There are few games able to generate as much hype and expectation as Rockstar’s GTA series. Each entry in the juggernaut franchise sells more and more, breaks sales and budget records, and earns almost unanimous praise. It’s practically a certainty that any GTA release will be topping Metacritic scores, and a guarantee that it’ll sell record numbers. GTA V has been no different, and already people are claiming that it’s the best GTA yet, and you know what? They may just be right.
GTA V travels back to Los Angeles-themed Los Santos as its setting, last seen in 2004’s San Andreas. This time, the game doesn’t cover the entire state of San Andreas, but instead features a larger, much more detailed Los Santos as the main urban area, and a large area of countryside to the north, stretching into the dusty climate of Blaine County, home to rednecks, meth dealers, and illegal weapon trading. Los Santos is every bit the socio-satirical metropolis we’ve come to expect from GTA, filed with drug addicts, down and out actors, run-down, gang-ridden neighbourhoods and hipter-run tech companies (such as GTA‘s take of Facebook, Life Invader). In fact, the satire here is heavier that it’s ever been, helped along by the usual assortment of radio stations, non-PC TV programs and plentiful parodies of real world counterparts, there’s even an X-Factor spoof with it’s own riff on Simon Cowell.
It’s all very familiar in style to GTA IV, which is no bad thing as Rockstar nailed the feel of a living, breathing world with the last trip to Liberty City, and it’s further enhanced this achievement here. You can’t help but get sucked into the world, and even when you’ve arrived at a mission area, you can’t help but to sit and wait in the car just so you can hear the rest of that ridiculous ad or finish the conversation with you current wingman.
As ever, this hugely atmospheric and immersive world is complemented by some of the most impressively produced and acted story in the industry. Voice talent is one top form, as always, and the new dynamic of telling three different stories at once is brilliant.
Undeniably, the actual story isn’t all that original, even in the scope of GTA itself, and is about a reluctant return to criminality after an attempt to go straight (well, maybe not in the case of Trevor). Characters are the traditional array of GTA fodder, sure, but that makes them no less interesting in my opinion. Whilst the lovable charm of Niko Bellic may have been lost, the new trio of characters you get to play as all have their own, unique personalities that achieve what Rockstar wanted. Michael is the ex-bank robber come family man (a first for GTA) who’s rotting away in a hum drum, unfulfilled life. Franklin is an ex-gang breakfast sausage with aspirations of a better future (much like San Anreads’ CJ), and Trevor… Well, let’s just say he’s quite happy in his less-than-legal world.
All three character types have been seen in GTA in some form or another before, but the difference here is that they’re all playable protagonists and their stories intertwine, making for a unique and interesting multi-faceted tale. Some have commented that the story can take certain twists and turns that encroach on bad taste or uncomfortable violence, but this is GTA, it’s all par for the course, and at the end of the day, what did you expect? GTA has always had that streak of questionable taste and non-PC content, only now technology is making it more realistic. Remember when you got the Gouranga bonus for running over a group of Hare Krishnas? Some things never change.
What’s important here is that the game delivers an interesting, heavily Hollywood-influenced story that keeps you invested in all three characters and the unfolding events. Taken for what it is, it’s a great, satire-heavy tale, pure and simple. Importantly, though, how does it all hold together as a game?
With the framework already laid by GTA IV, GTA V is the next logical step the the series, and all of the same core elements are here, only this time everything, and I mean everything, has been overhauled to improve upon the criticisms found in the last game.
We’ll come to the totally new features later, but it’s important to note just how much Rockstar has done to the game’s core mechanics to improve the experience here. By far the most notable is the on-foot action. GTA IV tried to improve this and failed, but the floaty controls and poor cover-based shooting are gone, replaced by a much more fluid and buttery system. Actually walking and running around is far better, even when chasing people through alleyways and climbing fences. It always feels natural and responsive enough. Shoot-outs are equally improved, and although not on par with the likes of Gears of War, the cover-based gunplay is easy to get to grips with and feels nice. It’s finally bordering on being a game of its own, and not just an uncomfortably tacked-on feature. I don’t know why it took Rockstar so long to get to grips with on foot play, even after Red Dead Redemption, but this is finally there, or thereabouts.
