Grand Theft Auto V is a big game. Perhaps you consider this an understatement and of course, it is. But until you play the game, you can’t fully grasp the meaning of that common three-letter word. You may assume it pertains merely to the size and scope of the virtual environment. You might think it involves the attention to detail and the role-playing-like depth. If you believed both, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, it’s when you pause, step back, and cast an appreciative eye over the unparalleled vastness of GTAV as a whole that you begin to understand. Then you stagger, ‘cuz it’s just that overwhelming.
It’s never easy to issue a separate graphics score for open-world sandbox games, primarily because you know the developers were forced to sacrifice a bit of clarity and detail for the sake of smooth gameplay. But when you consider the ridiculous size of Los Santos and the surrounding areas, you can’t help but be impressed by what Rockstar has accomplished. Sure, zooming in on various parts of the world reveals minor yet outdated flaws, and the cut-scenes are hardly CGI quality. Again, though, step back a moment and view the enormity of this achievement. It’s all lovingly crafted, from the random shrubs on the outskirts of the city to the tallest skyscraper.
While it’s a challenge to appropriately analyze the visual presentation of such a colossal game (and compare it to other titles), it’s easy to evaluate the audio. It’s awesome. The voice acting on all fronts is superb, which is a definite step up for the franchise, the soundtrack is bigger and better than ever before, and the ambient city effects are unbelievable. It’ll take a while before you hear the same street conversation twice, the diverse soundtrack is a blend of modern music and throwback tunes, and even minor NPCs are voiced pretty well. Okay, so there are a few balancing issues between voices and the rest of the audio, but that’s about it.
It’s difficult to know where to begin. Do I start with the changes and additions to this particular GTA installment, such as the switching between three protagonists? Do I begin by assessing how the gameplay and specifically, the control, has evolved? Am I supposed to tackle the branching storylines, which admittedly have a few flaws? Do readers expect me to give them an idea of mission types, and if many of them seem similar or repetitive? What about the question as to whether or not we should wait to do a review, because the online multiplayer won’t be available until October 1? And hey, do all those hundreds of extras, like activities and outfits, actually have an impact? Or do they feel superfluous?
Yes, I suppose I could attempt to answer each one of those questions in logical, successive progression. However, I’d rather embrace the far-reaching scope of the game and tell you what it feels like to play GTAV, because there’s so damn much to do that it all coalesces into this absurdly immersive atmosphere. The immersion begins right out of the gate, as you’re involved in a bank heist, which soon spills out into the snowy streets. Here you will learn the basics, such as movement, aiming, taking cover, and switching between available party members. It’s all smooth, accessible and well-implemented. Then, before long, you and a buddy jack two sports cars, and you’re racing along the crowded streets of Los Santos.
It’s just the beginning but within a few hours, you start to realize the breadth of the experience. It isn’t just that you can change the clothes of each main character; it’s that they have everything from entire outfits to individual hats, shoes, pants and shirts. It’s not that you can bring any car to a shop and get a new paint job; it’s that you can upgrade and customize with mechanical (engine, brakes, muffler, etc.) and cosmetic boosts. It’s not just that you can switch between the characters at almost any time; it’s that each character has his own statistics, his own special abilities, and his own missions. It’s not just that you can participate in all sorts of activities, ranging from golf to the strip club; it’s that each activity feels fleshed-out and highly entertaining rather than tacked on.
Getting the idea? In terms of missions, you’ll be doing a little bit of everything. This is by far the most diverse array of mission objectives and types GTA has ever seen, and that goes double if you tackle the optional missions. Even early on, you’ll be ripping down a cliff-side deck with a tow truck (you thought the owner slept with your wife), and then you’ll be trying a questionable joint and mowing down aliens in your drug-induced haze. Tons of different vehicles await, as do plenty of colorful characters, and that’s not even counting the story-based missions that include all three protagonists toward the end. Factor in the extra stuff and you could spend a very long time with this one.
