Review: Grand Theft Auto V

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It’s a gloriously sunny afternoon in the city. The streets are lined with people going about their lives – shopping for a new outfit, perhaps, or making their way to the funfair on the Pier. The roads hum with traffic, the noon sun gleaming off of pristine paintwork. People chatter on their phones, chatter to each other or soak in the music or inane ramblings of a local radio station.

Not too different from any other city. Except this isn’t just any other city. This city is Los Santos, part of the setting of the much-anticipated and long-awaited Grand Theft Auto V, and I’m about to ruin people’s day.

Breaking up this everyday picture of life in Rockstar North’s approximation of Los Angeles, I come screeching down a hillside park in a battered wreck of a sports car with a number of LSPD squad cars in hot pursuit. Not pausing for a moment, I drive right across the road ahead of me and into a local shopping centre, where I end up soaring over a balcony before coming to an abrupt halt onto the floor below, causing a not-insignificant amount of harm to several innocent pedestrians in the process. Undeterred by now-useless getaway vehicle, I quickly get out and run outside into the street, where I promptly liberate a motorcycle from its owner and speed off, leaving the chaos far behind me.

Your time playing Grand Theft Auto V will be filled to the brim with anarchic snippets of gameplay like this, almost by way of apology for GTA IV, which many complained felt somewhat safe and – whisper it – dull – or perhaps as an attempt to address concerns from some that its chaotic crown has been stolen by competitors of a Saintly variety. Everywhere you turn in GTA V – the first in five years – there is a new opportunity to wreak havoc or activity to partake in.

Part of this is due to the expansive setting, of course. Liberty City – though still impressively huge – could often feel claustrophobic with little to do beyond go bowling or hunt down feathered vermin. But now you don’t just have a City, you have the best part of an entire fictional US State to muck around in; with everything from skyscrapers to mountain ranges and deserts and for the first time, a completely explorable underwater coastline (yes, it seems that criminals in the world of Grand Theft Auto have finally decided to learn how to hold their breath underwater). As vast as this world is, it’s not short of things to do. Getting bored of story missions? Go parachuting or arms smuggling. Made a killing on the stock market? Invest in some businesses or buy a luxury yacht. You can even kill some time collecting barrels of undersea nuclear waste, taking flying lessons or hunting. And if all that scope leaves you feeling a little insignificant about your place in the grand scheme of things, then your psychiatrist will be on hand to provide a little “guidance”.

After more than 60 hours, there are still things I haven’t completed yet, missions to be replayed and perfected, challenges to be mastered and secrets to be uncovered in a world that never seems to stop giving.

And what a beautiful world it is. While the cracks in the paintwork can sometimes be seen –  as the game strains against the almost archaic hardware being expected to play host to it – it is also frequently beautiful to behold. A staggering draw distance provides plenty of opportunities to take a picture on your in-game phone, not least due to a lighting model that manages to render possibly the most attractive sunsets ever witnessed in a game.  Some low-res textures and framerate issues aside, It’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s running on consoles over half a decade old and those hoping for a PC version will surely be in for a sumptuous visual feast should it ever reach their shores.

Of course, a fantastic setting is nothing without fantastic characters and Rockstar has given us some of the most memorably grotesque (morally and physically) creations they have ever come up with. From corrupt government agents to celebrity-obsessed pensioners and everything in between, Los Santos and Blaine County is a breeding ground for freaks, monsters and plain old madmen. Compared to this menagerie of the weird, the characters through who you will inhabit this world – and there are three this time – seem almost normal.

They’re an eclectic trio and in some ways they seem to fill roles previously occupied by protagonists of GTA games past. There’s Michael, a retired bank robber, once happy to have escaped from a life on the wrong side of the law but now finding himself – not altogether unwillingly – drawn back into a life of crime as his family and dreams of a better life collapses around him. Reminiscent of Tony Soprano, his worries come as much from his spoiled kids and marital problems as they do from his forays back into the world of crime. In some ways he brings to mind the world-weary and cynical Niko Bellic from GTA IV. Then there’s Franklin, a young man from a downtrodden neighborhood just trying to get by, but finding himself unable to escape the cycle of violence and crime before developing a taste and thirst for the finer things in life, seeing a career in crime as his chance to escape his surroundings. He brings to mind CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with which this latest game shares its setting. And finally there’s Trevor, an anarchic force of nature reveling in chaos and barely skirting the edges of sanity. Trevor evokes memories of the over the top chaos of the first two games in the series.

