrating. I frequently got silver medals due to missing some odd requirement such as not enough headshots or not using a particular method of execution. Again, this allows for freedom but rewards very specific playstyles.
The medal system and checkpoints also alleviate some of the problems typical for 'GTA' missions, namely the time limits, and lengthy drives. And award being better a playing without flaws, while still allowing a player to scrape when necessay.
Once completed, a mission can be replayed for a better medal from the pause menu. It's clear that missions are meant to be replayed, and setting medals aside, replaying favorite missions is more attractive than replaying the whole game just for a handful of missions.
The medal system also means that a single misstep by the player or by the game can ruin a gold medal attempt. For that reason, I'll likely wait until some patches are out to go after some of the golds.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The review copy from Rockstar came with quite a bit of swag, including a gold bar flash drive. The twin iPhone apps, the game manual and the combo Chop The Dog and Los Santos Customs iFruit app, are fun gimmicks, but not necessary.
Then there is the Atomic Blimp, which I accidentally deleted off my PS3's hard drive, and couldn't use until I redownloaded it. The blimp seems like and obvious part of the game for users to try, so I recommend getting it whenever possible, such as in a launch copy. I should mention that I played both the PSN digital copy, and the PS3 disc version without any issue between switching versions, which is really impressive considering the game's install and such. Being able to view my game progress broken down my mission type as well as the progress of those my friend's list was really fun, and similar functionality on Rockstar's Social Club site should be just as good once it stabilizes.
No other game attempts the 'GTA' scale or can touch the games' presentation. The openness of the game suggests that players can have a blast while barely touching the single player. The temptation then is to give the game a perfect score, but while the game is both peerless and marvelous, it isn't perfect or close to perfect. It many ways, for 'GTA V,' quantity cannot beat quality.
The game of heists marketed by Rockstar is never fully realized in the singleplayer of 'GTA V.' The tri-lead character story peters out fairly early, but that does not mean that the story is not worth finishing. The game is need of some major patches, which hurts the appeal of side-content. By the same-token, the game blows away the mechanics of its predecessors and series' imitators, and that's without factoring in 'GTA Online.'
- Blu-ray disc
- Dolby Digital 5.1
- Online Versus
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