If you’re wondering why the game doesn’t get a perfect 10, I’ll tell you. While the control has been refined and updated, I still find on-foot maneuvering to be slightly slow and awkward. Michael responds to my commands with more vigor on the tennis court then he does in a gunfight, and that seems weird. Still, it’s a lot better than it has been before, as the gunplay is similar to Red Dead Redemption and the cover mechanic works very well. I also think the tutorials can be difficult to follow; you have to try reading the small print in the upper left corner of the screen, all the while trying to play. That could’ve been done better. Lastly, there are a few lingering bugaboos unique to GTA.
Those bugaboos include vehicles getting stuck in bizarre situations, as well as imperfect AI that is more noticeable in certain missions. For some, these small drawbacks are just part of the GTA experience and the final score shouldn’t be docked for their existence. The argument will be, “oh, that’s just GTA; we expect it.” All right, I’ll go with that, because it doesn’t hinder your enjoyment, but the bottom line is that flaws are flaws, as insignificant – or as expected – as they may be. Aside from this, the game is an eye-opening achievement on almost every level, and one that continues to expand and grow with almost every passing hour. The pacing is just fantastic throughout; it never feels stagnant or rushed.
The driving is the best it has been in franchise history, as every vehicle finally feels just about right. And remember, the more you drive, the better you get at it. The more you fire a certain weapon, the better marksman you become; the more you remain active and participate in sports like tennis, the more fit you become; the more you tackle alternate missions and invest in real estate, the more money you earn. On top of all this is the extraordinary dynamic nature of your environment. It’s not just about driving to available missions on the map. Maybe a thief snags a wallet, maybe an armored truck is starting its rounds (talk about an attractive target!), or maybe there’s a car chase. The cops don’t just chase you .
Exploring is made easy with the map, waypoints, GPS and a heads-up display that isn’t intrusive. You can turn all that off for a more immersive experience, if you wish, but I kinda like the assistance. For instance, when you’re being hunted by the police, each car has its own search cone after they lose sight of you. So, escaping doesn’t rely on madcap driving to get out of a single search zone; once you’ve lost them, you need to find a place to hide. Back allies and behind buildings are good ideas. This is a nod to the more realistic nature of the game, a direction Rockstar took with GTAIV and continued in GTAV. Well, at least to some extent. It’d be a big mistake to call GTAV a “simulator.” No, not even close.
The story isn’t amazing but it goes deeper than past narratives in the franchise, and involves more ins and outs. The characters are better defined and they do a good job handling the more complex, branching storylines. It can feel a touch muddled at times, but I think that’s partly due to the inevitable drawback of open-world games: Players spend a lot of time doing other things, and when they finally get back to the plot-advancing missions, they’ve forgotten a few points. And with so much to do in Los Santos, you’re almost guaranteed to occasionally lose track of the core story. I can’t say this is a design flaw, though, because there’s no really no way around it.
The game is absolutely bursting with content. And the most amazing part is that the vast majority of that content is great; it doesn’t seem pointless at all. This is helped by the RPG-like aspect of the game, in that much of what you do affects a character’s statistics or ability. I’m not just going to the shooting range for something else to do; I’m going to beef up my character’s shooting skill. Lastly, as you explore, driving, flying, sailing, diving, or just walking, you never seem to tire of the expansive, engaging environment. It’s not only because of the content, it’s also because Rockstar outdid themselves in the creation of this enchanting virtual world.
Grand Theft Auto V is a gargantuan accomplishment, with an emphasis on the word “gargantuan.” It may still have an assortment of inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, but one could argue that such missteps still give this franchise a singular character. I say they still sort of detract from the experience, simply given the rapid improvements in the industry. But all in all, this is an amazing game, with an amazingly talented and driven group of developers behind it, and it all results in an amazing experience. There’s really nothing else like it and those who immerse themselves in GTAV will undoubtedly emerge with adrenaline-induced grins. Gotta love it.
The Good: Epic, sweeping, engaging world. Great soundtrack, excellent voice performances and dynamic effects. Unparalleled breadth and scope. Appreciated upgrades and refinements. Driving is the best we’ve seen yet for the series. Compelling characters. Obscene amount of content.
The Bad: Lingering control problems, and a few standard issues familiar to GTA fans.
The Ugly: “Los Santos has its fair share of ugliness but somehow, you just can’t look away.”