The Definitive Grand Theft Auto V Review, aka ‘The Final Word’

Welcome back from winter break everyone!

Now that the dust has settled and the holidays are behind us, it’s time to get back to work. To kick off the new year I’m taking a second look at last year’s massive blockbuster:

Grand Theft Auto V.

If you want to skip straight to the meat and potatoes click here

LogoIf you’ve been stuck under a rock, GTA V hit the shelves last September to a record setting release. It made a whopping $800 million the day it was released, has sold nearly 30 million copies so far. It is quickly gaining on Mario Kart Wii, which holds the top spot as the #1 selling console game of all time at 34 million. Did I mention that Mario Kart Wii has been out for over five years? In the long-run, GTA V could sell as many as 50 million copies, if and when it is adapted for next-gen consoles like the Playstation 4, XBox One, or over to PC.

So far GTA V has shattered every sales record, brought Activision and Call of Duty to its knees, and cemented Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive as the hottest and most respected game makers in the business. All of these records broken, sales made, and it was only released on two consoles – the XBox 360 and PS3.  Right now, both the XBox One and PS4 are selling like hotcakes at around 4 million each, people are adapting faster to this generation than the last. It only makes sense that Rockstar would capitalize on this fact. That’s almost 9 million next-gen consoles sold, of which I’m willing to bet 80% of whom would all run out and buy a Game of the Year Edition of GTA V come summer time… I know that I would personally slap down another $60 to set foot in a suped-up Playstation 4 version of GTA V and Online… But that’s a story for another press release.

Point being, Rockstar still stands to make even more money off of this masterpiece of modern entertainment, and you know what? They deserve it. GTA V is top-to-bottom one of the greatest achievements in digital history.

GTAVoclock logoPreface: My adoration for the Grand Theft Auto series is obvious… That being said, there are a thousand other sites out there that have put much more blood, sweat, and tears into the game… For instance, if you’re a GTA fan and don’t know about GTAVO’Clock, you’re missing out on one of the best Youtube channels around. ComputerandVideoGames.com’s extensive and sometimes exclusive coverage of this game is unmatched by even the big boys at IGN, Kotaku, or Gamespot.com… Don’t forget the hilarious antics of the GTA V Mythbusters on DefendtheHouse. All of these guys deserve props before I get started.

What follows is my version of a review that’s been written a hundred, if not a thousand times over the last four months so I’ll try to keep it fresh.nico LC

See?

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

This story began a few years ago, in the early 2000s. Somewhere off the East coast of a fictionalized America, with a man named Niko Bellic. Niko immigrated to this Bizarro-America on a freighter from the Balkans. Niko was a survivor, a soldier, a man with a burning desire for vengeance for a betrayal years before that brought him to the dingy shores of Liberty City in search of the one who wronged him. He also represented a fresh face for the Grand Theft Auto series, whose protagonists had until then been Americans. This allowed Rockstar to delve to an even deeper level of social commentary all wrapped in a hilarious vision of American society that they have committed to bringing us for some time to come. Through Niko and Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar introduced a gritty, realistic version of New York and the country, and a new direction for the series. A series that until then was mostly cartoon violence and sex with prostitutes in a open-world sandbox setting. grand-theft-auto-iv-pc-screenshot-liberty-city-night-skylineLiberty City was the real star of GTA IV, ask anyone who has played it. A technical marvel of game programming, a living, breathing city where a player could get lost for hours driving at high speeds through Times Square in a bus or gunning down bad guys with the game’s rough shooting mechanics. Despite the game’s obvious faults (“Hello cousin, want to go bowling?”), it, more than any other, was the one I always came back to play no matter how long it had been.

If Liberty City was a living, breathing city, San Andreas is a living, breathing world. This Bizarro-California is a massive, sun-soaked state complete with most of California’s major landmarks. Grand-Theft-Auto-VWhere fake plastic people compete for fake plastic lives in the spotlight, and everyone is looking for their big break at the hands of some other poor unfortunate. I’ve been down to LA plenty of times, they really nailed the feel of the place. Desolate and yet crowded, dingy and beautiful, heaven with an extra serving of hell. Los Santos and the surrounding state of San Andreas is an amazing place to be set loose in.

They story starts with a prologue set around the same time Niko stepped off a freighter in Liberty City. In the frozen tundra of the Canadian border region of America, three assholes try to rob a bank. Not the first bank to be knocked over by these particular assholes, it would surely be their last. Because as Grand Theft Auto V begins, we are dropped head-first into a firefight that kicks off as soon as the assholes leave said bank. Instead of the usual opening movie you see in games nowadays, it’s straight to the shootin…

And shootin we do good…

screenImmediately the new cover system (adopted from Rockstar’s brilliant shooter Max Payne 3) gives an immersion that was never available in a GTA game before. Bullets whiz by, ricocheting off walls and chipping away at the cover you’re desperately ducking behind, officers duck behind cars and move from cover to cover trying to flank you, and the sound of your assault rifle bounces off the walls of the enclosed warehouse entrance… It quickly becomes overwhelming. That is until you suddenly remember this is a GTA game, and all guns blazing is the law of the land.

