Grand Theft Auto V brings us back to San Andreas a few years after CJ's adventures. Unlike previous games, it follows the story of three different sociopathic protagonists. Michael is a former bank robber who faked his death and moved to the sunny state to live in peace. Franklin is a down-on-his luck repo man who is struggling to establish himself in the criminal underworld of San Andreas. Both run into trouble when they accidentally destroy a house that belongs to a very rich and powerful man and must earn money to pay him back. Their money-making attempts draw the attention of the third protagonist, Trevor, Michael's old partner and a remorseless psychopath who's interested in seeing how his "dead friend" is still alive and kicking.
GTA 5 is more lighthearted than its predecessor, but it straddles an uncomfortable line between serious and silly. The characters are terrible people but don't reach the cartoonish behavior of, say, Saint's Row IV. This can make it difficult to enjoy some missions, particularly those involving Trevor, who's a murdering sociopath rapist. There's a mission where you torture an innocent person because Trevor likes it, even though the game is very clear that it'll be even harder to get information from the victim. You're even rewarded with a higher score for using multiple types of torture. None of the characters really grow or change; they're terrible people, they remain terrible people, and the game is a view into their lives.
This can make the title a chore to play unless you enjoy the psychopath mindset. GTA has never been a franchise about hugging bunnies and kittens, but some of the missions in GTA 5 go above and beyond what I expect from the franchise. The torture scene is the most uncomfortable, no matter who you are. The game is still enjoyable. There's sharp writing and some genuinely amusing characters, and the satire is pretty cutting at times. However, this is a game about terrible people doing terrible things without remorse. Most of the time, it is too silly to take seriously, but there are a few times when it's too serious to be fun.
At its core, GTA 5 hasn't changed much from the previous games in the series. You take control of a criminal and can take on missions or explore San Andreas and do whatever you'd like. It's a winning formula, and Rockstar hasn't changed it too much, but there are a number of improvements that stand out. The heavily touted social aspects from GTA 4 are now largely optional. You're no longer obligated to answer phone calls from friends to go bowling every five minutes. Car handling has also been improved, with each car handling less realistically so they're more enjoyable to drive. You have a Smartphone that you can use to save the game, call cabs, or check things on the Internet.
The biggest difference is the inclusion of two additional protagonists. Once they've been unlocked, each of the three characters is available to play at any time, and each has different attributes, cash supply, missions, properties and side-quests. Michael is better at shooting then Franklin, but Franklin is a better driver, and Trevor is the best at flying. You can level these attributes by performing actions. Fly around enough, and Franklin will be as good as Trevor. Each character also has a special skill that he can activate. Trevor takes half damage from all attacks and deals double damage to his enemies. Michael gets Max Payne-style Bullet Time. Franklin can slow down time while driving cars and motorcycles, and he gets dramatically improved vehicle handling.
The missions are the usual GTA affairs. You go to a place on the map, talk to a mission giver, and do some missions. One mission might have you doing yoga with Michael's wife and another may have you wipe out an entire biker gang with Trevor. There's a solid variety in the missions due to the three-protagonist system. The characters even share some missions, so you can play as multiple characters on a single adventure. In some, you can switch between the characters, so you can choose the one man for the job. Trevor might be better for a gangland shootout, but Franklin's a lot more effective when you need to flee the scene of the crime. Sometimes, you'll even switch between all three to complete a mission.
The highlight of GTA 5 is the heist missions, which are larger multipart missions where you utilize all three protagonists in pursuit of money. Heist missions are surprisingly customizable. You can select how you'd take on the mission, though the options boil down to "violent and loud" or "sneaky and quiet." You may need to hire a hacker to take down security systems, a gunman to cover you during an emergency, a wheelman to help you get away, or others. There's a balancing act between hiring skilled people and how big of a cut they'll want. Skilled operators want bigger cuts, but amateurs can screw up the mission. As you use less-skilled operators in your heists, they level up and get better, but they never increase their cut. If you're willing to screw up earlier in the game, you can get a lot more money later on. These missions can change a lot depending on how you approach them, and they're incredibly fun to play. Unfortunately, there are only a few heist missions in the game.
