A month later, what is there to say about GTA 5 that hasn’t been said already? It’s been a source of almost constant discussion in gamer circles the last few weeks, and it’s without a doubt a truly fantastic achievement. It has its flaws, massive gaping flaws which might cripple many other games, but by the skin of their teeth Rockstar were just about able to pull it off with GTA 5.
GTA 5 follows three criminals in Los Santos, (a parody of LA) and the surrounding state of San Andreas. In a bank robbery gone wrong seven years before the events of the game, Michael Townley turned informer to the government and entered cushy witness protection alongside his family, but not before faking his own death. Best friend, fellow bank robber and psychotic monster Trevor Phillips mourns Michael, and moves out into the desert outside Los Santos, to pursue a career as a drugs/arms dealer. The final piece of the puzzle is Franklin Clinton, a former drug dealer who now works repossessing cars with his best friend Lamar. When he retakes a car bought with questionable credit from Michael’s useless son Jimmy, Franklin and Michael meet up and begin to draw out the worst of each other, as Michael returns to his old ways and inducts Franklin into his more glamorous lifestyle. It’s not long before Trevor joins them, and the three of them get drawn into more and more dangerous circumstances.
GTA 5’s plot is highly entertaining, and often extremely funny. In many ways, GTA 5 is a dark comedy, and is played much less po-faced than Niko Bellic’s adventures in GTA 4. There’s a continual escalation in the mayhem and carnage, whilst never getting away from what makes these three men so entertaining to follow. They’re not good people; Michael is a raging hypocrite, desperate to be the hero even as he guns down innocent police officers. Trevor is pure id, a raging monster that is nonetheless endearingly earnest and honest. Franklin has been seen by many as the moral centre, but being the sanest of the three protagonists in some ways makes him the most reprehensible of the three; he doesn’t have insanity as an excuse. Some have criticised just how terrible these men are, but they’re missing the point. We’re not meant to root for them, but we are meant to be engaged by them, and the three of them make up some of the most engaging, funny and psychologically complex protagonists in videogame history.
The story isn’t perfect. The plot is extremely meandering, with no real narrative thread at its core. It’s refreshing to see GTA try something aside from its traditional ‘rag to riches’ storyline, but it doesn’t quite work. GTA 5 is less of an epic gangster movie, but more a serialised TV show with a whole bunch of separate plot strands which pop up and leave with alarming pace. The sheer charisma of the protagonists, as well as the supporting cast (Michael’s terrible family and Franklin’s hilarious buddy Lamar were my favourites), do manage to make up for the fact that the actual story itself really isn’t that great.
Los Santos is an absolute joy to explore, with a welcome variety of locations from the big slab of city that has become the open world crime game norm. There’s more cool stuff to see in one quarter of GTA 5’s map than the entirety of Sleeping Dog’s Hong Kong. There’s never a lack for stuff to do, and although not all of it is hugely fun, it seems churlish to complain considering that the main campaign, and the fully realised side missions, make up at least 35 hours of gameplay. The tennis minigame is surprisingly fun, and the races are extremely enjoyable as well, especially the dirtbike races in the foothills of the skyline dominating Mount Chiliad. There’s a great amount of mission variety, with the typical GTA mission of ‘Go here. Kill X. Return’ largely absent. Still, my favourite moments were simply driving from point A to point B, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the beautiful world Rockstar created.
The gunplay and hand to hand combat are sadly still rubbish, which is a real shame. The general character controls are still unbelievably clunky and awkward to manoeuvre, and any subtlety of movement is simply impossible. The driving is improved from GTA 4, but it’s still not great. The flying mechanics take a while to get used to, but when I got the hang of them (particularly the planes) they were a lot of fun. Overall though it’s a real shame that the gameplay of GTA hasn’t progressed more, with GTA 5 largely containing the same flaws as GTA 4 did.
There are some great new gameplay additions though, with the character switching mechanic being the best. As well as giving us some great narrative moments, it’s generally used well during story missions, with rapid switching offering some really cool moments as we leap around different areas of a gun battle. It’s not used quite as much as you’d expect, with missions containing all three working together slightly sparse, but when it is used it’s a lot of fun. The heists are the other major addition, and they were the real highlight of the game. The player is given a slight hand in the planning of each heist, with the ability to pick a crew (with the best taking more of the cut) and sometimes the approach taken. There’s not quite as much player involvement in the planning as it may seem, but they’re so much fun that I didn’t really mind. There aren’t a large amount of heists, which makes a crew levelling system feel oddly pointless, but this is the number one feature which has to be in future DLCs.
GTA 5 is a real achievement, but it’s clear that it’s struggling on the hardware. The fact that they were able to squeeze this much out of the now quite aged PS3 and Xbox 360 is certainly impressive, but it does mean that there’s frequent texture pop up and other visual irritants. GTA 5 manages to shine through these problems though, with the presentation in every other area utterly top notch. The characters are beautifully animated and voice acted, feeling very real, the music is generally good. I wasn’t a massive fan of the choice of licenced music for the radio, but that may be more about personal music taste than anything else.
All in all, GTA 5 is a truly excellent game, and although it occasionally stumbles in its ambitions, it soars in the end. I cannot think for a better end to this console generation.