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Hail Americana! Hail Grand Theft Auto V! Never has there been such a twisted, cynical and yet disgustingly robust simulation. It's American pop culture viewed through the lens of parody layered over one of the largest, most vibrant open-worlds in gaming history. There's the main campaign, dozens of side-missions, assorted activities, random events, weapon, vehicle and character customization, property ownership and did I mention a huge open-world to explore? I did? Yeah, Grand Theft Auto V is big. GTA V's the sort of game where it's easy to lose hours, days, or even weeks. Welcome to Los Santos, no one ever leaves.
Despite Grand Theft Auto V's overwhelming scope, the Devil's in the details. What good is a huge open world if everything in it is broken and boring? Luckily Rockstar seems to have a personal relationship with the Devil. Somehow the developers have taken a myriad of complex and nuanced systems and simplified them to be extremely intuitive. It's rather astonishing how accessible GTA V's gameplay is, especially in contrast to how intentionally offensive a majority of the game's content comes across.
It's almost too much to even begin to approach for review. Then again, if I can muster up the will to set down the controller in the first place, a review couldn't possibly be anywhere near as difficult. Oh, Grand Theft Auto V, what a complicated and awesome game you are.
The Lost Souls of Los Santos
While the true star of Grand Theft Auto V is its open world, split between the cityscape of Los Santos County and the outlying countryside of the island that makes up Blaine County, that's a difficult place to start considering we haven't introduced the eyes through which the world is viewed. Three pairs of eyes, to be precise; a trio of protagonists that the player can switch to at virtually any time during the game. Introducing Franklin, Michael and Trevor, three of the best written video game characters, well, ever.
As befits a Grand Theft Auto V game, each of the three characters is capable of insane acts of violence and have virtually no moral compass. Despite that, each has their own goals, vulnerabilities and secrets. Michael's a retired thief and a piss-poor father who, despite claiming to want nothing more than his family's safety, is constantly pulled back into a criminal life. Franklin comes from the streets, born into gang life, but with aspirations for something more. Even so, Franklin can't leave everything behind, or more specifically the friends and family who he both loves and hates that remai. Trevor is a sociopath and a mass murderer. He exploits whoever he can and kills the rest. Yet he's suspiciously straightforward and honest, and values certain friendships above, well, everything.
Together the three band together to pull off heists, face threats new and old, and generally come within inches of killing each other over and over. Somewhere along the line they might come to terms with the people they really are, or maybe they won't – I think that's the point. Through 69 missions of story we see the three in the most outrageous of circumstances. As a result, the overall story is frankly rather disappointing. But in taking a backseat to each character's personal arc allows each of the three to become something much more – they become memorable, they become iconic. I can't think of a more fitting character that so perfectly embodies modern gaming than Grand Theft Auto V's trio of psychopaths.
That's saying nothing of the extended cast of Grand Theft Auto V, from support characters to random NPCs to the DJs on the radio. Each are cleverly written, or maybe "cleverly" is the wrong word. Each are unremorsefully written. Maybe their range of humor covers heavy handed pop culture parodies, butt and poop jokes, surprisingly on-point political criticism, and casual banter. While no such character would or should ever be considered believable, each one is unique and true to themselves -- which is one of the pillars key behind Grand Theft Auto V's melting pot setting.
There will be those that play GTA V and decry it for sexism and racism and that's just the start, but as much as the game is absolutely those things, it is also something else: fair. In this parody all people are treated equally -- equally terribly, that is. There are no heroes and no villains in Los Santos, just reflections of the monsters that reality often isn't ready to take seriously quite yet. It's both a refreshing and disconcerting reminder that everyone's the joke, whether they're in on it yet or not.
Flip-Flops Flip Flopping
While many may find Grand Theft Auto V's writing to be its strongest point, and it'd be a challenge to argue that point, what I found to be its greatest strength is its sprawling open-world. What it lacks in fantastical landmarks, a la Skyrim, or exotic wilderness, a la Far Cry 3, it makes up for in the sheer vibrancy of the world and the constantly impressive and surprising AI. City streets are brimming with cars and pedestrians, each with their own ideas on which direction to go and what laws to abide by. It can't be understated how important it is for an open-world game to not feel like any given area was created simply to entertain the player, but rather that an area was busy with its day prior to the player every showing up. Grand Theft Auto V accomplishes this better than any title I've previously played.
