It’s been a long time coming, but Grand Theft Auto V is finally here. I’ve been a fan since the first game, I played hours of GTA: London, 100% completed GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas (twice!), and got disappointed with the shift in seriousness of GTA IV, though that didn’t stop me from finishing that twice as well because of the trophy patch dropping a while after release. I’ve been hoping for the last 12 months that Rockstar have nailed it this time and managed to match, or exceed, the brilliance of their vision during the last generation. Will it turn out to be the game we all wanted?
With the game in the machine you’re itching to get going, but there’s the install to get through first. Expect to sit for 10 minutes waiting for the 8 gb transfer to complete (for PS3), but at least you know the progress because the little counter in the bottom right of the screen keeps you updated, something that’s not always present in games that need to pinch big chunks of your HDD space. Once done, the games kicks straight into the action, and if you’re familiar with any of the GTA games you know you’re in tutorial mode. There’s very little changed in the control setup from GTA IV but you instantly feel more in command of the characters and vehicles, and the targeting and shooting (traditionally not the best in the genre) have benefitted the most from the tightening up. Rockstar seem to have used a lot of the learnings from Red Dead Redemption to take that sublime and satisfying combat from the wild west and drop it in the middle of modern day Los Santos, and because it’s using the same game engine, it’s not surprising that the weapon wheel makes a welcome return. All-in-all, it’s a well put together intro that drops into some action, teaches you how it works, and introduces you to two of the main characters without taking over the controls and still keeping a cinematic feel (learn this lesson well Assassins Creed, we don’t need 5 hours of hand holding to get into a game).
The use of characterisation in the GTA series is always a highlight, and whilst the worlds get the limelight because of the size and variety of things to do, you are drawn into that world through the character and the story being told. It’s the same here, though this time the story comes through the lives of three protagonists, Michael, Trevor and Franklin. The intro/tutorial is all about Michael and Trevor to set up their relationship for the rest of the game, then it shifts to Franklin and his struggle with making money in Los Santos. It’s very reminiscent of GTA San Andreas and C.J.’s story to begin with, and this sells the world because it feels like things have moved on 10 years and you’re in a new era, there are even nice references to the characters from previous games and where they lived. The city is different in layout and scenery, though I immediately felt at home, and even had a massive wave of nostalgia wash over me as I drove up into Vinewood for the first time. Once you get moving in the story, the way characters interact and develop is nicely handled, and the game gives ample time with you playing as all of the stars, both in the missions themselves and outside with the multitude of activities and side missions to take part in. Switching between characters is a press of a button and happens pretty quickly, I was worried when I heard about the feature that it could mean loading times and breaking up the flow, but it’s quite slick with the zoom out/zoom in Google Earth style. It’s disorienting at first when you forget that characters have lives that happen whilst you’re not playing as them. I originally spent time puzzled about why Michael was mooching around a harbour when I’d left him at home, and the last time I dropped in on Trevor I was thrown into a fight with three muscle men on Vespucci beach.
As you’d expect from Rockstar, the main story path is engaging, well scripted and voice-acted, and doesn’t reuse the same mission setup over and over again. In fact, one of the biggest changes, and this is odd to say for a sandbox game, is that you’ve now choices for how you approach key missions, which take the form of heists. You get involved in setting up the heist by choosing how you want to tackle the target and pull the mission off, then find the equipment and team needed to see it through. This is a really nice touch because all missions are replayable so there’s incentive to go back and try alternate methods to see what the outcome would be. There’s also a ranking system of gold, silver and bronze for each mission where a higher score comes from actions you take, but you only get a cryptic clue at the end that hints at what you should have done to score better. Unlike the previous games, this throws in a decent amount of replay value. I may have completed the others more than once but there was always a year or two gap between playthroughs, with this I can see myself jumping to favourite missions quite often to go for high scores and try different techniques.
Outside main missions it’s pretty daunting the amount of things you can do. Not everything is open at the beginning and most of the activities are unlocked by completing the Strangers & Freaks quests. All the freaks I’ve met have been excellently portrayed, and they are where the game gets to really depart from the serious parts of the story (because there are some quite severe moments) and lets you have fun. If you get bored of the missions there’s usually something you can do from a round of golf to a game of darts or extreme sports. If you’re in an exploratory mood there are collectibles to find to solve murders, clean up the environment or prove the existence of ET. If you just want to sit around there’s TV at home, foreign cinema to be perplexed by, or strippers to gawp at. And this is before you start buying properties, dabbling in the stock market, racing all types of vehicles, or going for gold in a triathlon. It shouldn’t be a surprise that you can sink hours into this game without really doing anything, but it’s scary how quickly time goes by. I’ve just checked my stats over at the Rockstar Social Club (and I recommend signing up if you aren’t already) and was horrified by the time I’ve lost, I’m sure I don’t even sleep as many hours as that in a week!
For all the mayhem addicts out there, you can’t avoid it in Los Santos even if you try to play it straight. The random events you come across from the AI are brilliant, and I’d like to think that they’re a result of the emergent behaviour of the system rather than scripted to happen. Several times I’ve been minding my own business and got caught up in a car-jacking or watched a shoot-out happen between police and speeding motorists. Then there’s the events that happen as you’re travelling round the game world like robberies and car crashes where you have the option to help or walk away. I’ve given up helping after my first attempts to assist these people went awry, with one particularly nasty experience ending with two bodies, a car and a can of petrol in the middle of nowhere (and I’m saying no more on the subject).
Traditionally renowned for the music selection, the radio choice in Grand Theft Auto V has something for everyone and contains the usual level of parody we’ve come to know and love. The Soulwax station is a favourite here at Codec Moments but I’ d be lying if I said it wasn’t satisfying driving through the countryside whilst listening to the Convoy theme tune. My only issue with the music is that things are repeated too often. I should really dig out a list of the tracks and check how many tunes there are, but it feels like there’s a lot of stations with only a few tracks on each. This is mitigated a bit by the up-to-the-minute news bulletins that track the events you’ve made happen in the world and the always amusing adverts, but it does become noticeable quickly. And that’s it, the only thing I’ve come across that I don’t really like, and even then I can switch the radio off and enjoy the sounds of the city.
So how do we summarise a game that we’ve only got half of? GTA Online isn’t due until the 1st October, and based on the experience of the Rockstar Social Club feed and the iFruit app, it might be some time afterwards before the networks can cope with the number of users (though GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption always seemed pretty stable). We’ll review the online portion and the add on apps as seperate entities over the next couple of weeks. However, the story mode of GTA V is immense, as is the world and amount of care and attention to detail that’s gone into it. It’s fair to say that I’ve not played anything like it in scope, and the last thing I played that made me feel like this was San Andreas. As a single player game it’s rewarding, forgiving in the right places but challenging in others, and is amazing value for money when you put it next to its closest rival Saints Row IV. Then remember there’s an untapped mulitplayer mode and DLC yet to come (I presume). It could well be the swansong for this generation of consoles and will most likely be the only game a lot of people play before the PS4 and Xbox One go on sale in November. Rockstar has delivered the game I wanted, added things I didn’t even know I wanted until I got them, and brought back the humour I felt was toned down in GTA IV. Fantastic.
PS3 review copy provided by the kind people at Rockstar PR, thanks!