(Xbox 360 Review) Grand Theft Auto V

Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Grand Theft Auto V is a gaming leviathan. Following in its predecessors’ footsteps, there is so much supplemental gameplay that players can easily forego the main storyline without running out of side activities to undertake and areas to explore for the entirety of other games. For those who can avoid the numerous temptations, a tale of revenge and ambition await as a trio of unrepentant, selfish, and bickering criminals take on the world.

Okay, so maybe not “the world,” but the group does have to contend with numerous gangs, an angry and violent private military contractor, and a rogue U.S. agency. It’s a lot for three guys to handle.

As one of the few games revolving around three protagonists, GTAV introduces each in turn before being giving players the chance to switch between the three as they advance each storyline along with the main plot. Two of the gang are experienced crooks: the psychotic meth dealer Trevor and his former friend, Michael. The two have a history that spans decades, and they were at one time best friends before a particularly rough heist left Trevor mourning the presumably deceased Michael. Much to Trevor’s surprise, he finds a middle-aged, retired Michael living in sunny Los Santos under a different name 10 years later.

Shortly before their reunion, Michael meets Franklin, a gang member trying to put the past behind him and move on to bigger money. As the youngest of the group, Franklin looks up to Michael and signs on as his protégé as the two plan bigger and bigger robberies. All of this takes place within the first few hours of play, and from there, the crew go on a string of increasingly violent and audacious heists that culminate in a job that will go down in the record books.

Coming to terms with each character was difficult at first, especially as the game forces you to shift between them in service of the story. Just as I was getting used to following Franklin, enjoying the banter between him and his friend Lamar and the weird New Age hijinks of his live-in aunt, I was shifted to Michael, whose justifiably angry wife, overly entitled wannabe gangster son and ditsy daughter made for a much different—and less enjoyable—experience. But Michael himself is interesting, something like a less suave, less Pacino-y Carlito from Carlito’s Way. However, the biggest jolt was the move to Trevor, whose existence as a hyperviolent, pseudo-erudite meth dealer in the deserts outside Los Santos is one filled with filth, poverty, and remorseless cruelty.  Initially, I could only tolerate him if I thought of him as Grand Theft Auto’s version of Boardwalk Empire’s Gyp Rosetti, an enigmatic wildcard that serves as a relentless force that destroys everything in its path. But it was when I spoke with fellow staff member Nick Stewart that Trevor’s presence made more sense, as he postulated that Trevor is the embodiment of your typical Grand Theft Auto player. In a way, Trevor is a narrative acknowledgement by Rockstar that players will invariably spend inordinate amounts of time causing mayhem for no other reason than because they want to and can. I also came to view him as the struggle Rockstar goes through with all of their open-world titles, with players now subjected to the erratic behavior of a guilt-free madman as they struggle to get the story back on track and moving along. Indeed, early references to Trevor’s fondness for the superhero named Impotent Rage are a way to foreshadow the things to come, as I’d say that impotent rage fits the trio to a T.

It’s one of the most defining elements of GTAV that, for all their love of murder and violence, the gang cannot kill the handful of people who make their lives truly miserable. Trevor might be able to torment his juggalo gofer Wade and bootlicker Ron, while Michael can intimidate his tech guru associate Lester, and Franklin cuss out Lamar, but when the call comes in from a mafia boss, a gang leader, or a corrupt federal agent, they have to answer. The selfishness of the group is constantly on full display as they bemoan their own situation, oblivious to the innocent bystanders caught in the shootouts and high-speed chases. They increasingly become even more self-absorbed as they are drawn deeper in the world of embattled bureaucracies. The buffoonery of the contacts that have so much control over their lives is so over the top, though, that for all of the three’s annoying idiosyncrasies, they are almost—but not quite—pitiable.

The tasks assigned to the group become increasingly dangerous as the game progresses. Each major assignment is designated a heist, and unlike the regular side jobs, these take several steps to pull off that require each character to do their part. Once all of the elements are in place, Lester offers two ways to pull off the heist, which is normally loud (shootouts) or subtle (hijacking). These weren’t as involved as some of the promo videos indicated, but by the end, the approach taken made sense as the openness of the world would allow for too much to go wrong and make it too difficult for the game to assert itself over the player’s actions. There is, however, one additional element that feels more like a traditional heist-themed film, and that’s the ability to recruit crew members. These members play a variety of roles, from gunmen to drivers, get a cut from the earnings, and if they survive, level up to offer more experienced hands for the next outing.

The big jobs might have a lot of parachuting, rappelling, and dramatic shootouts involving helicopters, armored cars, and grenade launchers, but the small tasks can be equally dangerous. Complementing the major scores are a series of character-specific side jobs that have them coming into contact with new sets of characters, many of which will overlap with some of the other storylines, as well as ways for them to improve their skills and make extra cash in the process. Each character has set traits that are improved through play (e.g., stamina, strength, stealth, flying, shooting, etc.) as well as special abilities that differ for each: Michael can slow down time while shooting, Franklin can slow down time while driving, and Trevor goes on rampages that deal more damage. The side missions will become available throughout as the main story progresses, with each character’s color being used to indicate on the main map whose job is whose, while the game clearly indicates those set character missions that will advance the main storyline. These will involve going to war with rival meth dealers, dealing with kidnappers, and kidnapping. It’s easy to get around the various locales as well; even the most far-flung assignment can be reached with relative ease thanks to way points that activate a GPS device in vehicles, manually created points of interest, and cabs that can immediately transport players to a waypoint. The mission structure manages to evolve smoothly, remaining both simple and intuitive throughout.

