Game Reviews

Grand Theft Auto V Review

by William Schwartz

Having received so much praise over the years, it’s a wonder that Rockstar Games can still be so ambitious with the Grand Theft Auto series. I mean, how do you improve on something that most people said was perfect? In the gaming industry that’s usually the clear cut signal that a sequel will bring minor iterations to what has been deemed a popular and successful formula. But resting on their laurels is something that Rockstar Games simply doesn’t do as evidenced by Grand Theft Auto V. Despite launching on the same platforms that it did five years ago, it looks better, plays better, and has more to do than any game in the series that has come before it.

Despite the improvements, Grand Theft Auto V is definitely familiar territory for fans of the series. Not only is it a return to the familiar locale of Los Santos (Rockstar’s re-imagining of current-day Los Angeles), but the soul of previous Grand Theft Auto games is still very much intact. It’s got all of the craziness that the franchise was built on. Yes, you can still go up to any car, on any street, and take it for your own purposes. You can still walk up to a crowded intersection and open fire on pedestrians prompting a police response. And yes, the game’s colorful characters and dark humor are very much intact. The familiar Grand Theft Auto hooks are there, but there’s so much minutiae this time around that makes Los Santos not only the best realized city in the series’ history, but the most fun to virtually reside in.

Grand Theft Auto V takes some interesting turns for the better, despite following what is a pretty old formula from Rockstar. The mission structures are still very much the same as in previous Grand Theft Auto games. Drive from point A to point B, and when you get there, shoot guys. But it’s the combination of periphery content and the three-pronged main character story structure that really sets GTA V apart from the games that have come before it in the series. The three character structure introduces us to a new cast, each member interesting in their own way. Trevor, Franklin, and Michael are an odd group of characters. Rockstar tells the story of Grand Theft Auto V from the eyes of these three, and gives players the opportunity to switch seamlessly between the trio in their open-world. The characters carry on their daily lives in Los Santos, and each has his own story path which intersects with the others for key moments of the game and specific missions.

How these three characters cross paths is a story better left for Rockstar to tell, but it’s a good one nonetheless. Each character has his own very unique back-story, associates in the city, and personal baggage. They also each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Franklin, is a repo-man in South Central Los Santos whose specialty involves driving vehicles. Trevor and Michael are career criminals, who once again cross paths after working with each other in the past. Trevor is for all intents and purposes a psychopath, and his special power is to go into a rage mode that allows him to deal more damage and take less. Michael’s specialty is a time slowing mechanic similar to the bullet-time found in Max Payne. Put them all together and you’ve got a formidable crew, capable of pulling of just about any criminal undertaking.

As you can see in the video below, Franklin, Trevor, and Lamar go into one of the many side missions in GTA V. You’ll notice that the swapping is seamless when on a mission like this one. It allows for dynamic shootout scenarios where characters can be moved strategically to cover each other and survive. This is something that is certainly new to the Grand Theft Auto series, and the results are nothing short of amazing, this feature really makes for some fun missions.

Grove Street Drug Deal Gone Bad

Other mission scenarios in GTA V are a little more linear. Like the one in the video below, where Michael, Franklin and Trevor team up to complete a rescue mission in a Los Santos skyscraper. In it, you’ll see that in order for success, you’ll need to manage all three characters at key moments in the mission. Each character plays to their strengths, and the three pronged approach to these missions is once again something that allows Rockstar to get pretty creative in the gameplay that they offer the player.

Three’s Company Mission

When passing the time in Los Santos between key story progression events, you can also swap between the characters and take less high profile missions, or just mess around in the city. You can do activities which boost your skills levels, customize your vehicles, partake in random world events, or just cause chaos if that’s your thing. There’s a ton of side content to explore, the map is huge and littered with locations to visit, people to meet, and jobs to take. In the video below we do quick swap between the three characters, each going about the own business while not progressing the main story at all. You can roam wherever you like in GTA V and take any number of side missions or random world events as they occur. The end result is a world that feels more alive than any of the previous GTA games. Keep an eye out, and you might even randomly run into one of your partners at an intersection.

GTA V Free Roaming Swapping Gameplay

Cash is king in GTA V, and you’re gonna need a lot of it to make major purchases. Thankfully, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin are experts at getting it. You can do small time missions and side content to earn extra scratch, but the big money comes from doing organized heists. Pulling off heists is a big part of Grand Theft Auto V, and they will provide you with the cash you’ll need to purchase property in the city, purchase guns, ammo, car customizations, outfits and more. Heists are one of the most interesting aspects of GTA V, because they offer a lot of freedom in how they are pulled off. You’ll usually have multiple options in how you want to tackle a given scenario, and you’ll need to take on side missions to get the appropriate gear together depending on the route you decide on. Once the actual heist has begun, you’ll use the three characters to successfully complete your objective and cash-in. Since there are multiple ways to tackle these events, you can even go back and replay these heists or any other mission for that matter, for higher scores or loot count. Below is a tanker heist gone terribly wrong.

GTA V Merryweather Heist Gameplay

Gameplay Changes for the better

If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’ve gotten the gist that I’ve enjoyed my time with the Grand Theft Auto V. And why not? Grand Theft Auto V is what I’ve always wanted Grand Theft Auto games to be. Not only in the way that the city feel more alive than previous games, but in the attention to detail that was paid to the core systems of the game. As you can see in the videos above, the driving and combat are two things that you spend a good deal of time with in GTA V, and they’ve been overhauled to near perfection. Long gone are the clunky driving controls of previous games that had you careening into oncoming traffic due to loose handling and weird physics. Driving is better in GTA V, and on par with games that are built specifically as racers. Gunplay is also significantly improved. Having recently went back to play with Grand Theft Auto IV ahead of this review, it’s hard to qualify the gunplay in that game as anything other than passable. The auto-aiming system was downright broken at times, and led to some pretty frustrating moments. The actual missions that require you to use a gun in Grand Theft Auto V are much more satisfying, and the ease with which you can switch between targets is the likely catalyst. It’s important that these things are right in GTA V. Going back to play the last game, these are the only parts that really stood out as antiquated baggage from previous games in the series.

