There are certain reviews that are more difficult to write than others. Sometimes it’s just hard to quantify what is or is not good about a game due to the way it doesn’t quite fit the normal mold. Other times a game is so irrevocably broken that it’s hard to list out the flaws without sounding unprofessional. Every once in a while we get a game with so many high points that there is no way to not sound like a blathering fanboy. Writing a review like that is hard as there are so many positive points that it sounds like you got paid to write it. Well… Grand Theft Auto V may just be the hardest review I’ve written in a very long time – it’s just that good. Before we get into what will be a spoiler-free admitted love letter for Rockstar, let’s take a step back and give it some perspective.
I enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV, but when an impressively expansive city (though still smaller than San Andreas) was combined with physics that could only exist on the moon, getting to your destination was frustrating. Nico’s story was decent, but it just couldn’t compare with the charm of previous entries to the series. The depressing color pallet was a blend of Quake II and Army O.D. Green. The police would run over a basket of kittens while stabbing baby panda cubs if it meant stopping Nico for the most minor of infractions. All of that said, in the end, the negatives were wiped out by the staggering number of positives, and it’s a title that I installed and beat twice, despite a busy review schedule. It was a high, if flawed, bar to leap. Grand Theft Auto V didn’t manage to leap over that bar… it flanked the bar with three soldiers, used teamwork to put holes in it, and then took a jet, a helicopter, and a festively-colored parachute so high over that bar that it was impossible to see from that height. I’m telling you up front that Grand Theft Auto V is arguably the best sandbox game of this generation. In fact, it may be the best game of this generation.
Grand Theft Auto IV was a drip-fed IV of gameplay tutorials and features that slowly emptied into your arm over a few hours. Grand Theft Auto V pulls hard in the other direction, opening with Michael in the middle of a heist. I suspect this is because they wanted to show players that they are committed to getting the game moving a little faster (and without all the damned bowling), and they also wanted to show off the vastly-improved gunplay mechanics. Any way you slice it, the game’s pacing issues have been fixed.
The resolution of the pacing issues isn’t just in the way that the story is laid out – Rockstar has removed loading from the game almost entirely. There is an initial load sequence, of course, but after this you’ll literally walk directly into a story mission. There is no long loading portion with a black screen with the title of that mission in the corner. You’ll be driving around, pull up to your house, and then the will swing into a more cinematic camera and take control to set up the next objective. It’s seamless and is a far more immersive approach.
Immersion is a word I’m probably going to overuse in this review, but nowhere is it stronger than in the voice work. Grand Theft Auto IV’s cast was pretty solid, but occasionally the strong accents made for some comical exchanges (or in the case of Little Jacob, the need to turn on subtitles to understand anything that he was saying). For Grand Theft Auto V, the team at Rockstar pulled in a colorful cast of characters – along with some actors and actresses that you might have never heard of – to create one of the most authentic and engaging experiences you’ll likely encounter for quite some time. There are three protagonists in the game this time, and they are easy to connect with. You feel for Michael trying to balance life, family, and his urge to be something other than sedentary. You empathize with Franklin trying to dig his way out of the thug life and how the people around him sabotage his legitimate efforts at every turn. Trevor on the other hand…. I don’t want to empathize with him as he’s a complete psychopath. That said, everything that comes out of his mouth is comedy gold. Trevor has become my new favorite character as I’m just waiting to hear whatever random nonsense he’ll say next. I’d talk about other characters in the game, but it’d cheapen the overall experience – suffice it to say that they turn in similarly solid work. As before, if you blow a mission, Rockstar was kind enough to record a second script so you aren’t getting repetition as punishment.
Graphically, Grand Theft Auto V makes the respectable presentation of its predecessor look pretty bland in comparison. What a difference five and a half years makes! Gone is the drab and depressing color scheme, giving players all the bright faux-California sun they can stand. Having lived in Los Angeles, many places in the world of Los Santos, San Andreas are familiar. The city itself is teeming with life, and I don’t just mean random pedestrians and cars roaming around. People go about their daily lives: traffic backs up, downtown is busy, Vinewood is full of shopping and mansions, Vespucci Beach has people skating and lifting weights, Blaine County is far more rural with rednecks and pink flamingos, and wind turbines spin in the distance like the real-world San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. The whole place feels organic, looks the part, and is more like a living world than ever before.
The inhabitants of this twisted playground are also looking their best. Close-ups on the characters, whether it be during cutscenes or gameplay, show a vast increase in detail. There are very few blurry textures, and despite running on hardware from November of 2005, the Xbox 360 holds a fairly steady framerate for the vast majority of the time.
