Grand Theft Auto V - Review
Reviewing Grand Theft Auto V seems rather useless at this point. The game has already made astronomical sales in the weeks following its release and will likely remain the benchmark for open world games for a long time, even as we move into the next generation of consoles. Chances are most people with even a passing interest in games already owns a copy.
If you've played a previous game in the series, or pretty much any of developer Rockstar's titles, then you'll know where you stand with Grand Theft Auto V. You still do the same things: drive around, complete missions, progress through the story and tinker about with all of the myriad of side content. It's GTA, being GTA, only bigger and prettier. If anything that's one of the issues the game has, despite all of the improvements this is still the same game that we've been playing for years now. Make no mistake, it's incredibly fun, but there's something altogether "safe" about Grand Theft Auto V, even when it's being so impressive.
Perhaps the most significant change to this instalment is the introduction of three protagonist instead of just one. Grand Theft Auto IV hinted at this with its Pulp Fiction-esque intertwining storylines following the release of Episodes from Liberty City and now this idea is extrapolated in full. With the push of a button you're able to hop between Michael, Franklin and Trevor, each with their own things to do.
Three main characters could have been too much to handle but Rockstar manage to effectively characterize each of the leads for the most part. Michael and Franklin are largely amalgamations from previous GTA protagonists, as well as being suitable contrasts for one another. Michael is the "been there, done that" kind of a guy, a middle-aged crook who's attempted to retire despite being miserable amongst all his riches. Franklin meanwhile, is the guy trying to get his foot on the ladder and earn some of that wealth. It's Trevor though, that's Rockstar's attempt at creating a genuinely different lead. Being both funny and downright terrifying, in some cases at the same time, he's an example of the developers experimenting in earnest.
Coupled with three different leads is the return of some general RPG elements that were missing from the fourth instalment. Each character is able to improve their skills in various areas such as making their aiming better or being capable of taking more hits before dying. It's a fairly shallow system, and since each character has their own special ability, such as Michael's Max Payne-style bullet-time, each character's roles within the game's more complex missions is already prescribed. Although this level up system does at least provide some more incentive for diving into the side content.
Still, the game's missions have at least been injected with a bit more freedom. One of the problems with earlier titles was that, despite having enormous freedom in between sections, whenever you were playing the actual story that all fell away and you were left following a bunch of instructions and dots on a map, eliminating any element of creativity. Now however, the game's entire plot is largely built around several, increasingly complicated, heists that Michael and the others must carry out. Most have two approaches (read: subtle or aggressive) which results in different requirements having to be met before carrying it out. For example, in an early heist, taking the quiet approach means you need to go and steal some gas from a nearby warehouse, as well as a van, whereas the alternative approach has its own set of criteria.
Along with this is the need to hire various people (hackers, gun-men, getaway drivers), to assist you on your criminal exploits. Again, it's nothing too fancy and involves little more than tweaking with some menus and some cost-benefit analysis: do you take the cheap crook who might lose it at the first sign of trouble, or take the professional guy who asks for a bigger cut? If anything, there's not enough of these as they're the biggest change to the series' mission structure and a welcome addition.
Whilst the plot is entertaining, it does suffer from some lags here and there as the pacing drags and, in an effort to inject some energy back into the story, the script has Trevor go and do something crazy and stupid. The overall tone is a return to older titles and eschews the more grim and gritty trappings of Grand Theft Auto IV. The humour meanwhile, is a mixed bag, while it's clear that the game is attempting to be a satire of modern America some of its jokes feel forced, and, in some cases, a little caustic. The game's subversive wit is regularly undermined by an uncomfortable strain of sexism that permeates many of its scenes. In an effort to push boundaries and test limits, occasionally the game's humour descends into lazy shock tactics and headline-baiting scenes.
None of this is to say that Grand Theft Auto V isn't a good game. It is. Its open world is a real achievement this late in a console cycle, and despite its frustrating stubbornness not to experiment all that much, it does improve, on a mechanical level, from what previous games did. Along with a bunch of side missions, mini-games, and things to purchase, you're never short of something to do. The challenge for the next GTA title will be stepping out of this one's shadow.
Grand Theft Auto V was released on September 17th for Xbox 360 and PS3.
This review is based on the PS3 version.
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