This one time, in Los Santos…
This review has been a long time coming, but for good reason. Grand Theft Auto V is a colossal game in terms of features and scope, with more in common than MMOs than some other open-world games. While the single-player story is a clear focus, there’s also GTA Online, which launched October 1st and is almost a standalone game, then there’s all of the other little diversions; there’s tennis, golf, collectable hunts, flight school, side missions, shooting ranges, freeform craziness. This is a big game, but after around sixty hours of gameplay we think we’ve put in enough time now to give a well-informed opinion.
Firstly, Grand Theft Auto V is not perfect, nor even close to perfect. Giving a single score as we do is difficult for a title like this, where the scope and amount of gameplay you’ll get from it is so huge, so should therefore warrant a bigger score than more limited games, but then so much of it is lacking or flawed where other games have excelled, so surely they should be ranked higher. A combination of old-hardware, high expectations and over-ambition might have turned GTA V from a polished gem into a rough boulder.
First of all, the single player-campaign. Everyone who picked up the game at launch would have started with this, and it starts in style, with a fun prologue that doesn’t baby you in the way that GTA IV did, and even shows off a different location from what you might expect. The script is tight, if uninteresting, and the whole sequence plays out just as cinematically as you’d expect from the trailers for the game. As the campaign goes on, there’s a few missions like this, and very few feel like filler in terms of gameplay. You’re always doing something fun, and checkpoints mean there’s no tedious driving between objectives without at least some new dialogue or some other twists to keep you interested. From assassinating enemies to stealing trains you’re nearly always doing something new, completely cutting the fat out of proceedings that we saw so much of in GTA IV and other entries in the series.
Sadly along with that fat seems to be the character development and any kind of meaningful story arc. While the three main characters are interesting, they don’t really change or do anything interesting throughout. Franklin’s gang history is never explored, nor is the history of the streets he grew up with. Trevor’s crazy friends are entertaining but tend to come and go for a mission or two here and there, with entire sections of his backstory seemingly forgotten about as the plot progresses (we really wanted more based on his meth business since Breaking Bad has finished). Michael is by far the most developed character, with a clear history, present and hope for a future, but his family (the most entertaining side characters) disappear for long sections of the story and are never really used for anything entertaining save for a single spectacular cut-scene and an entertaining bike ride.
This lack of character development might seem like a minor niggle but it severely undermines the game as a whole. When the story was over (after around thirty entertaining hours of gameplay) it was hard to care about any of the characters. Some things happened to them and they got through it. There’s what could be a powerful choice near the end that does have a real impact on the game, but there’s a clear ‘right’ choice that we’re convinced 90% of players will pick, and the whole thing feels fairly tacked on with the alternative choices not really having a case or providing you with motivation to pick them. It’s not a memorable story and if we were forced to explain it to somebody, it would sound like a lot of disconnected events and characters at cross purposes with some ridiculous action scenes mixed in. It serves the gameplay well, but is a huge letdown after the other Rockstar Studio’s current-gen games like Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. The voice acting is good, the script is good, the animation is good, but whoever was in charge of the overall story arc definitely dropped the ball. The much talked-about heists seem like a great idea, and the first one in particular is a lot of fun – but as the game goes on there’s only three more and you only ever have two choices of how to approach them. You also end up having to do some for no reward, making the whole exercise and time spent preparing feel like a complete waste. It’s much less organic than perhaps we were expecting and simply comes across as a more complex mission that sometimes has a bigger reward. Not really a big deal.
In terms of side missions there’s some entertaining past times but as with most open-world games the best fun is that which you make yourself. The tennis is addictive but games tend to go on too long even if it’s clear who the winner is going to be. The claims of ‘It’s like Top Spin!’ were clearly exaggerated, it’s better than you’d expect for a mini-game but it’s still fairly basic with quite shallow physics and control over the ball. It’s also very forgiving, with shots that are poorly timed or in the wrong place magically connecting despite your mistakes. The golf is much simpler and with a single course isn’t going to hold anyone’s attention for long. Again it’s very forgiving, especially when it comes to putting, so getting under par is never a challenge. There’s also base jumping, races, triathlons (tap A a lot), shooting ranges and the usual GTA side jobs like being a taxi driver for you to have a go at if you like. On top of this there’s loads of side missions, some of which are triggered by icons on the map and some are random, with blue dots appearing on your mindmap to show you something is happening. Some are incredibly simple and shallow, involving you getting back a stolen purse or car, while some are more complicated and involve shooting waves of enemies of transporting someone to another place. At their best they link into the heists, giving you loads of new dialogue and unlocking new crew members. Sadly these are few and far between, with the majority giving you a paltry monetary award and not much of a script to speak of.
The most irritating side-missions involve collectables, with many different types and sometimes up to 50 different things you have to collect, each set giving you hardly anything as a reward. Finding them without a guide would be near-impossible and with a guide it’s mind-numbingly boring. Many of them aren’t even in interesting places requiring skill to get to, out of the 50 spacecraft parts there was one that was a fun challenge, requiring you to land a helicopter in the supports of a bridge. Other than that it was simply a case of travelling from point to point, landing, picking it up, then going on your way to the next one.
