For me, Grand Theft Auto has been a series of interest since late 2003. I had heard my cousin mention it, but at that point I confused it for Grand Turismo and didn't understand why he said my parents would never let me play it. One day, late 2003, I was at his house and he was playing Vice City and complaining about motorcycles and how he just couldn't find one. Well, he had to leave the room for about twenty minutes and I picked up the controller. I found the bike not long after and was having good fun just driving around the city and looking for buildings to enter. Of course, when my cousin got back he yelled at me and subsequently got yelled at by his parents for not playing nice.
I managed to convince my parents to allow me to buy Grand Theft Auto III for PC not long after, but they weren't too impressed when they found out about the language in the game. They never took it away from me, but they were more wary about my future purchases. When GTA III broke on me and I tried buying Vice City my mother made me return it after taking one look at the ESRB details. It worked out for me in the end, because I found one of my favorite games (Metroid Prime) but it wasn't until late 2005 that I got my hand on another GTA game. (San Andreas)
San Andreas was fun and I spent a lot of time with it, but it wasn't anything more. Until GTA IV it was enough for a game to be fun. I have plenty of fun games. Crackdown was fun, Oblivion was fun, Resident Evil 4 was fun, but that's all they really were. Fun. I think something was changing in me at that point in my life. I started looking for more than just fun. My tastes in everything weren't changing, as I still enjoyed the same movies/music/games as I did before. San Andreas never stopped being fun, but I started appreciating things that I hadn't before. Maybe I was just growing up, but I never found that something more until GTA IV and few games have brought it to me since.
I got Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 and it started out just plain fun. We had the new driving, which I found difficult but fun, I had to get used to the new control system, which I enjoyed especially because I could regulate my speed better than before. I enjoyed the new shooting and the atmosphere. Oh, how I loved the atmosphere. If there is one thing GTA IV got right it was the city and the feel for the game. It was something more than any of the previous GTA games. For the first time I felt like I wasn't visiting a "Game Version" of a real life city or a "Fake City" but a place I could go to and visit. That was perhaps the first way GTA IV caught me.
However, it wasn't until later in the story that I realized that I had found what would be my personal game of the generation. A game that I would hold other games up to when I looked for a quality gaming experience. GTA IV, to me, became the future of gaming. The first 'mature' game that I ever really owned. The M rating on most games seemed to signify that there would be more blood, gore, language, and/or sexual references. GTA IV had plenty of those things that made a standard M game, but it also offered something more. I realized this when I reached the mission Tunnel of Death. You see, in that mission we're told by Derrick McReary to kill one of his old partners, Aiden. To do this we rescue the guy mid-transport and take him to a secluded spot to do the job. Through the entire mission he's so happy to be free and not to be forgotten by the outside world. By the time I got to the cliffs I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to let him go off somewhere … anywhere. It put some big doubts in my mind about Derrick and all of the stuff he had asked me to do before.
Yet the game forced me to do it. This was not a moment where I could choose to let someone go. I had missions where I chose to let people go because I wasn't trying to be ruthless, but this was the first time I cared about the choice and didn't have it. I actually stood there waiting while Aiden ranted about how Derrick had set him up and now was having him killed. I waited… I waited… nothing happened… nothing changed. I had to kill him. So I did and I hated it. Packie? I can understand his blind loyalty to his brother. They're family. I don't begrudge him for it. Derrick? I didn't know what to think.
The next mission I performed was Blood Brothers, which just came out of nowhere for me. I expected more choices but not this kind of choice and not right after that mission. I had to set the controller down because I didn't feel comfortable killing either of them. When I had to choose between Playboy and Dwayne I chose to not kill Dwayne instantly. I knew that Playboy wasn't honest with me from the get go or was so deluded that he truly believed that he was right. Dwayne was honest with me and I had grown fond of him, so I made my choice quickly. Here I was not attached to either of my choices. I didn't like Francis for being the hypocrite that he is, but I hated what Derrick had asked of me. I don't know why it struck me the way it did, but there was something so human about Aiden in that mission. His brief moments stole the show away from Niko, away from Packie, away from everything. I debated whether that was enough for me to kill Derrick or if I should just move on… I couldn't take back that mission. I tried to figure out why the moment had upset me so much, after all I was a cold person in GTA. I would walk into the hospital and shoot the people on the beds just because I could. Yet this choice, this stupid choice, was so difficult. I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know if that was the right choice.
