Let’s be clear: if you are reading this review, which will have come live on the website well after the release of the game, you have probably bought, played, and formed your own opinion on this game. Grand Theft Auto V is immensely popular. As of the time of this writing, the game has made over a billion dollars, spawned endless internet discussion and memes, thousands of videos, millions of message board posts, appeared on nightly news, and has made such a splash culturally that avoiding the title would be tantamount to not knowing what Angry Birds is. There is no avoiding it. The good news is that you shouldn’t want to.
Grand Theft Auto V is developer Rockstar’s latest addition to their open world crime series, and one that acts as a response to everything that has come before. It is an impossibly large game, and one that extends beyond any iteration before it. The GTA V Experience, as I have come to call it, consists of single player, GTA Online, and the iFruit companion app. In total, the summation of these three experiences are as big as any game has ever been for the $60 admission price. I’ll review them independently, as each facet warrants its own discussion. This was a difficult review to write, and as such it will be very structured. Bear with the robotic nature of how I approach each topic. Firstly, lets talk about the game itself.
Running around the fictional state of San Andreas was humbling in the GTA of the same title back on PS2. Reimagined in GTA V, San Andreas sprawls out to incredible size. Looking down at the enormous city of Los Santos at night brings a real perspective to the sheer size of your playspace. Then you consider that the city makes up a fraction of the entire state, and it becomes almost dizzying. The world that Rockstar provides for the play is just that: a virtual world. And I say that with every connotation of the word. People mull about living their lives, businesses are waiting for your patronage, crimes occur even when not perpetrated by you… San Andreas is alive. It really feels as if the player is an accessory to this space, rather than a focus.
Not only does the world feel as if it doesn’t need the player, it is incredibly detailed. Highways have rumble strips and impact guards. Street lights operate on a timed schedule. Water wets your clothes so far as it touches it, and you can leave a trail as you exit the water. This game is chock full of details that you may never notice. Part of that is because there is no way you can see everything in this game. Part of it is because some of these things operate so close to our natural lives that you don’t notice them as standing out. Rockstar has meticulously crafted every detail, down to the way flip-flops flip and flop as you walk. There’s even a functioning and constantly updating internet, complete with an in-game stock market that you can gamble on. Seriously. This game is absolutely stunning in its attention to detail.
Gameplay mechanics operate largely as they have before. Players will spend a lot of time doing one of two things: shooting and driving. These are the staples on which GTA is built, and V takes steps to improve on existing systems. The driving mechanic feels tighter and better controlled than the floaty controls of GTA IV, with cars being more responsive than ever. Also, each car behaves independently from one another, so shifting from vehicle to vehicle can drastically change the way you approach something simple, like turning a corner. Every factor needs to be considered while operating in a world that thrives on detail. Oh, and when you’re done driving, the car ticks cool. Seriously. Every little detail is thought of.
There are hundreds of cars in the game, and each can be customized to suit your needs and preferences. Drive your vehicle to Los Santos Customs and get it kitted out. Armor, engine, braking, and turbo are just a few of the practical enhancements you can add to any vehicle for a price. Cosmetically, you can choose between various rims and wheels, skirt kits, and a host of paint options. While it’s no Forza or Need for Speed: Underground, the customization is a welcome addition.
Shooting mechanics are vastly different from past iterations. The game comes default with the craziest auto-aim mode I have ever witnessed in a video game. Aiming by looking down the sights immediately snaps to the nearest target, and a flick of the right stick carries you automatically to the chest of the next enemy. This effectively turns each firefight into a game of whac-a-mole. You can elect to turn off the auto-aim and try manual, where you’ll find the stiff control of yesteryear and a sudden jump in difficulty. A few firefights in this game had me frustrated with the auto-aim on. Off, I imagine they would be a real headache.
