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REVIEW | “GTA V” A Testament To Open-World Gaming

By
Posted on October 30, 2013 AT 02:12pm

After playing countless hours of Grand Theft Auto V, whether it’s performing missions or simply going trigger-happy for no apparent reason with either Trevor, Michael, or Franklin, one thought kept rushing through my brain: I wished Los Santos really did exist in the real-world. Yes, Los Santos is a fictitious version of Los Angeles, and both have many similarities, but there’s one thing about Rockstar Games’ latest in the popular franchise that you won’t find in LA: the ability to do anything that you put your mind to, with some pretty interesting results.

Grand Theft Auto V has been out for well over a month now, with near-universal acclaim from just about every periodical imaginable. So why bother writing a review for it so late in the game? After all, it sold 14 million copies in under 24 hours! It made $1 billion in less than three days! Odds are everyone and their grandma owns this game by now, and if they don’t they’re either holding out for a PC/next-gen version or they’re Nintendo-exclusive gamers. To those people, I have one thing to say: give in to the temptation that is Grand Theft Auto V.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about the new GTA when it was first announced. Hell, I even laughed at some of the things that were revealed about the game when word started to spread. Trading stocks? Yoga training? Tennis and golf? That’s not what a Grand Theft Auto experience should be like, I scoffed. These past few years I’ve gone so far as become more of a Saints Row kind of gamer, as the wackiness that Volition’s series had appealed to me more than the serious tone that Rockstar did with their last foray into Liberty City. It was a great game, no doubt, but it didn’t grab me like it once did when I was Tommy Vercetti and taking over the drug-fueled 80s realm.

Perhaps my skepticism came from the fact that their last open-world games, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, left a bittersweet taste in my mouth, leaving me bored out of my mind than enthralled by either the Wild West or 1940s Tinseltown. This past year there was only one goal Rockstar Games needed to do regarding Grand Theft Auto V: prove the doubters like myself wrong.

And they did. Grand Theft Auto V is a Vince Lombardi trophy, an NBA Championship ring, and a WWE World Heavyweight Title belt rolled into one nicely neat and clunk-free package. In other words, it’s one of the greatest open-world game on any current-gen console, and a fitting epilogue for it.

Switching between the three characters of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor gives you different perceptions of this world we now live in. Michael, hiding in witness protection, has seen success squash him, his family, and the other people in his life that he cares about (that is when his ego isn’t taking him over). Franklin is the young survivor in a gang-filled realm, but still has stars in his eyes as he aims for greater things. Trevor, however, is your take-what-life-gives-you kind of guy, a personification of all the insanity we’ve come to see in past GTA games, and just an irresponsible, horrible, methed-out, disturbed sociopath. It should come as no surprise that Trevor is the most fun to play with, as he has no morals or fears of having to hold back.

Game missions will have you robbing banks, stealing government weapons and vehicles, taking out rival gangs and dealers, and grabbing the biggest and most reachable scores that Los Santos has to offer. On many occasions, especially with Michael, your missions will have you going out with your family, running errands, and even sitting in with your psychiatrist as you tell him how much your life is screwed up. It’s these character-developed missions where the real meat of the characters’ mentality is revealed. Yes, it’s more fun gunning down a jewelry store than it is to reflect on your past to get some sort of mental breakthrough, but it’s all tied together to what Grand Theft Auto V is really showcasing: the destruction of the American dream.

Fortunately the demise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is hugely entertaining, not to mention laugh-out-loud funny. While the recent Saints Row games have gone more towards the silly and shock value route, Grand Theft Auto V instead goes for a more Lewis Black/Louis CK kind of humor, filled with dark undertones, broken spirits, and sarcastic wit. When Trevor tells a story to his meth-head compadre about a down-on-his-luck hockey player the way his tale turns will have you howling with laughter. The same goes with some of Michael’s reactions to his stoned son as he fails to bond with him.

Of course, once in a blue moon, Grand Theft Auto V will get its sillies out. One side mission will have one of the three smoking a certain herb, and start hallucinating about evil clowns or aliens trying to attack them. Then, there’s Michael’s trip-out after sipping his son’s spiked drink, sending him down a whirlwind cycle that cumulates with him gliding high about the cityscape in his boxers. It’s these certain parts where the game isn’t afraid to stop being so grounded, and for the most part it’s a nice break from the semi-realism that is shown throughout.