GTA IV became more than a game for me then. It became an experience. Something that I can't share with anyone, but rather I can only speak of what it was for me. It was a fun game and it brought the series forward in many ways. The mechanics no longer felt outdated but modern and up-to-date. There wasn't a ton of side-missions but what it had was polished to a shine that the past GTAs could not hope to stand next to. It was a case of quality over quantity, which seemed to be Rockstar's design ideal and it was an ideal I could fully support. The driving was fun, the shooting was fun, the side-missions were fun, the main mechanics were fun, exploring was fun, and I could spend hours in Liberty just walking around or messing with other citizens.
Not that GTA IV was free of issues. The storyline, as much as it pulled me in, was almost too long and slow. It took forever to get the pace going and even then it would stop and slow down and take its time doing anything. This can work, just look at The Godfather films, but Rockstar seemed to sacrifice pacing in order to keep things slow. I quite suspect they realized that they could not work on delivering the hard hitting missions that we expected from San Andreas while finishing work on their engine, so they purposefully kept the game simpler.
There was also the friend mechanic, which I can understand why some people might find it annoying. Personally, I did not find them to call too much. It seems a lot of people also mistake random calls for scripted calls. Sometimes Roman is scripted to call Niko during certain missions, such as the mission where you deliver a truck full of explosives or when you fetch a helicopter for U.L. Paper. However, the mechanic was still somewhat forced upon us and could be seen as an obligation. Likewise, the shows and tv feature actively seemed to discourage playing the game, which is the last thing you want to do.
Alongside this was dating, which was one of the features I barely touched because it didn't interest me. Sure, Niko could get to know one or several women, but there was not much incentive and after what happened with Michelle I was not interested in bothering. This came back to hurt the story somewhat in terms of choice because I never got to know Kate McReary and I honestly still don't. If she was meant to be truly important the game should find a way to work her in without making it an obligation or making it optional. I feel it cheapens one of the endings and the overall game to have her fate be decided as part of the story. Maybe Niko loves her, but I don't know and honestly don't care. My Niko had more important matters to deal with.
In the end, I loved GTA IV from the get go because it seemed like a step forward. This is what a videogame should be. It hit me hard in areas that I did not expect while delivering a fun and fulfilling experience that many games, especially open world games, struggle to live up to. It promised bigger and better things for the future. Rockstar released GTA IV as it was because they wanted to build up their games again. It seemed obvious that they would be working on reimagining the things we loved from Vice City and San Andreas in the upcoming installments and with the commitment of quality over quantity, we had plenty to look forward to. Eventually a game would come where quantity and quality met in a middle ground and we would have probably the ultimate GTA.
Red Dead Redemption was like the signature on this promise. Not only did it deliver another grand mature open world experience with characters I grew attached to and a main character I came to love, but it did it in a different setting and with some drastic changes to the gameplay. I don't think it gave me the same trouble as GTA IV did, but I don't recall any choices in Red Dead. It simply was just a bunch of quality gameplay and a quality story put together with quality design.
So you can imagine what Grand Theft Auto V has to live up to now in order for me to find it one of the best games of the generation. Red Dead has already shown that I don't need that "what did I do?" moment for the game to be good, it's only what opened my eyes to the idea of experiencing something more in games. There were two forms of Hype now for GTA V. The hype that the crowd put forth with the large budget and the promise of 5 years of waiting. Then the promise that I was most hoping for, which was that the game would prove to be just as grand an experience as Red Dead and GTA IV. That it would mesh gameplay, story, and atmosphere into one full package. IGN mentioning that GTA V decides when next-gen starts (or something to that degree) did raise my hopes that this had been done. After all, if anyone could do it, Rockstar could.
It's been over a month now since the game was released. I have beaten the main story twice now, gotten 100% and am doing a series for youtube in which I plan to get 100% once again. Did the game live up to the hype and did it meet the expectations? I'll be 100% frank here and not sugarcoat things. No. GTA V did not live up to either my personal expectations or the massive hype set forth by everyone waiting for it.
Let's start with the things I enjoyed:
Rockstar have not lost their touch for quality, albeit flawed, storytelling. Where its predecessor was almost painfully slow, GTA V doesn't seem to want to take the time to slow down. This doesn't hurt it all that much, however, as the game comes off as more of a hollywood buddy-crime movie with three characters who get themselves into semi-wacky hijinks and have to perform a series of heists in order to get their lives back. Sure, it could have calmed down a bit, as some of the best moments come when you are just riding around and listening to these characters interact, but it didn't need to. Franklin could use more personality and a bit more of a story, but he still serves a nice supporting role to the two main juggernauts that dominate everything else about it. Michael and Trevor are both complicated, horrible, and lovable people in their own unique way. They keep the story tense and interesting even when it becomes illogical and in the end there is little the game can't get away with.
