Grand Theft Auto V:
Thoughts and Musings

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

 

Well it was a long time coming, but its finally here. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto V almost non stop over the last two weeks and I can’t see myself taking a break for quite some time. It’s even managed to drag me away from Skyrim; which I thought would be impossible for anything other than Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The long and short of it is this: I am convinced that this is the best game that I’ll ever play. Well, at least until Rockstar announces the next GTA; which I hope will be set in either London, Vice City or a completely new city based off New Orleans.

 

It’s somehow managed to not only meet my expectations (which were pretty damn high let me tell you!) it’s surpassed them. This is in sharp contrast to GTA IV, which let me down in the end by not having much to do once the storyline is finished, after I was hyped to breaking point. Don’t get me wrong, I hold GTA IV as one of the top twenty games ever developed. That Rockstar North were able to develop that game for release in 2008 is as sure evidence as you’ll find of their absolute genius in the field of videogames.

 

But GTA V is on a whole new level compared to IV. It has improved every single area of the Grand Theft Auto experience and then added several new layers. Why this wasn’t a next generation game; I’ll never understand. I guess it really is true that the best games always come out towards the end of a generations life. The last two or three years have seen the release of undeniably the best games that the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (sorry Nintendo readers, I’ll never understand the appeal of the Wii, and the Wii U legitimately has no games that I want to play or that I can’t already play on my PS3. I’m sorry to break it to you so publicly but the latest Mario, Metroid and Zelda games or remakes of the classics really hold no appeal at all if you weren’t playing them back in the day. I was a SEGA kid) have to offer.

 

Games like The Last of Us, Sleeping Dogs, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 (say what you like about the disappointing and confusing endings, which I will be writing an article about soon, the game itself is incredible) are wondrous achievements in video games. In my opinion GTA V is better than all those games I mentioned and then some. Rockstar really are masters at their craft, matched only by Hideo Kojima’s stealthy team in Japan.

 

To start with the first thing I have to talk about is the driving. It’s strange, but with GTA games you never really take the time to really enjoy the driving. It’s the absolute core of the game but it’s always been something that you just did without thinking. In the III-era (III, Vice City, San Andreas and Liberty City/Vice City Stories) the driving is ridiculously arcade like, different types of cars don’t really handle any differently than one another, some just happen to go faster than the others. More Crazy Taxi than Project Gotham Racing.

 

When it came time for the current generation, Rockstar switched it up to a more realistic (though that’s only from what other people have told me, I can’t drive so I don’t know if it is realistic) style. Different classes of cars handle very differently from each other and you can’t make breakneck turns and instant stops like you could in the III era. I enjoyed this style a lot more than the older games, even if it was more similar to driving a boat in San Andreas than a car. It was more challenging and very rewarding to manage to drive across Liberty City without causing untold billions of dollars of vehicular damage.

 

With V it feels like something of a blend of the two. Driving is ridiculously fun and addictive. The more pricey cars are capable of insane feats of turning and stunts that wouldn’t look out of place in the latest Fast and Furious movie, especially while using Franklin’s special driving ability. You can bob and weave through the lanes of traffic on the many highways with ease. At the same time, the cars have real weight and you have to keep your eye on the road for other motorists. Driving feels like a proper racing game. Don’t get me wrong it’s no purist simulator like a Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport but it reminds me a lot of Rockstar’s own Midnight Club, Need for Speed Underground or the legendary Burnout games.

 

Another improved element of the driving is the traffic on the roads. In previous games (and especially GTA IV) other traffic has a bad habit of disappearing at times, usually when you’re going full tilt. It was very weird to be bombing it over the Broker Bridge and straight through the heart of Midtown while only seeing a few other cars (most likely cop cars, which seemed to outnumber civilian cars 10 to 1) on the road. Having been to Manhattan and even crossed the real Brooklyn Bridge at a snails pace, I can tell you that that is nothing like the real life traffic of New York City. It’s more like the traffic in Pelsall on a Sunday morning.

 

With V there is a constant level of traffic that you have to drive through. There’s never a part of the game where the city looks and feels anything less than a living and breathing metropolis. In the dead of night the side roads are quiet and only a few other drivers can be seen, during rush hour it’s a furious melee of cars that jostle through the roads and highways in the heart of the city. It’s an awesome sight to behold, especially on the freeways and it really helps with immersion.

