Grand Theft Auto V

November 12th, 2013

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…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on November 12th, 2013.

25 comments so far

  • Tony says:

    Great read!
    Have yet to play it myself as I’m waiting for the PC release (those juicy mods), but will definitely check it out!

    Also, thanks for mentioning SA. Hands-down my favourite GTA thus far.

  • Bobby says:

    What are your favourite video games? Top five or ten? (I will be disappointed if Skyrim isn’t one of them)

  • Kelly says:

    “…the sense of humour and lurid, unapologetic mayhem it offered.”

    This! This is why I love these games.

    Great thoughts!

  • James says:

    Intresting last point about true narrative and charecters combined with sandbox games I completely agree that would be the holy grail of games. I don’t like mmo games either but may try elder scrolls online, but hate the idea of monthly subscriptions. Fallout 4 I have I hopes for we shall see. Maybe you should pitch a first law sandbox game I would buy that!!

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    OOOH that is a tough one, I’ve been doing this more than 30 years now. Some big favourites from the mists of time:

    Dungeon Master
    Street Fighter II
    Final Fantasy VII
    Shogun: Total War
    Baldur’s Gate II
    GTA: San Andreas

    Some of those have given me literally hundreds of hours of entertainment and inspiration. Then there’s an awful lot of stuff knocking on the door, other entries in these series, Civilisation 2, Sim City and the Sims, Doom, Half Life, Super Mario 64, first Soul Edge, Resident Evil 4, Railroad Tycoon 2, Europa Universalis, Thief: The Dark Project, I could go on all day and have probably forgotten many worthy titles.

    With stuff from this generation it’s a little harder to see what will stand the test of time, but those that for me have been right up there:

    Mass Effect 2
    Red Dead Redemption
    The Last of Us
    and maybe GTA V

    Though plenty more like the other Mass Effects, Dragon Age (but NOT 2), Fallout 3, Borderlands 2, Tomb Raider, BioShock and Bioshock Infinite, the Uncharteds, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, have delivered big in one way or another.

  • Frank Fitz says:

    I agree.

    For me it was the best narrative in any GTA game thus far, very Heat-esque but it just felt like it was missing something. I just can’t put my finger on what *it* was. San Andreas has always been my favourite because even when the game was long over, you’d still find me in one of the casinos gambling away, or starting gang fights in any of the cities. So as much as I loved the world in ‘V’, I never wanted to revisit much of it after I’d seen it once.

    Oh, and Joe, how could Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic not be on that list? For shame, Joe. For shame.

  • Luke Scull says:

    I have mixed feelings on GTV5. The world-building, gamely and presentation are stellar, an absolute triumph. But the story left me disappointed.

    I thought we were going to be in for something spectacular when Trevor stumbled out of Floyd’s apartment covered in blood. It seemed the defining moment where he went from being a comic psychopath to the demon made flesh Michael previously hinted at. I was sort of expecting the narrative to ramp up at that point until an epic showdown between the leads – a settling of old scores. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Casino, perhaps.

    But then everything just… fizzled out. The A, B, or C choice at the end didn’t make a great deal of sense. It felt like the developers ran out of time. Or maybe they were conscious about rehashing themes from RDR. Either way, I think they missed an opportunity.

    On the subject of narrative vs. gameplay, I’m playing The Last of Us now and post GTA5 I’m finding the gameplay underwhelming. It feels like Uncharted with a Walking Dead facelift. The presentation is wonderful and all but the shooting mechanics in Naughty Dog games have never been the best and, well…. it’s zombies again, isn’t it? I think I might have reached my limit for the third-person covered-based shooter this generation, no matter how compelling the production values. (I’m hoping to be proved wrong still – only an hour in so far.)

  • Ian Hickman says:

    What I really like about GTA V is messing around and seeing what happens.

    Did you know, for instance, that if you use the Cargobob helicopter to pick up your friend whose riding a jetski, the jetski slides down mountains impressively well. Boats less so.

    I can’t think of any other game* that lets you drive stupid things like articulated lorries up mountains. It took me and my friend several attempts, and more than a few hours, but we eventually succeeded. The trick is to have your buddy drive an off road vehicle and help nudge the lorry over bumps.

    *well, not since GTA:SA. Me and my housemate of the time have driven every in game vehicle up it’s version of Mt Chiliad. Including combine harvesters.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Luke Scull,
    If you don’t like The Last of Us, we gonna have a problem.

  • Luke Scull says:

    How shall we resolve said problem? A fight to the death in the Royal Crescent? The resident Japanese tourists could record it and post it to the internet. It’d be like a slightly less hirsute Jason Statham versus a slightly less Asian Jackie Chan…

  • Philip says:

    Hi Joe, thanks for pretty much summing up my feelings for GTA 5! Also, if you enjoyed baldurs gate 2, a remastered edition is being released for PC and Mac at the end of the week. (It includes Throne of Bhaal)

  • Phil Riches says:

    Elite and Dungeon Master, I loved those games. Only got to Dangerous in Elite, but managed to complete Dungeon Master – good times

  • Patrick says:

    Yay, dungeon master my all time fave game. Legend of grimrock worth checking out if you haven’t already . Joe do you have any tips for how to cope after Friday night lights!!!? Hands down the best tv programme for ages but only Got season five left so serious withdrawal symptoms are expected . . . .

  • Lewis says:

    Elite – Classic
    Fallout 2 – Never did get enough credit if you ask me
    Skyrim – Epic
    Shogun 2 total war – Archers and hill’s that is all!
    Dune RPG – love of the book perhaps hiding the downfalls?
    Sid Meiers Pirates – bubble gum for the brain
    Heros of might and Magic 4 – just loved it
    Baldurs Gate 2 – the fantasy geek just won’t leave me!

