That GTA V starts off in heist mode, with you and your crew already earning wanted stars speaks pretty loudly about Rockstar’s intentions here. There’s no consequence to the game proper though, because this fauxtorial takes place years earlier than when you’ll settle into the greater world of Los Santos and Blaine County. Cinematic in its delivery, the game’s intro is quintessentially Rockstar in design and direction -- it’s also a very clever way to showcase one of the biggest additions to V, in character-swapping -- a feature that can generally be used at any given time in the game, but is most fun and dynamic while each character is part of an event in V’s rich and expansive narrative.
One such event transpires during your prologue, but like the rest of this review I’ll keep it spoiler-free -- just know that at its core, changes and all, the flavour of the series remains triumphantly intact, though there’s an undeniable maturity to pacing now, even from the outset and this remains at the fore regardless of your playstyle. It’s like the team tapped into that laid-back Californian mentality the rest of the US tends to make fun of, and it absolutely works.
Interestingly, throughout my time with the game I’ve found that it has more in common with Red Dead Redemption than GTA IV. Freaks and Stranger missions are on offer as distractions from the main quest[s], and you’ll often come across a random, emergent event in your general travels. These might be related to performing a good deed, or just being duped by a bunch of stooges. None are essential to take part in or complete however, they’re basically in play to help bring the world to life, though a few of them do offer pretty interesting rewards if you’re willing to roll further down the rabbit hole. V’s lighting and less urban parts of the environment are also embracingly familiar to Rockstar’s Western opus, which still stands as a current-gen benchmark as far as open-world games go. And in keeping with said familiarity, it’s not only rich with character, but also wildlife you can interact with in a variety of different ways.
Missions come packaged with much more forgiving checkpoints, but are also graded on a variety of achievements (none of which you’re made aware of initially), obviously leaving them replayable for all-important bragging rights, or to just make yourself feel better for making the Rockstar bar. Branching away from Red Dead Redemption means water is your friend in GTA V. Submersibles are available for an underwater jaunt, or you can just go for a very healthy freedive. My review notes actually capture this point best, where I boasted “They've nailed swimming. Like, fucking nailed it. Waves and breakers, and the underwater feel and movement and animation are spot-on”. My notes are clearly less articulate than a properly written review, but it’s a sentiment I couldn’t really shift position or enthusiasm on in the final copy, so felt it apt to include.
Subconsciously that note makes sense to use though, because for the first time in modern gaming GTA is as mature and adult as Rockstar wanted it to be, right out of the gate. Swearing is more common here than it was in Deadwood, and there are a handful of scenes that will leave even the most hardened gamer perturbed. Suffice to say, I hope it never takes so long, or so much, to learn the left-handedness of a heavily bearded man ever again.
The adult themes and concepts aren’t purely shock though, and it’s in the personality balance between all three main characters that the game shines. Initially I was a Franklin fan, purely because he’s just a cool character and his plight is familiar in the GTA space, but the further I got into the game the more Michael spoke to me. In many ways he’s an allegory for the modern games industry: beat-up and run down, undeservedly rich yet commanding of respect for his years of effort and sacrifice. Lifting him out of his rut, as you can bet your life you will, is a glory I’ve not experienced in the videogame landscape before and when you literally take flight with the character, you’ll colourfully see that design and direction maturity from Rockstar I talked about earlier -- honestly, it’s one of gaming’s greatest moments.
Trevor, on the other hand, uneases me a bit. This comes down to personal preference but his bullish attitude and fear-mongering to get things done his way don’t gel with me. It’s another obviously conscious design decision, but I can also see a lot of people finding redemption and fun with the character, and his beaten past -- reflected brilliantly in his initial surroundings both in the company he keeps (and disposes of) and his physical home and transportation. For a group of criminals, the juxtapositions from one to another are equal parts intricate and glaringly varied. The characters and their development are far and away the best to emerge from the studio[s].
Beyond their personalities though, they also have upgradable attributes. These can be bolstered by simply performing them, practising them, or getting lessons (for skills like flying). They also each have a unique special ability which will come into play both singularly for each, or in the dynamic team-based scenarios. And true to the trailers you may have seen in the build up to the game’s release, swapping between characters is fast and seamless when on mission together. Unfortunately it’s not as quick when you’re just switching from one to another in the greater game-world, but it’s hardly a detriment, just more noticeable than many initially hoped.