Swapping targets, getting head shots, rolling between cover, it’s all a little daunting at first. While not as fluid and seamless as Max Payne 3 was, it’s exhilarating in the least, and third-person ass-kickin mayhem at its best. The three assholes fight their way across the snow-covered parking lot, turning cops into hot, steaming splashes of red in the never-ending white. 453428262Escape from the bank becomes a test of will that’s only dampened by the sneaking feeling that you can take a lot more bullet damage in this opening scene then you’ll ever be allowed to again. Well, outside of the Paleto Score that is.

Once you reach the getaway car you’re suddenly trying to steer a speeding truck down an icy road while cop cars whiz by in the other direction. A roadblock sends you careening down a snowy dirt road, trying to beat a train across the intersection. Well this being a prologue, it doesn’t work out. The truck crashes, two of the assholes get shot while the other, Trevor, reluctantly escapes into the blizzard. At the camera pans up into the falling snow, the first of many extremely well-done cut scenes recounts the aftermath of the failed bank robbery. A snowy grave-side funeral, a man in the shadows watches as a coffin gets lowered into a plot with his name on the stone. He is Michael Townley, aka De Santa, and he is just one of the three playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V.

Flash-forward ten years later to 2013, GTA’s Bizarro-version of Venice, Vespucci Beach, stretches for miles in the golden sun of the Los Santos sky. Ultraviolet rays beat down on bikini-clad girls and board-shorts wearing boys all playing in the sand as dogs circle their masters looking for thrown balls and above gulls caw in the afternoon air. The beaches give way to beautiful, rolling hills to the north, all covered by vineyards and farmland. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-27To the north-east is the Grand Senora Desert, a vast and arid landscape just begging for exploration. Beyond it, the Alamo (Salton) Sea dotted with trailer parks, meth labs, and oil derricks galore. From the sea to the mountains, to the forest and beyond. Every single day of the five years it took to make Grand Theft Auto V shows through in the way you are completely immersed in this world. A world that seems to teem with life. People, deer, dogs, cougars, birds, sharks, fish, and more burst from every corner of a map that goes from high mountain peaks to deep ocean trenches.

Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-30I could spend an entire post writing about the way the sun sets over Mount Josiah, west of the desert. The way the day fades into beautiful hues of red and orange that stop you in your tracks more often than not… Or about the sudden thunder storms that bring much-needed rain to the baked hard-pan of this amazing landscape. How the lightning cracks like brilliant white fire in the night sky, sending echoes of thunder and light across the horizon. Rockstar has done so many things right, it’s almost impossible not to get lost in the dizzying display of colors and sound.

Let me just tell you about the sound…

I’m standing on the corner of Vinewood Blvd and Power St., and I’ve ducked out of the rain, into the safety of the nearest sunglasses shop, and everywhere I look I see Los Angeles. I’ve been to LA, I’ve walked the Hollywood streets and seen the wax museum, the adult movie marquees, and the endless lines of souvenir shops… It looks exactly like this. Vinewood and PowerAs the rain makes its way up Vinewood Blvd, car tires start screeching on the wet pavement and people begin covering their heads with umbrellas and newspapers. Soon the cursing starts, pedestrians swearing at the weather and grabbing cabs or ducking out of the rain like I am. It isn’t long before puddles are gathering on the stars’ stars that run up and down the sidewalks, and thunder can be heard booming in the distance. The rain makes driving a mess, and soon the sirens start echoing off the buildings while the rain hammers away at the concrete and metal that surrounds me. Car radios, car noise, and people… People everywhere… This is not a video game, this is something else.

Before long the rain begins to stop, the birds start chirping again, and like it never happened, the city welcomes the burning light of the sun. San Andreas is gorgeous from top to bottom, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of Mount Chiliad, to the barrio to the desert trailer park… Even in it’s most ugly form, Grand Theft Auto V is breathtaking.

Photo-1_10_14,-10.11.41-AM-1The city of Los Santos itself is bigger than the entire map of Liberty City in GTA IV, and even it is just a fraction of the entire map of V. In other words, this game is huge. Grab a bicycle in Vespucci Beach and head north. See how long it takes you to bike around the state. Trust me when I say you won’t make it… Somewhere along the way a stranger will stop you, often yelling for help. It can be a bachelor tied to  tree by his bachelor party friends, or a drunk couple who need a ride home from the bar in Sandy Shores, redneck America. Or maybe you’ll run into one of the game’s many armored cars, just begging you to toss a sticky bomb on the back. Or a dot-com millionaire who’s had his bike stolen, or a golf champion whose wife is tossing his crap out on the front lawn. Its little side missions like this that allow you to just pull back layer after layer of content in this masterpiece.

Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-46Back to the asshole in therapy. Michael De Santa (aka Townley) is a whinging, self-obsessed narcissist who thinks he’s just a normal guy… He thinks that his former life of crime is as much a memory as the 80′s action movies he’s always watching to escape reality. He’s retired, he’s rich, and he’s miserable as he wastes the days in his own version of witness protection. How he got there, and why it’s not exactly a government-approved retirement is all part of the underlying mystery that plays out over the course of the game. See, Michael’s old partner, Trevor, the one who escaped in the snow… Well… He’s a psychopath… A methamphetamine-fueled psychopath at that… And he thinks Michael was shot and killed that day.

