It’s been a long-time coming – half a decade in-fact since Niko Bellic’s escapades in Liberty City – Grand Theft Auto V is finally upon us, and it does not disappoint. We’re based in Los Santos, a fictitious take on Los Angeles, filled with washed-up film stars and those grasping at straws for hopes of fame and fortune. GTA V features three protagonists this time – Michael, Trevor and Franklin – and it’s with this trio, their personalities and specific abilities that ultimately makes GTA V much more unique than its previous installments.
Long-time retired bank robbers Michael and Trevor who clearly have some history between them, and Trevor, well Trevor just has issues of the psychotic kind. Then there is Franklin, who appears to be your typical GTA protagonist from the ‘hood’, an up and comer living in familiar territory.
The scale of San Andreas is so large that each character typically occupies their own space with their own set of missions and story to focus on. You have Michael living with his dysfunctional family in a life of luxury in Los Santos, while Trevor lives in his trailer in the desert of Blaine County, getting up to non-typical psychotic drug-induced mischief. And as mentioned, Franklin is living life in the hood!
One way or another our trio of misfits ultimately (re-)acquaint with one another, and after this initial meet-up you are free to instantly switch between each of the characters – though there are several key-points where the game will handle the switching for you, such as Franklin Sniping from afar to cover Michael, while psycho Trevor is entrusted with flying the getaway plane for example – besides these key moments, each do have their own unique set of missions, and larger heists to work on as a unit.
It’s not specifically the ability to switch characters that’s so appealing, but rather that and a culmination of smaller features; we’re talking of three separate sets of missions for each of these characters, though these do often intertwine with one another in a somewhat similar manner to GTA IV’s main protagonist crossing paths with those in the expansion packs.
GTA V is very much a culmination of Rockstar’s previous efforts; from the base of GTA IV and that memorable bank robbery mission which serves as the anchor for GTA V’s primary Heist missions, to the refinements of Red Dead Redemption, and the incredible attention to detail and refined action mechanics that come from a linear, third-person action shooter in Max Payne 3 – they all contribute in some way to rounding up Grand Theft Auto V’s gameplay.
There’s the patented Rockstar weapon wheel to a much more responsive cover system, and the signature slow-mo features for each character’s unique abilities. Grand Theft Auto V simply has the refined mechanics that you would expect from a linear story-driven action game with dramatically similar attention to detail, yet applies it to a vast open-world space.
It could be argued that GTA V’s shooting mechanics still remain problematic while the vast majority of the gameplay mechanics are much improved. Free-aim is still very much as clunky as past GTA’s which is somewhat frustrating, though with the aim-assist enabled, and with many enemies to dispose of, the default targeting system does work suitably well for the most part.
Michael, Trevor and Franklin typically work as a team on Heist missions, which are the significant story aspects of the game. The heists typically involve several sub-quests, which are expected and these can range from scouting the area to evaluate your options, by undertaking a small number of sub-missions before the heist itself. These can involve mundane tasks such as buying masks, outfits, stealing and planting a getaway vehicle etc. – until you’re ready for picking additional crew members, whom some of which may become available from completed side missions, to choosing what method to tackle each specific heist – there’s always two options, and thus an excuse to replay the biggest missions that GTA V has to offer.
What’s more intriguing is that each character has a unique ability to slow-down time, similar to Red Dead’s dead-eye or Max Payne’s bullet-time features; Michael’s is the traditional slow-down to gain the shooting edge and accuracy, Trevor’s is fairly similar but sees him having a temporary high-tolerance to pain, as psychos generally do in fits of rage, I suppose – and Franklin’s ability is reserved for when he’s behind the wheel, which is all the more handy for Heist getaways, and more specifically racing. Franklin also has something extra that the others do not, he has Chop, his homey’s dog to also aid him with his nose. Besides these unique abilities, each also have their own attributes to work on, and separate bank accounts to fill up – meaning if there’s something you want all characters to own, be prepared to go out of your way and have them pay out of their own pockets for it.
Base-jumping or parachuting isn’t the first time it’s made its presence felt in Grand Theft Auto, though this generation it was first introduced in the later expansion of The Ballad of Gay Tony, and it’s back for GTA V – as well as a host of new activities, that is besides sitting on your arse watching day time TV and drinking beer; you can also go to the theatre, play some rounds of golf, and even some games of tennis – and these aren’t as tacky as you might expect. In fact, the sports offerings could even rival some of the standalone sporting games, as they are effectively a game within a game.
Seeing as GTA V first and foremost is an open-world game, it’s non too surprising that this is where it shines most. Much like GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption, there are a wealth of miscellaneous activities that pop up on your radar from time to time to act as a distraction – and these can be whilst on your way to a different mission entirely. They serve as adding a sense of deeper immersion to the game world where even the dialogue between pedestrians is much more vast than past games; walking on by NPCs and eavesdropping on their phone conversations or general banter between other passers-by goes some way to adding a definitive positive stamp on the overall attention to detail on offer here.
Replayable missions – surprisingly it’s not something common in games, and perhaps most games don’t require it, but certainly the open-world genre is in desperate need of such a feature. It’s made all the more frustrating when certain other games go through the effort of including a Completed Missions list, yet don’t allow you to replay them. Fortunately GTA V does, Rockstar first introduced the feature in GTA IV’s The Ballad of Gay Tony expansion, so it’s a relief to see the feature present and accounted for. GTA V’s missions typically award Bronze, Silver and Gold medals, as well as Rockstar’s Social Club support enabling you to compare statistics with friends – it’s most certainly a welcome addition that should set the standard for others to follow.
Jaw-dropping is perhaps the words best used to describe how Rockstar have managed to pull off what they’ve been able to achieve with GTA V – not only does it play exceptionally well, but for an open-world game it’s a technical marvel to behold; you just don’t expect to see such attention to detail in a game of this scale, and certainly not on existing 8-yr old games consoles. While there are drawbacks in some minor areas, which is expected as a limitation of the ageing hardware. Although there’s some low-res unsightly textures in less obvious places, it’s certainly a sacrifice worth making if it means Grand Theft Auto V can ultimately perform, and visually look as stunning as it does where it matters most.
GTA Online is not something that can be factored into our review as it doesn’t launch until later; though looking at Rockstar’s track-record of GTA IV, their co-op emphasis on Red Dead Redemption, and competitive nature of Max Payne 3, combined with Rockstar’s promise of an evolving San Andreas with all new missions and all new content coming for free, it remains to be seen if they can deliver on the multiplayer front – as for single-player, a few short-comings aside, GTA V just might be Rockstar’s most impressive outing of recent memory.
The only real criticism to note is that the story itself is somewhat underwhelming in comparison to the tale of Niko’s immigrant and bleak rise from the bottom to the conquering of the criminal under-world, but that’s a small gripe to avoid treading old ground, and certainly introducing three protagonists to wield control over was perhaps always destined to have some drawbacks over a story focused on a single character.
Regardless, as a game-playing experience, Grand Theft Auto V offers the best of all worlds – it’s simply a mind-blowing technical marvel that demands attention; it’s a better playing, more immersive open-world that is genuinely staggering to behold.
Score 9/10 – Review by Wayne Julian.