It’s been five long years since GTA 4 rocked the gaming world, with Rockstar Games unleashing its particular brand of crime-fuelled sandbox insanity onto the then next generation consoles. Things were new, mechanics were fresh, and Liberty City felt alive! Fast forward to, oh, say, two weeks ago, when I first popped GTA V into my Xbox 360. I knew it was going to be good (it’s a freaking Rockstar game!), but good was an understatement. ‘Good’ was like saying you didn’t poop yourself with excitement when you first saw the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park (if you didn’t, you either don’t know amazing when you see it or ...have bowel control). The ambitious scope and sheer artistic beauty of GTA V blew my mind and now I’m going to tell you why, with the excited fever of a school kid ...only with bigger words (kinda).
First things first, we are back in sunny Los Santos baby! It’s all back! Grove Street, Mount Chiliad ...the rest of the places! Leaving behind the claustrophobic, concrete jungle that was Liberty City, Rockstar have now blessed us with a whole region. Sure, you still have your urban sprawl, ranging from the decadent mansions up in Vinewood to the crack houses and burnout cars of the hood but now there are so many more places to crash your car through. There’s countrysides laden with forests, deserts laden with ...well, nothing, and singly the most beautiful and petrifying oceans you’ll ever explore. GTA V’s world, and I mean world, is vast and alive, each square metre begging for you to grab a car, bike, helicopter (normally destroying said vehicle on arrival, ‘cause you got tight skillz) and just roam around.
Everything about this landscape pushes my 360 to its limit, with exceptional draw distance and amazing transitional day to night cycles, you’ll want to plonk your arse on the top of the highest peak (with the corpse of the guy you just beat to death for his mountain bike) and watch the delicate glow bathe the city as the sun sets.
Whoa, back up Jonny! I’ve jumped ahead of myself here. Characters are kind of instrumental to the whole ‘go explore the wilderness with a golf buggy with one working wheel’ thing and this time, instead of one avatar of crime and destruction incarnate, we have three!
First up is Michael, a 40 year old, retired, bank robber (the closest thing to a winner in the GTA universe). He has a massive house, Scrooge McDuck levels of bank and a family that loathes his very existence. He loves 80’s cinema, Higher Love by Steve Winwood and feels left behind by a new world, trapped in a hollow existence. If this sounds somewhat like a love letter, I’m not going to lie, it is. I adore this character but I’ll get back to that a little later.
Up next is Franklin, a low level, petty criminal, trying to go straight and make it out of the hood by inadvertently becoming Michael’s protégé, of sorts. Franklin is our connection to the gangbangers, substance abusers and downtrodden in the glitz and glamour in this bizzaro representation of L.A.
Then finally we have what I can only describe as the sociopathic, hate-fuck conceived child of Ted Bundy and Jack Nicholson, Trevor. Every time this character is on screen, I don’t know whether my chair has a back anymore. I’m so on edge. What’s coming next? Joke? Hug? Repeated stamping on someone’s face, whilst yelling expletives? These qualities should make him detestable but with the clever writing, humour and most importantly interplayed relationships between him and his other cohorts, you see a softer, fiercely loyal side.
Having three playable protagonists is huge step in the right direction for telling a more cohesive and believable story than any other GTA instalment before it. The three characters share the central storyline but also have their own mini-sagas that play out in tandem. These pop in and out of the central thread, making it feel so much more robust.
Even better, having these three completely different personalities allows the game to not create a weird dissonance by forcing inappropriate characters to undertake uncharacteristic missions. If you need to take part in illegal street races, Franklin's your man. Going to mercilessly gun down waves of hipsters for wearing ironic shirts? Time for ol’ unhinged Trevor to do his thing! This small addition to the gameplay does a surprising amount to keep me immersed in the world.
Easily the best thing about having these three miscreants playable is the ability to switch between them at any time. Getting tired of dealing with the frustration of a midlife crisis as Michael (personally, I was taking notes)? Switch to Trevor! (Who is most likely drunk, pants-less and abusing people!) This does wonders for the pacing, it really helps sell that these people have lives independent of you dictating their actions and helps you empathize with them.