Likewise, mission design for GTA V is much more impressive than GTA IV. Gone are the "Drive me here" missions and the "Drive here shoot then drive here" missions. Instead we're chasing stolen yachts, hunting down stalkers, spying on celebrities, stealing submarines, blowing up boats, and infiltrating government buildings by pretending to die. This is just the tip of the iceberg for what these characters get up to. If there is one complaint about it, it's a complaint that the series as a whole has had for a while. The structure and storytelling sometimes get in the way of the fun. Sure Yoga may have been interesting to the designer, but I don't happen to find it fun. I also don't happen to enjoy being forced to walk or to stay at a pace with the characters who are speaking just because the game wants to tell a story. These things are not all that noticeable the first time around, but when you try to goof off it's like the game slaps your hand, sometimes going as far as to fail the mission because you stood outside of a car for too long.
Returning from Red Dead are the random events, which are fun and add flavor to the world that Rockstar has designed. However, sometimes the requirements to make them show up are a little obscure or ridiculous. One random event continues to elude me even though I know where it should start. If I play too much of the game, however, the event completely locks off. That, to me, is kind of ridiculous. Random events should always be available. They're random.
A lot of the main mechanics have been updated very nicely. Driving is fun and fluid, although more akin to San Andreas than IV in some vehicles. I have some problems with the system, but it's not enough to stop it from being fun and better than most open world titles in terms of driving. My primary complaint with Saint's Row 2 was that the gameplay was too loose for me to have any darn fun, whereas Saint's Row 3 got that right... except for the dang driving which is still loose as could be. The shooting is just as fun and improved, and the weapon wheel was a great addition from Red Dead that I hope they keep using. Also, finally, perhaps for the first time, GTA has good hand-to-hand combat. Every GTA game has had sloppy hand-to-hand combat in my opinion, even GTA IV, and now GTA V finally got a good mix. We're not playing Sleeping Dogs with master martial-artists, so the system we ended up with worked amazingly well.
Other positives of note include the variety of side-missions. We have hunting, we have bounty hunting, we have tennis and golf, we have triathlons, we have base jumping, we can tow cars or drive people around in taxis. There is a nice healthy variety to the side missions in GTA V. The map is also another plus for me. Maybe it's not as dense as the map in GTA IV, but I feel that it has as much care put into it as the Liberty City from GTA IV. It has a nice variety and the city is a blast to explore and experience. I love just walking around and sometimes climbing up buildings (wherever the game lets me climb) and sometimes I'll jump down to a ledge we weren't supposed to access just to get there. I love the map.
That's what I liked.
What GTA V was not, for me, was an experience. Red Dead was an experience. The way it blended its atmosphere almost seamlessly with the gameplay and oh the improvements to the gameplay they made. The inventory was a much needed addition with the regenerating health and the horse stamina system they had implemented. The story and characters were a wonder to behold and nothing made me feel like I was in the old west more than the way the soundtrack worked. Red Dead was an experience. GTA IV was an experience. GTA V was just another fun game.
I think a large part of it is how desperate they were to put GTA IV behind them. For instance, the driving is different. I don't feel the weight of the cars the way IV made me feel it. They all seem relatively similar and big trucks feel like smaller trucks and normal cars feel almost like a sports car and sports cars feel like Saint's Row. It's not a bad system, it's perhaps a few notches too far from where it needs to be, but it's clear from how they implemented it that they wanted people not to think of GTA IV when they drove. Permanently removed is how the cars from IV would actually take a form of damage. Not physically mind, but rather they would eventually sputter out and die on you, but in GTA V they just explode randomly if you fall and hit them the wrong way, sometimes even if the car is at full health. It feels inconsistent and it lacks any kind of warning and before you know it you're in the hospital because you expected the game to have the decency to warn you before the cars explode. I can't even think of any cars I've seen explode without firing a rocket at them or a grenade. It's always from either slamming into the ground or purposely blowing them up. What happened to cars setting on fire, thus giving us the chance to escape before it exploded? GTA IV did it very well, but this is GTA V and nothing good came from GTA IV. It was removed.
