Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series has become the benchmark for open world action experiences. Hugely popular in every iteration, it’s a testament to the success of videogames as an entertainment medium that the launch of a new Grand Theft Auto not only guarantees to sell millions of copies but also earns mainstream coverage on radio, television and even comedy panel shows. There are few videogames that have become engrained into mainstream society in such a way that they cause uproar when released, but with that comes a great deal of expectation.
Whether or not Grand Theft Auto is a suitable candidate for such grandeur is another debate altogether, one much grander than there is room to discuss in this review. Instead Electronic Theatre has chosen to focus specifically on the experience that Grand Theft Auto V offers to its players: its strengths and weaknesses, its innovation and tired tropes, its achievements and pitfalls. All of which it has in spades. More than Grand Theft Auto IV even, Grand Theft Auto V is likely to be a divisive.
Grand Theft Auto V returns to Los Santos, the city we once called home in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and brings it to life with far more detail than ever before. The city is huge, filled with memorable locations and fully accessible right from the very first mission. There’s never been anywhere quite like Los Santos, from is packed downtown street and busy freeways to its hilly residential district up to its mountainous peak. What’s more, Grand Theft Auto V fills it with a cast of unique characters just waiting for the player to walk into their lives, potentially changing them forever.
And that’s still the beauty of Grand Theft Auto V as a videogame experience: emergent gameplay. Not the mowing down of pedestrians and escaping the cops nor the completing of a side mission and receiving a thank you nod from an artificial intelligence (AI) comrade, but the freedom to play without doing these things. It’s the distractions available and the gameplay that spawns from them: playing golf and being challenged by an AI character, visiting the strip club and impressing the performer so much that she gives you her phone number. It’s activities like these that – although they were obviously put there for the player to find – make Grand Theft Auto V a videogame that is more about the player’s experience as opposed to the core gameplay.
Which is a good thing really, as while Grand Theft Auto V is a technical accomplishment on terms of scale it’s still substandard in many of the fundamental mechanics. Its shooting action features a much improved cover system and yet it still feels light on impact. The handling of the vehicles is still wildly exaggerated so that players have to re-educate themselves in the traditional Grand Theft Auto manner and the jump ability is, well, abrupt in it’s relaying of failed attempts. This is a series of mechanics that without the impressive world to fall back on would be seen as average at best, but it’s clear that the development time – and budget – has been spent elsewhere.
One of the major assets Grand Theft Auto developed in its shift to 3D was believable characterisation. The 2D instalments had interesting personalities but in truth they were caricatures of stereotypes, nothing more. Grand Theft Auto V still plays to stereotypes, but the characters built are arguably more Hollywood than ever. The videogame presents three lead characters – the smart ex con, the gangster looking for a way out of the hood and the madman – and each is irritating in their own unique way. Michael and Franklin, our family man and wannabe, are simply not interesting. Their story has merit – the bond built between two criminals at opposite ends of the ladder – but it’s Trevor, our resident psychopath, who is the most enjoyable to play as. His story is one of a misspent life and constant desire to better himself but repeated failures despite a sharp aim and even sharper wit. He’s a man of poor decisions and wasted aptitude, and in Grand Theft Auto V he’s just about the only lead character who doesn’t deserve the straw he’s been dealt.
Around this central cast is a story of backstabbing and sabotage takes place. The wider cast is often more interesting and enjoyable in their interactions, despite the indecisiveness between realism and exaggerated reality in many of the plotlines. Grand Theft Auto V is a videogame that aims to deliver a mature storyline while retains a sense of humour, but sadly the two don’t mix. In isolation either one is fine, but Grand Theft Auto V’s sense of humour isn’t punchy enough to handle an exploration of the criminal underworld in the US any deeper than a three-minute rap about drugs and hookers. This is a videogame that tries to deliver both intellectual debate and dick jokes in a single breath, and neither feels comfortable alongside the other.
The visual quality of Grand Theft Auto V is better on that of its world and skin textures than it is in the animation of its characters. Lip-synching is handled beautifully, presumably thanks to technology inherited from Team Bondi, but in other respects there’s not a lot to separate Grand Theft Auto V’s animation from that of Grand Theft Auto IV. This is a videogame that’s used it’s time to create a believable world and distinctive characters, and these don’t gel all too well with need to have several accurately presented persons on-screen at any one time.
The sound quality is far superior however, arguably the best technical aspect of the videogame. The voice actors are simply fantastic throughout – from bit part to starring role – and the soundtrack during missions is perfectly placed for building the right atmosphere and tension when required. The music selected for the radio stations may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is put out in very high quality.
Grand Theft Auto V is not a groundbreaking videogame. It’s a wonderful technical achievement and an enjoyable storyline, but its gameplay varies wildly between addictive and irritating. The mission structure is less important than the side missions – not the needless driving and shooting that many have enjoyed in the past, but the emergent gameplay that comes from pre-established distractions – and the characters you’ll meet are generally less interesting than Grand Theft Auto IV. Grand Theft Auto V has sold millions of copies in the UK alone and will continue to perform well, but as a gameplay experience it only offers the prerequisite amount of new features to be considered a genuine sequel.