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
If 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.
Preface: 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.
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. Liberty 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. Where 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…
Immediately 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. Escape 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. To 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.
I 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. As 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.
The 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.
Back 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. See 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…”
Rounding 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).
Since 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. If 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.”
When 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. 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.
Heists 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…
GTA 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.