What can be said that hasn’t already been said about Grand Theft Auto 5? The series has now delivered the highest rated game ever and become one of the most financially successful franchises in any medium. It’s a series so expansive and rich in detail but also base and vapid in its nature. It is also technical marvel – an experience that pushes the boundaries of what we can expect in a game, by providing a densely populated and massive world full to the brim with things to see and activities to partake in.
However, with next generation hardware right around the corner, does Grand Theft Auto 5 deliver one of the best experiences of the PS3 and Xbox 360 era – while successfully setting a high bar for the PS4 and Xbox One to follow? After all, Rockstar Games has promised that their latest title, “feels” next-gen. Read on for our complete review of GTA 5.
In many ways, Grand Theft Auto 5 is every bit the game that gamers have been dreaming of since the original Grand Theft Auto 3. Twelve years ago, that game morphed every thing that came after it, not just becoming one of the biggest jumps for a series ever, but a trend setter of game design still to this day. It was by no means the first open world game, but it was the first to commercialise it in a big way. Since then, Rockstar have been making improvements and tweaking their mechanics and the work has paid off in droves as Gran Theft Auto 5 is one of the most impressive and complete packages ever put together.
The world of Los Santos is dense with detail and ripe for activity. Players only have to walk down the street to find something to pass their time, be it saving a helpless lady, playing tennis, flying a helicopter, or getting in a high speed police chase. The game’s design, which still includes a few head-scratching choices, is hard to fault when it offers this much. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a jack of all trades – and even a master of some. The real star of your time in Los Santos is the variety. Even when taking on the garden variety missions, the sheer diversity of each one is impressive. Long gone are the days of tailing or killing an NPC, now replaced with days of jumping out of airplanes and blowing up scenery. Although, this diversity really comes into play during the game’s heists – which act as chapter breaks for the main narrative, offering choice and spectacle in droves. Take on a bank quietly or loudly? Take someone with less skill or a smaller cut percentage? The choice allows for extensive reply value (a welcome addition as any completed missions are now replayable from the start menu) making the game feel less linear than previous outings.
The real invention of the game comes with a completely new central mechanic lets players freely switch between the three lead protagonists Michael, Franklin and Trevor. This is used both on the fly as you cruise around Los Santos as well as in missions. When used in missions, the gameplay allows for rewarding flexibility – as players are presented with a choice of achieving one goal.
This idea is pushed even further as each protagonist has a unique special ability – be it slowing down time on foot with Michael, slowing down time while driving with Franklin, or entering a berserker mode where you can take and deal out copious amounts of damage with Trevor, players can explore the perfect approach to achieve any objective. A mission’s success can ride on using these abilities at just the right time. There are still some elements of gameplay such as shooting and flying that are unwieldily, and could use further refinement, but it’s easy to forgive Rockstar for the quality of some their sub-mechanics, simply due to the sheer number on display.
While the game clearly pushes the boundaries of what is possible from a design standpoint, especially on seven year old hardware, it is at its most interesting when focusing on its characters. The game’s three protagonists are compelling and seeing the interplay between Michael De Santa and Trevor Phillips is one of the its delights. As ex-bank robbers and best friends, their relationship is wrought with tension that is always threatening to boil over. Michael has retired from the life of crime, but a loveless family and dissatisfaction at a reclining lifestyle has left him wanting more.
Trevor is another side of the same coin, a sociopath who never gave up his life of crime and is still at odds trying to get a big score. While the early portions of the game keep them separate, the narrative doesn’t truly kick in until they are reunited after a ten year break. Freely switching between protagonists, the audience ends up knowing about the lies that the two have kept from each other – creating great character-focused tension.
The dysfunctional dynamic is enhanced further by Franklin Clinton, a gang banger who is taken under the wing of Michael. Franklin is trying to escape the entrapments and dangers of urban culture in favor of a more lucrative lifestyle. Being new to the crew, it is clear Franklin is meant to help ease the audience into the history between Trevor and Michael. Franklin is a solid character, but within the group’s narrative arch, he’s somewhat of a bystander – since his story and missions are more busy work than story advancing. While he adds a necessary flavor to the group, he is often a third wheel. Franklin serves as an example of Grand Theft Auto 5′s narrative stumbles – a game full of many compelling facets that doesn’t always have the sophistication to pull them all together.
GTA 5 is a game of masterful quality in both design and execution but it doesn’t always have the depth to say anything profound. The game has a cultural cynicism but it fails to say much by attacking the easiest targets with old arguments. It is a shame because if the writers lifted up the hood just a little more, they could have presented a more compelling argument than “capitalism living is too materialistic.” GTA 5 by-passes some real missed opportunities to talk about our society a little deeper, which is frustrating because it could have said a lot about our culture today by framing it in this hyper-realized world. It never truly hurts the entire experience, but for a game that is remarkable in its ambition, it is disappointing that GTA 5 doesn’t have more ambition in its subtext.
Still, Grand Theft Auto 5 is a journey well worth taking. It displays an astonishing amount of variety, a real ambition to innovate previous gameplay, and a narrative about three people trying to find friendship in their messed up and broken worlds, making it one of the most emotionally impactful in the series. Rockstar Games has offered an experience with a few flaws – but flaws that don’t break the core (and extremely enjoyable) gameplay. The franchise has never been about painting the Mona Lisa – and is, instead, more about inciting meaningful controversy to get people talking. That is very much the case here, offering players a twisted trip into a dysfunctional reality. It is just well and good none of that dysfunction sheds itself onto the gameplay experience, one that serves as a great bow for the current generation of gaming, and simultaneously sets the bar for the next one.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is available now for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
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