It’s a shame that they didn’t carry over the shooting mechanics from a game like Max Payne 3, which displayed a far better example of how to operate in a gunfight. GTA V is basically a game of hunt the red dots. Minimap options have been tweaked from IV, and your health bar is tied to it. Any attempt to remove the helpful red dot indicators on your map and add tension to the fight will also remove your health bar, which is horrible. Ultimately, it is the biggest misfire of the entire game, and it’s regrettable that it also happens to be a core game mechanic.
Beyond the shooting and driving, there’s a lot to be had in GTA V. Minigames ranging from tennis to golf, etc., litter the landscape. The activities lack the depth and thought of a truly fleshed-out mode, and anyone who has played a previous entry in the series knows that these types of activities are never high in quality. Controls are imprecise, and overall mechanics across minigames means that they will provide the most minimum of distractions.
Other side options include parachuting, racing, and rampaging. These games tap into the game’s core mechanics, and work much better on the whole thanks in part to the tight controls present in normal playing.
Reviewing the single player of GTA V really only examines a few things. The three character structure, how it affects the flow of the game and missions, and the resulting narrative. As a preface, I played the game to 80% completion, saw every ending, and played many of the heist missions in multiple ways.
The game has three main characters, Micheal, Trevor, and Franklin. Each has their own personality, their own story, and even a unique gameplay mechanic. Micheal is a career gangster who is retired at middle age to the wealthy Vinewood district of Los Santos. He has a family that resents him, and a life that he feels out of place in. He romanticizes old movies in a way that he reflects on his more exciting younger days. It’s clear that he loved the “good old days,” and when the story turns to take him back, he jumps in head first. He has a depth to him that is greater than the other three, and probably makes him the most well-written character of the bunch.
Trevor is completely insane. Introduced to the game via a grisly murder, he consistently goes over-the-top when it comes to how he handles himself. He murders without reason, he imposes on other people’s lives, and he twists the environment around him to his will. He is a cancer on San Andreas, ruining lives as he aims to expand his drug business and elevate his position. His history with Micheal adds an interesting dynamic between them, but all of the interesting parts of it are on Micheal’s end.
Franklin is a from-the-hood street thug. He works repossessing cars for money with his friend Lamar, but aspires to running more profitable work. Franklin is the most poorly-written character of the three. He is a walking contradiction. Franklin often laments the criminal lifestyle that he’s been forced into, all the while wanting to become better at it. It’s almost irritating across the entirety of the story mode, and while I loved Franklin for having some of my favorite missions, I hated when he spoke.
Together, the three of them form a band of criminals that play off each other but have their own independent motives and missions. It improves the pacing of the game greatly. The flow of the narrative is always quick because when one character hits a low point, the game will funnel you into the next character. It keeps the game moving, and is an extremely welcome touch. It will inevitably make other games feel slower, and I’ll miss GTA V for it when I finally put it to rest.
While some missions are exclusive to a single character, there are many where multiple characters are present. In these missions, you can hot swap between characters at will, shifting perspective on the battlefield and allowing for a new perspective on what is going on. In gunfights, this is useful for Micheal and Trevor’s unique abilities. Both slow down time, but Trevor has the added bonus of becoming nearly invincible and doing extra damage. Franklin is far and away the best driver, with the ability to slow down time and command perfect control over the vehicle.
The missions that the game puts you through are a sampling of past offerings, but there’s plenty of great new content that makes the story mode shine. Heist missions are the game’s biggest new draw. These are large-scale operations involving a planning phase, a preparation phase, hiring a crew, and then execution. While there’s only ever two approaches to a heist, selecting your crew can change the flow of the mission drastically. In one instance, I chose a good getaway driver, and he was able to give me directions as we fled through the tunnels below Los Santos. Replaying that mission later, I chose a weaker driver that wasn’t as costly, and his confusion during the take was evident as he fumbled directions and left me on my own to figure out where to go. It is an excellent dynamic, and one that makes having the ability to replay mission all the more welcome. Your crew also improves as you use them on missions, but from what I found the effectiveness of a plan is far more dependent on the player. The crew simply can add a crutch to lean on in times of need.
