I haven’t beat Grand Theft Auto V yet. I’m not even a third of the way through the game. I’ve been too busy doing other activities that don’t involve missions or advancing the story in any way. I’ve gone golfing, played tennis, flied planes and helicopters, pimped my ride, gone on shooting rampages, outrun cops, received lap dances, and much more.
Most reviews are written after the reviewer has finished the game. This one certainly isn’t and I don’t believe it’s really any less of a review. Why? There’s just so much to do and see that no review of this game is truly a “complete” review. I’ve dabbled in most activities in the game. I’ve done all manners of things in story missions and even optional missions. I’ve done my first big heist, one of several in the game. I haven’t seen the story to its conclusion, but I feel like I’ve played enough of the game to give some strong impressions.
Perhaps I’ll change my mind after finishing the story. In that case, I’ll make another blog post in the future explaining how and why my overall opinion has changed. But for now, let’s look at my thoughts after putting in some serious time with a game bursting with content.
Playground of destruction
GTA V, when put in the simplest terms possible, is a lot like every other GTA game that came before it: it gives you a really big map to play in, allowing you to do pretty much whatever you want. There are missions that serve to advance the plot, providing players with objectives to complete or specific characters to interact with, and while they’re fun, there’s no need to focus on them in this review. Long story short, bad things happen and it’s up to the main character to fix things by getting involved with other entertaining and shady characters.
This time, however, there isn’t a main character. There are three. There’s Michael, the former-thief-turned-family-man who’s a terrible family man about to return to his thieving ways; Franklin, a young gangbanger who doesn’t really like that lifestyle, so he turns to helping the thief Michael; and then there’s Trevor, Michael’s old friend and all-around psychopath.
Each character comes with their own particular strengths: Michael is a skilled gunman, Franklin excels at driving, and Trevor is king of the skies. They also come with their own special ability that can be used after building up the special meter: Michael can slow down time when in a firefight to help with aiming, Franklin can slow down time while driving to make impossible turns, and Trevor can enter a rage mode that allows him to eat lead without losing much health.
Everyone has their own specific vehicle, safehouse, bank account, and weapon collection. While only one character is available at the beginning of the game, it’s not long until all three are united and players can freely switch between them while roaming the city of Los Santos or the varied landscape of the rest of Blaine County.
The map makes the game. GTA games have always had big maps. Not the biggest maps, mind you, but big in the sense they pack in a ton of content. San Andreas, made up of the major city of Los Santos, Blaine County, and a few small towns is both types of big: it will take a while to navigate the entire playable area and there are a ton of different locations to check out. There’s the Grand Senora Desert, home to the Harmony trailer park and the seaside town Sandy Shores; a logging town by the name of Grapeseed, also sitting along the side of the Alamo Sea; the beach town of Paleto Bay; and, of course, Los Santos, the sprawling city players will spend most of their time in.
There is plenty to do and see both in and out of the city. There are barber shops, car customization shops, clothing stores, gun ranges, golf courses, tennis courts, and more — and that’s just in the city itself. There’s plenty of exploring to do once Michael, Franklin, or Trevor exit the city and brave the somewhat less tame lands of Blaine County. Herein lies one of the biggest improvements over many of the past GTA games: after a few missions, the entire map is available to explore. Instead of blocking off bridges or other access points like in past games, developer Rockstar is allowing players to freely check out the map at their own pace. The pause menu map, however, isn’t filled in, meaning players won’t just be able to set waypoints to any specific location right off the bat. This is an improvement as it encourages deep exploration, which in turn helps players find a deeper appreciation for the world Rockstar has created.
Speaking of deep exploration, there’s a lot of underwater activity going on in San Andreas. Players can dive and hunt for buried treasure or simply enjoy the view of coral reefs and schools of fish. Later on, a small sub is available for purchase, leading to longer periods of underwater treasure hunts. If the water isn’t to one’s taste, perhaps a ride in a helicopter or airplane is better. Players can also purchase or steal various aircraft and take to the skies for a better view of San Andreas.
There’s almost too much to do and see, making it that much harder to actually want to do the missions. It’s like there’s too much variety.
There are so many different missions. There are the main story missions, involving anywhere between one to three of the game’s main characters; there are Strangers and Freaks missions, usually one-time things that see one particular character helping a stranger (or a freak); and there are even random events, like stopping a thief or driving a couple home safely. Then there are the other diversions, like sports and races.
A majority of missions in GTA games revolve around two activities: drive to a faraway location to shoot some bad people. Thankfully, the missions in this game are much more varied than that. Yes, there is a lot of driving and just as much shooting, but each mission presents the series’ core mechanics in refreshing ways. One mission has Michael getting his stolen boat back, forcing him to drive beside it while his son jumps back in his car. Another has Trevor torturing a man for information that will help Michael snipe the right target. Another has Michael doing yoga with his wife. Yes, yoga. In a GTA game.
Most of these missions focus on a single character, most particular early ones when players can only control Franklin. As Franklin and Michael get involved with each other, their paths tend to cross more. Eventually, Trevor enters the mix and missions have a stronger focus on involving more than one playable character. Players can freely switch between the two or three guys, putting their special abilities to good use depending on the situation.