Likewise, quite a bit of the gameplay from IV has been removed. No longer can we pick up trash and throw it at hobos, no longer can we grab ledges to climb around the city, no longer can we buy hotdogs from vendors (there are plenty of vendors but they just stare at us or call the cops on us), no longer can we enter the restaurants, no longer can we leave cars running , and no longer can we actually choose a response to our e-mails. All of these things have been completely removed even when they were perfectly fine features that would have been fun in GTA V. It's almost as if the entire gameplay has changed. Everything from the basic movement to the things you can do while moving around town have been altered, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. Why? The only reason I can think of was that Rockstar were scared we wouldn't want to play a game with IV's features… so they removed as many as they could.
Vigilante, a side mission I quite adored, is now gone. This is a side mission that had made it from the 3D era of titles, so its removal leaves us with a single 3D era basic side-mission left. Next GTA we might not even have the ability to take taxi fares… it would remind us too much of the past and this is the new GTA. For what it is worth they did improve taxi by not removing it part of the way through the game and forgetting to restore it like they did with IV, but that's a small consolation.
In its haste to not be IV, V also changes some pretty important systems, merging Red Dead's wonderful health system with GTA IV's and ending up with the worst of both worlds. Dumping the wanted circle in order to differentiate V from IV and making the cops extremely aggressive, to the point where the low health makes cop chases less fun for me. The cops in GTA IV weren't perfect, but they were a nice balance of stupid and aggressive, which is needed. We don't want GTA to be too much like real life or it loses its fun. I can't make the cops mess with other citizens now because they just shoot them. I can get wanted by standing too close to someone and if I wait too long at 1 star it turns to 2 stars for no reason and they shoot me to death. It's sometimes fun and challenging but often frustrating and annoying and I have no incentive to goof around in the world of GTA V because I know it will make the cops come after me. To top it off they added in the infinite health cheat with a 5 minute timer meaning I have to pause and re-enter it every five minutes in order to just goof around with cheats on.
It's so bad that Rockstar subconsciously or consciously acknowledges the gameplay issues. Where GTA IV had no checkpoints and needed a handful, GTA V is full to the brim with checkpoints in the event of an enemy randomly headshotting you and killing you despite your being full health, to help you out in the event that you go too far out of the way from what the game wants you to do (basically taking two steps out of the combat zone) no matter how obscure a reason. "Oh you ran over somebody and the cops are shooting you so you shoot back and now we- I mean Tonya is upset and you fail! She didn't care that you were smashing cars up by making sharp turns, no, one bullet is the kicker."
Also, no mission ever requires you to escape the cops at above 3 stars. They might put the stars at 5 stars to 'scare us' or to get our hearts pumping with excitement, but we never actively have to face them, which makes sense to me because I literally cannot escape a 4-5 star rating. I have not been able to do it and I have put over 100 hours into the game. I'm not saying it's impossible, but rather that it's much more difficult than before. Instead of balancing the game, Rockstar pretty much left it in as a free-roaming feature while making sure the single player was winnable. In the main plot we always have an objective to complete such as shooting enough of the cops and then the wanted level goes away.
If GTA IV was the product of quality over quantity then I believe that GTA V is the product of quantity over quality in a rushed environment. There are lots of little problems with GTA V and a lot of little things that stand out when taken away. The overall game feels unbalanced and I don't know exactly why it came out this way. I wonder sometimes if GTA:Online took team members away from the main game, thus hurting the development, or if they just were in too much of a hurry to make V different from IV that they didn't think about everything they were adding. I honestly don't know.
Do not get me wrong, GTA V is a good game. It is not, for me, an exceptional game. It stands head and shoulder above most open-world games and is very fun, but It pales in the shadow of its own potential based upon what Rockstar managed to do with Red Dead and GTA IV. GTA V does not seem to have that special something that propels it from being just another game into 'an experience'. Almost every aspect is great in the sense that it provides amusement and fun, but there are a lot of small issues that weaken it. The gameplay has plenty of fun mechanics but the things they removed and the things they didn't follow up on take their toll. The story is a fun action movie and stands well enough on its own, however it does suffer from a third-wheel character whose story never really goes anywhere and it could perhaps use some of those simple drive-here-and-back missions to calm it down a bit.
Nothing in GTA V is completely broken and nothing in GTA V is completely awful. There are plenty of things to enjoy and plenty to love, but it doesn’t live up to the promise that GTA IV had for the future. When I looked at GTA IV I saw what the future of gaming could be. Experiences that make us laugh, make us cry, and when I played Red Dead Redemption I saw the same thing. Rockstar were going to take a step forward in gaming that others were too afraid to. However, when I look at GTA V I see confusion and doubt about the path they were on. I see a game that only knows that it does not want to be seen as its predecessor and will do anything in order to be seen as different and better, even if it means destroying the things that its predecessor got right in the process.
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