These three characters help to address a few criticisms of earlier games. By providing multiple personalities and allowing you to switch between them at will for much (but not all) of the game, Rockstar have ensured that all players have an avatar to reflect their own view of what a Grand Theft Auto game should be. The series has sometimes been accused of having characters whose actions often seem at odds with their personality. In GTAV, having three very different protagonists enables Rockstar to allocate certain types of missions to the character whose personality is best suited to its requirements. Low-level street crime will normally fall to Franklin, whilst Michael gets his hands into white-collar crime and Trevor… well, Trevor just does pretty much whatever he feels like, whether that’s delivering hitch-hikers to cannibals in the mountains or going on killing sprees provoked by increasingly petty grievances (yes, Rampage missions are back and are as fun as ever).

Having three protagonists also ties neatly into the most publicized and discussed addition to the traditional GTA formula. At certain points in the story, all three characters will come together to pull off elaborate Heists. Compared before release to the sort of intricate scheme as seen in the movie Heat, Heists are what many expectant players have been most looking forward to. But, despite a couple of standout moments, they also end up being something of a disappointment. Relatively few in number, scattered across the generous 69-mission strong main story, you’ll be introduced to the idea of multi-phased grand crimes, requiring you to undertake surveillance, arrange and stash a getaway vehicle, hire a crew to assist and then hit your target before making your escape. In theory they sound great and any fan of crime films will relish the prospect of getting their teeth into them. In practice though, they never live up to their billing. You might be able to choose your approach in a few of them, but it’s soon apparent that the difference is merely a binary choice between causing a ruckus or going for a more subtle approach. You are sometimes asked to hire others to assist your unlikely trio, but the choice becomes little more than comparing the stats of two or three people (the more skilled the crew member, the bigger their take of the final haul) on a planning board. And for a couple of the Heists, you might wonder what makes them so different from many of the missions you’ve played in previous games in the series.

In other places, sometimes it feels as though Rockstar North is so eager to overcompensate for perceived disappointments in the previous game that it overplays its hand and can come across as crass, exploitative and distasteful (often all at the same time). GTA is a man’s world and it never once resists the chance to emphasize that point, frequently utilizing women as little more than the butt of a sexist joke or an overbearing, shallow and vacuous member of the supporting cast. There are other things, too, such as a mission requiring compulsory torture of an innocent man whilst simultaneously engaging in a bit of casual racial profiling; It would have been nice to have been given a choice as to whether or not I complied with the request (and Gr, but here there is little more than a weak objection from one character that is forgotten about in the very next sentence of dialogue.

I’m far from a blushing prude, but the never-ending jokes about penis size, sex and the size of women’s breasts will have you tutting and rolling your eyes far more than grinning and chuckling to yourself. Red Dead Redemption showed that Dan Houser and Michael Unsworth, who contributed to the writing of both games, are more than capable of providing a nuanced, considered and subtle approach to world-building; so It can sometimes be disappointing seeing them revert to what many will no doubt see as an attempt to generate tabloid controversy for the sake of publicity – particularly at a time when the series hardly needs to raise its profile, such is its place in popular culture at this stage in its history.

Still, despite these few small niggles and disappointments, Grand Theft Auto V is a triumph. Testing current-generation console hardware to its absolute limits, amazing with just how much scope and detail Rockstar North have crammed into it and acting as much a celebration of the past as a glimpse forward into the future of both the series and the genre, it is a fitting swansong to this generation and succeeds in throwing down the gauntlet to competitors that seemed to be coming close to usurping its crown.

____________________________________________________________________

9/10

Version Tested: Xbox 360

Also available on: PS3

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