There’s been a great deal of virtual ink expended on Grand Theft Auto V, by some margin the fastest-selling entertainment product in history. Plus it’s been out a while now, so I’ll keep it relatively simple…
I remember playing the original top-down, most definitely niche GTA back in, er, 1806, I think it was, and chortling over the sense of humour and lurid, unapologetic mayhem it offered. I loved the considerably less niche fully 3d GTA 3, Vice City, and particularly San Andreas, but was somewhat disappointed with GTA 4, which despite being technically impressive seemed to have lost some of the variety, depth and, I don’t know, fun of the earlier entries in the series. GTA 5 brings back a lot of that range and personality while retaining its unremittingly black sense of humour, and delivers one of the most compelling and varied online experiences I’ve had (not that I’ve had that many, I must admit).
The size and detail of the setting and the sheer quantity of content is mind-blowing, indeed it is. GTA has always been a leader in the creation of living, breathing open worlds and I don’t think there’s anything to touch GTA 5 in this regard, indeed it’s hard to imagine anything touching it for some time to come. As far as world building goes it’s truly a leap forward which I would never have thought possible on the current technology. The views from hilltops or helicopters can be simply staggering in the quantity of detail, and there’ll be times when you’re left entranced by a sunset, or a lens flare, or the rain slashing the sidewalk, or an explosion ripping apart a parking lot. There’s an ultra cynical, world-weary sense of humour applied to everything, from offhand dialogue overheard in the street to the TV shows to the hours of radio content, and however long you play, new moments just keep on appearing. Faces and figures don’t have the level of detail you get on something like The Last of Us, but they fit the task, and there’s still plenty of expression in the central characters and some great acting to boot.
Having three characters instead of one works well, and is elegantly managed. One big problem with previous GTAs, and with Red Dead Redemption, was that you could play any way you wanted but the central character was still the same guy in the cut scenes. You could get a rather jarring disconnect between your John Marston and the one the game presented you, if you like. Having three characters gives you the luxury of different ways to play while still feeling true to character. Franklin and Michael are adequate leads but their basic stories are perhaps a little familiar. Trevor is just genius, though, personifying the anarchic heart of Grand Theft Auto – hilarious, terrifying and pitiable by turns. There’s a truly vast amount of different side-challenges you can undertake, and the central missions are more elaborate and detailed than ever, with the inclusion of heists – more in-depth jobs that require a fair bit of preparation and execution. But there’s maybe a slight sense of same-old to some of it, a bit of a blandness about the secondary characters, and I found myself rushing through at times, not feeling the desire to pause and explore that I have with other games. It often felt like the game was just about to open out only to rather frustratingly push you straight through to the next mission, or series of missions.
As a one player experience, then, I think I’d say great but perhaps not truly legendary. Technically superb, no doubt, but I don’t know that it had quite the feeling of immersion in the world and life that made San Andreas so all-consuming, or the total freedom to define your own adventure you get with Skyrim, or the narrative drive, thematic cohesion and sledgehammer payoff of Red Dead Redemption. I’m being ultra critical because so much here is truly class-leading, but I’m not sure it’s as memorable as some other recent efforts that emphasise plot and character. There’s a slightly unfinished sense about some of it – the narrative maybe playing second fiddle to the spectacular setting and background.
For me, despite the early problems, saving issues, and general frustrations that accompanied release, I actually found the online element more rewarding. In fact I found it by some margin the most rewarding online gaming experience I’ve ever had. I should say I’m not generally a fan of MMOs, have never played World of Warcraft or Call of Duty online, and generally find the whole culture more than a bit horrible. I’m not sure exactly what it is about GTA online that works for me. Perhaps its the huge variety of gameplay on offer, from parachuting to shooting, from golf to arm-wrestling, to wondering around just looking for big trouble with crew-mates. Perhaps it’s the mass of customisations, perks and rewards you can work towards. Perhaps it’s just the strange, beautiful, horrible, unpredictable stuff that happens when other humans are let loose in such a complex system. But I think it may mostly be the total lack of narrative thread, the total anonymity of the mute and background-less character you bring into neon-lit Los Santos, the total freedom to experience the setting any way you please. The freedom to make up your own story. The rather old-school opportunity to fill in some of those gaps with your own imagination. With the one player game I tended to feel a bit rushed along, a bit handled, a bit more observer than player. But with the online version I felt that sense of freedom to explore, develop and, I don’t know, role-play, maybe, that’s missing when the characters are served up fully formed with all their dialogue, pasts, tics and plot lines already in place. Yeah, the psychopathic savagery, offhand stupidity, and tedious waffle of other actual people can be wearying. But that only makes it the sweeter when you come out on top of 15 of them in a Rockford Hills death match, right?
So GTA V, factoring in its online incarnation, is a magnificent achievement, a superb hodgepodge, a dazzling mess, packed with great design and hilarious, thrilling, even occasionally moving moments. Superb value for money too, you’d have to say, and a worthy bookend to a console generation and what seems to me to have been a vintage year for gaming. But that true fusion of great character and narrative (a la the Last of Us) and great freedom and open world (a la Skyrim) remains elusive. Perhaps it always will…