Developed by Rockstar Games. Published by Take-Two Interactive. Available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One.
Guess what? Grand Theft Auto is back…again. Like other hits released at the tail end of the last console generation, the gaming event that was Grand Theft Auto V has received the “Definitive Edition” treatment: a next-gen coat of paint, some added features, and a re-release at full price. Should you shell out for it a second time? Well, a year ago I would have said “Hell yeah” simply because of the hype, but now I’d give a careful “Yes, so long as you tweak your expectations.” GTA has changed a lot over the past thirteen years, and its current focus might not be where you want it to be.
By now, you already know what GTA V is about: three criminals with very different backgrounds unite and perform a series of heists around the fictional city of Los Santos. You have Michael, a former bank robber who’s having a mid-life crisis. You’ve got Franklin, a repo man who’s trying to break free from his gang ties. Then there’s Trevor, a manic meth-head who dreams of a life of chaos. When these three get together, you get shooting, you get driving, you get carjacking, you get a whole hell of a lot of missions. You know the drill by now: steal cars, drive here, shoot that, lose the cops, torture this guy, blow up that guy, watch that woman get sucked into a jet engine. Typical GTA stuff. In fact, it feels a little tiresome by now. What puts the missions a cut above other games is the story. There’s a constant stream of social commentary flowing through this game, and you’ll love it if you can get on its cynical wavelength. I don’t usually care about story in games, but I care about this one. Of course, the plot isn’t sensical or plausible, and Michael and Trevor are such strong characters that they overshadow the rest of the cast, but there’s some heady, heavy stuff in here. The cutscenes are well-acted, dramatic, shocking, and they’re even laugh-out-loud funny. If you play GTA V just to screw around in the open world, you’re missing the best parts.
It helps that they look breathtaking. GTA V looked incredible even on consoles past, but now it’s even better. The characters have convincing faces and movements. Car interiors, the only aspect of the previous version that looked bad, now have full ridges and contours. The California sun bathes the world in beautiful, natural-looking color, and the northern deserts look like photographs. Never before has a game inspired me to stop what I was doing just so I could watch a freaking sunrise. Those bleeding pinks and grays…they really just nailed it. Los Santos isn’t just a place to make trouble, it’s a place to sightsee (an activity that works especially well with the new first-person viewpoint). If you look around long enough, you’ll find some cool surprises to look at, though that’s pretty much all you can do with them.
I have to say, GTA V is a strange product overall. Within the framework of its missions, it’s an excellent, story-based video game, but between those missions, it’s like visiting an amusement park, complete with the walks and the waiting and the expensive food. It is the latest step on a path that Rockstar started on in 2002 with Vice City. That was the point when they steered away from the development of groundbreaking gameplay, and focused on the construction of incredibly detailed worlds. I don’t just mean that their games have great graphics, either. While other game makers concentrate on stretching their environments to enormous sizes and packing them with slightly varied side quests, Rockstar pours its efforts into that less-tangible quality of atmosphere. Their mantra seems to be “deeper characters, smarter dialogue, more texture in the corners.” You can trace the rise of this design dogma as it threads through games like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3, with GTA V sitting at the pinnacle. No one else does world-building of this caliber. Even role-playing games, with their volumes of backstory and lore, don’t capture the sensation of BEING THERE as well as GTA V does, but that doesn’t mean it’s always exciting.
I’m just going to say it: there are a lot of parts of GTA V that are pointless, or just plain dull. Driving from one place to another can take a good long while, and it actually made me sleepy at times. The game has ATM machines that display your cash balance, when your HUD already does a perfectly good job of that. You can take a star tour, get a lap dance, hunt animals, run marathons, do yoga, play tennis and golf, and even go skydiving, and all these activities are surprisingly rich little mini-games, but, really, just…why? Isn’t this supposed to be a game about crime? Oh, and get a rubber band out of the junk drawer if you want to complete the cult storyline, because one of its missions requires Michael to WALK FIVE MILES IN A CIRCLE. I’m not joking. I know it’s supposed to be satirical of cult practices, but five miles? Wouldn’t one mile get the point across? No video game should ask such a thing. It’s like something Andy Warhol would come up with if he made games. If it’s a joke, then the joke’s on us.
What’s even more frustrating is that GTA V introduces some neat gameplay ideas to balance out the boredom, but then it leaves them half-baked. Michael can saunter around his mansion and say hi to his wife and kids, but he can only have conversations with them over the phone. You can take pictures with your phone, but you can’t record video. Franklin has a Rottweiler named Chop who can sniff out collectibles or run down bad guys, but he only features in one or two missions. Hand-to-hand combat is much more responsive than it was in GTA IV, but strangely enough, most of the people you fight will hit the floor after a single punch. You can swap characters at will during some missions, but it’s only useful at certain scripted moments. The famous heists appear full of emergent possibilities from the surface, as they allow players to pick their plans and allies, but all these choices affect are the branches in pre-determined events. You don’t get to post shooters, choose vehicles, draw escape routes, or anything like that.
Then there are the controls. Like the game’s design, they’re not exactly bad — they’re greatly improved over GTA IV’s — they’re just unconventional. Most games assign context-sensitive actions to a single button, but GTA V uses three. The buttons used for reloading weapons and taking cover also stubbornly differ from gaming standards. The game’s generous auto-aim makes most firefights too easy, but if you turn it off, they get too hard. There’s no cruise control option, in a game whose long freeways demand it. And you still have to hold a button to make your character jog at a reasonable speed…but not in multiplayer or first-person mode. It makes no sense. Just ditch the run button already!
These oversights aren’t deadly to GTA V, as they’re from the same vein of niggling problems common to most Rockstar games. It’s just that I think a lot of this stuff should be ironed out by now, especially in a second release. I also think this game would be better if it was structured like Max Payne 3, and if the game world felt, well, more like a game. The truth is, though, that this is a story-based game whose story is so good it makes everything surrounding it look lame and unnecessary, and sadly, most of it is.
The good news is that you have a lot of good options for open-world games now. GTA isn’t your sole choice. Get Far Cry 4 if you want a variety of activities with emergence and freedom of play. Get Sunset Overdrive if you want constant engaging action. Get GTA V, though, if you want to take part in a beautiful, well-produced, action-adventure story that’s on par with AMC’s best dramas. Just expect a little ennui dashed in there as well. Sorry, but you can’t have it all.