 

Speaking of the city, Los Santos is mesmerizing. Like I just said, it looks and feels like a real metropolis. While I haven’t been to Los Angeles like I have New York, so I can’t give first hand experience, the city feels like it looks in all the great LA based movies: busy, packed, violent in the wrong areas, colorful and vast. At times the game feels like you’re driving through a scene of Heat or Lethal Weapon.

 

HD Los Santos is a far cry from the hard boiled and depressing HD Liberty City (again, not a pop at IV, it was designed that way). It’s vibrant and lush, it looks like a lovely place to live. The only true comparison I can think of is that this must be the same way that I felt when I first played Vice City back when it was first released. To go from a Liberty City that I knew like the back of my hand to a vividly colorful place like Vice City was a shock to the senses. It’s the same thing here, with extra servings of high definition for good measure.

 

It’s also deceptively big. On the paper fold out map that GTA is famous for the city is dwarfed by the countryside of Blaine County and when I first saw the leaked map a few months ago I was really worried that the city would feel too small in comparison to the countryside. My experience so far has been the polar opposite of that initial reaction and I’m also really pleased that so far the bulk of the story has taken place in the heart of Los Santos rather than the surrounding countryside, which I’ve barely explored except when forced to by the enforced switch to Trevor after the first heist.

 

Going back to GTA IV I had the opposite initial reaction. Liberty City looked humongous and I couldn’t wait to drive around and get lost in the warren like streets. However once all three islands are unlocked you realize that its more a trick of the game, while I’m not saying the HD Liberty City is by any means small, on foot the city is as colossal as it seems but it is very easy to get from the bottom of Broker to the far side of Alderney (in other words, from one side to the other) if you can drive well enough at speed, especially on a motorbike or in a high end SUV. It doesn’t feel like you’ve traveled anywhere. It doesn’t help that much of Liberty City is very samey looking, with little difference in architecture between neighborhoods, except of course on Algonquin. But I suppose it is true that due to the way that Liberty City (and indeed the real metropolitan New York, and most American cities it seems) is laid out in grids and boxes, you’re constantly traveling in nearly unbroken straight lines. So it makes perfect sense that it takes less time to get from point A to point B.

 

Los Santos on the otherhand goes completely the other way. My initial impressions from the map blueprints couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s an absolutely huge and varied city and it feels like it takes ages to get from point A to point B. I haven’t even tried driving from one side to the other yet (which isn’t to say that I haven’t seen all of the city, I have, just not all at once yet). Again maybe it’s just some kind of perception trick by the Rockstar wizards, maybe I’m just not used to the city and so I don’t know my way around well enough yet, maybe its because the streets twist and turn into each other rather than neatly arranged boxes, but the city feels as if it never ends.

 

If you go online into the fandom, particularly gtaforums.com, you’ll no doubt find the odd person still claiming the city itself is way too small. They say this while completely ignoring the highways, wilderness and ocean, and also claiming that “San Andreas had it right”. My opinion on those fans is that they’re simply spoiled and feel entitled in some way. Rather like Jimmy de Santa. Rockstar could give them the entirety of planet Earth pole to pole and they’d cry foul because they can’t go to the moon. They pull pixel counts and digital inch and mile figures out of their asses because they had wildly stupid expectations and most likely can’t get over the fact (through their 2004 tinged nostalgia glasses) that San Fierro and Las Venturas didn’t make the cut in 2013’s version of San Andreas. When it comes to San Fierro (my personal favorite single city of the III era) and Las Venturas all I’ll say is this: downloadable content. Or, y’know, you could just play San Andreas. Seriously, it’s still one of the best games of all time. You can even download it from the PlayStation Store of Xbox Live Marketplace.

 

Another amazing part of the game is it’s soundtrack. Bearing in mind that music taste is completely subjective to each person, I think that GTA V has the best radio stations and soundtrack so far. Rockstar have achieved something that I never thought they could ever do: I firmly believe that Grand Theft Auto V’s radio stations are better than Vice City’s.

 

It has an incredibly varied and diverse selection of tracks and stations. No single radio station feels like the same and I haven’t gotten tired of one yet. With GTA games I usually find two or three stations that I listen to, while the rest get at best a few short listens out of curiosity over the course of the game. That’s not the case with V, in fact I hardly ever bother to change stations when I get in a new car. Particular highlights are Station X, full of classic Californian hardcore punk, and Worldwide FM, an electronic and world music station filled with some of the best driving music seen in the series and that can give the latest FIFA soundtracks a run for their money with the diverse world music.

