It must be pretty great to be Rockstar North. Every game you make rides on a wave of hype and anticipation that everybody else in the industry can only dream of. You have, effectively, unlimited funds to make your game, and when it launches, it will make that money back more than twice over. Very few studios are allowed to operate with the kind of freedom that Rockstar North has.
Then again, no other studio is able to produce a game like Grand Theft Auto V. From the moment it loads (and loads, and loads…) you’ll see just how detailed and alive the world feels. People don’t just walk down the street, they talk to each other, or into their omnipresent mobile phones. Police sirens rage in the background and every so often you’ll even see a crime being committed that doesn’t involve you.
The state of San Andreas has had a significant makeover since we last saw it in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and it’s now bigger, badder and vastly better looking. Of course, while GTA V might be graphical improvement over GTA:SA, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag compared to most current-generation games. The good news is that Rockstar have done a great job of making San Andreas look lived in, with worn roads and rundown buildings in amongst shiny new buildings and palm trees. The downside is that, technically, the visuals are pretty rough, with the framerate often struggling to maintain 30FPS a lot of the time and a distinct lack of antialiasing in most places. It does have pretty nice-looking water, though, and I love the effect of light pollution on the night sky.
One new feature that I really like is the complete lack of barriers or invisible walls in GTA V Unlike previous games in the series, you’re not restricted to any particular part of the 45 square miles that make up San Andreas until you do certain story missions. You can go anywhere you want right from the beginning.
Unlike Liberty City in GTA IV, it’s not all one big city, either. Los Santos, the main city sits on the south of the island (and is, of itself, bigger than Liberty City was) and leaves fully two thirds of the remaining island open. The remaining environments all borrow from their equivalent Californian locales, from thick forests, through to arid desert, tall mountains and gorgeous beaches. It all helps create a diversity that’s rarely seen in any game.
This, then, is the backdrop against which the story plays out. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of GTA V is its use of not one, but three protagonists. This isn’t the usual “play as this other guy for a bit” or the “choose your character” set up that it would be in most other games. All three characters are required to drive the story forward, and you can switch between them at any time. When you do, you’ll catch them going about their business, and often you find them far from where you last left them.
The playable characters are an interesting group. The first one we meet is Franklin, a young thug with a history of gang violence who’s trying to make a new life for himself. Living with a somewhat crazy aunt, he tries his best to balance his past life as a gang thug with his desire to move up in the world, but he can never quite break out of the cycle of crime he lives in.
Next up we meet Michael, an ex-organised crime figure who now lives in witness protection after a robbery gone wrong. Michael heads up a very dysfunctional family, and it’s clear early on that he’s got a lot of work to do to sort them all out. He soon becomes a mentor to Franklin, and together, they work at forging a new path through Los Santos.
The final character you’ll meet is Trevor. He is probably the most unlikeable video game character in recent memory. From the moment you meet him, in flagrante delicto with another man’s girl, you know he’s going to be hard to get used to. He’s a man who is not afraid to take a crap behind a building, or show his man-parts to someone just to prove a point. He deals meth, and every so often goes on bloodthirsty killing rampages mostly for something to do.
How much you like GTA V is going to depend a lot on how much of Trevor you can take. While the other two characters aren’t exactly nice guys (although Franklin does try), Trevor has basically no redeeming qualities. He’s an unrelenting sociopath, and the game, to its credit, plays this for all it’s worth.
In a way, Trevor could be considered as Rockstar’s response to all the moral guardians that continually hold the GTA series up as the biggest example of just how much video games are a blight on society. He’s their worst fears about video games distilled into a single meth-cooking character.
At least, he would be, if GTA V had the conviction to follow through on its attempts at social commentary. The series has always had a layer of satire under the surface, but in GTA V, it feels misplaced. The game can’t decide if it wants to continue the darker tone taken with GTA IV or go back to the less serious tone of the earlier entries. Sometimes it feels like it tries to do both, and misses the mark badly.
This is the biggest weakness of the game by far. It makes jokes that it doesn’t quite seem to get, parody for the sake of parody, satire of nothing in particular. By trying to take random pot-shots at everything, either in the billboards that dot the landscape, or the radio ads, or even missions that involve infiltrating a popular social networking company, the game ends up muddying any message it might otherwise have had. The overall result is a game that feels as shallow as the polygons that make up the world itself. Poke behind it, and there’s only a void.
The problem is that, in a year where we’ve seen games like Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us, my expectations for the kind of story I want to see told has been heightened dramatically, and GTA V doesn’t come close to the level of those, or many other, recent titles. It’s a bit of a shame, given just how much effort has gone into detailing the world in which GTA V’s story is set.
Grand Theft Auto V, then, is a troublesome game. It gets so many thing right, and presents an open world like no other in video games. It all feels so real and complete, but that lack of substance, of any kind of attempt at making a connection or engaging with the player ends up leaving it feeling hollow. I want to love this game so much, and I have no doubt many people will, but this lack of narrative substance makes me feel like I’d be better off spending my time elsewhere.
Incredible open world
Huge amount of territory to explore and lots of missions and content to get into
Lack of any real narrative depth makes for unsatisfying experience