A few years ago, I was invited to spend a few days in Orlando at Universal Studios’ parks. Every moment I was there, I was overwhelmed by the attention to detail. From the hotel rooms and signage to the parks and customs, everything was seemingly hand-crafted for a purpose, an artist’s hand behind each and every aspect. Nothing was stock or cloned. I’d been to amusement parks before, but this was so much different. It was incredible how much was attempting to grab my attention at any time. Playing Grand Theft Auto V, I felt the same thing: I was visually overwhelmed, but also distracted by any number of side quests and other kitschy activities that didn’t really exist in previous games. Thankfully, that’s what you get when you make the most expensive video game in history. While Rockstar still hasn’t learned all the lessons of its competition, it’s made a sandbox game for the ages.
3 Gangsters, 1 Game
By now, you already know the score on the game’s narrative, so I won’t bore you with details. Rather than playing with one protagonist, Grand Theft Auto V presents a trio of interlocking characters and the ability to switch between them in the world of San Andreas at any time. Michael’s yarn is the key pillar here; he plays a retired bank robber that earns the beef of psychopathic hillbilly Trevor after their shared bank heist prologue goes south. On the other hand, Franklin is the new kid, tired of risking his life in the hood for miniscule payoffs. While they each have their own issues to handle – Michael, his dysfunctional family; Trevor, his bizarre business dealings; Franklin, his aunt – they spend a sizable chunk of time arranging and pulling off heists, which are the crown jewel of GTAV‘s story.
Partnering with your long-time logistics man Lester, you set up heists of escalating scale. You’ll make some broad decisions in how you want to pull them off, which sets up subsequent planning missions to arrange for transportation, case your location, etc. You’ll also pick out your crew, some of whom are available to start, but can also be found randomly in San Andreas. The more a crew member brings to the table, the bigger their take will be, so you’ll need to balance how much you’ll want to pocket versus how well you’re able to pull off the heist at all. A bad driver carrying a third of your take may crash out in your escape and that’s gone forever because you cut corners. On the flip side, those who work with you successfully improve and it’s impressive to see Michael reflect positively on bringing old crew back into the fold for a new task. You’re not going to get into any Rainbow Six-level depth as far as any decisions here, but you’ll notice it wouldn’t quite fit in with the rest of the game. The real problem with the heists is that there’s also not nearly enough of them. I suppose Grand Theft Auto Online will pick up a lot of that slack in the short-term. (There’s always DLC, single-players!)
Actually, there’s another problem with the heists: much of the non-heisting narrative is pretty lumpy – in a Michael Bay-esque just-throw-everything-in-there fashion. Grand Theft Auto is known for its satire, but a particular mission involving torture feels tacked on as cheap commentary. In fact, while the game has you pulling off a variety of selfish, violent deeds, the characters preach, sometimes without context, about outsourcing, the military-industrial complex, the War on Terror and other topical issues. Whether it’s ironic or not, it’s tacky. Sixteen years after the series’ debut, the game’s radio stations have also become anachronistic as commentary. Hey, Lazlow still loves hookers and cocaine. Surprise! Commentary aside, the story loses steam at points as it goes on various tangents and just as you get excited about one thread, you run out of missions and need to switch characters. On the plus side, advancement isn’t based on getting pulled down a series of pedantic missions like in the drab Grand Theft Auto IV. In fact, there’s plenty to do…
A Sandbox Full Of Dreams
Rockstar says that this San Andreas is the biggest world they’ve ever created and I believe it. No, it’s not to the scale of Just Cause 2, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s been given lavish attention. This is an exaggerated take on Los Angeles through the upper desert, not to scale of San Andreas, but still plenty huge. As a non-native, I was able to enjoy the proportion of landmarks to real estate although, sadly, there’s no Convention Center this time around. On top of your story missions, there are plenty of character-specific tasks, but also fun endurance tasks like triathlons, a sport in my wheelwell, BASE jumping and yoga. Yeah, yoga. You can even purchase properties littered throughout the land, but in an annoying bit, only specific characters can purchase them and you won’t know until after you’ve hauled your butt across the map, often meaning you’ll need to switch characters and do the same thing.