Beyond the heists, there’s a lot of typical “go here and shoot this” missions, but with added flair. Rockstar included optional objectives with every mission, and then awards you a bronze, silver, or gold rating. This adds extra incentive to go back and replay mission in certain approaches or under tougher constraints, although there was no palpable reward for earning gold medals.
While the story mission are available from start to finish (obviously), there are myriad side mission to complete as well. These “strangers and freaks” missions are unique to each character, and add side stories and personalities that are fun to explore in bite size. While none of these missions ever has a character with the depth of the single player offering, it’s the side missions that can offer some needed variety between story missions.
Even extra to that, there’s random events around the city. These will occur while you are driving by, and can be anything from saving an old woman’s purse to driving a drunk couple to a motel so they can settle their issues. These random events really make the world feel alive, as there is ALWAYS something to do in San Andreas.
The narrative has its ups and down, but it is not the rags-to-riches story that we’ve grown accustomed to in previous titles. What Rockstar delivers here is a very original piece, and the three characters allow for a variety of narrative turns to take place without seeming farfetched. I won’t speak much to the actual content of the narrative, but I can assure you that the multi-layered story arcs are well worth the hours it will take to flesh them out.
The single player has been the focus of GTA for years, and this iteration is no different. A few stumbles here and there don’t hamper the original direction and ever-flowing narrative that draws gamers in to the experience. It’s an excellent story presented beautifully across a fictional world. And it’s a must-play.
Below this section, in bold print, with ample space before and after, I will discuss spoiler-ish content. I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, and while I won’t say anything directly, you may be able to make some inferences that could affect your play through. I think that it is an important section to read, but in the interest of protection, avoid the bold print if you don’t want any hints whatsoever.
The game has two elements to it that I find are necessary for discussion. The first is a mission that you play where you are in control of torturing a person. While this mission does what it aims to do as a satire of the American use of torture, it still may be unsettling for some gamers. This mission is unskippable. A playthrough of the story mode makes this mission mandatory. That said, I found the mission to do what it aims to effectively, and helps in conveying one of many messages that the game has buried within it.
Secondly, in the later part of the game, you are forced to make a choice. While I won’t detail the choice and what factors go into deciding it, I will say that all players should pick option C. Choosing options A and B can ruin your save file. This is a move done on purpose by Rockstar, and one that comes beneath a veil. The game outright lies about the consequences of option C, encouraging you to pick one of the three instead of the obvious answer. I find it despicable of Rockstar to try and hide behind this mission a vicious punishment, but that’s their choice to make.
The online portion of GTA V is both extremely similar and vastly different from the single player world. As of the time of this review, the online has been working for about a week, and server problems plagued the first few days. Ongoing issues persist, as character deletion and progress loss are common. So common, in fact, that IGN’s reviewer wrote a piece that was more like a discussion board rant than an actual review. I have had access for a few days, with plenty of problem-free gaming since the start. I have played for roughly 12-15 hours, attained a rank of 13, obtained a few weapons and vehicles, properties, played many jobs, participated in random madness, and had a pretty good time doing it all. When it works. I’ll be writing this portion as if the connection issues were not present, and try to look at the game on offer instead.
GTA Online throws you in creating a character to play as. To do so, Rockstar provides the most irritating and strange character creation tool on the planet. You choose the heritage of your character, from grandparents and parents to you. Then you take on their traits depending on your lineage. You can also be male or female. Overall, it is horrible and confusing. And it is just the beginning.
You then deck out your character’s states by allotting hours as to how they spend their day. Doing legal or illegal work, exercising, and sleeping are among the things you can give hours to, which affect your stats. However, the game never truly explains how the stats are affected, so you have to play with the sliders to find a good balance of desired starting traits. But soon you hit confirm and enter the connected San Andreas.
After a few brief tutorial mission in which you race Lamar, obtain your first car, and run some drugs, you are let loose. Online, there are always other players. Always. Some will hunt you, some will help you. But every single interaction is one that begins with tension. You never know the intentions of another player who is chasing you. You are never aware of when someone will pop out and kill you during a robbery. It is chaos. But is it also chaos with a hidden cost.