As usual for GTA, the game has its share of weak missions. There are quite a few that boil down to "drive to a place while characters talk, and then shoot some enemies." A couple feel like tedious busywork, like a Trevor mission where you move crates around. However, the sheer amount of content in the game is amazing and makes up for the duller missions. There's an early mission that ends with Trevor and Franklin running from the police. My first time through, I took off on my own and led the police on a massive chase. The second time, I ran in the same direction as Trevor, and the two tried to escape together. This resulted in some optional dialogue that I wouldn't have otherwise heard. There are tons of touches like this. Characters may point out that you've changed your clothes, that you haven't done their missions in a while, or that you pulled off an unexpected trick. It makes the boring missions more interesting when you get the impression that the game is letting you react to them.
That inevitably makes it a little frustrating when you can see the railroad tracks. In the above mission, Trevor and Franklin are forced into the shootout because their car breaks down. My initial response was to grab an enemy car and escape, but it wasn't allowed. After I got into the car, Trevor wouldn't join me. Instead, I had to go through the shootout and a setpiece shootout on jetskis before I could actually escape. If the game has a cool setpiece in mind, you're going to be stuck following it. This shows up most commonly with car chases, where you're not allowed to catch the character no matter how well you drive. It's a minor flaw, but it stands out. There are a lot of missions that yield no reward, and in several cases, you actually lose money for doing them.
San Andreas is absolutely massive and filled with content. You can spend hours driving around the state and only see an iota of what it offers. There are encounters, hidden items, interesting landmarks, races and side-quests. At one point, I drove around the ocean on a jetski and decided to dive off. Underwater, I discovered the wreckage of a plane, complete with briefcases full of money. It wasn't marked anywhere, nor was it required to discover. It just was a random bit of flavor hidden underwater in an obscure corner of the map.
Most open-world games feel small and crowded or large and empty, so the world in GTA 5 is an incredible achievement. Around every corner, there is something to find, and driving around is a delight. There's also a ton to do. You can play tennis or golf, invest in the stock market, watch movies, compete in triathlons, go hunting for animals, engage in bounty hunting missions, or browse the Internet and check your stocks. There are so many side missions and activities that you could spend hundreds of hours on them and never touch the main plot.
This is all helped by GTA 5 being a beautiful game. It's kind of unbelievable that the developers pulled this off on a current-gen system. The art direction makes the world pop. It's bright and colorful and feels like Southern California without the nitty-gritty realism that left GTA 4 feeling rather gray. There is pop-in and poor texturing in places, but it's tough to notice when you're driving at 100 mph while trying to escape the police. The moments where you can get a plane or helicopter and fly above the city are breathtaking. I should warn that there are reports that the digital download version has some pretty serious pop-in and loading problems that don't appear to be on the Blu-Ray disc version. If you want to get Grand Theft Auto V, the disc version is the way to go.
As with all GTA games, GTA 5's soundtrack is top-notch. There is a huge selection of licensed music available that plays over the car radios, and the tunes range from modern rap to '80s rock. Even if you turn off the radio, you'll still get some awesome chase music when you run from police. The character soundtracks are quite good, enough that I'd often turn off the radio and listen to them instead. The voice acting is also excellent. Trevor's actor does a disturbingly good job of portraying a reasonable-sounding guy with a psychopath waiting to burst out at any moment. There are some weaker voices, but they're generally minor characters who only have a few lines.
From a gameplay perspective, Grand Theft Auto V may be the best GTA yet. It stands head and shoulders above GTA 4 and offers one of the most impressive video game worlds. It isn't a game for everyone due to some brutal and psychopathic characters, even by GTA standards, but the game is so well-crafted that it's possible for almost anyone to find something to do, even if it's just playing tennis and golf all day. There's so much to do in the game that it's almost overwhelming. Rockstar put tons of time and effort into polishing its winning formula. It isn't a dramatic change for the series, but it's a more polished, and very enjoyable, addition to the franchise.
More articles about Grand Theft Auto V