Popping in and out of cover is fluid and there are even uses for cover when it comes to stealth, which has returned to the series, being pretty much absent since San Andreas. In fact, stealth is often a real choice, and sneaking up behind enemies lets you knock people out and reduce the need for combat altogether. This is important as combat also seems harder. Damage is doled out faster than previous games, even with armour, so you need to be much more careful.
Even melee combat is better. GTA IV‘s melee was awful, and only really used when the mission demanded it. Here that’s not so, and melee is far better, and sometimes an easier way to handle a situation. Want to rescue that woman being mugged in an alleyway? Go up and beat up the mugger, it’ll draw less attention that gunshots.
So, on-foot is better, but what of vehicles? Many complained about the overly weighty vehicle control of GTA IV. Personally, I loved it, and considered it the best of the series, however Rockstar has listened to the comments and GTA V has much more accessible handling. It’s kind of like a hybrid of San Andreas and GTA IV‘s controls. Cars are still weighty (which changes greatly depending on the vehicle type) but far more controllable at speed and stick to the road more. This is also evident with motorbikes, which are fantastic for chases and easy to handle. During high-speed pursuits you always feel in full control, something that GTA IV struggled with for many.
GTA V also features more in the way of vehicles, including the return of planes. As expected, planes are harder to control than cars, but they’re still very accessible, more so than they were in San Andreas. Choppers, boats and other exotic rides are also included, and the controls hold up perfectly well. It’s impressive stuff.
Customisation returns with gusto, and you can fully customise cars with new paint jobs, spoilers, rims, skirts and much more, but the customising doesn’t stop there. Weapons can be customised, with such additions as flashlights, scopes, larger mags and paint jobs, and you can buy and wear all sorts of outfits for the trio of protagonists, all of whom have their own style.
Customisability also extends out of the game thanks to the ‘iFruit‘ app for smartphones. Using this you can customise your vehicles when you’re not even at home, including picking up a custom license plate, and these alterations are transferred into the game.
Even Chop, the game’s new canine addition makes an appearance on mobile devices, and you can use the tamagochi-like interface to play with him, feed him and raise his happiness level. This affects his performance in the game. It’s a great addition, and well worth checking out. It’s free, too.
I can’t really go much further without exploring the game’s major new feature, the three-way split between characters. GTA V‘s story is split between Michael, Franklin and Trevor, and initially the three are separate entities. They have their own lives, missions and goals, and they’re brought together by a series of unfortunate events (and this is no Lemony Snickets).
In order to facilitate this multi character dynamic, the game lets you (when in freeplay) switch between characters at will in order to play their missions or just bum around in the world. Each character has their own unique vehicle and varied mission set, so there’s plenty of need to hop around. Franklin also gets Chop the dog eventually, whom can become a useful companion. It’s good to have him in there, even for what must be a videogame debut of first-person doggy-style action (you’ll see).
Of course, many missions will see the trio interact, and when on mission you can still, when allowed, switch between them instantly. This is actively encouraged and required in some instances, especially heists where you need to utilise their various skills at the best time. These skills are different for each character. Michael is the better marksman of the three, and so is the go-to man in combat, Franklin is the best driver and Trevor is the best pilot. All core skills can be levelled up with practice, though, so each can get better. For example, Michael can get better and better at driving the more he does so, and Franklin can learn to shoot with more accuracy, but they can never outperform each other in their own special area.
Aside from basic stats like driving skill, strength and endurance, each character has a special ability unique to them. This is used by filling up the special meter (the method of which is different for each character) and can be used at any time. Franklin can slow down time whilst driving, remaining in total control of his vehicle (which has super traction during the ability duration), Michael can use slo-mo shooting skills, à la Max Payne, and Trevor can go berserk, taking and dealing out more damage. These are all very useful, and makes each character perfectly suited to certain situations.
Such situations are no more evident than the game’s other new inclusion, heists. These multi-section missions are the game’s focus, as the trio go on a robbery spree in the Los Santos area. Things start off small, with a jewelry store heist, but soon ramp up to bigger, more elaborate robberies.
These jobs aren’t simple GTA-style missions, but come as a series of seperate jobs that build up to the final heist. After choosing how you’ll attempt the job (stealthy versus brute force, for example), you then have to hire your crew, and source the assets you need for the robbery, such as pest control vans or nerve gas, in the case of the jewelry store job. Once you have what you need, the job itself opens up.