Mechanics aside, let’s get into the real meat of the game – heists and choice. Both are new elements to the series, and they serve to provide incredible replay value to an already jam-packed adventure. Periodically throughout the story you’ll be given choices for each character. Sometimes these are as mundane as whether or not to help your wife out of a shoplifting mishap, while the more weighted decisions could be whether or not you execute a gang member or just threaten him to get your point across. The real choices come when you finally set up a heist.
Buying real estate, trading stocks, and dropping off hapless tourists into the hands of nearby cultists will make a little money for you, but heists are what generate real wealth. I would be a terrible reviewer if I told you anything specific about them, so I’ll paint in broad strokes. Each character is capable of kicking off a heist, and all of them have very different planning methods ranging from scribbling on an apartment wall to a more tactical corkboard approach. You’ll need to do a bit of planning and resource gathering, so don’t expect it to be a quick score. You’ll usually have a loud or quiet approach, and a choice of exit methods, but all require more than the trio of main characters. As the story unfolds you’ll encounter all sorts of unsavory people, and these accomplices can be used in heists. Each of them has a skillset package that grows the more often you use them. The choices matter because the slightest screw-up can suddenly make your quiet heist into a loud smash-and-grab. They can also screw up and get caught, costing you whatever portion of the take they might be holding. Since a proper heist can net you millions, a single bag can be a painful loss.
There is one huge reason to replay Grand Theft Auto V – experiencing the same mission from another perspective. For instance, when one character finds out that his girl was sleeping with someone else you can experience this in the first person as that character, or you can experience it as another character as you drive up the driveway and see the cheater bailing out of the second story window. This is just one purposely vague example, and this game is absolutely chock full of them. In fact, there are a total of 69 missions, 42 hobbies and pastimes, 14 random events, 20 “Strangers and Freaks” side missions (repossessing vehicles, stealing random things from celebrities, etc.), and much more. If you felt like Grand Theft Auto IV took out your favorite hobby, there is a fair chance that it’s here for you to discover all over again.
The character-switching in Grand Theft Auto V changes things dramatically. A mission where you have Franklin driving and Michael in the passenger seat means you can drive and leave the AI to tackle the gunplay, or you can switch to Franklin and cut down your foes using his special ‘slow time’ ability. Franklin’s special ability allows him to concentrate, slowing time a bit to make very precise driving corrections. Trevor, ever the “I was dropped on my head as a child” psychopath, has a “Rampage” ability that allows him to rip enemies apart in slow motion doing more damage with any weapon in his hands. Since you can switch between the three characters at almost any time (and you’ll occasionally even have a chance to play as other characters) this creates some sweet gameplay that you might not have expected. Trevor’s skills with a sniper rifle are crucial, and when combined with Michael’s run-and-gun slow motion ability and Franklin’s impeccable driving prowess, you have a nearly unstoppable crew.
For the first time in the series, characters now have a set of eight skills that they can grow over time. Stamina, strength, stealth, and lung capacity are joined by a meter for their special abilities. These impact how long you can run and swim, of course, but also impact how well you handle recoil, climbing speed, take-off and landing in planes and helicopters, and so much more. If you want to bump up your flying skills, logic follows that you head to flight school. Similarly if you’d like to have a bit more stamina, then riding bikes, triathlons, tennis, golf and other physical activities will help with that. Other than specialty skills, simply doing more of something makes you better at it – practice makes perfect. This is not an arbitrary add, but one with real gameplay implications.
Speaking of practice, there is one element that I did find a little frustrating – you can’t restart missions or races midway through, meaning you’ll have to fail out completely to restart. It’s such a minor nitpick, but when the races reach maximum-dickbag difficulty it’s something you’ll notice. On the flipside of that, I was very pleased to see that bullets are no longer made of NERF. Shotguns work both ways, though, so cutting down your foes with a single load of buckshot to the chest works as well for you as it does for them. Headshots are instant death, so you’ll be using the cover methods to keep that new haircut from being your last.
Grand Theft Auto V sets the new gold standard for sandbox games. It is so immersive that it’s easy to invest in Trevor, Franklin, and Michael, their story, and how it all goes tragically wrong. Trevor’s delusions of entrepreneurship, Michael’s therapy-fueled fence-riding between professional thief and professional couch potato, and Franklin’s desperate desire to get out of the hood without making the same mistakes that everyone else around him has fallen victim to, create an engaging, entertaining, and cohesive experience. I can’t imagine the pressure behind the scenes, but everything that Rockstar has attempted with Grand Theft Auto V gels together perfectly. As we look forward to the next-generation launches in just a few months, it’s pretty awesome to see the best game of this entire generation cap it off. Grand Theft Auto V is Game of the Year material, and judging by the preorder numbers, you already know that.
We’ll take another look at Grand Theft Auto V when the online components launch in a supplementary piece to this review. Now quit reading, quit watching the video, and go get this game. It’s perfect.