What the game does not tell you explicitly is that every time you die, it costs you roughly a thousand dollars. Considering the sometimes slow pace of monetary gain online, and this becomes an issue. The running around, murderous mayhem that is so much fun with others is penalized. In the single player, there is a five thousand dollar cost for death, but money in the single player mode quickly reaches the millions of dollars. Online, jobs can range anywhere from one to ten thousand per, and there is even a hidden cost to enter the job in the first place. These hidden fees detract from the fun. It also makes being a mean player all the more cruel.
For instance, (and mind you, I’m not exactly proud of this) I once strolled up on a player who was robbing a liquor store, shot him in the back of the head, and took his robbery money. Which is fine. It happens. I then proceeded to take his car, and run over him with it when he respawned nearby. That’s a two thousand dollar profit for him turned into a two thousand dollar cost, all at the whim of another player. These types of scenarios can be incredibly frustrating. But such is the way of online crime.
You can partake in story style missions alone or with a group. These are mostly a “go here, shoot this, bring drugs back here” mission. The shootouts can be very intense. It seems that it is a lot easier to die online, so co-op is heavily encouraged. You can even jack up the difficulty to earn more ranking points and level up faster. After the story missions, the game will automatically drop you into competitive modes. If you want to play a lot of story missions together, you must exit out of the job mode after each individual mission.
Deathmatch modes are traditional enough, with weapon pickups scattered around the map. Last team standing is a one-life each competition. Race modes are exactly that. The most interesting competitive mode are the “missions,” which have two teams killing each other while trying to complete an objective of some type. Nothing too out of the ordinary on offer, but there’s enough to change the pace and keep things from getting boring.
Online mode, as it exists a week after launch, is not without problems. But what I have seen shows strong promise of being a really fun time. Joining up with friends to complete missions and wreak havok is an absolute blast. And while things may not be smooth sailing now, in the near future Rockstar should have things patched up and ready to go. It’s a unique online experience that should definitely be tried out if you’ve got the disc or download on hand.
The companion app to GTA V, iFruit is available on iOS devices. It brings two major augmentations to the table, and features a lot of fluff besides. The first is the Los Santos Customs app, which allows you to customize cars a license plates for use in the game. Linking your online ID to the app allows the app to communicate with the game, adding in your custom car content. It’s a reasonable feature, but nothing that you couldn’t already do in game short of the license plates.
The second part of the app is the Chop the Dog mode. This is a really horrible minigame in which you train and take care of the in-game Rottweiler that follows Franklin around. His mood and tricks learned in the app can translate to the game and help build you relationship with the dog. There’s two problems with this: the app isn’t fun, and Chop is useless in the console game. This is a really pointless addition to the app, but as one of the only two functional parts of the app, I suppose it is relevant.
There are many other aspects to the iFruit app, some which advertise the other Rockstar games, and one that connects you to the Rockstar Social Club. In short, unless you absolutely must customize cars on the go, the iFruit app is not worth the memory on your smartphone to have.
Grand Theft Auto V is one of the biggest games I’ve ever played. And the quality does not suffer for its size. It continues to give and give and give, from mission and characters, to the game’s fairly robust online mode. While the app is unnecessary, it can be completely ignored as an optional extra. GTA V is very well designed, fun to play, has a great narrative, and can keep you playing for hundreds of hours. This is exactly the type of game that gamers want to play: high value, high fun. Ignoring GTA V would be a crime in and of itself. As one of the last major releases of this generation before the new consoles arrive, GTA V makes a strong case as to why current consoles are still relevant, and still producing content that can outclass much of what has come before it.
This review leaves a lot out, but not for lack of trying to mention everything. I could easily have made this review 10,000 words and still not said it all. But I think everything can be summed up like this:
To not play Grand Theft Auto V is to not play one of the defining games of this or any console generation. It is the king of sandbox games, and the ultimate simulator in freedom. If you don’t have the money now, then make room in the budget. But do not ignore this game completely. It is worth your time and your money.