It has been 5 years since Rockstar Games’ last foray into the landmark series (on console) with Grand Theft Auto IV, as they’ve kept busy producing hit titles such as Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego) and Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver). Now, after more than 4 full years of development by Rockstar North, Grand Theft Auto V – the most expensive video game of all time, with an astounding combined production and marketing cost of $265 million – is finally here. The hype has been unreal and the pre-order numbers record-breaking… I think this is a foregone conclusion. Let’s not beat around the bush; if you haven’t bought the game yet, here’s why you should…
The game starts off with a flashback to a bank heist gone wrong in Ludendorff, North Yankton. Michael, Trevor, and two accomplices meet heavy resistance during their escape, which results in the deaths of their partners. Michael is wounded and screams at Trevor to run while he can. We then see a funeral held for Michael Townley, with the “dead man” himself watching from a distance. 9 years have passed since that point, and Michael has taken a new surname – De Santa – under witness protection, now living in a palatial home in the rich suburb of Los Santos. He lounges around, retired and secure, ignoring his bratty teenage children and suspecting his wife of cheating on him with the tennis instructor.
Franklin Clinton works for a car dealership as a glorified repo man along with his friend Lamar. His boss requests he repossess a vehicle from a customer – Jimmy De Santa – who is overdue on their loan payment, so Franklin breaks into their home to acquire the car. As he is driving back to the dealership, Michael slowly sits up from the backseat pointing a gun at Franklin’s head and ordering him to crash into the it, before he personally attacks the owner. Quite an inauspicious start to what becomes a teacher-protege relationship if you ask me. Through a series of events in his personal life, Michael loses control and finds himself in debt to a Mexican druglord named Martin Madrazo. This forces him to return to a life of robbery, inviting Franklin to join him on scores as the getaway guy. Being from the projects, Franklin isn’t about to refuse a potential 6-figure payday.
Unfortunately, during the getaway of the heist, Michael recites a movie phrase to a bystander (being a big film buff, he just can’t help it), who then relays that quote on the news. Why is this unfortunate? Because one Trevor Philips sees this and connects the dots… Michael Townley is alive! So… why, again, is this unfortunate? Because Trevor is bat-shit crazy and believes Michael purposely led him on so that he could live in peace with all the riches of their fateful score and never have to see him again. They were best friends, and Michael abandoned him – a man who, despite obviously being heavily deranged, was called Uncle by Townley’s kids.
And so the roller-coaster ride truly begins. When these two finally meet, the atmosphere of the game completely shifts. Like gasoline to a fire, Trevor is a reckless, dangerous presence, and he wants back in the game. The ensuing dynamic between these criminals, Franklin included, is relatable to a clash of cultures. They are foils for each other, acting to highlight the individuality of each man. The main plot sees the integration and coming together of the trio’s personal dealings, involved in a three-way conflict amid the FIB, IAA and Merryweather Security. The storyline is signature Grand Theft Auto, filled with hilarious moments, revenge and betrayal, with multiple endings to boot.
And now, for the most daunting section of the review. I will not bother listing or detailing every single thing that you can do in this giant game… part of the fun is discovering that all for yourself (although I will mention some key features). Instead, let’s focus on the refinements to gameplay mechanics. Anyone who has played a Grand Theft Auto game knows what to expect to a large extent – the pillars of gameplay, so to speak. Both driving and shooting have received quite substantial overhauls. One of the bigger criticisms of Grand Theft Auto IV was the generally clunky car handling. Well here, every vehicle truly has its own singular set of physics, and the handling is appropriately tuned for each, and they can be modified for further tuning at your local Los Santos Customs.
Impressions based on first footage of gunplay had many of us assuming an adoption of the shooting mechanics of Max Payne 3, but that didn’t end up being the case. Nevertheless, there are some notable alterations and additions to the systems. Firstly, evasive tactics have been considered as a combat roll can now be executed while aiming. You can also round corners of cover and sprint out of cover in a forward motion. And, with a flick of the right thumbstick, you can flow between nearby targets instantly (this assist can be turned off). Finally, your arsenal is now accessed by pressing and holding ‘LB’, which will bring up a radial weapon wheel. The slots are broken up by type, with multiple weapons of a type able to be carried – pressing left or right will toggle between them.
Switching amongst Franklin, Trevor and Michael is quick enough, with the game taking just a few seconds to jump out, automatically locate the desired character, and jump into their perspective. Each have specific skill levels that can be bettered by engaging in certain activities. Running, cycling and swimming, for instance, will increase your stamina. They also hold special abilities that can be initiated by pressing both the thumbsticks in at the same time. Just like armor and health, these abilities are governed by a meter. Franklin’s is essentially bullet-time in vehicles, which also gives him a slight speed boost. Michael’s is the classic bullet time effect, and Trevor’s heightens both his damage output and damage tolerance for a limited time.
