Putting the 'Grand' in Grand Theft Auto
There are scenes in this game which I didn't expect, there are moments that made me genuinely uncomfortable and there are moments which blew my mind. It's hard not to give a game like this a 10/10 but numeric scores are largely 'Eye of the Beholder' things and I would prefer to concentrate on the reasons to play the game, why I like it and why it's the greatest Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto game yet.
Rampant 80's movie misogyny and racist commentary aside, the game is a blockbuster title and jam-packed with content in the single player slice of gaming history. The various gameplay mechanics and tight controls/systems are what make the game shine along with Rockstar's fastidious attention to superlative detail, from character design to mission structure and world creation.
There are a few flaws that can mar the experience a little and at the moment the game seems to have an issue with saving cars in player owned houses. This is especially annoying if like one of our readers you spend a fortune on a custom car only to have it vanish, not turn up at the Impound and take your hard earned cash invested in it.
Rockstar has done the impossible and managed to create a game that brims with detail on the current gen, they've layered Los Santos and the outlying regions of this sprawling crime laden metropolis with more activities, things to do, people to meet and random events than any other game that's come before it, either from their own stable or the stables of other developers.
This is a MASSIVE 100 hour action/heist movie with every glorious Hollywood action moment borrowed or replicated. There are nods to Heat, On Her Majesties Secret Service and more in the game and right from the get-go the game earns that 18 rating - this is not a game for kids, and we put this disclaimer right now - if you have kids and they're playing this one - they shouldn't be.
Your choice as parents though, so any lobby groups who read this - don't blame the kids.
Grand Theft Auto V is a stunning achievement though and comes alive in every single layer of gameplay and open-world activity.
This is a game which took 5 years to make and it shows in the way it's all come together.
From the opening action-packed start to the later stages of the game, it never lets up and weaves an intricate complex narrative around 3 semi-unlikeable characters - to begin with. You may have your favourites between the washed-up bank robber turned-witness Michael De Santa, the gangbanging 'trying to make good' Franklin and the sociopathic violent murderous Trevor Phillips. Yet as the game grows Rockstar hopes that you can find something to like in each of them.
Each character has layers and it's the way they all come together and interact that really ties everything together. Don't expect to start the game being able to access all 3, there are story reasons and there are dozens of missions to get to before the crime-crew can get cracking on their big scores. Yet the character design for the 3 amigos is fantastic and regardless of your feelings on many of the taboo culture, race and societal issues in the game Rockstar has not been subtle in presenting these - they're a company that doesn't care how many sensitive toes they tread on really. Or perhaps they do and they're poking fun on so many different levels.
It's hard to tell, but as much as I was disturbed by some of the content - there are movies which are MUCH worse and they get a free pass from the concerned crowd.
The whole game flows with this kind of character design and many of the strangers (?) and freaks that you meet will have a similar kind of impact. Some are played for laughs and some are just downright well, freaky.
The characters change as the game progresses, their lives change and their situations prove they're not just stagnant cut-out 2d standees.
For example: Trevor is a complex character and as the game picks up pace, he's not as black-white as he might first appear - capable of sudden turn-around moments and pure genius, he's not our favourite but we no longer despise him as we did at the start.
Complicated story aside, what we have here is an absolutely engrossing game which will disturb, delight and entertain every moment you're doing something in the massive game world. Rockstar has outdone themselves in that regard.
What Rockstar has managed to do is create an immersive living/breathing game world with so many layers it's hard to discuss them all, without missing something important amongst all the by-words and shiny-words that reviewers have been used to writing for years. What you really want to know is - does it play well and does it play better than GTA IV did?
Every aspect of the previous GTA game's flaws has been addressed and fixed. The combat system both in terms of firearms and melee has been vastly improved. There are numerous settings which allow you to refine the shooting to taste, with soft-lock on all the assisted options. So even if you lock an enemy down and smoothly switch between targets with a flick of the right stick, you're able to adjust that aim for the perfect headshot or change tactic immediately.
Red Dead Redemption's weapon's wheel makes an appearance and allows you to fluidly switch weapons mid-combat, picking the right tool quickly and cleanly.
The game's motion has been adjusted in combat too, so you can jog and fire from your hip. Being able to move smoothly in-out of cover is the icing on the cake along with a vastly improved blind-fire system. This is thanks to games like Max Payne 3 (which was fantastic) showing Rockstar like to iterate on their franchises beyond the main game.
