If you have a successful gaming franchise, there are two approaches you can take. You can follow the Call of Duty blueprint, and, like clockwork, churn out a new cash cow every holiday season. Or you can take Rockstar Games' approach, take your old sweet time, and deliver the best damn game you can possibly deliver, no matter how long it takes. It's been a long time coming, but Rockstar's latest, Grand Theft Auto V, shows just what a game can be when its developers give it the time and attention it deserves. Read on, as Gizmag reviews GTA V.
Three amigos, one very big city
After spending the last full Grand Theft Auto game (and its two follow-up episodes) in the fictional version of New York known as Liberty City, Rockstar now takes us back to Los Angeles ("Los Santos"), which we last saw in the fan favorite GTA: San Andreas. This not only sets the table for parodies on celebrity worship, class separation, and plastic surgery, it also makes for the biggest playground a sandbox game has ever provided.
The scope of the city this time around is mind-boggling. In fact, "city" doesn't even cover it, because you get not only a much bigger urban area (including versions of famous LA landmarks like the Chinese Theater, Santa Monica Pier, and the Getty), but surrounding rural areas as well. Previous GTA games gave you a virtual city to wreak havoc in. Grand Theft Auto V gives you a virtual region to wreak havoc in.
That havoc is wreaked this time around by three protagonists, instead of the lone anti-hero that every previous Grand Theft Auto gave us. We have Michael, the retired bank robber whose happy ending isn't going quite as planned, Franklin, the young protégé with dreams of being a legitimate businessman, and Trevor, who's psychotic enough to give any "crazy" character in the entire history of fiction (from Aaron the Moor to Norman Bates to Hannibal Lector) a run for his money.
But just because the three playable characters can be summed up in quick synopses doesn't mean they play out like caricatures, as so many video game characters are wont to do. They may live in a world of satire, but Michael, Franklin, and Trevor feel as human as any gaming characters we've seen.
The human element
Part of that can be chalked up to some very human-looking animations (which may have used an element of motion capture as well). But a lot of it comes back to spot-on voice acting and authentic-sounding dialogue. Ned Luke (Michael), Shawn Fonteno (Franklin), and Steven Ogg (Trevor) hit all the right notes for their respective roles, representing three radically different cultural backgrounds with equal authenticity. Most supporting characters hit it out of the park as well, though one of Trevor's lackeys, who sounds like he walked off the set of The Dukes of Hazzard, is a notable exception.
Voice acting is too often ignored as a make-or-break component of video game storytelling. See Heavy Rain as an example of an engaging story that was almost ruined by ridiculously off-key voice-overs. But Rockstar's cast, writers, and casting team nailed this one on the head.
Of violence and satire
That level of character authenticity achieves another end. It makes the disturbing parts of GTA V (and, trust us, there are some extremely disturbing parts) that much more gut-wrenching. Twelve years ago, shooting someone in the head in Grand Theft Auto III may have been shocking, but it was so cartoon-like it was almost impossible to take seriously. In GTA V, superb HD graphics, much better voice actors, and top-notch animators combine to make scenes of torture and murder that much more grizzly.
Some would call GTA V's violence gratuitous. It is about as violent as a game can be, and you can often determine just how violent it becomes, both on-mission and off. But that violence is almost always tied to over-the-top satire that makes a statement about modern society, capitalism, and the hypocrisies that go along with them.
If you remind yourself that GTA is every bit as satirical as a Saturday Night Live sketch or an old Mad Magazine spoof, then the gruesome parts are easier to stomach. The torture is disturbing, but it's simultaneously poking fun at a reality that's much more disturbing. That's the point Rockstar is making. I imagine the game's creators are laughing at the predictable outrage many are expressing about the game's more shocking moments, while evening news reports about waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay are diplomatically branded as "controversial."
If you're going to get worked up about a piece of fiction that's heavy on gruesome violence, bawdy sexual innuendo, and biting social satire, then that's your call. But maybe you should start with Shakespeare, and then work your way up to GTA.
Of course, alongside the story, themes, and shock value is an actual video game. Here Rockstar uses its past GTA games as a starting point, doesn't deviate too far from that, but adds improvements in all the right places. You're still jacking cars, running from the cops, and getting yourself into an ever-escalating series of unfortunate events (which leads to ever-more creative means of getting out of them). But the ante is upped, and the fun value is multiplied.
The biggest change is the ability to switch among the three main characters. You can do this while off-mission (seeing what Trevor has been up to when you switch back to him is always entertaining), but the real prize is while you're on mission. Many missions include two or three of the main characters, and you'll usually get to play all of them at different points during the mission.
There are points in missions where the game will determine who you're controlling, but there are also times when you can choose. So you can be Trevor, infiltrating the drug dealers' base head-on with fearless rage, Franklin, trying to sneak in from the back side, or Michael, camped out on a hilltop with a sniper rifle covering for his (sometimes) buddies.
Another big addition is special abilities. Each character has a different ability, which borrows from Red Dead Redemption's and Max Payne's slow-motion bullet time. Michael can slow down time to make sure his shots are hitting all the right targets. Trevor can do something similar, only he also takes less damage and inflicts unusually gruesome damage on his opponents. Franklin, meanwhile, can slow down time while driving, to avoid that nasty collision with the oncoming tractor trailer.
The special abilities are all limited by a yellow bar at the bottom of your screen, and they take a little while to recharge. We found it to be a good balance of making things more fun, without making things too easy.
Speaking of abilities, there's a little bit of an RPG element this time around too. Each character has a set of stats for things like driving, stamina, and flying. Some characters are more naturally gifted in certain areas (Franklin is a great driver, Trevor is an experienced pilot), but the more you do something, the better each character will get at it. It's a nice touch, but also one that you can mostly ignore if that kind of thing seems like a chore.
The big score
This all builds up to the game's heist missions. GTA IV gave us a taste of what's possible with the "Three Leaf Clover" bank robbery mission, but Grand Theft Auto V centers much of the game around these heists. They're an absolute blast, and they go hand-in-hand with the player-switching element.
Spread throughout the game's storyline are the six big heist missions. They're so big, in fact, that you'll often need to spend three or four missions just setting up each heist (things like scouting the location, parking the getaway car, or, hell, stealing a train). This gives a stronger sense of purpose to some of the game's smaller missions, and it helps to build the stakes for the heist itself.
Most of the time, you'll be able to choose from multiple ways of approaching the heist. Do you want to enter the jewelry store with guns blazing, and take the score by force? Or do you gas the employees, disable the alarm system, and sneak in and out without harming any innocents? Many recent games are based on player choice, but being able to plot entire heists from different angles is very satisfying, and lends a lot of replayability value to the game.
We could go on and on about GTA V, but half the fun is in discovering it for yourself. The amount of detail in this sprawling virtual Southland is breathtaking. It's enough to keep you entertained for months.
Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing game, a monumental technical achievement, and a violent ride through the streets of LA, erm, Los Santos. It isn't for children, and it probably isn't for adults who can't see past the blood to appreciate the satire. GTA V shows what the last generation of consoles is capable of, and it also makes it extremely unlikely that you'll play a game this good anytime soon on your shiny new Xbox One or PS4.
Grand Theft Auto V is highly recommended for adult gamers. It retails for US$60, and is available now for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.