 

I also have to mention the in game soundtrack that has been implemented. Rockstar have really outdone themselves when it comes to that element. This was another new feature that I was worried wouldn’t work in the final game. I was concerned that the background music would become intrusive, popping up all the time and getting in the way of or even replacing altogether the traditional radio stations. I have to say that I was really surprised at how well it was pulled off. After learning that The Alchemist was at the heart of production I wasn’t surprised.

 

This new style of soundtrack is again diverse and varied but each song fits the mission and section that it’s used for. Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 ft? Have some gentle piano. Chasing a towed boat across a highway? It’s time for a pounding beat and driving guitar chords. Every time a new piece plays it’s a welcome addition. The only fault I could find is that there’s no option to have it on all the time!

 

I mentioned earlier that V improves every element of the gameplay. Perhaps nowhere is this more noticeable than with the shooting and cover system. The shooting in this game makes even GTA IV look archaic and makes me laugh out loud when I remember the convoluted shooting system of the III era (when it’s harder to shoot someone in your game than the first Resident Evil, you’ve got problems). Switching between targets is fast and fluid, popping off rounds gives a pleasant kick. Switching weapons with the wheel, lifted straight from Red Dead Redemption, feels like second nature. It’s not just on par with dedicated third person shooters like Gears of War or Mass Effect, it’s better than those games at doing it.

 

The only problem with the shooting comes from the somewhat bizarre decision to not implement a crouch option. This is especially confusing as GTA IV had that option from the start. I suppose I could argue that the cover system takes it place, but there have been a few times when simply being able to crouch down and duck my head would have saved me from getting shot down in a hail of bullets. I hope this will be addressed at some point in a patch or update.

 

Another improved element is the aggressiveness of the police and their ability to take you down. The police are hyper aggressive compared to earlier games and take absolutely no prisoners if you decide to tangle with them. Which I do, often and at high velocity. While some sectors of the fandom have decided to whine at this new level of viciousness, I’ve felt that it’s added a new level of tension and urgency to firefights and car chases. Especially out in the wilderness and mountain passes. My answer to the dissenters is simple: it’s not Rockstar’s fault that you suck, get better at laying down suppressing fire and get in cover!

 

Speaking of the wilderness, Rockstar have again outdone themselves. As I mentioned earlier I was a little worried that the focus of the game would switch to the wilderness and countryside. I view GTA as being synonymous with and rooted in an urban environment, a GTA game lives and dies off the quality of its city and everything else is just a side order. This is why Vice City is still being played a decade on and why I doubt many people will be replaying GTA IV very soon now that we have the infinitely more diverse world of V to enjoy. No offense Liberty City or the rabid GTA IV fans.

 

But my fears were unfounded as the vast bulk of the story takes place within the confines of Los Santos. Don’t get me wrong, you spend plenty of time out in the Alamo Sea, Paleto Bay and Sandy Shores. But the main heists and other missions happen in LS. It’s having the added option to abandon the busy city and head out to get lost in the open plains and mountains of San Andreas. It’s so much fun to grab a Sanchez dirt bike and try to successfully scale one of the many mountains (easier said than done) or jump into a dinghy to explore the reefs and numerous ship, plane and train wrecks in the humongous Pacific Ocean.

 

Red Dead Redemption clearly had a huge impact on the development of GTA V. I think it was my having played (and enjoyed) Red Dead so much that led to my fears about GTA V in this regard. With Red Dead having a huge wilderness to explore was essential because of the Western genre. Think of the amazing vistas seen in the Sergio Leone and John Wayne classics. Red Dead needed the same epic backgrounds and time spent on foot. GTA doesn’t need that because you always have something to look at in a city, plus you’re nearly always in a vehicle. I guess I was worried that Rockstar would neglect this city in favor of their new playground. But the effect on V is that it has opened the game up so much. It’s especially noticeable because of the complete lack of wilderness in GTA IV, except for Middle Park.

 

Animals have also made a series debut. With the coyotes, sheep, sharks, horses and dogs GTA has something that it’s never had before and its surprising how well it works. The animals manage to seamlessly blend into the background and it looks completely natural. Why wouldn’t a deer be chilling on the mountainside? While I haven’t sampled the hunting side missions yet, I can tell that they will be a welcome change of pace.

