Grand Theft Auto V skips all of the preliminaries and gets right to the insanity.
Want to hijack a plane in midair? Smoke some dubious weed and go on a very bad trip? Blow up a meth lab? Stop dreaming and start doing. Grand Theft Auto V, to be released Tuesday for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (reviewed), ramps up fast and doesn’t slow down for anyone. If you don’t like those early hours of other Grand Theft Auto games, where you have to run dinky fetch quests for low-level gangsters for 10 hours before things get interesting, you won’t have a chance to feel that way about GTA V because it’ll have you robbing banks and jumping trains on a dirt bike faster than you can say “not eligible for parole.” I couldn’t really get into previous games in the series, but I can’t stop playing the fifth.
The reason that GTA V, narratively speaking, can get its plot into high gear so quickly is that it is the first game to let you control three main characters. The typical narrative of “penniless street thug works his way up from petty crime to kingpin” is gone, or at least it’s not the entirety of the narrative thread this time. By being able to shift the player’s control between three wildly different characters at various stages of their lives, GTA V gives us all of the various perspectives and experiences we expect from this urban crime drama, from drug deals gone bad in grimy flophouses to intricate million-dollar heists, but no longer in rigid sequence.
The first two characters you meet are the classic Grand Theft Auto archetypes: a gangbanger who wants to make it big and a career criminal who’s given up the life but gets pulled back in. The third fits in to no such established pattern and is, I think without question, the most wonderful player character ever in this series: Trevor. He would never have starred in a game all his own, he’s just too crazy. He’s a homicidal sociopath, a sexual deviant and prone to unexplained fits of rage. He’s an ugly, filthy unchecked id, a manchild without a filter. He’s haggard, clothed in rags and stoned out of his freakin’ mind.
In other words, he lives exactly how the typical Grand Theft Auto player acts. Trevor is what you, Upstanding Model Citizen, become as soon as you pick up a controller and boot up an open world, no-consequences, do-anything crime simulator. Grand Theft Auto didn’t tell you to go on a rampage and kill all those sex workers with a sawed-off shotgun. It doesn’t even make sense in the logic of the story since the characters are supposed to be cool, calculating master criminals, not lunatics with grenade launchers. Oh, but not Trevor. When he shows up for a mission, he looks and acts like he got there by way of mowing down pedestrians in a stolen sport utility vehicle.
All this adds up to some spectacular moments; I’ve played a lot of games that were supposed to be funny but I can’t remember laughing at a videogame cut scene so hard as I have during some of Grand Theft Auto V‘s. The writing, acting and comedy timing is just as perfect as you’d expect from Rockstar at this point, but whereas in previous games a character like Trevor would have been some minor nutjob you took a couple of dubious missions from, now he’s front and center and mixing it up everywhere.
The character-switching mechanic comes into play in two different ways. When you’re roaming about the map, you can switch to one of the two other characters if you want to tackle one of their individual missions. This isn’t instantaneous — there’s a considerable loading time since the game has to pull in a whole new section of the Los Angeles-themed city of Los Santos when you switch — so the game doesn’t let you rapidly switch back and forth between two characters doing different things on the map.
Where you can switch rapidly is during missions. Some of the game’s more complicated and momentous undertakings star two or three characters, and at certain times you’ll swap between them as they play different roles. This is how you’ll end up flying a helicopter, rappelling down the side of a building and shooting people with a sniper rifle, all at the same time. Oftentimes you don’t have much of a choice in how you handle things, since the game sets up a certain scenario and lets you know when to switch off (and punishes you if you don’t). But sometimes you can improvise and swap between all three characters as you want to, but in my experience (I’ve put in about 20 hours so far and done 44 of the 69 main story missions) these tend to be simple gunfights.
Speaking of mission design, there’s another reason Grand Theft Auto V feels like it ramps up a little more quickly: Rockstar finally fixed the gameplay.
GTA games, for as polished and perfected as they are in certain respects, have always been broken in others. Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t have mid-mission checkpoints; if you died at any time during one of its prodigiously long missions, you were booted back into the world and had to restart the whole thing. Now, there are checkpoints and it makes a world of difference. If you bite it, and you will, you can hit a button to retry immediately not far from where you failed.
Yes: The date on this story is in 2013. This is the first Grand Theft Auto to launch with this feature (it was added to the expansion packs for GTA IV). Rockstar North just takes such a length of time to produce one of these games, with their massive, intricately detailed cities and endless list of things to do, that by the time it hits stores some of the gameplay mechanics can already feel a few years old.
I think Grand Theft Auto needs to go even further. The moments in GTA V when I felt most frustrated — yelling at the game instead of laughing — was when the mission designs needed me to do one very specific thing and I wasn’t able to figure out what it wanted. This, I think, is the fundamental disconnect of Grand Theft Auto games: The wide open world gives you a feeling of freedom and encourages you to go explore and find your own fun, but the missions tend to corral you into having to do very specific things in order to have very specific “spontaneous” experiences. For example, I’m pretty sure I’ve already mentioned jumping over a train on a dirt bike. This comes late in a particular sequence in which I happened to be driving a little bit off the path, and by the time I saw the small ramp in the center of the road it was already too late.
The way these sequences are set up, you die a lot for the sin of not being omniscient. But at least there are checkpoints.
We drove out to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last year, out in Simi Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and for a moment, driving through the hills outside Los Santos was almost as breathtaking. Yes, I admired GTA IV‘s beautiful Liberty City in the same way, but I found that the shine came off for me after, oh, 10 hours of preliminary missions that booted me if I died. Liberty City was a nice place to visit but I didn’t want to live there.
For me in Los Santos, when it all clicked, it really, really clicked. Taking off in an airplane for the first time shouldn’t have been so exhilarating, but it was. Whenever I was fully engaged, happily zipping from mission to mission, weaving in and out of traffic at a hundred-plus miles an hour, enjoying those little moments of perfect harmony, pulling yet another unlucky motorist out of their car and turning them into an indistinct red stain on the way out — that was when I finally felt like I didn’t want to leave.