The little elements of these missions are what make them so special, though. For example, when choosing your crew, you have to pick from more expensive guys with more experience, or those that take a smaller cut, but aren’t as handy in their chosen field. So, you could pick a cheaper hacker and save money, but they’re abilities won’t give you as long a window as they can only hack the security system for so long. Likewise, a better hired gun will be better at crowd control and any inevitable shoot-outs with the police, but a cheaper one may let you down. In one situation, my hired gun was the cheaper one (I was stealthing the job), and during the escape, he crashed during a police chase. Luckily, he didn’t have a bag of jewels.
The more you use your crew, the better they’ll get too, and their cut won’t change. So, if you put in the effort, you can eventually make the less skilled crew members better, and they’ll cost the same cheap price, but you may pay for it in other ways during their ‘training’.
One thing that’s important to note is the variety of missions too. GTA V is no slow starter, and you’re quickly engaged in all sorts of great mission types. In fact, even before the opening credits run you’ll partake in a mission that’s arguably more action packed and entertaining than most found in GTA IV, and this doesn’t really let up, and even non-combat missions are fun to play. Sometimes you’ll even stumble upon totally crazy missions, including one where you have to fight off aliens with a minigun under the influence of drugs. It’s a great mixture, and is always changing up the pace.
GTA IV‘s social networking was one of the more criticised elements of the last game, and constantly being asked to go bowling by a hardened gangster every five minutes was a pain in the backside. GTA V still has a heavy social aspect, perhaps more so in fact, but it’s handled in a much better way. You can choose to go out with people on your own, and you can even put your phone on silent when you want to simply explore the world. This puts a hold on any story-centric content until you’re ready.
There’s a ton of stuff to do in the game world when not engaging the main story too. The radio stations feature a huge selection of music, as always, along with great talk radio stations and adverts. The TV stations return with a new selection of parody content, including some ridiculous cartoons, and the Internet is back, complete with social networking site Life Invader (the aforementioned Facebook spoof) and Bleeter, the game’s take on Twitter.
The mobile phone menu is once again used, and is much more of a companion than before. You can receive emails and texts, and can surf the Internet at any time. Contacts lets you arrange dates with other characters and the settings has in-game options, such as the aforementioned silent mode, as well as themes for your phone and new ringtones.
Activities are also plentiful, and more in-depth than ever. There are fully functional golf and tennis games, you can play darts in bars, indulge in street and off-road races, and you can even run triathlons and perform air-drop weapon shipment runs, and much more.
Added elements like the fully realised underwater world, complete with sharks and diving further add to the longevity, and the always popular base jumping is back too, along with animal hunting.
There’s rarely a point where you’re stuck for something to do, and even then you may stumble upon something new, such as a local movie theater showing a subtitled arty flick, strip club, or theme park, complete with ridable roller-coaster. There’s just masses on content to be had, and that’s not including random events.
As you explore the world you may witness a random event, such as a mugging. If you wish, you can choose to intervene, or you can ignore it. It all adds to the immersion, and overall enjoyment.
When it comes to picking faults with a game as overwhelmingly good as GTA V it’s always hard, and there really is very little here to complain about without resorting to nitpicking. There are some grievances, though. The cover system, as good as it is, can still be a little flaky in more hectic situations, and mission markers are oddly tiny, often being hard to see.
As I said before, some have criticised the story, and while I can certainly respect the various switch, it’s all subjective. Even undisputed movie and literature classics like Lord of the Rings and Casablanca are disliked by some, and whilst I’m certainly not comparing GTA V‘s story to such epics, it’s still just as subjective, as is the level of taste, which admittedly does dip form time to time.
In truth, there’s little shock-value here that hasn’t been in GTA or other Rockstar titles before, and its severity – with one or two well reported exceptions – should be taken with a pinch of salt. What’s more important is that GTA V is a supremely solid and excellent gameplay experience, and we’ve not even had chance to try out the very promising GTA Online, as it’s not due until October.
So, is GTA V the best GTA game yet? Does it finally put San Andreas in second place? Yes, yes it does. GTA V retains and refines the enhancements made by GTA IV, but also recaptures the sheer, blissful absurdity and often over the top mentality of San Andreas with a selection of missions ranging from simple shoot-outs to airborne combat. The wait has certainly been worth it, and this is a must have title. To quote a popular meme, GTA V is here, your argument is invalid.