There’s also a better system of saves for Grand Theft Auto V. Failing a mission in-progress doesn’t mean that you’ll have to do it all over again. Many of the main missions in GTA V are lengthy, and thoughtfully, Rockstar put in an auto save system that saves your progress. This auto-saving feature takes some of the frustration out of the more difficult missions, but it doesn’t dampen the overall difficulty of the game. It’s simply a checkpointing system, something that Grand Theft Auto could have used in the past. It makes partaking in any mission more enjoyable, and there are a lot of missions to choose from. Thankfully, in this regard, GTA V is probably the most varied in the series. There are still a lot of missions that open into the traditional shoot all the guys to win scenario, but there’s variety in how you ultimately get to this point, in most cases. From waking up in a body bag to invade a morgue, to drug induced shoot-outs with aliens, there is a ton of variety if you keep up with all there is to see in Los Santos. It isn’t hard to do, keeping up with it all that is. The smart phone makes its return in GTA V, and it’s a more efficient quest delivery system than it was in GTA IV. It’s got more features and plays a bigger role in the game, kind of like the real progression of smart phones in modern day society since 2008.

As mentioned before there are ways to progress each character. Taking missions or just using a specific attribute will increase the character’s skill level in a given trait. Want to get better at shooting? Shoot more often, or go to the practice range. Want better stamina, or be able to run further? Do a triathalon, or just run more often instead of taking a vehicle. There are numerous skills to upgrade in GTA V, and it’s just a matter of performing these actions to increase the skills. Grand Theft Auto V is more RPG-like than any other GTA game before it. Coupling this progression system with a deep level of character and vehicle customization and property ownership, there’s just a lot to keep you busy in GTA V. You could theoretically spend 100’s of hours in this world. It’s massive and varied. The downtown area is huge, and the countryside of Blaine County is even bigger.

Finally, one of the coolest tricks that Rockstar pulls is the seamless transitions between cutscenes and gameplay. In previous games these were separate events, now you can’t tell the difference in the slightest. It’s one of the features that really makes all of the events in GTA V feel cohesive, engulfing you in this fantasy world.

It wouldn’t be Rockstar without some controversy

Grand Theft Auto wasn’t the first controversial video game series, but it might be the biggest. In general, the content in GTA games has been violent, vulgar, and targeted at adults with thick skin. Despite a culture that is just waiting for the first opportunity to jump on the hate wagon when anything that is not politically correct is uttered, Rockstar screams from their megaphone with the loudest, crudest, and most intelligent messages that are being delivered in games today. They use the in-game radio stations to deliver their take on society, trends, politics and other timely hot button issues.

And then there’s the real controversial stuff. Rockstar doesn’t pull any punches in GTA V. Remember the hot coffee scandal that depicted sex in a video game, and how it was such a huge deal? They don’t even dance around that this time around, there’s straight up intercourse in the game, across numerous animal families. There’s a lap dance mini-game where you touch a stripper as much as you can without the bouncer catching you. You can make it rain. There are healthy references to drugs and alcohol, but that’s probably old hat by now. There’s a straight up brutal torture scene, where the player is put in a situation of torturing a captive with numerous devices to make them give up information. Frankly, GTA V is not for the faint of heart, or those that are offended easily. But Rockstar fans should expect nothing less at this point. There could be backlash, if and when the wrong people play this game.

Grand Theft Auto Online

Grand Theft Auto Online was not accessible for this review, and Rockstar has been keeping pretty quiet about what to expect when it does arrive in a few weeks time. The Online mode sounds interesting enough, and if the single player campaign is any indication of the quality of this online mode, GTA fans are in for a treat this October when GTA Online goes live.

Rockstar’s goal was to create the ultimate open world, and they’ve certainly done so in the offline component. If only a sliver of this carries over to the online portion of the game, it’s probably safe to say it will be a blast to play. They also claim to have over 500 missions and countless activities to perform in the sprawling world. The possibilities seem endless, especially with the crews system and opportunity to band together and pull heists to earn more cash. Really, it sounds too good to be true.

For now, all we have is this video that was released a few weeks back detailing the new mode. Why isn’t it ready at launch? That’s a good question, but if anything, you’ll have more time to experience this unbelievable open-world single player campaign.

The Verdict

Grand Theft Auto V is a testament to what ambitious game developers can do with an adequate amount of time and financial resources. As it is, it’s also a testament to the value of single player experiences. Even without GTA Online at launch, Rockstar Games’ value proposition in GTA V is one that many games can’t match. There’s just so much content in this game that it’s bursting from the seams with things to explore and try. So much so that it makes it’s previous efforts look thin in comparison to this rich world. Perhaps its the three character approach, or perhaps it’s just Rockstar continuing to learn and hone their skills. Either way, it’s the best open world game that’s ever been.

- This article was updated on:January 13th, 2014


Grand Theft Auto V

  • Available On: Xbox 360, PS3
  • Published By: Take Two Interactive
  • Developed By: Rockstar Games
  • Genre: Open World Action
  • US Release Date: September 17th, 2013
  • Reviewed On: Xbox 360
  • Quote: "There's just so much content in this game that it's bursting from the seams with things to explore and try. So much so that it makes it's previous efforts look thin in comparison to this rich world."
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