By no means is Grand Theft Auto V visually impressive in the traditional sense. The sacrifices made in terms of texture quality and polygon count are well spent, however, as the viewing distance is substantial – perhaps the most important feature of an open-world game. Other aspects of the game can at times seem quite underdeveloped, yet then prove quite striking at the most surprising times. Lighting for instance, which initially seems rather basics, suddenly proves quite beautiful as the sun sets and rises. Water can look pixelated due to the textures in use, but the way it moves especially when on a boat is startlingly realistic. When dozens of NPCs are wandering a sidewalk they can appear mechanical, but upon individual inspection many of them have outstanding animations. Beach-goers' flip-flops flip and flop! As I said, the Devil's in the details and if you take the time to pay attention, Rockstar's gone to great lengths to bring Los Santos to life.
My favorite moments in Grand Theft Auto V can't be described in terms of features or technology, only in sharing my experiences. Escaping a 5-star crime in a jet plane only for both engines to go out, only for the police to give up and the mission to be completed successfully with your plane one second from bursting into a firey inferno; driving down the highway as Trevor with the sun going down, only to receive a message from a mistress that truly seems to appreciate him for who he is; racing in a triathlon and currently in second place, only for the biker in front of you to run straight into a pole allowing you to pass, laughing. These sorts of unscripted moments are exactly what makes Grand Theft Auto the huge, popular and significant franchise that it is. It's called emergent gameplay and no one does it better. There's nothing more exhilarating than turning a game on for 15 minutes and having an awesome experience that no one else may ever have.
Or, you know, maybe just turn on the in-game radio while you do some writing for a few hours. That seems like a cool thing to do.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
As for gameplay, no one should be surprised that it focuses primarily in two areas: transportation, whether that be through cars, helicopters, boats, and the like; and combat, with its huge variety of guns, explosives, or simple fist-fighting. Make no mistake, both of these systems are highly refined, but I wouldn't describe either as inherently fun on their own. What Grand Theft Auto V does is introduce the player to a variety of different scenarios where applying these systems becomes fun, but there's a flaw in this strategy.
In order to make each of these systems work in all of the game's various scenarios – be they missions or emergent events – Rockstar had to boil them down to their core experience in order for them to work the same no matter what's going on. They're so simple that at times everything becomes quite a bit boring. That's not to say a majority of the game is boring – quite the opposite actually. Something is almost always happening to keep players interested or involved in the experience. There are certainly lulls, however, and they only grow in number as content is completed in the game.
For example, a triathlon mini-game sounds fun, right? Yet all it really entails is pressing a single button over and over again and pointing the character in the right direction. Stumbling into a gang fight at first seems exciting until experience teaches the player to find a solid piece of cover, auto-target and then upgraded weapons will do the rest. In Rockstar's attempt to simplify Grand Theft Auto V's various gameplay systems and mini-games, they must have assumed that players wouldn't spend too much time focusing in any one area.
There really is so much to do, however. Yoga, tennis, flight lessons, races on water and on land, and parachuting are some of the available activities. Side-missions dealing with helping strangers and freaks include helping a wanna-be border patrol, doing extreme sports with an adrenaline junkie, collecting celebrity miscellanea for two old and creepy collectors and so on. Secret items? They're everywhere, including collectibles related to a few different quests. When all of the afore mentioned activities, events and so on are considered together, it's mind-blowing. Plus, that's not even taking into account the 69 missions themselves which will seem endless until suddenly the credits begin to roll.
I do have some complaints, however, though they're mostly a matter of personal taste. While I enjoy the core gameplay systems of driving and combat, I find that over the course of a 40 hours game there's a distint lack of diversity in gameplay. Driving and combat become almost mechanical, as opposed to inspiring -- and I wasn't even out to score gold medals on each mission! Also, it seems a great tragedy that Rockstar didn't create any Grand Theft Auto V gameplay systems that are more involved in the simulation taking place -- world-effecting changes and the like. Instead, and again this isn't a bad thing, GTA V boils down to another checklist of missions, objectives and collectibles much like previous iterations of the franchise. If I didn't know Grand Theft Auto Online would be released in a few weeks, I'd worry about I'd feel driven to continue playing.
Grand Theft Auto V is an outstanding experiment in storytelling, laid over top one of the most brilliantly realized modern open-worlds yet created. Standard gameplay mechanics like driving and combat have been refined so as to feel extremely intuitive and familiar, but realistic enough to stay challenging and fun. Upon pressing the start button, the full island including the Los Santos cityscape is available to the player along with all the messed up shenanigans that follow. It's overwhelming in the best of ways.
Playing the game feels good, but it's everything beyond just the simply playing of the game that really creates such a grand experience. Virtually every aspect of the game beyond the core gameplay enhances the experience dramatically, which is why even with my small frustrations and worries I can't do anything but say Grand Theft Auto V is certain to be one of the best games of the year and my favorite in the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
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