This review is a follow-up to the first impressions article I wrote during the first few hours of gameplay. If you haven’t read my original impressions, take a few minutes to read them then head back here.
Fun is a subjective term. What is fun to one person might not be fun for the next. In open world games mayhem was the order of the day, and gaming community deemed it fun. Over the years Rockstar decided open world chaos is not the order of the day. That fun consists of an open world built on polish and satire. Rockstar believes that the gaming community has grown up. We no longer want random acts of violence; we want more from our games.
So, has their decision to create a mature sandbox paid off? Let’s find out.
A Living City
Los Santos is the best open world city ever created. Period. It doesn’t matter what game you put up against it, none of them can match the polish and detail that Rockstar put in to their city. It’s not unusual to see non-playable characters (NPCs) riding bikes, going for a jog, or even shopping. The amount of foot and street traffic that you will encounter give you the impression that this is a dense city, not a sandbox for your enjoyment. And more than just the amount of people who populate the streets, the city has life. This world has it’s own culture, a satire of the world we live in. Citizens of Los Santos are all waiting for the next iFruit, Michael’s daughter is hoping to make the next season of America’s Got Talent (the Los Santos version), and Lamar is busying trying to figure out his next million dollar scheme. For every joke that we make about society and culture in America, there is an equivalent person, place, or thing in Los Santos.
And for all the things that Rockstar gets right in creating a living city, they forgot one simple fact. Life can be pretty boring. For all the people, mission, and activities, I never felt compelled to do anything. Sure I played a round of golf, and jumped out an airplane but after doing it once I don’t want to do it again. Sure, I can invest in the stock market but there isn’t a direct need to do so. You see, money isn’t really necessary in Los Santos. If I want a car I can steal it. I get a nice house for Franklin during the story, so there is no need to buy more property. And once you buy property you have to maintain it by completing missions, which essentially translates to a job. You own a tow truck company? Guess what–you have to tow cars. Rockstar created a living breathing world, which is outstanding. It’s one of the crowning achievements of this generation. I’m just not compelled to do much outside of the missions.
Three Lives, Three Classes, One Job
When Grand Theft Auto V was announced, we were introduced to three characters: Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. Each of them with their own set of skills, lives, and relationships to one another. Michael and Trevor have a history, which sets the events of the game in motion. Franklin is a street guy who runs into Michael during a routine “repo.” Michael shortly introduces Franklin to the life of a professional criminal and becomes his mentor. The three of them eventually become friends, rob banks and break (just about) every law you can imagine. Having three characters is a gamble that pays off from a story perspective. Their friendships and lifestyles really add depth to the story. When it comes time to rob a bank, I spend most of the heist hoping Trevor doesn’t have an episode and starts killing people.
When it comes to missions, the game falls short of it’s goal. The original thought was each character would have their own expertise. Franklin is the best when it comes to driving. Yet, you hardly use him as your wheelman. Even when you aren’t robbing banks and the crew is together, it’s usually Michael who drives. And missions that require flying, Michael is the one flying the plane…when it’s Trevor who is the best pilot. It doesn’t make much sense to min/max my character abilities when they aren’t utilized for majority of the missions.
The Seedy side of Los Santos
One of the biggest draws to the original Grand Theft Auto games is crime. Running people over, robbing pedestrians…the things that put the game in the media’s eye. You can still run people over and commit crimes, but it comes with a heavy price. Police presence is the highest it has ever been in any Grand Theft Auto game. Even the smallest crime and the police are on your ass. A three-star wanted level might as well be five because the helicopters are out, police are now shooting at you, and cops will begin laying out the spike strips. Not to mention that a few well placed bullets will kill you. This isn’t the old days, where your character could absorb tons of bullets before going down. Even evading the cops is tougher. You can’t ride into a paint shop and get the car resprayed to eliminate your wanted level. You have to outrun and hide from the cops. A task that is easier said than done. I guess if you’re going to have realistic city, you’re going to have to have a realistic police presence. You can commit crime in Los Santos, just don’t be surprised if it isn’t as fun as it used to be.
That being said there is one area that has gotten worse with time–sexual activity. At one point I said that I wasn’t going to hit the strip club or pick up a prostitute. I did both. It’s an experience that left me red in the face and puzzled. Back in the day, when your character would pick up a prostitute he would pull off on a side road, the car would rock and you would have to use your imagination about what just took place. It was a sneaky way of including sex in a game. Now–hell you might as well be watching PornHub. Okay, so it isn’t that bad, but it is very detailed. I had Franklin pick up a prostitute and try out the various services. During each service you were given the option of switching views to get different angles of the act at hand. And the action is pretty intense for a video game. The girls will actually ride your character in the driver’s seat and talk dirty. And not dirty like “ooh and ahh,” but “my p***y is loving you.” The strip club isn’t much better, soon as you hit the private room you see titties. And there isn’t anything covering the breasts either. Dances are typical of the strip club and you can ask for sex, or bring another girl in to have two dancers. And, of course, you can switch viewing angles to get you a good look.