It seems so odd that as the grandfather of the 3D open world genre, the best bits of Grand Theft Auto V don’t have much to do with what a sandbox game has to offer. Most of the missions, including the highlighting heists, are linear, tightly scripted affairs where Rockstar can show off some of their cool new cinematic tech (which we’ll get to in a second). That you’re in an open-world game where conditions can change serendipitiously helps the illusion, but Grand Theft Auto seems to task its massive worlds to service its missions, rather than the other way around. In games like Saints Row and Just Cause, you’re compelled to explore the landscape to either capture territory to help your cause or build your abilities. Not here. In fact, until the narrative commanded it, I had little reason to traverse the northern two-thirds of the map. On top of that, the bulk of your tasks net little to no gains and rarely any cash, to the chagrin of the characters themselves. They’re largely superfluous. Mostly fun, but superfluous. You can build up your characters’ skills, but as I progressed, I can’t honestly say I noticed my characters changing. Trevor, who starts with the lowest stamina, seemed to have no issue booking it at ten miles per hour any time I needed him to. Everyone drove and shot with no issue despite their levels.
Grand Theft Auto V is not only one of the biggest games on the Xbox 360, but it’s also one of the prettiest. Rockstar rightfully enlists every technical card it’s acquired in the past generation and put it on display here. You switch between characters miles apart with no load screens, transition seamlessly between cutscene and gameplay while enjoying the most detailed world they’ve ever built. You’ll see plenty of cues from Midnight Club to Max Payne 3 as they pulled out all the stops to make this the last big bang for these consoles. The game seems to run just under 30 frames per second at all times, but it’s so consistent that you’ll have little to complain about.
In a game largely about driving and shooting however, neither feel quite right in Grand Theft Auto V. Then again, they never really have in this series. Shooting has been reduced to a cycle of finding cover, locking on with the left trigger, then firing with the right. There’s very little skill or mechanic involved and you’ll have enough money after the first heist to buy all the weapons and ammo you could ever need, so weapon selection is less a tactical need than a personal preference. You can turn off the lock assist if you want, but then the shooting becomes a terrible thing as you’ll remember they also toned down your health from previous games as well. In another weird deed, despite the fact that your characters seem to match foot steps to the pavement in real space and seamlessly transition in and out of turns using Euphoria, your cars rarely feel like they’re connected to the ground, pivoting along a center point, rather than observing the laws of physics. Speaking of your character, it’s hilarious to jump into a wall from six inches away, then watch as they fall flat on their ass and spends five seconds getting back up as if they hit it at fifty miles per hour.
This game is also (thankfully!) easier than its predecessors, building the difficulty into a medals system with optional objectives instead where you complete missions in a set time, without dying, both or more. For all its one-off tasks, Rockstar has inserted a few crazy things (that I won’t spoil) that seem obviously inspired by wackier open world games. There are also some things overlooked, like the fact that none of your music can be carried outside the car, your radio station preferences can’t be saved in individual vehicles, anyway and you can’t enjoy individual songs as MP3 players don’t seem to exist. The music system, used to propel the most cutting-edge of Rockstar’s commentary also, again, seems the most anachronistic.
A Glorious Sandbox
With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar is realizing that the rules of sandbox games are shifting around them. Thankfully, they react well. This also means that there’s no way they can scale back down to a single protagonist with only one or two missions available at any time. They are doomed to build ever-bigger and bigger. While the open world nature of the series becomes more of a chore in favor of tighter, more story-driven missions, this is the most diverse and enjoyable game in the series to date, personally beating out my long-favorite Chinatown Wars. With Grand Theft Auto Online out in a week to satiate millions of multiplayer fantasies and the inevitable massive DLC in the months to follow, this heist is excellent and only going to get better.