A combat roll is another useful addition, and very quickly you can roll into action, slide into cover and blaze away hitting targets until you see the handy red-x which signifies that enemy is dead: another holdover from Red Dead.
No longer does entering a gun fight feel like a chore and that's one of the biggest/best changes to GTA V compared to the previous game.
Here's an example from a later mission. Trevor is racing towards an army convoy of two jeeps, one truck. In GTA IV I'd have been dreading this encounter, in GTA V I am actually looking forwards to it because of the improved combat system.
I skid Trevor's vehicle to the side and smoothly leap out right into cover at the front of my ride, seconds later I've dropped three army guys with snap-shooting pop-cover tactics. The red-x's confirming the kills. More bullets rain down at me and four more guys act intelligently to prolong the combat more than Trevor would like.
Gunfire erupts from my right, I've been flanked and Trevor's armour takes a hit. I return fire and punch Trevor's special ability into action. He rages and now dishes out more damage whilst taking significantly less. In a few blood-soaked bullet-hose seconds Trevor's out of cover and turning the battle into a charnel house.
It's over quickly and I have that big third-person shooter grin I get from Saints Row 3 on my face, only this is so much smoother and more satisfying than gun combat in any open world game - even Red Dead.
Melee is satisfying too, with a greater range of moves, counters and combos it feels fluid and action-movie like. Not as deep as Sleeping Dogs, but so much better than Red Dead and GTA IV. Box ticked!
Special abilities add to the action, with Michael being able to slow down time in gun combat, Trevor's rage and Franklin's slow-mo driving ability (useful in car combat - which is still one of the weaker aspects of the game in terms of shooting from a moving vehicle whilst driving).
Your special bar can be filled by doing stunts and driving like a madman in cars, shooting precisely as Michael and taking damage as Trevor.
Talking of driving, that's another aspect of the game that's been tuned to near-perfection. The vehicle controls are much tighter and more responsive with extra time taken on motorbikes so they're no longer a chore to ride. The driving is fluid and smooth with a big emphasis on control and precision, once you get used to the new system you'll be doing 360s, donuts and 180 J-Turns with the best of them.
Flying mechanics have been smoothed out and it's possible to take off, perform stunts in a plane and get that plane on the ground with a little practise. Same with Helicopters - so if you add in boats, underwater exploration via mini-sub (a joy to control) and all of this - Rockstar has polished the handling mechanics on every aspect of vehicular control in the game.
Relationship mechanics are no longer a big thing, there's no score to keep track of to find out if someone likes you enough. The interactions feel real and not forced at all, and with the living world out there the characters all have their own things to do and lives to lead when you're not controlling the other 2.
Every activity in the game (and there are a lot, from triathalons, base-jumping, extreme sports and tennis to name a few) feels polished and reactive. It's a staggering gameplay achievement and soaks up so much time there aren't enough hours in the day to devote to GTA V.
All of this activity/leisure time feeds back into the various gameplay loops, since the characters have core skills. Flying, driving, shooting, stamina, strength, stealth and so on. Each time you shoot a gun, drive a car, fly a plane and sneak around (left stick clicked in) you'll be increasing one of these stats and improving it which leads to better control of a gun, more ammo, better handling in cars and so on.
The game has so many other systems purring away under the hood too, like the iFruit phone which has all the important apps and menus, giving you access to the internet from the phone and allowing you to browse a plethora of real time updated things including a working community action driven Stockmarket (BAWSAQ) that responds to actions in the game's many side missions and world. If the Vapid motor company loses a CEO for example thanks to community assassinations, it drives the share price down.
Time to buy low, and SELL high!
The game reflects your actions in the world, so you can create opportunity for wise investment and make some extra cash on the side.
The phone also lets you quick-save when you're not on mission. This quick-save is a proper save too; it saves your game-world state at the time. Parked up on a layby enjoying a thunderstorm? That's where you'll start from - at long last - you won't be thrown back to your safe house.
Rockstar are brilliant at detail and ambient life, and there are so many ambient life systems across all levels of the game it's hard to pick out just one. They all flow into each other and you can stand on any street corner watching the world come alive from pedestrian's lives/jobs to sudden random events you can be involved in, and more. These are also locale specific so there are tons of things to see and do when exploring, in the big city or the wilderness/mountains that surround Blaine County and so on.
