The Grand Theft Auto series is the most successful video game series of all time, surpassing Mario and Pacman for importance to the medium. Grand Theft Auto V has made over a billion dollars since its release and while it's the most expensive video game of all time to produce, surpassing the production costs of Star Wars: The Old Republic, it's more than made back its money and will continue to do so as time passes.
As usual, there were plenty of individuals calling it the greatest video game of all time while others said it was a massive disappointment. I'm not at the forefront of those reviewing video games but I'm going to throw in my two cents as to whether the hype was lived up to.
The trailers for Grand Theft Auto promised a massive open world experience with numerous new activities to enjoy. Rather than tell you about it in laymen's terms, I'll address it as a long-term fan of the series. Everyone can tell you what the game is like to the causal gamer but does it live up to the hype of Grand Theft Auto IV and its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Is Grand Theft Auto V equal to the two most well-regarded entries in the series?
Yes and no.
Grand Theft Auto V is incredibly ambitious with a truly massive map, creating a stylized version of Los Angeles and Blaine County with a truly massive wilderness surrounding both. Not since San Andreas, ironically, have I felt there was so much to explore and see around the surroundings. On a purely visual level, Grand Theft Auto V is a technical achievement without equal (though Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas are rivals in terms of ambition).
Unfortunately, the game actually feels rather empty despite its massive size. I was reduced to making ample use of taxis to travel across the game world quickly. This eliminates some of the simple joy to be had traveling around locations, taking in the sights. Unlike Liberty City in GTA V, I felt Los Santos and Sandy Shores were too large to memorize. This is somewhat disappointing as I very much enjoyed doing so in previous games.
The storyline for Grand Theft Auto V is one I'm going to have to rank behind Grand Theft Auto IV and above San Andreas but just barely. The story is significantly lighter and softer than GTAIV, with as much humor and zaniness as Vice City. Unfortunately, it lacks the emotional highs and tightly written plotting of its predecessor. Michael de Santa is a fascinating and fun character but his story doesn't have nearly the same level of resonance as Niko Bellic's. Michael is also the most interesting of the three major protagonists, too.
I liken Grand Theft Auto V to a series of vignettes than a single linear plot. If Niko Bellic's story is one long tragic story of his (failed) attempt at fame and fortune, GTA V tells a bunch of stories about three protagonists who have vaguely related adventures. It's more like a television series than a movie if I were to draw a comparison. In the ending, everything is wrapped up but they never really come together like previous adventures. Stuff happens, stuff gets resolved, and life goes on. I can't even say the characters go through that much of a character arc, pretty much ending in similar positions where they started.
That doesn't mean the characters aren't entertaining, however. All three characters are archetypes with Michael de Santa filling the role of the smoothe professional criminal who finds money isn't all there is to life, Franklin as the young up-and-comer wanting to taste success like Michael, and Trevor serving as the comedy sociopath who does whatever he wants when he wants. Watching them interact is never boring and if Rockstar wanted to make Grand Theft Auto VI with the exact same protagonists, it'd probably be just as enjoyable.
The missions reflect the episodic nature of the story. While there's missions which relate to Franklin's desire to become a bigger player, Michael's desire to cure his ennui, and Trevor's need for revenge--most are simply for fun. Franklin can spy on celebrities for the paparazzi, Michael can join the Epsilon program (Scientology) out of boredom, and Trevor stalk the famous to steal memorabilia. If you're expecting a deep examination of their tortured psyches and how they feel about being killers, like Niko or Johnny Kleibitz, this isn't the game for you.
The most enjoyable missions in the game are the heists, which is to be expected since they were advertised as the heart of the game. Unfortunately, despite the hype, only a few of the heists were as well-designed or enjoyable as the initial jewelry store robbery. If the game had more choices in terms of personnel and options during these missions, I think the heist section would have been much better. This is, however, complaining about something I really liked. The bank robbery in GTAIV was one of my favorite parts of the game and even the worst of these missions blows that away.
Ironically, one of the most interesting uses of game mechanics in storytelling is a subtle one. Almost none of the missions in GTAV pay rewards. In previous entries, all of the missions pay cash for a job well done. The majority of missions in GTAV do not, often leaving our heroes cheated for their efforts. This is compensated for the massive paydays from successful heists but feels more authentic as well as highlights the game's theme. Which is, much like in Niko's journey, about the American Dream.
All of the characters in Los Santos, not just our protagonist, are searching for some form of meaning to their life. They attempt to find this through money, fame, or spiritual enlightenment. Others, like Trevor, abandon any quest for self-improvement and just attempt to live for the moment until they're killed. A stylized Los Angeles is the perfect place for this sort of analysis of America as it's the archetypal place for people to become victims of their own success.
Which, come to think of it, explains why a disproportionate number of the game's targets are rich douchebags.
The fact the game has three major protagonists should have impacted the story but, in my mind, they're all connected. Really, it's not too dissimilar to playing GTA IV with the DLC in rapid succession. The only difference is you'd have the ability to switch between Niko, Johnny, and Luis at will. Grand Theft Auto V feels like three video games in one and that's not counting the potential of Online (which is a separate review).
Now, how was the customization in GTAV? Honestly, I'm of the mind a lot of it is hit and miss. In San Andreas, you could be fat or thin with all manner of tattoos and clothing choices. Much of that comes on but the game feels like it wants to "steer" you in certain directions. While I was able to get Franklin looking the way I wanted to, Michael and Trevor were much more limited in their appearance.
Also, the characters frequently changed out of the clothing I'd spent time picking out for them. Even the much-welcomed car customization options were irritating as my modded cars would frequently disappear with the exception of the character's signature cars. The fact one of the characters loses his signature car for a significant portion of the game didn't give me any warm fuzzies either.
One area where Grand Theft Auto definitely improved was the handling of vehicles. The cars took forever to master in GTAIV while air vehicles were impossible to use. While air vehicles are still extremely difficult to master, cars are much more fun to use. They aren't glued to the road like the vehicles in Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, either, giving them a sense of challenge too.
Weirdly, I also feel the need to praise Rockstar for its satire. GTAIV gave a nasty rebuttal to consumerism in America as well as the War on Terror but GTAV gave it a gigantic kick in the nuts. The infamous "torture" mission that has so many fans up in arms felt to me one of the few times gaming actually went into the "art" category because it firmly conveyed a message--and the message was done well. GTAIV was written so you could point at America and laugh while GTAV treated it more as a crashing wreck. Given a man who is passionate about certain issues in his country, I have to say I approve.
Other gamers may not.
I particularly liked the game's controversial handling of torture. A large number of gamers complained about the scene with the caveat, "I didn't finish it." The irony is the game goes out of its way to say how torture is pointless and ineffective--after you finish it. The visceral disgust Rockstar instills in players for the process is powerful and goes to show the developers think there's nothing "badass" or "cool" about torture.
Finally, I'm going to have to say I think Rockstar overextended themselves in the music department. I found the radio was hard to use to get to my favorite radio stations using the D-pad and there were only a few songs I genuinely liked. In Niko's case, the Russian and Jamaican music complemented the missions as did more traditional rock. While the licensing costs for something like Vice City are prohibitive, I think they should have trimmed down things and kept a bigger emphasis on talk radio. It was frequently hard to find Lazlow Jones' trademark commentary, which is just awful.
So, overall, what did I think? Great-great game. One of the finest ever made for consoles. Still, as with all games so massive, there's room for improvement. GTAV's lesson, for me, is bigger isn't always better--but it sure gives a lot more choices in a sandbox game.
10/10 (with a 8/10 and a 9.5/10 game in there as well)