In a way, Trevor Phillips represents every person that’s ever found themselves lost in a GTA game. He’s the lurking psychotic part in all of us. He’s the middle finger we wish was an RPG in traffic. He’s the obscenity-laced tirade we don’t go on. He’s not the killer, he’s the weapon.

Trevor Phillips is also the funniest game character ever given digital life. His lines are hilarious, he’s always doing crazy, sometimes disturbing (RIP Floyd) stuff, and you can not count on his next move through the entire game. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-36See one of the moves that Rockstar decided to make when they went with the three-character-switchable game play model was to give us drop-in scenes. These little vignettes play every time you switch to a new character on a new(er) save game, and their purpose is to immerse the player even more and suspend disbelief. It works beautifully. Swapping characters makes the camera pan up into the sky and drop down on the guy you’re switching to. That guy is always in the middle of doing something, and more often than not, it’s hilarious. Trevor gets all of the good switches of course. You never know if he’ll be drunk and slurring on a rooftop, mid-heave of throwing a biker off a bridge to the cement below, or exposing himself to the denizens of Los Santos… And of course, Trevor gets all the good lines…

“I want him to be the kind of guy who understands that all the money in the world won’t save him from a nasty guy who thinks he’s an asshole…”

0_0Rounding out the cast of characters is Franklin Clinton, a young twenty-something gang banger from the ghetto trying  hard to break out of the old life of petty crime and into something bigger. While sharing a house with his aunt, Franklin and his buddy Lamar Davis are the center of GTA V’s beginning chapters. It’s these two miscreants that Michael runs into while leaving his therapist’s office down in a beach-side house straight out of Californication. There’s the obligatory “how-to” missions that get the story going, mainly following Franklin and his work for a shady tax-defrauding car salesman named Simeon. Between repoing whips and the occasional gun-fight with rival gangs, Franklin’s story introduces us to another of GTA V’s playable characters, Chop the Dog.

This time around, with the implementation of Grand Theft Auto Online, Rockstar has pushed everything into the cloud. Almost every aspect of your gameplay is tracked and compiled in their online Social Club. You can join “crews” of friends in GTA Online, check out stats, and even take care of Chop in a mini-game available on the iFuit (Apple jab) app that you can download on almost any smartphone or tablet. If you take care of Chop on your iPad, he’ll be a “better dog” in the game. This is my first complaint, the NEED to care for a virtual animal and the fact that failure to do so makes for an uncooperative pup in the story. Only insofar that he won’t perform stupid tricks, but still… There should really be an option for taking care of Chop in the game… For those without the extra tech or time to play another game to satisfy a dog (ewww).

021fcab68f8b4d0368a653d8a7b703a5Since I’m on the subject, I might as well roll straight into my main complaint, the car mechanics. Not the driving mechanics mind you, they are unmatched in any previous GTA or even racing game I can remember. (Except for the inherent problems with using a stick to drive a sports car at 200 mph) I’m talking about cars themselves. GTA V gives every character a safe house with a car park of some sort, and an extra four-car garage somewhere else across the city. On top of that, every character is given a “default” car. They’re not the best cars, in fact, they’re pretty crappy on the scale of cars in the game. They can be modded and tricked out to a degree, however, non hold a candle to some of the cars you can buy on your in-game phone’s browser or any accessible laptop. The default cars follow you around most of the time, but the problem is that Rockstar gives you the ability to buy $1 million super cars and then every time you start a mission it gets lost.

Well, it gets towed to the local impound MOST of the time, but sometimes it just disappears. This can be infuriating in a game based on cars, that’s set in a city where everyone drives cars everywhere, all the time. It’s impossible to buy a super car, go mod it out, and then use it practically. If you go start a mission, you’re ALWAYS using some sort of other mission-specific vehicle, or need something with four doors… Which the super cars don’t. Instead, you’ll finish a mission, then have to cab it to the impound every time to get your whip again. That means more often than not you’re driving to get the car you want to drive or you’re driving to leave the car you want to save. In GTA Online you get a 10-car garage and a for-hire mechanic that can deliver vehicles to you at any time, any place there’s a main road. Even more importantly, in Online your car follows you everywhere. Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-14If you designate a car as your main car, it follows you after missions, everywhere. When you’re done raising hell you’ll turn around and your car is right where you left it parked. You can also buy insurance in Online, so when your million dollar super car explodes or launches into the drink, you can order another for a fee. Rockstar REALLY needs to bring these options to the single player campaign.

All this really means is you have to adapt, and fortunately Rockstar gives us plenty of options. Garage issues aside, if you’ve got a car you really enjoy driving? Just make sure to park it in your garage before you head out for a mission. Problem solved. The call-a-cab and skip-the-ride routine still works for instant travel anywhere on the map. Need to do a mission? Catch a cab, boost a car, etc. Want to go for a nice Sunday drive? Get your good car out of the garage and cruise, just don’t forget to put it back.

“I’m not sure shooting people online counts as networking.”

maxresdefaultWhen Franklin’s boss Simeon sends him on a repo into the classy side of town, things get interesting. A simple sneak-in and drive-away turns into a confrontation between Simeon and Michael, who recognizes a tax fraud scam when he sees one, and doesn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s boss ripping off his son. Michael wrecks the dealership, causing Franklin to lose his job. Soon the two develop a mentor/mentee relationship, and before you know it the missions, and the mayhem, begin rolling in. When their antics draw the attention of the news media after a daring day time heist, somewhere in the desert a psychopath sees a ghost.