I was able to get involved in a cop shootout between gang members and the Blaine County Sheriffs Department - they let me blaze away at the cartel gangers, before telling me they had it under control and I could leave the scene now. They wanted the money - I was tempted as Franklin to steal it...but I thought better.
This little bit of random gameplay was more natural and amazing than any big blockbuster franchise that's come before it. It sucked me in and I wanted to help, I could have let the cops and criminals shoot each other and picked off the weaker link had I wanted to.
There are moments like this throughout the game and the locale-specific nature of these events really helps to sell the living world.
Then there's the off-mission character switching, which is Google-maps style and thoroughly engrossing. The characters all lead their own lives and you'll see slices of them as you switch back and forth, the game's attention to detail never wavers and you can actively stalk your friends if you want (or hang out with them).
I was driving around Los Santos as Franklin; I'd just delivered a guy to his house in a moment of Good Samaritan behaviour when Michael's car rounded the corner. He was out and about doing his own thing and he spotted me. He got out, walked over, said a few things and reminded me we'd been planning a job and we were close to kicking off. He got back in his car and drove away.
I was kind of stunned by this, and delighted.
So I decided to test the living world a bit. I switched to Michael, sent him around to Franklin's house and had him explore a bit. Then I switched to Franklin and went back home, came in via the downstairs patio window, came upstairs and found Michael in the living room. Rather than being a static character moment, Michael and Franklin exchanged greetings and the game gave me an opportunity to hang out.
It let me choose where and I was thoroughly delighted again.
No more: HEY NIKO, it's me - your COUSIN!
When you switch to Trevor don't be surprised by what you find, expect anything.
The world really is alive and there are thousands of NPCs all doing their own thing, and at any time you can be part of that as you explore Los Santos and its massive surrounding area by land, sea, road, underwater and more.
Amongst all this free roaming paradise of activity and immersion, there's a layer of pure genius atop this gameplay. The missions themselves, gone are the yawn-days of GTA IV and its back to the over the top crazy stunt-filled missions drawn from all walks of media.
Sure you can watch TV in your house and explore Los Santos etc, but you're missing out if you don't dive right into the story and side missions. Many of these are setups for the bigger heists and side stories that flesh out the main characters a little more. They're setup on the map with markers in the same colour of the character which initiates the mission usually. Some can only be started by the character; others can be kicked off by the other characters.
Some can actually start when you switch to the character involved via the phone.
I'm going to touch on my experience with a later mission, try and steer clear of story related spoilers and explain it from my point of view. Blitz Play is the name of the game and it's a minor heist in a game that's full of complex mission setup heists where you hire crew, make a plan and have to case the joint beforehand.
Those are truly superb by the way, but I'd rather you played those for yourselves and experience the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Blitz Play required me to source a garbage truck, a tow truck, a get-away vehicle and a set of three rubber masks amongst other things. These are minor gameplay elements that kick off before the main heist fires up. Once you have the (Hs) icons on your map it is then up to you to work out how you're going to acquire the needed equipment.
I went for the masks first, then the two trucks and finally after more play I was ready to roll on this one.
It's here that the character switching took over and let me setup for the big job, smoothly switching itself between the three principle anti-heroes at the right time. The garbage truck blocked the road, the tow truck smashed the armoured car into the wall and the sticky-bombs blew the bloody doors off! (Michael Caine would be proud).
Oops, a silent alarm was triggered and the simple job turned into a sudden fight for survival against an aggressive AI response squad made up of ground units, swat style bad guys and a few choppers. Now the game let me switch between the characters at will, giving me hints when I needed to switch both verbally and visually. I was able to control the situation and use all three characters to effectively fight off a horde situation.
Finally I was able to make my escape as Franklin and the garbage truck was the perfect shield from the remaining cop bullets.
The truck was left parked and destroyed where the getaway car was, and Franklin drove off in an unmarked car...nothing went wrong really.
The narrative had been transformed at the same time as the gameplay and it was pure poetry in motion, with gorgeously paced action, intelligent friendly AI (Michael and Trevor did their best to keep the cops down) and character switching. Quick-switching can be accomplished by tapping down on the d-pad and the game selects the most appropriate character...or the one which needs help.
