Grand Theft Auto V is a game that knows its history. It knows that fans have come to view San Andreas as the pinnacle of the franchise, a time when scope, variety, humor, and storytelling were balanced perfectly, no one aspect taking precedent over the others. It knows that GTA IV, despite its initial luster, eventually earned a reputation as a deeply muddled game, one that delivered intensely cinematic missions and important gameplay advancements alongside a nagging relationship system, shallow choices, and a mopey tone that seemed to lose sight of what made the seriesso inviting.
Grand Theft Auto V knows all of these things, and it learns from them expertly. The gunplay, driving, and mission design have all been improved and expanded upon from their already solid GTA IV incarnations, but alongside that push for advancement comes a welcome return of elements lost since the PS2 era, like lighthearted satire, a sprawling, varied map, and that most requested of features, planes. In their own way, Rockstar has found the middle ground between the game they wanted to make and the game the fans wanted them to make—even acknowledging that tension within the game’s story.
This postmodern sense of self-awareness comes in the form of the game’s trio of protagonists, who come off as three incarnations of the series’ shattered psyche given form and placed in your control. There’s Franklin, who lives out the core trajectory of every prior GTA protagonist. He’s the upstart who wants to move from a life of petty thuggery to the big leagues, and he gets there by meeting older, more experienced criminals and taking on their assignments. There’s Michael, whose desire to leave behind a murderous past for a more normal, mainstream life with his family mirrors GTA IV‘s own attempts at growing up. He’s half Tony Soprano, half Ralph Kramden. Oddly enough, the combination works. Finally, there’s Trevor, the violent, perverse psychopath who embodies the carefree, profane, bloody heart that’s always beaten at the core of the franchise’s gameplay.
That’s not to say that Grand Theft Auto V gets caught up in some navel-gazing statement about itself. Those reflective archetypes are more of a clever jumping-off point than anything else. The story that’s built around them isn’t interested in taking sides, but in building up all three into flawed, believable human beings with depth and complexity, and in exploring what happens when these wildly contrasting personalities come together. Indeed, the story itself is surprisingly pared back from previous titles in the series, focusing less on a wacky cast of support characters—though there are still a few—and more on a focused central narrative and the interplay between the three antiheroes. Despite its high-minded genesis, the end product is refreshingly focused, with just enough well-paced story beats to keep things interesting throughout its lengthy running time.
While the game offers plenty of interesting wrinkles I dare not spoil for you here, the main brunt of that narrative is simple: Get rich by pulling off a series of increasingly ridiculous heists, and get away with it. Not every mission in GTA V revolves around these capers—I’d estimate just under 50 percent of them do—but they’re so different from any prior game in the franchise and so well realized that they really overshadow the rest of the experience. You, as the player, are involved in every step of the process. You case the joint, you choose the plan of attack, you pick your supporting crew, and you acquire the necessary supplies. The preparations can be a bit on the lengthy side, but they’re never boring, and they make the payoff of the heists themselves that much more rewarding.
These culminating missions are easily the best the series has ever seen, putting prior greats like IV‘s bank robbery and San Andreas‘ casino heist to shame. They’re complex, lengthy, thrilling, and open-ended to a surprising degree. Not only can you choose between two completely different approaches before things kick off, but you’ll also find that the action itself can branch depending upon the NPC crew you’ve selected. Going for lower-skilled-but-cheaper accomplices can mean your best-laid plans fall apart, forcing you to adapt on the fly. I wasn’t able to test out every possible outcome, but I’d expect that each heist can play out in at least four distinct ways, if not more.
The only real downside to the heist format is that it seems, to some extent, to hamper progression. Since you’re putting in a lot of time to prep for the big payoff, you’ll sometimes complete dozens of missions in a row without any financial gains to show for it. In one instance, I finished an entire lengthy questline and the culminating heist, only to be rewarded with a whopping zero dollars for story-related reasons. I constantly found myself waiting hours to purchase a new car, property, or weapon, just because my gains from the story missions were nonexistent. I understand that there are other optional ways to earn money in between big scores, like playing the stock market and purchasing businesses for a steady income, but those gains are usually so low that they start to feel like a grind. I wish the core experience were a little more evenly paced in that regard, especially since such a heavy emphasis has been placed on customization this time around.