Many of the character’s traits will be improved naturally by progressing through the various missions, but they can also be boosted by partaking in the game’s many activities. Certain gun stores have shooting ranges to help improve aim, while there are bikes and paths to ride (or jog) on along the beaches and through the mountains, tennis, on- and off-road as well as nautical races, and even a flight school to help brush up on controlling the infuriating helicopters. The sheer number of optional activities is staggering.

In addition to playing tennis, other physical activities include golf, darts, hunting, and yoga. There are several low-key activities as well, such as watching films (surprise! the game mocks foreign films), shopping at one of the several stores to customize the characters’ outfits, strip clubs to patronize (and ladies to woo, replacing the dating system in GTA IV), property to buy and earn a monthly income from, tattoo parlors for some body art, and barber shops for personal grooming. Each character’s smartphone also gives them access to the Internet, where they can take part in a working stock market as well as check out their friends’ updates on Life Invader (Facebook) and Bleeter (Twitter). The amount of minor detail is similarly impressive, whether it’s the flies that start to swarm around fruit left out in Michael’s kitchen after hours of play, or the conversation I overheard after following a random stranger that got a phone call as I passed by. The scale always impresses, and this extends, of course, to the range of available vehicles, which includes quads, dirt bikes, motorcycles, SUVs, luxury sports cars, beat-up rust buckets, tractors, jets, helicopters, tanks, jet skis, and sailboats. There’s always something nearby worth taking out for a joyride.

The scale also causes some problems. The game is so massive that the system periodically struggled to keep up, especially when riding while surfaced in a submarine or driving through busy areas, with frequent framerate dips and objects popping in and up all over the place. The detail and scope goes so far beyond other titles that this only becomes a concern when it’s at its worst, but even then, given what the game offers, the issues are understandable. What’s more serious, as it directly affects and dispels any sense of immersion, is when the AI suddenly becomes incapable of driving cars. Not only will there be instances when many versions of the exact same car will be on the same road, but there will be drivers who just suddenly cause pileups for no discernible reason. In one instance, I got out of an SUV and watched as the driver hit a pole, backed up, ran into the pole again, backed up, and then repeated the process half a dozen times before I just left them to their vehicular limbo; actually, it didn’t last much longer because I tossed a sticky bomb under the spot it kept reversing to and detonated it while the truck was on top. I stopped trying to enjoy cab rides after one took a left through two oncoming lanes of traffic, slammed into a wall, then reversed into the cars waiting at the red light before repeatedly slamming into the wall and back into traffic; I eventually got out and left him, too (albeit free of explosives). The cars have a very loose feel to them, and can be tricky to handle, especially until the driving skills have been improved sufficiently, but I can only assume the AI is more adept at the handling than players. And lest there be any confusion, I’m talking about basic driving situations somehow turning into pile-ups of nightly news proportions.

There is also no end to the amount of satire in the game, with the writing’s broad strokes covering pretty much anything and everything. However, as with the technical side, the sheer volume can lead to problems. While the dialog is decent on average, if at times uneven, and voice acting very good, the many surrounding elements are often lackluster. The game manages to say very little despite saying so much because it just bombards players with jokes that poke and prod at everything. Sometimes it’s because the material is delivered with a Carrot Top level of subtlety (using the acronym FIB in lieu of FBI), and other times it’s of an inconsistent nature, especially in reference to the 2008 banking crisis and those who found themselves unable to pay their mortgages because of said crisis. There were also times I just didn’t find the material very funny, such as fey Hollywood talent show host Lazlo, now taking a prominent role after repeated references and radio shows across previous GTA titles. Comedy is one of the more subjective forms of entertainment, of course, so others could easily find the material hilarious, but I often found it coming across as someone too in love with their own voice to stop.

As one of the key areas that always stuck out as a sore spot in past GTA titles, I’m happy to report that the on-foot controls have been improved across the board. Characters can run, seek cover, peek around corners, round corners, blind fire, and engage in a basic melee combat system that offers attacks, dodges, and counters. Shootouts are much more enjoyable this time around as well, and the choice of aim assist or free aim, along with a sensitivity meter, allows for enough customization so that most players end up relatively satisfied. It took some practice at the shooting range, selecting the advance targeting reticule (the basic version can be very difficult to spot), and twiddling with the sensitivity before I found the sweet spot. That, coupled with the sizeable arsenal (machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, grenade and rocket launchers, batons, shotguns, etc.), cover-based mechanics, and destructible cover makes for far more thorough and enjoyable gunplay than its predecessors. It’s not quite Max Payne 3, but it’s close. If players have trouble coming to grips with the system, or possibly just prefer staying in vehicles, the game allows for each mission to be replayed at a later date (after some practice) or, if the mission is failed three times, skipped. It’s that level of improvement and customization, coupled with the sizable open world and the freedom therein, along with an upcoming online mode, that will keep GTAV in drives for months to come.

Grand Theft Auto V is fast, vast, and vile—but it’s also a lot of fun. It might be my inner Terrible Person talking, but I had a great time causing mayhem in Los Santos and the surrounding area. I also found myself doing something I have yet to in any GTA to date: role-playing the characters. I tried to keep Franklin on the straight and narrow as much as possible while I made sure Michael stayed away from extramarital offerings and let Trevor run his desert fiefdom as he saw fit. It’s that kind of varied experience, set as it is within a large, varied world, that makes GTAV the dangerously effective time sinking and productivity destroying game that it is. There’s a lot to do, and there’s a good chance that players will want to do it all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see what Lamar’s up to.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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