For the past sixteen years, the Grand Theft Auto series has found numerous ways to spark controversy, receive harassment from countless critics, and most of all, indulge players in a life he or she could only imagine. Ever since the groundbreaking third installment released in 2001, Rockstar Games has paved the way for what future sandbox games have the potential to be. With spin-offs and clones, it’s easy to see just the impact the GTA franchise has had on not just gaming, but also on our culture. The latest title in this landmark series attempts to push the boundaries of what a game can be both technically and artistically. Just how good can this game be? As it turns out, pretty damn good.
At the center of GTA V, there’s Michael; an ex-robber-turned-family-man, Franklin; a thug with hoop dreams of a better life, Trevor; the CEO of Trevor Phillips Enterprise and a meth head who may be a little bipolar, and you. In this updated version of Los Santos, everything is bigger and better. The cars handle noticeably better, there are more ways to tackle your favorite past times, you can customize your weapons and vehicles to suit your needs to the fullest potential, and the inhabitants feel more alive than they ever did. So much in fact, there were times I felt bad about shooting an innocent civilian in the middle of a struggle with the police. Animals are introduced more so here, too. In the desert, you will find coyotes and deer crossing the dirt streets. In the city, people walk their dogs, and fish and sharks populate the colorful underwater. It doesn’t feel like the game is filled with as many living things on screen to cover its shortage of context, but rather, to keep you immersed in a game that feels more alive than anything Rockstar has done in the past.
The story quite literally revolves around Michael, Franklin, and Trevor as they pull off a series of big-time heists to secure themselves the future they talk about throughout the entirety of the story. With the campaign alone running you about 20 hours, it feels a little shorter compared to past Grand Theft Auto’s especially since that time is divided amongst the three protagonists. I don’t particularly find this a problem as each story mission did not drag its feet in the least. Each chapter was compelling and exciting, even ones where you may have to complete a mundane task such as follow someone while avoiding detection. Writing is superb, especially in areas that concern Trevor, who is unique, troubling, light-hearted, quick, and funny all at once. While I wish as much love was put into Franklin and Michael, it works in the long run, as there would be no stand-out character to really push the story. Outside of the main storyline, there’s truly everything else. From real estate to strip clubs, you have the city at your disposal. That is, with the right amount of cash. You don’t have to rely on the main campaign’s heists to supply you with money. During your free roam, you can hijack bank deposit vans, purchase airplane hangars, and other activities to keep the income flowing.
Rockstar learns from its past and Grand Theft Auto V is a shining example of such a statement. At the first instance of gun battle, I couldn’t help but feel like I was playing the glorified love child of Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption. Improved shooting mechanics, a reworked cover system, and the introduction of the weapon wheel –accompanied by in-game slow motion– to the franchise kept shootouts tight, clean, and fast-paced. I did find the target reticle is annoyingly small as the slightest movement of the camera dissipated the small, white dot. This would not normally be a problem in other games, but the inclusion of attaching flashlights to your guns washes out the reticle completely.
Driving has received a much needed overhaul and hey, it doesn’t suck this time around! I really enjoyed GTA IV when I played it for the first time, but anyone could tell you that the driving was arguably the game’s biggest downfall. Every car felt metric tons heavier than they should have and with the sheer amount of chase missions you had to do, it was downright frustrating. GTA V is an apology letter to its fans, saying that you should have not had to deal with that and this game will make things right again. The great thing is, it kind of does. It has a much more arcade-y handling, but still retaining a realistic approach. You can tell the difference between family 4×4’s and a CEO’s sports car not by aesthetics alone. Cars drive very differently from one another and picking a getaway car requires a lot more thought than just pulling the closest soccer mom out of her van. If you have had no real-life experience driving an 18 wheeler, GTA V will not let you live that down as trying to escape with precious cargo is damn near impossible until you learn.
The in-game radio makes a triumphant return with a great soundtrack including Dre, Flying Lotus, and Queen, vulgar hosts doing what they do best, and advertisements treading the line between macabre and stand-up. Music is now a key moment, not only tied to driving, but highlighting set pieces and more intense shootouts. The radio selection really gives a palm tree and sunset Southern California vibe to the gameplay which creates such an atmospheric experience, I found myself just not really doing anything but cruising around Vespucci Beach with the top down and blaring West Coast Classics as the gym rats went about their cardio regime through the boardwalk. It was truly a defining moment and it was then when I knew I had gotten myself out of a a simple sandbox shooter, and into something much more alive.
With so many side missions to finish, random encounters, animals to hunt, ocean life to explore, guns to customize, vehicles to steal, and selfies to take, Grand Theft Auto V is the quintessential GTA experience. Rockstar has taken the best parts of past games and melded them into its flagship title. Everything here is improved, redone, or both. The story is balls-to-the-wall action, with some hilarious moments and strives to distinct itself from the dark, gritty tone of GTA IV. Characters are funny, threatening, and relatable, and the soundtrack is just as catchy and fitting as it ever was. No game is perfect; whether it be due to bugs, poor design, or the like, but this game does so much –and so much of it right– that you can’t leave the game without feeling like there is something much bigger than you realize. GTA V feels more like a Hollywood heist movie than a game at times and it’s at those moments when you get a mix of pulse-pounding music, police sirens wailing in the background, pedestrians screaming and yelling, and the endless conjunction of whizzing bullets and camera-shaking explosions, does the game truly reach the potential it set out for itself. Welcome back, Grand Theft Auto. We’ve missed you.
[+Gorgeous, open world][+Brilliantly written story and characters, especially Trevor][+Improved driving and shooting mechanics][+Numerous side missions and activities][+Intense and wonderfully orchestrated heists][-Awfully small target reticle]