Switching adds texture to every situation, but also serves a very practical use when considering the three’s separate specialties. You can even run into each other outside of missions and hang out! The characters continue living their lives when you’re not controlling them… did you leave Trevor flying away in a helicopter as you stayed on the ground? Swap over to the “speedster” (you’ll understand after you play) and you’ll find yourself strapped into that helicopter seat, making verbal notes about the events that just occurred. In heists, there is a combination of scripted switches and suggested switches, although for the latter, it’s totally up to you who you choose to play. Don’t want to be the driver? Play as Michael and shoot out the window. Missions can be replayed if you’d like to play it a different way too, so experiment and have fun.
Speaking of, the spotlighted heist missions are reached only after doing some set-up, which will involve some acquisition and planning on a corkboard. When in the latter stage, you have the opportunity to select and delegate outside accomplices to the jobs of gunner, wheelman, etc., and these contacts can come from people you meet during your travels. They all have unique skill levels and demands for their cut of the take, so choosing poorly can result in a more expensive and/or difficult time in successfully completing a robbery. Oh, and on a side note, be sure to scour every inch of this mammoth land that is San Andreas… there are more than 100 collectibles that lead to solving a couple mysteries of the state. When it comes to GTA Online, we cannot review this mode yet as it will only become available after October 1st. But, once we hit that date, we will definitely post up some impressions.
From the seabed to the tip of Mount Chiliad in the mountainous regions of Blaine County; from the city of Los Santos to the dry desert of the Alamo Sea, Rockstar North have crafted a visually diverse, yet connected representation of a fictional California that looks stunning, and packs more detail than any other open-world title before it. Everything looks crisper and cleaner than in Grand Theft Auto IV. By comparison, character models are more expressive, draw distance is vastly increased, and shadows – thankfully – no longer distract with stuttering issues and jaggy edges. On the Xbox 360 version, anti-aliasing may be lacking, but it is barely required in the first place.
What personally impresses most on the visual front are the presentational elements; specifically the use of certain camera techniques and transitions. At face value, this may not sound like such an important facet, but it adds a sense of polish and value to the proceedings. In cut-scenes, the action is framed exceptionally, with zooms used to reflect the shifting moods and back-and-forths of an argument, for example. The camera organically follows the protagonist when transitioning from a cut-scene, back into gameplay, and the player also has more choice when it comes to camera perspectives, with three-to-four different states available on foot and in-activity, plus the dynamic action camera that can be initiated whilst in-vehicle.
Radio stations have always been a big part of the Grand Theft Auto experience. It’s inevitable with each entry that you will be spending hours upon hours in a variety of vehicles, from motorbikes, to muscle cars, luxury cruisers and airplanes, and Rockstar always manage to select an amazing array of music that expertly fits the tone of the game and world. In Grand Theft Auto V, there are a total of 17 radio stations. The popular West Coast Talk Radio (WCTR) station is back, as are mainstay personalities: that slimeball Lazlow and once-sleazy love expert Fernando. The stand-out, however, has to be comedian JB Smoove in the role of new character Dr. Ray D’Angelo Harris, who hosts Chakra Attack. He rambles on and on, exploring such random tangents… it is as if he was given free reign to improvise for 15 minutes straight, and it’s brilliant.
The radio offers tracks from a mix of contemporary artists such as A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna and old-school legends Queen, Rick James (naturally) and even Eddie Murphy – who just wants to ‘Party All the Time’. Grand Theft Auto V is also the first in the series to feature a composed score, which was written and performed by Tangerine Dream, rappers Alchemist and Oh No, alongside composer Woody Jackson. The influence and ambient synth-heavy style of Tangerine Dream in particular can be heard throughout. Voice acting is top-notch across the board, with the stereotypes of an aspirational, street-smart Franklin, the psychotic, unpredictable meth-head Trevor and the rich, conflicted retiree Michael portrayed in a mostly exaggerated manner to great comic effect.
Rockstar had stated before Grand Theft Auto V‘s release that the title “feels next-gen to us”. While I can’t wholeheartedly echo that sentiment, technically, Grand Theft Auto V is mightily impressive. The physical scope and scale of the game map itself is mind-boggling, if not purely for the fact that it streams seamlessly without intrusive loading screens. The ability to switch among three distinct and unique main protagonists enriches the experience, presenting varying perspectives that ensure one can never become bored… if Michael is too vanilla for you, the insanity of Trevor or the plight of Franklin will keep you entertained and interested.
Of course, as with every Grand Theft Auto title, there are minor bugs, but they’ve almost become an expected, humorous part of the series – take away the autosave system and quick save ability and maybe it would not be as humorous then. Otherwise, every design aspect has seen improvements since Grand Theft Auto IV; the graphics, the voice acting, the music, the camera work, the gunplay, the interface… all have been refined and fine-tuned for the perfect Grand Theft Auto experience to date. Rockstar didn’t need to pull off an elaborate heist to score the $1 billion in sales so far; they earned it with a truly masterful video game. Continue wreaking havoc on Los Santos!
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