  • Alejandro says:

    I have been following your game review more or less since the beginning so I know you gave up on Dark Souls.

    I also gave up my first try when I was not able to get past Smough and Ornstein. I sold the game in anger.
    Since that moment all other games felt a little bit shallow and I could not get Dark Souls out of my mind. So I repurchased it (Prepare to die edition) and did not stop to play until today. As I am not a very skillful player I still have not finished the game despite having played over 100 hours.

    For me as a big fantasy fan who is seeking to immerse into mystic worlds to escape from everyday life (although I love my family, job etc.) Dark Souls and Skyrim are the games which deliver this experience in the best (although different) way in my opinion.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I like Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls) a lot, love the atmosphere and what they’re trying to do, and the utterly unforgiving, punishing difficulty of it. Sometimes feels not only hard but rather unfair, though, and having to do the same things over and over wears me down after a while. Just a LITTLE more checkpointing, you know? Once it starts to feel more like work than fun and I’ve got to force myself to reach for the controller … I dunno, I’ve just got a lot of other stuff I could be doing.

  • James says:

    Dark Souls fans are the vegans of the gaming world, constantly telling you “it hurts, but its good for you” 😉

    I persevered with Dark Souls, but I think I only managed to push through to the end by essentially “cheating” by watching lets plays of it and reading walkthroughs and wikis. I tend to agree that some bits are really unfair – there are bits which I think would have been far too frustrating had I not learned from the repeated mistakes of others.

    But still, the sense of achievement it provides makes other games pale in comparison. It’s like its in its own seperate highscore table of its own; it’s the best game I have ever played in some respects, but well down in others. Essentially I don’t think many things live on a linear scale from worst to best – its a multidimensional space.

  • Alejandro says:

    I can only agree. I am 33 years old, I work 50 hours or more per week, I have got a family, friends, other things to do etc.
    So with this limited gaming time it feels like a complete waste of time speding nearly a whole free weekend to get past Ornstein and Smough and fail.
    But with most of the modern games going in the direction to be more interactive movies (what can be a great experience as well) games like Dark Souls just feel like one of the last adventures of our time.
    When putting the disc into my XBox and taking up the controller I feel a little bit like a warrior drawing his sword and riding into the unkown or into the next battle.

    I would prefer the game to be a little bit easier though. After teleporting between the bonfires becomes available it gets a little bit better. Also I found out you can grind a lot of souls quite easy in the painted world of Ariamis which helped me a lot.
    However I have to say that this does not add to the gaming experience and feels like a waste of time.

  • Chevi77 says:

    Great game indeed, in a way I think I preferred the narrative in GTA IV, but definitely they got it right with the world making this time. Not as huge as San Andreas, but that was humongous and nearly a decade ago. As you mentioned, sometimes the missions felt like being too guided through rails, which clashed against the open world concept a bit too much. Trevor was by far the best character, with a Soprano-ish Mike giving a good counterpoint with all his family and mental issues, and a bit of a disappointment with a quite flat Franklin, that always looked like an add-on to me, kind of trying to retake CJ from SA. But the three characters idea seems quite fresh (at least to me it does), specially with a few well connected surprises (like when Trevor appears in Mike’s house for the first time, I had just stopped playing him leaving him around that house by the beach, the effect was brilliant) and good use of the backgrounds most times.
    Not better than Red Dead Redemption (I think that game will be a milestone in this kind of games) but very enjoyable, taking back the spirit from previous games.
    Still have not played The Last of Us, so I cannot compare, but definitely one of the best games I played on Playstation lately, probably since Skyrim came out.

  • Michael Good says:

    GTA5 was good, but The Last of Us tops it. GTA is undoubtedly BIG, but other than open world driving, I don’t really find any single one of its mechanics to really excel. All the firefights were bland and easy, and even the most intense firefights are easily cleared with the most meager of cover-shooter tactics. Then when you can buy cheap rocket/grenade launchers, with a boatload of ammo, cheap, at all of the gun stores littered across the map, any challenge is over with.

    I loved how in TLOU you had to use every trick in your lean arsenel to survive- a constant balance between milking stealth for all its worth to safely thin crowd as much as possible, along with melee, traps, bombs, and traditional firearms. Should you spend your resources for an easy distant kill, or sacrifice some health but conserve resources by attempting stealth, or brawling. And finally, a non-regenerating lifebar! And of couse you must choose to use your limited crafting items to make a weapon, or more health packs. Genius.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I think GTA’s mechanics work better against other players.

  • David says:

    What’s your gamertag Joe? Would love to add you.

  • Eoin Conlan says:

    TIL one of my favorite authors has the exact same taste in video games as i do.thats a leg up over grrm and rothfuss!

  • Steven says:

    Regarding that elusive fusion of narrative drive and open-endedness you mention– I’m very curious to see how CD Projekt Red handles this in The Witcher 3 and their upcoming cyberpunk RPG. I personally thought The Witcher 2 was good enough to compete handily with most BioWare games in the story department, and they’re promising huge open worlds in these upcoming games (The Witcher 3 is said to be several times larger than Skyrim, for instance).

    I’m a bit skeptical they can deliver the open world goods without undermining the dramatic impact of the story, but who knows?

  • Andrew Boer says:

    Surprised no mention of Planescape: Torment. I guess a lot of folks missed this game, but for me it was one of the best–easily the deepest plotted of the BioWare games.

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