Then there are the heists. There are several of these throughout the game, serving as a sort of climax to a particular arc within the overall story. I’ve only done the first one, but if the others are even half as fun as this one, then players are certainly in for a show. Each mission can be done multiple ways (usually just two, from what I’ve read), allowing for a more cautious approach or a balls-to-the-wall action movie approach. There are also several non-playable characters that join the crew, lending their abilities to make each heist easier or more difficult. They can be recruited through the various missions, story on non-story, found in the game. The more skilled the crew member, the bigger the cut they take after all the heist’s money is accounted for. This adds another element of choice to the game: do players pick the better crew members but lose out on some more cash or do they risk it all just to get more bank?
None of these missions would be fun if it weren’t for the smooth controls. Driving has been greatly improved from GTA IV as Rockstar gave it a more arcade feel. It’s easier to make tighter turns or stop quicker since the cars handle a bit more like a video game and a little less like real life. Some people may prefer IV‘s heavier handling, but in a game that’s decidedly less serious than its predecessor, it’s a sound design decision.
Firefights feel a lot better too. Switching weapons now handles like Red Dead Redemption with a weapon wheel. Changing weapons also slows down time, making it a lot easier to switch from a pistol to an assault rifle without getting shot a bunch of times. Aiming feels smoother as it’s much easier to switch between lock-on and free aiming. Regular on-foot controls, like when a character is simply walking around, or just as good. There really wasn’t any need for improvements there.
The only problematic area, though this isn’t quite related to controls, is the handling of aircraft. Rockstar added in turbulence, so sometimes the plane or helicopter will move a certain direction without any player input. It’s odd that cars handle much better now but aircraft don’t.
She’s gorgeous and her name is GTA V
Simply put, GTA V is a gorgeous game. While it’s on hardware pushing eight years now, it manages to look fantastic. Characters move with lifelike animations, buildings and other landmarks can be seen from kilometres away, and the colours pop out with a great, saturated look. This is not at all like the greys and browns and overall drabness of GTA IV‘s colour palette. It isn’t pumping out the highest polygon count and there’s nothing at all that may fool non-gamers into thinking it’s a photograph, but despite that, it’s still a beautiful game.
Let’s not forget about the sounds. There’s nothing to complain about here. Most cars have such a distinct sound that it’s easy to pick out which vehicle is near you even when you close your eyes. The radio is as good as ever, with a lot of variety between genres and great satirical radio ads. The voice acting is absolutely top-notch. For the first time ever, there’s also an actual score. As long as the radio is off, most missions feature instrumental music that fits the mood or scene perfectly.
There’s really nothing else to say. The game isn’t photorealistic by any means, but its superb art direction and effective use of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware means it’s still one of the nicest looking games available. How Rockstar managed to making it look this good while having such a large map and so many people and objects on screen is beyond me.
So maybe I have a minor complaint…
The police. Oh, God, the police. Rockstar changed the six-star wanted system to only five stars, meaning each star equals more opposition than before. The problem is, it doesn’t take much of anything to get to two stars, and at two stars, the police don’t want to bust you. Nope. They want to kill you. Standing on the street and staring at someone may mean you now have a single star. Not bad. Just jack a car and drive away. But no. You now have two stars. And don’t think about shooting any cops because then you’ll have three stars.
At three stars you have a lot of cops chasing you in their cruisers as well as a helicopter, making it hard to lose their sight. The one improvement to the system is there is no longer an arbitrary radius you must escape like in previous games. This time, as long as you’re out of sight of the cops for a bit (whether you hide in an alley or in some bushes outside the city), they’ll enter search mode and the minimap will show each individual cop’s line of vision. However, it takes forever for them to leave you alone. You can only enter a Pay n’ Spray when they’re in search mode, so there isn’t a “get out of jail free” card thing happening in this game. While it means players need to be more strategic in evading the cops, it also means the police are much more relentless for smaller crimes.
The witness system is also weird. For example, I was in the middle of the Senora Desert, away from any main roads or buildings. I called for a cab while standing on the single dirt road, and when he finally appeared, I jacked the cab and killed its driver. Nobody was even close to me, so I should be safe, right? No. Instant two stars. Two cops appeared behind me shortly after. I drove along the winding dirt road, underneath a bridge and along the mountainside. I lost the cops behind me as they took a turn too quickly and fell into the river below. I should be safe again, right? No. A cop spawned in front of me.
I had never seen that before. A cop car actually spawned right in front of me. I heard nothing at all for the two seconds leading up to its appearance, then it whipped around the corner, barely touching the ground as the game presumably dropped it in place. I really hope it doesn’t happen again. The unnecessary aggressiveness of the cops certainly makes the game a bit less fun, both during missions and while roaming the land. A lot of missions end with trying to lose the police, meaning there’s a good chunk of time spent angrily finding a cheap hiding place after what was an otherwise fun and exciting mission.
Grand Theft Auto V is an achievement in gaming. It looks and sounds great, has a huge map with plenty of variety, and gives players tons of possibilities. The missions are (so far) a lot of fun, the story is fairly interesting, and the characters are all quite funny in their own way. Improvements to the controls or game mechanics are welcome, and the addition of brand new content is even better.
No other game lets players do this much. Some come close in that department, but no other game lets players do this much so well. They always have other glaring flaws. This game has but a few flaws and they’re all fairly minor.
Perhaps my opinion will change when I complete the story. I’ll certainly let people know if they do. Even if the rest of single player isn’t great, there’s always online multiplayer to look forward to. Next Tuesday I’ll finally be able to do heists, steal cars, or race ATVs online with friends. I’m looking forward to it quite a bit.
For now, I’ll keep playing the single player of this fantastic game. And I highly recommend you do too.