 

Graphically the game is absolutely gorgeous. While no doubt online you’ll find the odd naysayer pointing out a few low textures and jagged edges (that person most likely a PC gamer, who can’t play GTA V yet. In my opinion the biggest obstacle to PC gaming seizing absolute control of the gaming market isn’t price, hardware turnaround or install problems, it’s the PC gamers themselves who crow about how much better their handcrafted system’s are than our mass produced consoles. It would be like if Jay Z and Kanye West walked into a local pub and started boasting about how rich they are. It’d be true, no doubt, but it wouldn’t make them many friends) here and there, I am blown away by GTA V. It’s certainly the best looking game I’ve ever seen, at least until we see more of The Phantom Pain and next generation games are released. The surrounding’s, the characters, the cars, the sky, the pedestrians, everything looks amazing. Better than any person could have foreseen Grand Theft Auto becoming back in 2001.

 

Yet another improved element of the game are the types of missions and activities that you have to take part in over the story. The Grand Theft Auto experience can basically be boiled down to two types of mission: you either have to drive somewhere to pick something up or you have to kill a bunch of rival gang members. Most of the time it’s both. Every GTA game is based around those two parameters and the cleverness of the game is in hiding this fact from the player and making them think they’re doing a different task each time. San Andreas did a brilliant job with this sleight of hand, while Niko’s story in GTA IV in my opinion did not. The Ballad of Gay Tony improved on this element immeasurably, while The Lost and the Damned embraced it.

 

GTA V has the formula boiled down to perfection. Different types of weapons make a huge difference, such as the sniping missions. The new three way storytelling also helps in this area. But V has a diverse bunch of missions and it never really dawns on you that all you’re doing is the two same things over and over again. It changes between characters and areas, between which side of the city you’re on.

 

With GTA IV it becomes noticeable at an early stage that all Niko really is is a thug and and assassin for hire, it’s even hilariously discussed a bunch of times in the dialog, with even Niko hanging a lampshade on his lot in that virtual world. But with V the greater ambition and specialized skills of the three characters really comes across through both the story and the missions. You can feel Micheal’s elation and relief as he’s being dragged back into the life he unwillingly left behind, Franklin’s desperation to escape the gangbanging stereotype and Trevor’s absolute lack of morality and regard for his own safety.

 

The three way dynamic is another element that I was worried about. I thought that with most video-game writers unable to develop simply one compelling character and story, how could Rockstar manage three all at the same time? I needn’t have worried and I’m left wondering just why other games haven’t been doing this for years. The three way switching and characters makes GTA V feel even more like the movies that influenced the early development of the series. It feels like you’re playing through Infernal Affairs or The Godfather as the story twists and turns around the characters. I can see a lot of third person shooters and open world games embracing this new innovation, as they have with most of Rockstar’s other ones over the years. In particular I would love to see what Naughty Dog, Kojima Productions or BioWare could do with the concept.

 

Michael de Santa is the most traditional of the characters. He’d slot right into GTA III or Vice City with no problem and he even bears a remarkable resemblance to Tommy Vercetti, you can even dress him up just like him with grown out hair, clean shave, Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans! Franklin Clinton is the central character, the one who the story revolves around, and is most like CJ from San Andreas but with one key difference: while Carl was content to simply go on banging for Grove Street even after the insanity that unfolds over the course of San Andreas, Franklin wants to get as far away from Chamberlain Grove (V’s version of Compton and South Central) and the petty squabbles between the Ballas and the CGF as he can. He doesn’t want to not be a criminal, don’t get me wrong, he just wants to make a hell of a lot more money doing it. As he says in an early mission: he’s not afraid of dying, he just wants to do it while he’s doing something that matters. Trevor Phillips on the otherhand is a completely different story.

 

The only true comparison I can make is that he’s like having Heath Ledger’s demented version of the Joker seen in The Dark Knight as a player character, without the restrictions of a 12A rating. Helped by the amazing voice and motion capture acting (in fact all three player characters have incredible voice acting) by Stephen Ogg; Trevor is a character that I’m constantly changing my mind about. I think I have him all figured out and then he’ll do something to completely change my mind.