I’m sure by now you saying, “Charles come on. It’s just a game, stop being a prude.” And I hear you. I completely understand, and honestly it doesn’t bother me on a personal level. But I have to think about the kids. The ones who will play this game and get excited about the sex. The kids who’s parents will see what’s happening and create a shitstorm and want to see games like this taken off the shelves. Many can remember what happened with the ‘Hot Coffee’ mod and the negative media attention it brought to the industry. I’d just hate to see us traveling down the same path on the account of realism.
Story and Character Development
When I wrote my first impressions I said that I didn’t know if I would grow to like Michael and Trevor. I’m happy to say that I really enjoyed the story and characters. Of course Franklin was my favorite; Michael became my least favorite because he became a dick over the course of the game. And Trevor…well Trevor is a special case. He doesn’t really fit into this new world that Rockstar has built. He’s a relic of the past, a representation of how characters used to be in GTA. So, I like him because he’s nostalgic, but I cringe when I watch him because he doesn’t fit in. The story and supporting case all work well within the confines of the city. Missions don’t feel out-of-place, and when you rob a bank it seems likely that it could happen in Los Santos. The supporting cast is great, I really hated them. Which is a good thing because you are supposed to hate the “bad guys.” And the relationship between Franklin, Michael, and Trevor is what sells the story. There are situations that will test the bond of the group and you will find yourself cheering when the group gets it together to look out for one another.
There are certain movies and television shows where the supporting cast will steal the show. An example of this is Lafayette from True Blood. A character who dies in the books, but is kept alive in the series because of his rabid fan base. If you’re going to talk about Grand Theft Auto V you have to talk about Lamar. A walking stereotype, Lamar does nothing for black video game characters. But’s it part of his charm, he’s such a stereotype that it becomes comical. He’s the only character that made me laugh on a consistent basis, and the only character I wanted to see more of. When Lamar is in a scene he will steal the spotlight. Do I wish he wasn’t a stereotype…yes I do. Do I wish he wasn’t a typical gangbanger…of course! But you have to deal with the cards that you are dealt, and at least in this case I have a good hand. His character never goes too overboard and the writers manage to tie his cause into the overarching theme of friendship and trust. I still hope to see a spinoff or DLC focused solely on Franklin and Lamar because I think their relationship and potential character development shows lots of promise.
If you haven’t heard, in Grand Theft Auto V you rob banks, steal secret government weapons, and sometimes kidnap people. It’s the selling point of the game and the reason I would recommend this game to a friend. Heist missions require planning and execution. Sure you can force your way into a bank, hire cheap muscle, and hope for the best. But if you do that, you might not steal as much money as you could. Just like other areas of GTA V, you can’t go in guns blazing and not expect a price to pay. A more elaborate scheme will cost you more money and time, but the execution will go smoother. For example, one time I had to rob a bank and skimped on the muscle because it didn’t require any gunplay. Well, the cops showed up and because I choose the cheaper gunman, he died in the getaway and I lost a million dollars. I really enjoyed the heist missions, but there were two downsides. There weren’t enough heist missions, and the game never let’s you truly utilize the characters’ abilities. I never once robbed a bank and had Franklin as the getaway driver, or Trevor as the gunmen.
Grand Theft Auto V is a great end to this generation. Rockstar was able to take everything we’ve learned from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and create the ultimate sandbox experience. Los Santos is a living city, with plenty of activities to keep you entertained. There is a great story, characters, and a strong supporting cast. It is one of the best GTAs to date. There are some “flaws” in the game, but it will depend on your definition of fun. If you are the type to enjoy widespread chaos, I would recommend Saints Row: The Third or Saints Row 4. But if you can curb your appetite for destruction, you will find Grand Theft Auto V to be as fun as the games before it.
The real question is what’s next for Grand Theft Auto? If we are to use this game as a road map, then the series will continue down the path of simulation, playing more like a hardcore version of The Sims. Or maybe it will take the Quantic Dream approach and create something like Heavy Rain, where character input takes a backseat to story. There is tough competition from other open-world games that improved the genres in different ways. One only has to look at games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, to see how popular and varied the genre is. What ever the case may be, I look forward to seeing what Rockstar will come up with for the next GTA. And until that day comes I have Grand Theft Auto Online to keep me company.