The other way this nifty mechanic is implemented is on missions that the boys take on together, where the switching feels intuitive and natural. One minute I’m sneaking into a barn as Franklin, my cover gets blown so I switch to Michael who’s sniping from a distance and when it all goes to hell, I switch to Trevor and unload RPG’s into anything that moves! It offers a sense of strategy and variety to the older style ‘shoot this haphazardly and drive away missions’, as well as allowing for some hilarious emergent gameplay.
The missions are also far more forgiving this time around, with many refinements being made to the gameplay since GTA 4. First major one, the cars no longer handle like overweight boats with KY jelly spread all over the tires. They now handle simular to the arcade/realistic cars of Forza Horizon, which makes for so much less frustration.
The combat mechanics have also been polished to near perfection. Snapping to cover now feels reliable and the aim assist is spot on, with each bullet, buckshot and rocket feeling like it packs the appropriate punch.
The biggest improvement by far though is, get ready for it, mid-mission checkpoints! No longer do you have to do that 20 minute drive of nothingness, after overestimating the ability of your suped-up scooter to make that insane jump. It seems like something so basic by nowadays standards but, by god, is it a welcomed inclusion!
All of these new and overhauled mechanics truly come to fruition in GTA V’s set piece events called ‘Heists’ where you knock over places like banks for the big money. Before each heist you are offered multiple choices like who to hire, whether you want to go in guns blazing or employ Mission Impossible levels of subtly. They also have an RPG experience style system at play, rewarding you for a successful job by levelling your hired help. This makes you balance the risk for reward, as you choose whether or not to use a guy that mugs pensioners over the Leon style professional, just because he’ll take a lesser cut.
These moments are truly inspired and the by far the highlight of the game. Only problem is there’s just too few of them. Unfortunately, this makes the levelling system seem redundant and this is also the only that you’ll ever make any real money - and you need that to become the property mogul I know I wanted to be.
After all the banks are plundered and gangbangers are ...well, banged, what else is there to do? Holy hell friend, you’re living in Los Santos, what can’t you do! I actually found myself ignoring the missions most of the time to just do my own thing (which surprisingly didn’t involve 5 stars and an inevitable trip to the hospital).
As I said earlier, I (sadly enough) can relate to Michael a little too much, to the point where I was going out of my way to make him happy! I’d wack on my Spandau Ballet-esque grey suit and go watch movies at the cinema, stop petty crime with no illusion of reward, swim in the ocean (still in the suit may I add), base jump, hell, even passive aggressively play tennis against my wife. There's just so many things to do!
Then something dawned on me. I was doing it all by myself. You have a phone (with a wicked extensive contact list) but nobody ever picks up when you call them. I missed being called to go bowling (even if I was going to turn him down). In a massive, bustling, alive city, I felt alone and that was kinda depressing.
And while we’re on the topic of depressing, another thing that the GTA games just can’t seem to shake is their negative portrayal of (you guessed it) women. Before any of you pick you your torches and form a lynch mob, here’s my beef. In 2010, Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption, essentially GTA with cowboys (and it’s awesome!). Within RDR there is a female character by the name of Bonnie and she is fantastic. She’s an unwed (by choice), ranch operating, gun slinger, who is as wonderful blend of kindness and toughness. This to me shows Rockstar understands how to make a likable, believable, empowered female character yet in GTA I always struggle to find one.
GTA V is no exception; each major female character is against you, there to emasculate you or for you to empower yourself. In a world I was so constantly immersed in, normal societal things like the lack of a believable woman should not be niggling away in the back of mind, threatening to pull me out.
Regardless of these few things, GTA V is, well, the Jurassic Park of its time. It’s beautiful to behold, stupid amounts of fun to play, a great step in mature storytelling and technologically so far ahead of its competition. It’s just simply a masterpiece that all other sandbox games will be compared to for years to come. If you're still convinced, Michael has drug trip where he shoots xenomorphs from Alien with a mini-gun... so why are you still here?
An outspoken lover of films, videogames and pop culture.
I'm fueled predominantly by black coffee, the thrill of unwinnable debates and the constant, painful disappoint known as Snyder's Man of Steel.