Let me take a minute to talk about the glowing center of Grand Theft Auto V… A series of complicated heists that require set up, materials, disguises, planning, etc… All of which you’re in on most of the time.Grand-Theft-Auto-V-heist-plans Whether it’s Michael’s brainiac buddy Lester calling out options for sneak attacks or the great Trevor Phillips himself scrawling marker on a Vespucci Beach condo’s wall, heists are always set up beforehand so you know what you’re getting into. Due to the massive popularity of GTA IV’s mid-game bank heist, Rockstar wisely chose to make these heists the backbone of GTA V. This gives the game structure that it lacked before. A unifying theme that ties the whole game together. There are a half dozen major heists, and any of them are more fun that any of the missions from previous games in the series.

Some of them are lifted straight from the movies that so prominently inspired GTA V, especially Michael Mann’s cops and robbers in LA classic Heat. Like the dump truck smashing the armored car or the downtown Los Santos shoot out at the end of the game that spills from block to block as waves of cops try and stop you from escaping with the loot from the last heist. Even little things like names, characters, the way the game looks or the way Michael’s wardrobe so closely matches Robert DeNiro’s from the film. It’s a good thing, trust me. If you’re going to rip off a movie to make a video game, you could do WAY worse than Heat.

Michael-gta-v-robert-de-niroHeists are supposedly coming to GTA Online some time in the next month or so, which means even more planning, teamwork, boosting getaway cars, buying/stealing supplies… All kinds of good times. It’s what Online is truly lacking at the moment. Something to link all of the random crap together.

The jewelry store heist has Michael enlist the help of Franklin and Lester to help him knock over a Rockford Hills shop in order to pay back a ruthless Mexican mob boss that Michael pissed off in a fit of mid-life crisis rage. After rounding up disguises, an exterminator van, and some handy knock-out gas, the boys raid the store with the help from hired goons. These goons you either meet throughout the game like Packie McCreary from GTA IV or other characters will introduce them, like Trevor’s meth-cook but level-headed buddy Chef. On the way out, before the daring underground dirtbike race, Michael mouths off to one of the guards outside… Spouting, “You forget millions of thing every day pal, make sure this is one of them.” A line from the prologue, and one that goes out on the evening news.

We first meet Trevor Phillips while he’s balls-deep in Ashley, the on-again/off-again tweaker-girlfriend of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned’s protagonist Johnny… They’re obviously doing meth and having a good old time in the trailer park when Trevor sees a news report that sends him over the deep end he’s been circling for quite some time. In one of the few cameos from previous games, a now meth-addled Johnny comes looking for his girlfriend just in time to get curb stomped by Trevor in a fit of homicidal rage. Our first five minutes with the man and he’s already cornholed a tweaker and stomped the brains right out of a prominent GTA series figure.

Needless to say, Trevor is the man.

From time to time the choice to swap characters will disappear while the game steers you in a particular direction in order to hurry the story along. Taking over Trevor for the first time is one of those moments. While Michael and Franklin hide out in the wake of the jewelry store heist, Trevor decides to ride the wave of homicidal rage, taking out the local competition in the meth and guns trades. In a blaze of gunfire and bile, Trevor wipes out the drug-dealing Lost Motorcycle Club single-handedly before he sets his sights on the Aztecas, who control the local gun running. Along the way he goes to war with a rival clan of redneck meth cooks and pisses off a Triad mob boss looking to get into the meth biz. Once Trevor Phillips Industries (also Incorporated, Enterprises, and many others… the inconsistent name is a running gag in the game) secures the black market operations in Blaine County, Trevor finally gets the lead he’s been looking for and grabs his juggalo tweaker buddy and heads for the city, recanting a bit of he and Michael’s past along the way.

Trevor’s arrival in LS marks the end of Grand Theft Auto V’s first act, and the beginning of a long and kick-ass story that takes our heroes from high-altitude hijackings to underwater break-ins. The tension between Trevor and Michael builds, all the while you’re never really quite sure who is playing who, or who is undercover and who is making moves to take over the town. Wrapped up in a government conspiracy, the three amigos must put their differences aside in order to pull off that one last score…

Grand Theft Auto VGTA V is an amalgamation of every type of game out there, from racing game to shooter, from tennis to golf and all the places in between… There’s even a hunting game, a darts game, a parachuting game, races on sea, in the air… More content than any other console game I’ve ever seen. It’s engaging, well-paced, and absolutely hilarious. I’ve never laughed at a game as much as I did while following the antics of these three idiots… Hell as much as I STILL DO every time I play.