Still, even without any real incentive, I constantly felt compelled to try out every side mission as I unlocked them. That’s partly because they’re all of such high quality. Not only are the mechanics frequently different from the standard gameplay (though just as well developed), there’s also amusing new dialogue and characters to encounter. Even the diversions, like tennis, golf, yoga, and parachuting, are robust enough that they feel less like minigames and more like full experiences in their own right. Mostly, though, my eagerness was due to the fact that I was always excited to explore another new chunk of Grand Theft Auto V‘s world.
As someone who’s spent more than two decades living in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, I can honestly say that GTA V captures the feel of the city so well, it’s downright scary. It’s not just the well-known tourist traps, though those are all certainly accounted for. It’s also the little things, like the way the smog catches the afternoon sun to give the city skyline that gray-and-orange haze. On more than one occasion, I recognized the location I was in simply because the curve and slope of the road was so artfully reconstructed that it triggered my memories of driving it in real life. It’s obviously a greatly condensed version of the city, not a 1:1 re-creation, but the spirit and layout are shockingly intact, so much so that I was frequently able to navigate between different areas using only my real-world knowledge.
Of course, there’s more to the world of GTA V than just the urban sprawl of Los Santos. Two thirds of the massive map is dedicated to the wilderness of Blaine County, encompassing deserts, rural settlements, and coastal towns. These areas are equally grounded in the reality of Southern California, but they’ve been assembled with much more creative license, reconfiguring recognizable elements into a purely fictional whole. The result isn’t any less exciting to explore, however, with huge mountains, lakes, canyons, bridges, and wind farms that transition beautifully into one another and invite exploration. Thanks to the game’s impressive draw distance—you can essentially see one side of the map from the other—if you’ve got enough elevation, there’s a nearly endless supply of breathtaking vistas. Decades from now, the world of Grand Theft Auto V will stand as the single most incredible technological accomplishment on this generation of hardware.
There are, however, a few technical trade-offs, like occasional texture and model pop-in and flickering. More glaring are the load times, specifically when pulling up the pause menu to look at the map or swapping between characters. They’re not long long, but given how frequently you’ll be doing both, it’s a shame they don’t quite feel smooth or seamless.
In the end, though, any minor shortcomings are eclipsed by how overwhelmingly, inexplicably complete GTA V feels. You know that moment when you butt up against some minor oversight in a game’s design and all sense of immersion is suddenly shattered? Maybe you hit a poorly disguised invisible wall, or your character spouts a line of dialogue that’s not appropriate for the current tone. Maybe a seemingly valid strategic decision fails because the game didn’t account for it. Just like that, you’re jarringly aware of the fact that you’re playing a game. While the circumstances vary greatly, it’s incredibly rare to play anything for more than a few hours without encountering such an event—and that’s doubly true for open-world titles, where the length, scope, and level of freedom makes it exceedingly difficult to stitch up every last visible seam.
I never had that moment in Grand Theft Auto V.
And believe me, I looked for it. For a good 50-odd hours, I tried my best to test the boundaries, to outsmart the designers. I spent hundreds of dollars convincing multiple strippers to let me go back to their place for the night, just so I could see if they all lived in the same apartment. They didn’t. I swapped back and forth between two of the playable characters, inching them together to see if they’d acknowledge one another outside of missions. They did. Later, when those same two characters were on less-favorable terms, I repeated my tedious exercise, and the pair engaged in a long, heated shouting match that nearly ended in violence.
Here was a scenario that would never happen organically, one that only an infinitesimal percentage of obsessive players would even think to instigate, and the game was ready for it, with dialogue specially recorded for the occasion.
It’s that hyper-neurotic, seemingly impossible attention to detail that puts Rockstar on an entirely different playing field than every other developer in the industry. Perhaps it’s by simple virtue of GTA V‘s gargantuan budget, easily the largest of any game to date. Perhaps it’s a product of the freedom Rockstar enjoys by serving as both developer and publisher. Perhaps it’s merely due to the studio’s high caliber of design talent. I suspect it’s some combination of all three.
But no matter the cause, the end results are stunning. Rarely, in any medium, do we see a creative vision this fully realized, from its grandest philosophical goals down to its narrowest minutiae. To put it another, simpler way: Grand Theft Auto V is, quite literally, a dream come true.
Grand Theft Auto V expertly blends the best aspects of the last two major releases in the series, GTA IV and San Andreas, to set a new standard in open-world action. In a year already packed with titles that have pushed aging console hardware to new extremes, GTA V might stand as the crowning technical and design accomplishment.
M – Mature
|Grand Theft Auto V is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Rockstar North for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|