 

In the build up to the game I thought that I would find Trevor an annoyance, someone I’d play as because the game forced me to, not because I wanted to as I did with Michael and Frank. I thought he’d be a simple and immature character, a one dimensional cipher made up to give the player free reign to wreck anarchy. I viewed him as a half assed answer to the criticism of IV’s Niko, where there was a clear disparity between the story (where Niko is defined by regret for his actions) and the players actions between missions.

 

When it came time to play the game I found that I couldn’t get enough of playing as the insane meth head. He’s a complex and riveting character that simply has to be seen to be believed. I’d be very interested in playing an expansion set during the missing nine years between the fateful heist that kicks off GTA V and the present day, perhaps seeing more of Trevor before the meth and psychosis fully took hold. While he’s certainly the cipher for chaos that I thought he would be, he’s no mere cardboard cut out for the player.

 

It’s strange but I feel that GTA V could have been about any of the three characters on their own, but would have been worse off for it. It would be enjoyable for sure but there’s something special about this group of criminals, something in the dialog between them on the long rides and during the shootouts that has elevated V beyond merely being a new GTA game. It’s a completely new beast in the field of videogames. I think that the story of V is easily [at least] the equal of anything that Hollywood has to offer. In fact GTA V would have made the perfect GTA movie script.

 

The only weakness I’ve found in the story is the heists that the game is based around. While all six are diverse and great fun and a few of the later ones (the Paleto Bay bank job in particular) astounded me with the way they played out, you don’t actually make that much money off of them. In fact in only two of the six, the Jewel Store heist and the Union Depository heist, did I walk away with some serious money and in at least two of the others I didn’t get anything at all in return for my efforts except advancing the story. They didn’t seem to be that much different in design and function from any of the later and more ambitious missions in previous games.

 

Perhaps it was how I tackled the missions but it wasn’t nearly enough money in my opinion. I’ve finished the story and there’s already some things that I know that I’ll never afford, the golf club and two of the cinema’s come to mind. The only option I can see to get the funds is to grind for hours on the pedestrians pocket change and stores, or trust in the strange alchemical fluctuations of the Liberty City Exchange (as I don’t have access to the Internet from home, I can’t access the BAWSAQ). But I have a feeling that this is an area of the game that will be greatly expanded on when it comes time for the downloadable content. As they stand four of the six are simply a bunch of really fun extended missions.

 

It just feels a little strange given that the game was heavily marketed as giving the player a lot of money to play around with. In previous games it got to the point that you had hundreds of millions of dollars stockpiled, but nothing to spend it on. With V it’s the reverse, there’s a lot of stuff I want to buy but I can’t afford them. I’m definitely missing some side mission pay offs but I personally don’t feel like I’ve gotten to play around with that much paper, except after having finished the game and even then, as I said, there’s things that I can’t come close to buying even if I added up all three character’s bank accounts together. Which you can’t do.

 

Another slightly disappointing aspect is the lack of a singular charismatic villain. GTA’s have always thrived off this, giving the player a truly hate-able nemesis to want to kill, Catalina from III comes instantly to mind. With V there isn’t really what you’d call a traditional Big Bad. Instead there’s a triumvirate of villains who slyly slot into the position and the ever present threat of Merryweather Private Security.

 

It’s not really a weakness though, the story is the best one yet, it’s just something that stood out a little at the end. There wasn’t the sense of triumph over adversity that you got in Vice City when you took down Sonny Forelli and the traitorous Lance Vance, or the roaring rampage of revenge seen at the end of GTA IV.

 

In GTA games the player is almost always working for someone who has ultimate power over the hero. Whether it’s Don Salvatore Leone, Ricardo Diaz or Officer Tenpenny. But with GTA V, the trio are purely working for themselves. Except for the FiB taskmasters, Michael and Trevor are actually the closest there is to traditional “boss” characters in the game. Trevor’s even a CEO, though he is one of only three employee’s of Trevor Phillips Industries. It’s an awesome switch up in my opinion and one that I hope will continue into the future. It’s good to be the boss.

 

To sum it all up I have to go back to the point I made: this is the best game I’ve ever played. Rockstar have managed to squeeze every single ounce of power out of the current (soon to be last) generation of consoles and put it all on screen for the player to behold. The game world is absolutely immense and a pleasure to drive through and inhabit. If you haven’t already played GTA V then what is wrong with you? Get down to the nearest shop and get a copy. You owe it to yourself as a gamer. Grand Theft Auto V is as good as it gets.

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