Then there’s the layer below the game itself, the movies you can go to the theater and watch, the  24-hour television, radio, and internet programming to distract you, the alcohol, marijuana, prostitutes and strip clubs. The pier has a roller coaster and Ferris wheel for pity’s sake. There is so much fun packed into every inch of the map, you’ll find it hard to focus on any one thing at a time. I often find myself having to choose what I want to accomplish ahead of any play time in order to commit myself to getting something done. Otherwise I’ll spend hours driving in the country side, catching massive air from sand dunes, bicycling, bmx jumping, breaking into high security military compounds to steal tanks or jet fighters… And these are all a la carte… Let alone the hours of mission running, Online play, or race/deathmatch creating you can do. The story is complex and multi-layered, the voice acting is the best I’ve ever heard, and the technical wizardry at work that lets this beauty run so well on a 7 year-old machine makes GTA V my favorite game of all time.

Never have I seen a game that is worth SO much more than the $60 I paid for it. It’s almost unheard of for me to STILL be committing unhealthy amounts of time to a game that’s been out for four months. I have barely touched the Playstation 4 sitting in the house because of one reason: I can’t play Grand Theft Auto V on it.

Until then I’ll be slumming it with the PS3 and having a brilliant time doing it.

Highest possible recommendations.Photo-1_7_14,-11.55.13-AM-55

Grand Theft Auto Online is About to Change Everything You Know About Online Gaming

GTAV_business_03

The Internet is alive with anticipation and the buzz is almost unbearably loud. Its a fan-boy’s wet dream, and its only going to get worse as we draw ever closer to September 17th. The imminent release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is shaping up to be the ultimate swansong for this generations Sandboxand more. gtaiii_3They’ve pushed the envelope of both graphics, storytelling, and the open-world concept.

Rockstar is one of the most, if not the most respected and revered publisher in today’s gaming world. Ten years ago they single-handedly redefined 3D game-play with Grand Theft Auto III, then promptly followed it up with the motorcycles, helicopters, and planes of Vice City. At the end of the Ps2′s life cycle, Rockstar released GTA: San Andreas, which featured a map that covered all of Southern California and Nevada from Los Santos (LA) to San Fiero (SF) to Las Venturas (Las Vegas). It was the pinnacle of the Playstation 2, and a game that millions devoted countless hours to the over-the-top gang warfare, character customization, gta-iv-san-andreas-03-700x466bicycles and jet fighters and parachutes that San Andreas brought.

Not to be out-done, Rockstar revolutionized the current generation as well with the brilliant and realistic Grand Theft Auto IV. Set in the same fictional Liberty City (NY) from GTA III, this time around the sandbox became highly detailed and realistic, shying away from the silly antics of the San Andreas days. GTA IV brought gritty, thought-provoking satire and offered the most realistic simulation of a city ever built inside a computer. Rockstar immediately followed that up with the expansive and ever-fun Red Dead Redemption, which brought the open world sandbox style of GTA to the old west… With what most consider to be the best western ever made.

You like what I did there?

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From all accounts they aren’t letting up. Grand Theft Auto V, which takes us back to a re-imagined San Andreas, comes out September 17, and its already being hailed as the next step in sandbox evolution. With Rockstar’s largest, most detailed map yet, this Oceans 11-type heist-fest is set to steal countless hours from you over the next few months.

But wait… Rockstar isn’t done.

gta1Over the past few days I’ve poured over interviews, read reactions, and soaked up everything I can learn about what is is going to be a total sea change in multiplayer gaming. Let me phrase that a little differently:

Grand Theft Auto Online is about to blow every other online gaming experience out of the water.

xl_GTA-Online-Screenshot-5-624In an interview with Rockstar’s Leslie Benzies, it was recently revealed that the game engine behind GTA V and GTA Online is fully expandable, meaning there is not limit to the size of the world that GTA Online can inhabit. He was quoted as saying that it was their ultimate goal to simulate The World.

So what started as a game engine to build the world of Grand Theft Auto V with quickly became the jumping off point for what is now looking to be one of the greatest achievements in online gaming history. So much so, that Rockstar has even pushed out the release date of GTA Online to Nov. 1st so that gamers can become accustomed to the single player world and the changes in game play. gtav2I’m blown away by the technical achievement here alone. For the head of Rockstar to say they can theoretically simulate the Earth, with cities and countries, people and all… The implications of that are just enormous. Benzies said that they wouldn’t stop until they’d simulated life.

For anyone that’s played Grand Theft Auto IV, that’s not too far a leap. If you’ve spent time in the living, breathing, bustling Liberty City, then you know how just standing on a street corner can prompt some of the game’s funniest mechanics. I once stood outside a cafe, letting the camera drift out over the street as I lay the controller down. Eventually there was a “crash” as an auto accident happened on the street in front of me, both drivers get out and start yelling at each other… Then one punches the other guy and hops back into his car and speeds off! This is exactly why GTA IV (and now V) are the most immersive experiences you can plug into. I mean come on, you can sit in your apartment and watch clever, satirical television programs made by the geniuses at Rockstar. The levels of GTA V are even deeper, and Grand Theft Auto Online brings it all live.