This is all negative so far, but it is the framework that holds up the game and really shows off the skill of Rockstar. The shooting mechanics are fantastic, more like Max Payne than GTA IV, and the driving gives you just enough control to avoid frustration, but just enough chaos to lead to spectacular chases. The police are more brutal than ever before, giving you a real reason to avoid attracting their attention. Running, swimming and climbing is all natural and animated well so whenever you want to do something, you usually can without breaking the immersion. The first time you dive into the sea it looks absolutely beautiful and the waves are stunning. None of these features are stretched out too long in single player – you need to discover many of them for yourself but when you do it’s breathtaking. Setting your own goals like getting a military jet back to your own hangar or jumping from rooftop to rooftop is infinitely more entertaining than the slightly disappointing story and new features like the stock market and detailed internet browser and TV channels might never be seen by a casual player but provides extra layers of depth that can affect you experience significantly.
Of course this is all just half of the game, the other half is the spectacular new GTA Online. Still in its infancy at the time of writing, with teething problems preventing many (including us) from consistently being able to connect or complete missions, the concept is already clear. You can do anything you can do in free roam single player in a game with 15 other players, on top of 500 other missions created by Rockstar to keep you entertained. Some game mechanics are changed, like guns costing much more and police able to impound your cars or shopkeepers that can recognise you, providing a necessity for using masks. The increased importance and scarcity of money means you play in a different way, being scared of the police and often others players.
To illustrate the point, allow me to share a personal anecdote. Starting up in a game, my car was impounded by the police and I had failed repeatedly to get it out. The police had it guarded too carefully, with a whole squad of officers armed to the teeth ready to shoot anyone who came close. Due to this I was driving around in a stolen pick-up truck, waiting for The50ftSnail to turn up. While I was waiting, another player’s dot came closer and closer on the minimap. Not sure what his intentions were, I slowed down to see what was happening, and he immediately rammed into the back of me. Speeding up I drove towards the city, with him constantly trying to force me off the road. He didn’t reply on voice so perhaps he was after cash or ammo, maybe he was just having fun, but he was hell-bent on getting me to crash my truck. By the time I reached the city, The50ftSnail had logged in and I asked him for help, as he was out of the city too. My truck was on it’s last legs and now the attacker had started letting off pot shots with a pistol, popping one of my tyres and narrowly missing my head with his bullets. Out of nowhere The50ftSnail ploughed into the back of the stranger’s car, spinning him around and trapping him between the two of us. With a quick spray from an uzi, The50ftSnail had taken out the assailant and I could hop in his mostly intact car we both sped off towards the other side of the city, mindful of the fact that the guy who we’d just killed had respawned only a block away. Once we got near the police impound lot, I hopped out of my stolen car, not wanting to draw attention while The50ftSnail pulled up alongside the fence. Hopping on the roof I could climb over the fence right by my impounded car. The police were onto us but The50ftSnail let off a few shots to get their attention and sped off, giving me enough time to hop in my car and join him on the highway, driving away to freedom with my newly secure car. Then I tried to join a mission, the whole thing crashed and I lost all of that progress, but it was still exciting when it happened!
When it works, GTA Online is beautiful. Motorbike races around runways, joint heists and team deathmatches; it’s got a lot of content and once it’s running well it’s going to be something new, a hint of the connected game-worlds we’re looking forward to in the next generation. If anything, single-player is just training for online. There are a lot of psychopaths out there though so thankfully Rockstar have provided us loads of options to choose who can enter our lobby and what we want to do. If you die you’re facing a heft fine of up to $5000 and ammo is equally expensive so you end up playing carefully, robbing shops and only taking on jobs when you’re confident it’ll turn a profit. Like an MMO version of Payday, it’s compelling and challenging, fully supported by the excellent mechanics from the main game.
Graphically, GTA V is impressive for the hardware, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the next-gen titles or recent PC games. It’s clear that Rockstar needed to make significant compromises and there’s muddy textures, pop-in and of course the standard low resolution and framerate. Hopefully a PC or next-gen release will let us to play Los Santos the way it should be, but with everything that the engine accomplishes on such old hardware, Rockstar should be proud of what they’ve done.
The map has also been much talked-about in terms of size and scope, but to be honest it doesn’t feel that big when you’re playing. Maybe it’s because when you’re playing you can traverse it quickly with easily obtainable jets and helicopters. Maybe it’s because most of the time you only need to pay attention to the district you’re in and there’s few landmark buildings, but the map is less impressive than Liberty City in our minds. It feels less dense, there’s few buildings you can enter, plenty of the countryside is ugly and empty. There are huge areas unused by the story including a sports arena and prison, so perhaps there’s going to be something special for the inevitable DLC chapters, but as it stands the map is functional rather than extraordinary, if it was any smaller it’d be a problem, it’s never impressive in how vast it is.
Overall, we’re a little disappointed with the single-player and over the moon about GTA Online. But whatever our (possibly unrealistic) expectations where, this is an impressive and accomplished game. In terms of open-world titles there’s nothing that can rival it on the current gen, but it will be quickly overshadowed by the next. A success in terms of mechanics, and a failure in terms of plot – GTA V is a conflicted game but whatever happens you’re going to have a huge amount of fun playing it, making it well worth the £40 asking price, and isn’t that what really matters?