Problems begin to arise though, when you realise just how much freedom you’ve been given over previous iterations, but also how much more detailed this environment is as well. Being spoilt with opportunities to engage in things like full games of tennis on your own private court, offroad race, water race or even play a full game of golf complete with the ability to utilise a buggy, walk or fast travel to the ball, open up ideas for so much more. And when said ideas are floated in the physical space with actual real-world representations, it makes their static status a bit of a bummer. I got super-excited when I first saw the Casino, and was pissed that it was just a dead building. The same can be said of whitewater rafting centres nestled alongside inviting rapids -- ghost towns, pretty much. And then being able to invest in interesting businesses, such as
Pitchers, only to never be able to actually enter the place just feels like more teasing.
Obviously the place is riddled with activities beyond even the aforementioned. You can run drugs and guns, buy investment properties, play darts, ride a bike along the beach, compete in triathlons, watch TV, go to the cinema, go to a stripclub (no taped-up nipples here, either), walk and train your dog, tow vehicles, move freight, dive along the reef, smoke dope, drink, smoke cigarettes, do yoga, get a haircut, grow some facial hair, get tattooed, race vehicles, skydive, supe up your car or bike, buy new clothes, catch a mountain cable car to a lookout, jetski, surf the web or even go to a shooting range. And, honestly, even as a seminal list that
doesn’t cover everything you’ll end up doing. Grand Theft Auto V is vast
It’s not without a few hiccups though. Hardfailing a drug hallucination was a particular annoyance, and the game-world does suffer a lot of pop-up, even after the game is installed on your HDD. It looks gorgeous for the most part, but there are also plenty of low-res textures coupled with the high-end side of the tech equation and I noticed some significant drops in framerate when I took my sub around the harbour. Performance issues will hopefully be addressed in inevitable patches, and they’re not overtly detracting from the game, but they’re there. Movement in combat is also still a bit sluggish and, awesome as Euphoria is, it can sometimes be your enemy when taking on the more vertical side of the game’s structures.
That being said, combat is still infinitely improved over either GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption and much more satisfying with the skill improvement option and some of the characters’ special abilities. The game has also moved into the modern third-person era, allowing for the camera to come up close to the character you’re controlling and shifting them slightly to the left-hand side (along with options for more traditional GTA-styled viewpoints). Vehicles are all very familiar, which is a good thing, because the team has always nailed this area of their games, but there are little additions that push the experience just that bit further, such as hitting pockets of turbulence while flying, or the far more refined bike-riding experience (along the beach).
The final piece of the puzzle then is the open-world as a whole, and it’s here GTA V stands loud and proud. The game’s peds are always doing something natural. They could be taking photos of stars on Vinewood blvd, or hovering about on their mobile phones or in a smoking group outside a workplace, oblivious to what's happening around them. You'll even see police dealing with citizens by pulling them over or making chase with someone who’s just broken the law. That being said, I’ll go on record to say the cops in this installment are among the most aggressive yet and you’d better hope you have the means and ability to escape their tenacious pursuit. But, like most GTA games this is one of the more fun and arcade-driven aspects to the game, so it hardly takes you out of the core experience. If anything, the gauntlet has simply been thrown to see how many players can hold the highest star rating longest with 5-O of this aggression.
Unfortunately, at the time of this review multiplayer was not switched on, and won’t be for a couple of weeks, so we’ll revisit that soon. But as a single-player offering, and pretty much at the end of the current-generation to boot, GTA V couldn’t have more to offer. Even if multiplayer doesn’t stack up (and that’s a big “if”), the game is still worth the investment. Heists alone are value for money, and make the multi-character swap-on-the-fly aspect an enjoyable and rewarding one through the aforementioned skill and abilities aspects of the main characters. They vary in tempo, style and approach as well, which mixes things up for players and helps in the decision-making process with hired help, but overall it just makes them engaging and fun.
For me, however, the standout factor for Grand Theft Auto V is that each character not only offers a unique perspective on the GTA world in which you’re taking part, but on gaming as a whole. Franklin is new to the ‘game’ -- he looks sharp and listens and learns. Michael is as I’ve painted him to be: a reluctant master in an ever-changing dojo clinging to a wall of arbitrary yet important-to-him trophies, while Trevor is the wild side in every gamer (thanks Joab) -- the sort of yes-man we inevitably become because pain and reward exist on a blurred precipice in modern narrative-driven gaming. In many ways, the tasks you’ll perform as Trevor feel like a spite experiment at the base of many gaming controversies over the last few years, or they just wrote him as a psycho and it all fit really well. That not one of these guys is rising the criminal ranks to become a Scarface though, is most important -- we’ve simply stepped into their shoes with the world at our feet. And oh, what a world indeed.