GTA_5_Multiplayer_13765788626619You can form crews, perform co-op heists, buy stocks, property, cars, insurance (in case some asshole steals your ride), the amount of detail put into this world is mind-boggling. There are the regular Deathmatch modes, other co-op missions, races on land, air, and sea, military jet dogfights above the city, air-support for elaborate heists that you and your friends (or strangers for that matter) can pull off for more cash. There are ATV races, jet ski races, launching-off-mountains-on-motorcycles-then-opening-your-parachute races, there is tennis, sports, gambling… Rockstar went ALL OUT this time… There are nearly 500 different missions that mix and match each time to create the most fun you can have online with both hands on the controller.

grand-theft-auto-v-91Now there aren’t any specific plans to release GTAV or GTA Online for next-gen consoles as of yet, but with Microsoft and Sony both set to release their next generation consoles this fall, it’s only logical that they will. Rockstar has built this all-inclusive simulated world, and they intend to keep it, expand it, and let it evolve as the years go by… So it’s no stretch that they wouldn’t force people to play on their Ps3′s and Xbox 360s five years from now. That means it’s perfectly safe to get the game if you’re planning on upgrading to a next-gen console this holiday. Just don’t throw out your old one yet, cause if you’re like me, a guy who still plays GTA IV to this day, you’ll be playing GTA V and GTA Online right up until it’s released on next-gen consoles.

fake-gta-v-hud-display-by-bones2When GTA Online releases, it will be seamless. There’s a wheel on the game’s heads-up-display that allows you to switch back and forth between the single player’s three main characters… And on Nov. 1st a fourth character will simply appear. You’ll be able to click on it and as the camera pulls back, up into the sky and then back down again on another portion of the map, it will drop you right into multiplayer mode. It’s all controlled from the in-game iPhone knock-off, and then loads during the character-switching animation. That means no lame party lists, no waiting in lobbies for other players to join, no countdowns while you furiously try and select your loadout, none of the old-school multiplayer annoyances.Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar has made the transitions in GTA V and Online as immaculate as possible.

You’ll first appear at the airport, a fresh face to San Andreas, and be guided by some of the single player’s characters through the first couple of missions, to give you a feel for the set up. In Online, just like the campaign, the game is all about money. There’s a real, fully functioning economy in San Andreas, where you can purchase stock, real estate, and different houses, condos, cars, and more. You can customize every aspect of your character from clothes and tattoos, as well as your vehicles- paint jobs, rims, convertibles!! gta2Each multiplayer mission nets you more cash, which you’ll need to remember to drop off at the bank, cause if you get capped out on the street by another person, they can steal it! That means once you get going, you’ll have to go to ATMs and such to keep your daily expenses paid (weapons, cars, etc) without carrying enough to make yourself a target for other players.

From planning elaborate heists that require multiple people, to simply robbing a liquor store while your buddy waits in the car, GTA-Online-Pictures-313Rockstar has made the criminal underworld simulation as detailed and as realistic as it can be. They’ve also re-done the combat mechanics of GTA, no more run and gun and try to not get shot. They’ve simply taken the cover and combat system from last year’s masterpiece Max Payne 3 and transplanted it into GTA. That means no more clunky gunfights… We get a true cover system, aiming, and even slow-motion bullet time for some instances! They’ve kept the driving mechanics from GTA IV (where the cars feel real because they have weight), and refined them. Better camera angles, more responsive steering and brakes, and the best of all? Slow-motion bullet-time driving in some cases as well!

GTA_V_Online_2All in all, it would appear Rockstar listened to the fans. Gone are the days of drive here and kills him missions, now everything ties into the heists, their planning, execution, and fallout. They took the great start they had in GTA IV and expanded it, making every single aspect of game play as good as it could possibly be… And I can’t explain in one post the extent to which they have gone to simulate a detailed and changing world in GTA Online. Even long after the single player campaign has been finished, people will be logging into GTA Online for years to come. If everything I’ve seen works are well as they say it will, one day you might log into GTA Online and start the game in your actual hometown, then travel out into the countryside to wreak havoc and mayhem from there.

This world is gigantic, it’s layered incredibly from the clouds to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s designed to expand well beyond the borders of Los Santos. This is the future of the sand box, and Rockstar has done it again.

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the Pinnacle of Play: GRAND THEFT AUTO Returns to Westside

For some of us, playing video games is more than fun… It’s an obsession… but it wasn’t always this way, I swear.

I am a child of the Commodore 64 generation. Growing up, my friends all had Ataris, and SEGAs, and ColecoVisions, and while I might’ve been the last kid on the block with a Nintendo Entertainment System- we did always have the latest and greatest of the home computers. From the Commodore 64XS in all its color glory, to the green lettered IBMjr with its giant floppy disks, the Amiga, and CGA graphics (a milestone in computer gaming), in the Toomb household there was always a newer computer.

Enter the golden era of adventure gaming, and a little company called Sierra. I booted up King’s Quest for the first time in the 4th grade, and was immediately transported into every fairy tale I’d ever read. What I remember as brilliant color graphics and a fully-realized 3D world is mostly sentimental memory, because looking back now the graphics and game play are almost embarrassing. If I showed my kids these games, they would think there was something wrong with me… But I spent hours and hours glued to the mouse and keyboard- frantically typing in commands like “use hammer on door.” Those early adventure games were like an extension of my imagination, where the characters could go anywhere, explore anything, and complete some quests along the way. Sierra put out a slew of these Quest games when I was between the ages of 8-12- ranging from Police Quest to the extremely inappropriate and revolutionary Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Now, my parents weren’t the most censoring parents in the world, and while letting your 10 year old play a game where the sole purpose is to get laid might sound like fun, it’s sad to say that I learned a lot about the birds and the bees from ‘ol Larry (I will never forget the first time I saw digital breasts in VGA… all those pixels… wowza).