As for the golf, tennis, yoga, and stock exchange aspects, while they’re rarely ever necessary to do, they have some value and fun featured in it. It brings to mind some of the mini-games found in the recent Yakuza titles, only more fleshed out. I’ll go so far as saying that the tennis & golf here is on-par with the most recent EA Sports games, although not as deep and detailed. I may have chuckled at these side-missions early on, but they wound up being a lot more enjoyable than I thought they would be.

Did I mention how awesome it is that there are now checkpoints? Playing a mission in the older games had you go from Point A to B to C and D, and if you failed even at the last portion of it you had to start all over again. No more, decried Rockstar Games! Die, and you’ll just come back to the last point of the mission. Nice to see them finally get up to speed with the checkpoint realm.

With confidence I can say that Grand Theft Auto V is light-years ahead of its GTA IV counterpart when it comes to the graphics. The large cityscapes, the beautiful mountainsides, the bleak desert trailer homes, and even the deep oceans are beautifully detailed, with some of the most jaw-dropping visuals to be found on any system. Granted I did find some issues with rendering in some areas, and I even found myself trapped in an auto store because it wasn’t loading properly, but these hiccups come far and few between. As for the character models, well, one visit to the local strip club will show you how, um, perky the details are. (Let’s just say if Rockstar Games manages to get their graphics on-par with Quantic Dream’s The Dark Sorcerer presentation, well, I’ll just leave it at that before something sexist pops out of my brain.)

Rockstar Games also managed to get itself one of the best usage of licensed soundtracks via its various radio stations. Whether you wanna bop your head to Pet Shop Boys or rock out to Wavves, or even get your cool on with Flying Lotus, there is a radio station there for everyone’s tastes. (How ironic that is, considering how Top 40 most of radio here in the Boston area has become.) The original score by musicians The Alchemist, Oh No, Tangerine Dream, and Woody Jackson also know how to set a foreboding mood in the game, especially during the most tense moments of a mission.

For the most part GTA V controls like a dream, with a solid aiming system and easily accessible weapons menu. Driving around feels like a dream, with the ability to swerve around traffic with wondrous ease in a way that will make you wish it was real-life. Still there were a couple places where the controls can be improved. Flying is still a bitch, with some controls acting like a nuisance, in a similar way it did back in GTA: Vice City. Also, if I could avoid ever racing again here, that would be great. In that regards Rockstar Games should take a cue from Sleeping Dogs or even RAGE when it comes to derbies in an open-world game.

In regards to Grand Theft Auto Online, I’ll admit that there are still a few things Rockstar still need to work out before I can give that a full thumb’s up. After creating your customized character you are then flown into the city as you steal, kill, and complete tasks to make it in the city life. By leveling up and earning more money, new property, customizations, and missions will be unlocked for you to purchase and go hands-on with.

It’s great having all these sorts of missions and games that you can play with your online crew, but it doesn’t quite work if the players you’re with won’t follow a single order that I give them. Finding someone who wants to reach a goal right instead of going completely apeshit 24/7 is proving to be quite difficult, so it may be best to play with friends that you actually hang with outside of the console realm. Still, for what it’s worth, there’s a good chunk of mayhem you can unleash even with the likes of strangers.

PROS:

  • A fine satire on the real world
  • Vast, beautiful worlds and characters
  • Missions are a blast, even when replaying them

CONS:

  • Flying is still a pain
  • Some rendering issues here and there
  • GTA Online not currently at its peak

FINAL THOUGHTS:

In the end, Grand Theft Auto V is filled to the brim with great content, memorable characters, and a whole heap of glorious trouble. Rockstar heard all the complaints you had about its last trip to Liberty City, and have fixed almost all of them. Book your vacation to Los Santos now, because if you don’t you’ll miss out on all the fun. That, and Trevor may stomp your head in for being oh so stubborn.

FINAL GRADE: 9.8 (out of ten)

Xbox 360 version played for this review

Evan Bourgault is an accomplished music, anime, and video game critic. His passion for discovering new bands, developers, and Japanese pop culture began in his college radio days and continues on today. Evan joined the ElectricSistaHood team in 2008, where he is a contributing editor and host of one of the network's weekly podcasts. Follow Evan on Twitter at twitter.com/King_Baby_Duck




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