When not controlling the other characters they did their job, the action unfolded flawlessly and everything was superbly handled.
The enemy AI was a massive challenge since it knew all the tricks of the trade, cover, concealment, flanking and teamwork. It didn't make a dumb call and it pushed me hard to succeed, careful management of character switching and Trevor's AI using the RPG at the right times meant the situation was in control at all times.
This is just a tiny sample of the gameplay AI, since all AI isn't created equally the various factions in the game have their own way of approaching situations. Untrained gangers will act like it, hardened military men will act like it and citizen heroes will basically try their luck if they think they can get away with a bit of vigilante action.
It's superb AI.
It reacts to everything around it, every situation and every stimulus will provoke a reaction even down to the people commenting on your clothing, car and if it's clean/dirty.
It's amazing stuff to see in action and the videos don't do it justice.
There's a deep car customisation, letting you mod your vehicle and change a lot of the gameplay aspects. There are attachments to buy for each weapon, including a flashlight which can be toggled on/off via the d-pad right.
GTA V is a good looking game and it's really detailed, from the textures to the art style - the graphics are truly superb and the various layers of graphical detail are carefully built atop each other like a delicious cake. A thunderstorm in Los Santos or Blaine County is an amazing thing with a combination of audio and visual effects that are truly breath-taking. I love storms so watching the sky light up was extremely atmospheric and really accurate.
The graphics are married to the various animation systems, with Euphoria taking pride of place to bring to life character movement in very realistic ways. Every gunfight, every motion and every person in the game is extremely well animated.
The tiny animation details when a NPC flips you off in their car, (you can do this too, if you're unarmed whilst driving - press X to change weapon state in a vehicle - then press the left bumper) or reacts to you in some way further drive the immersion.
Convertibles can raise/lower their roof, planes with landing gear can toggle gear state and it just adds layer upon layer of realism and detail to the game.
Facial and character animations are top notch and whilst the facial tech from L.A. Noire isn't in use, this is a lot more detailed than RDR and GTA IV - there's emotion, expression and more on every character.
Then there's the audio layer of the game, and the level of detail here trickles down to the sound of a cooling car engine on a sports car as it tick-tick-ticks quietly.
Underwater sounds and looks amazing, Rockstar has fully mapped the sea bed and surrounding areas all react and appear as they should. Water churns near the docks and is murky, get out into the deep ocean though and you can see all kinds of ambient life.
The ambient score is fantastic and the radio stations have 240 songs spread between 16 music stations. There are also 2 talk shows.
The car stereo can be controlled like the weapon wheel, hold the d-pad left whilst in a car and it's easy to see the station, song and even share it to Facebook.
Every mechanic, every layer and every aspect of the core gameplay in GTA V has been really worked on and the result is a game which is greater than the sum of its parts, yet works beautifully when all those parts are combined. It's possible to soak hours just doing nothing much in GTA V but exploring and checking into the lives of your characters as you earn money to spend. It can be spent on dozens and dozens of things, property, investments, fancy clothes and cars and more.
The draw distance is pretty damn good for a game like this (it had to be, jets are back) and it's got a few pop up issues still. Installing the game (mandatory) disc 1 on the HDD, or a USB stick is needed and you should run the game disc (Play disc 2) from the DVD drive for the best performance.
Unless you have a USB stick with a read speed of 15 meg per second. I'd recommend a faster stick though, if you have one. It needs at least 8gb of space free.
Otherwise you'll probably get some texture load in issues and some low-to-high detail pop-in as the objects render with more detail the closer you are.
The thing is this is minor stuff when you put it together with the whole experience and it all adds up to a phenomenal game. There are things I haven't even spoken about for this review; there are events I haven't mentioned and activities that I haven't even hinted at.
Rockstar are hard at work fixing game issues with both the game and the companion app/services (Social Club issues) - it's a bit of an annoyance that you can't customise your car plate properly without an iOS device, or train Chop the dog...but these can be fixed with a PC app or adding more platforms and phone types.
Don't let it spoil your enjoyment of a ground-breaking game in a controversial franchise. It really is THAT good.
Check back after Oct 1st when we do our follow-up review: GTA Online, or: my life is officially over when that unlocks! (for no fee, there's no online code required).