As I got older and Nintendo took over the world, I spent hours guiding Mario and Luigi through countless levels and machinations, from Yoshi’s Island to Mario Kart, Mario 64 to Street Fighter II. I also logged countless hours on the computer with flight simulators and open-world driving games like Test Drive, but something was always missing. Call it my young initiation into the Land of the Lounge Lizards, but video gaming was entirely too safe. By the time I was in my late teens, early 20s, the Playstation I had introduced me to blood-splattering fun games like Resident Evil and Siphon Filter, but they were all just plug-in-and-unwind kind of games. To be played with friends on a lazy afternoon, not to be immersed in. I always longed for those days of open-world adventure, where exploring a digital landscape was part of the fun. Nothing matched King’s Quest or Leisure Suit Larry.

Enter Grand Theft Auto III. The game that literally changed the way my brain was wired. In the video game world there is everything before GTA III, and then there is everything after. Before GTA my video game playing was a hobby, an escape, something fun to pass the time.

Grand Theft Auto puts the player into the shoes of a criminal who has just escaped from prison after being betrayed by his bank-robbing ex-girlfriend in the New York-esque town of Liberty City. I cannot impress the impact that this game had on me enough. It was as if every game I’d played in the past was really just building up to this particular game. It had everything I ever wanted in a video game: an open-world with tons of stuff to do besides the missions, a real soundtrack with real music instead of digitally produced noises, and a sense of humor- I repeat- a sense of humor. Until GTA, video games were all “hero this” and “save that,” but suddenly game play was wide open. I could steal cars, drive them at high speeds into oncoming ambulances, I could run from the cops and shoot my way out of going to jail, and most controversially: I could pick up a hooker, have implied sex with her, and then kill her and get my money back. A long way from Mario and Luigi, but not so much from that first game of Leisure Suit Larry.

Over the years, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has evolved- every time taking place in a new locale based on an American city. This is the key point to the GTA games… American popular culture is truly what’s being lambasted in these games. Sure you can sneak up construction cranes and snipe random people on the sidewalk, but it’s really our society’s ridiculousness that’s being assassinated. The games mix satire, social commentary, criminal fun, and whimsical amusement perfectly. Leave it to the British (Rockstar Games North) to skew American culture in such a brilliant “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” kind of way.

From Vice City (Miami) to San Andreas (Southern California) and Las Venturas (Vegas), Grand Theft Auto has clung tight to the criminal mythologies of America while offering up a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek comedy, mostly missed by critics. Grand Theft Auto eventually became sillier, wilder, and yes, funner as the years and locations progressed- culminating in what most see as the height of the series GTA: San Andreas. Taking on the role of CJ, an “LA” gang member, the bustling cities gave way to freeways and landscapes, deserts and ghost towns alike. San Andreas was the first in the series to incorporate 3 major cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas) into the game. San Andreas was a sprawling epic, with almost too much to do. From working out at the gym to become a hulk, or gorging yourself on fast-food until you grew fatter and fatter (even a little binge and purge at the “Burger Shot”). CJ could sneak onto an aircraft carrier and fly a Harrier-like aircraft (complete with missiles), he could even steal alien jet-packs from Area 51. GTA: San Andreas had it all… including base jumping from the Transcontinental Building and Golden Gate. Uh, yes please.

The outlandish qualities of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were eclipsed (much to the chagrin of those who fawned over giving their characters different haircuts and tattoos) by Rockstar Games‘ reboot of the series, Grand Theft Auto IV. The only game I have ever waited in line until midnight for. Boy was it worth it. GTA IV, in my opinion, is simply the greatest video game ever made. Rockstar took a step back from the silliness of some of its previous titles, incorporating more dramatic aspects, free-form storytelling, and cranking up the social satire. Rockstar did this by creating the greatest video game character ever made: Liberty City. Based on New York’s Burroughs and New Jersey, Liberty Cityis a living, breathing monument to what can be done with a video game. When I first got the game I would get lost for hours, looking at scenery, following random street people as they go about their days, watching two drivers duke it out after a fender-bender… I mean,  for all intents and purposes Liberty City is the greatest simulation ever made public. From FoxNews pundits spouting fire and brimstone to reality TV (yes, there are in-game channels to actually sit and watch), GTA IV has it all- especially when combined with the two add-ons Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

But that was almost four years ago.

Rockstar has released Red Dead Redemption and LA: Noire in the meantime, both of which are quality games of the highest marks, however still fall short of the bar set by GTA. Yes I said it, Red Dead isn’t as good as GTA. I know this is camp-splitting issue, and I don’t want to detract from the open-world awesomeness of Red Dead, but it didn’t have city buses I could drive down the sidewalks of Times Square at high speeds, killing hundreds of innocent bystanders while laughing maniacally… ok?! No amount of standing up to zombie bears with a flaming torch as a weapon can match that feeling.

However the wait (or should I say, the initial pre-announcement-wait) is finally over. On November 2, Rockstar officially kicked off the hype for Grand Theft Auto V with a teaser trailer featuring none other than a brand-new, re-imagined San Andreas (specifically Los Santos, the GTA version of Los Angeles). That’s right folks, GTA is returning to the West Coast with a bang.

From jets to jet-skis, the great outdoors to inner-city struggle, Grand Theft Auto V sets its sights on American culture and Hollywood lifestyles. The economy is also a big player in the latest in this franchise, as the trailer contrasts movie stars and mansions with homeless camps and soup kitchens. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to get my hands on Rockstar’s latest opus.


LA Noire: First Impressions

Rockstar Games has consistently provided some of the most original, ground-breaking, and just all-around-good-times video gaming in the last decade. Did you know the Grand Theft Auto series alone has sold over 124 million copies? Since Grand Theft Auto III dropped on the Playstation 2, 10 years ago this October, the concept of the “sand-box” game has reached a pinnacle of graphics, gameplay, and story with LA Noire. Gone are the free-floating weapons, the killing-sprees are reserved for off-screen, and this time, Rockstar takes us into the mind of a straight-laced gumshoe circa 1947.

Los Angeles in 1947 was a beautiful place, a land of hopes and dreams, Hollywood promised fame for every boy and girl that stepped off the bus from where ever… however more often than not those promises we only weighed with blood, sweat, and tears. From the first scene we are placed in the perfectly shined shoes Officer Cole Phelps, a war “hero” who was a Lieutenant in the Pacific theater, and now believes he must atone for his sins in the war.

Now, believe me when I say, that Team Bondi (the Rockstar division responsible for this iteration) has faithfully recreated the Los Angeles of 1947. I’m talking, exact model here. Robert Spence is a photographer who in his 50 year career, took over 110,000 aerial photographs of Los Angeles. Team Bondi used Spence’s photographs to  recreate traffic patterns, public transport routes, and the locations and conditions of every building in the greater LA city boundaries. These are the mean streets, truly. Whether you choose to play the game in black and white mode, or regular color, it is simply amazing to drive around this town (even though our camera angles for driving are now firmly constricted to behind-the-car irritability… some of us need to drive from inside the car, like normal!).

One of the longest complaints about video games’ “sense of reality” is the lack of distinction when it comes to the face. Recent games have managed to make some of the greatest characters, levels, and beautifully drawn landscapes in history, so why haven’t they been able to nail the face?

Well that’s all history now, LA Noire brings the face. Not only can you tell when a shifty gaze means a suspect is hiding something, but most importantly the mouths match the dialogue. You could really turn off the sound and read lips (if you knew how) in this game, it’s almost on par with anything going on in Hollywood. While it would take an Avatar budget to get Avatar-like animation, this game really gets it right when it comes to motion-capture… Grand Theft Auto IV and the penultimate Red Dead Redemption have brought something new to the video game arena: reality.

In fact, it’s hard for a player with a large amount of imagination not to simply fall into the game. Especially in GTAIV, with it’s immaculate recreation of New York City in Liberty City (on the whole, and in my belief) is the greatest character ever created in a game. From the skyscrapers down to the pollution-filled rivers, the burroughs to Times’ Square, Liberty City is flawless. I have started GTAIV many times with the intention of completing a few missions, only to get lost in the scenery… watching drivers crash, get out, and have screaming matches, homeless street-preachers spouting an endless tirade of biblical paranoia… It’s enormous.

Officer Cole Phelps is easy enough to navigate through this alternate reality of 1947, you can feel his weight when you push the controller’s stick, he doesn’t “spring,” he leans. If you push the stick, he’ll begin to walk, then trot, then run (if you hold R2)… as the characters in GTAIV do… the realism is there.

As you guide Phelps through his career, he’ll encounter many people, places, and things that he can interact with. Whether it’s interrogating a suspect, questioning a neighbor, or interviewing another policeman… running after an assailant and finally being able to pull your gun (no draw-and-shoot capabilities here, you’ve got to wait for the computer to draw your gun for you) everything a cop can and will need to do in the line of duty is mapped out in LA Noire. Through the cunning use of a notebook Phelps keeps clues, locations, suspects, and information organized for each case.

The interview process is heavily mapped out, and despite initial feelings that I was going to botch an investigation due to ineptitude, it’s thankfully idiot-proof. If you mess up a line of questioning too bad or accuse someone without proof, you’ll hear about it, but it won’t change the final outcome of the case… it’s going to get solved.

In fact that might be one of the biggest downfalls of the game: that even if you blow every question in an interrogation, ultimately the case will be solved. I think it would’ve been better to simply fail the case and have to start over than be poked and prodded along through police work. There’s no way to change this either.

All-in-al my first impression of LA Noire is amazing. It’s not as much fun as GTAIV or Red Dead Redemption, simply because it’s too much fun to kill the innocent and destroy the environment around you. So as a square policeman, life can be dull in Los Angeles. The ability to answer any police call while driving, is fun… stopping off to chase down perps or shoot it out with bank-robbers keeps things fresh… but I simply haven’t played enough to see what the world is like post-homicide cases (I’m still mid-way through solving some of the most gruesome murders LA has ever seen).

Rockstar and Team Bondi have brought us another winner though, I can tell you that. LA Noire is addicting, clever, well-written, and well-acted. Pick it up and check it out for sure.