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PLATFORM: XBox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Rockstar North
PUBLISHER: Rockstar Games
Nite Owl: What the hell happened to us? What happened to the American Dream?
The Comedian: What happened to the American Dream? It came true! You’re looking at it!
That quote, from Watchmen, was referring to something far more politically dirty than anything contained within Grand Theft Auto V, and yet, I can’t think of anything so succinct that sums up its ethos. The goal of every GTA game, and most of the open world crime titles that fell in lockstep after GTA III came out has been the same twisted version of the American Dream. GTA IV was the first to question the old school, traditional, “Give me your tired, your poor”, etc version of that dream; GTA V is the game that takes it out behind the sheds, puts two in the back of the head, and dumps the body. The American Dream of GTA V is not a thing to aspire to. It’s a kicking-and-screaming slouch toward Bethlehem.
I’m sure Rockstar is very, very sorry for harshing your killcrazy mellow, gamers. Hopefully, the fact that they decided to build the biggest and best Grand Theft Auto game ever around it makes up for it.
With GTA V, Rockstar has never given the player more tools, more opportunity to cause the rampage of the player’s wildest dreams, and no one, and I mean, no one, has created a more vibrant, living example of an open world to perform it in. I wish there was a way for that to not come out as hyperbole, but this is the objective truth. The world of GTA V is a staggering achievement, at a time where world-building is fast becoming a dirty euphemism for “we’re trying to gloss over our lack of ideas”. There’s very little that one can envision doing in this world that cannot be done, and the world will react to your doing it accordingly. The relatively basic (for GTA, anyway) act of stealing a car involves a pile of interactions. Each character breaks in a different way, hotwires at different speeds. Pedestrians might notice, stand back in amazement, or dial 911. The car’s owner might run out of a shop, drag you out for a fight. Which bystanders will watch and comment on. If I decide to flip one of them off from the car, they might either do the same, or decide to pull a gun and end me right there. Whatever mission I complete doing it, I might hear about my exploits on the radio within minutes. And this is a BASIC game mechanic here. Spoiling how the world reacts to just taking a walk down the block, or talking to strangers, or changing one’s clothes, or talking to someone your character knows when you’re not even on a mission, let alone when you’re out there doing your criminal mastermind thing would be to take away from the experience of just getting out there and DOING. The Los Santos of GTA V is just as much a place to play a game as it is a place to live a corrupt digital second life. In every single way, the true next gen starts right here, right now, not in two months when the PS4 and XBox One hit. The only physical thing stopping it from being such is that this is the first game where one truly feels the current gen hardware often getting winded trying to keep up. Pop-up, moments of unexpected slowdown aren’t game-breakingly frequent, but they happen. Load times are still a minor, expected, but still too frequent thing. Rockstar is showing the price of ambition here, and it’s been a long time since we actually witnessed the envelope being pushed on a console to the point where yes, a next gen system feels like a necessary thing.
The actual gameplay hasn’t changed so much from games prior, but the advancement here comes from a feeling that Rockstar has learned lessons from every single game they’ve released, and every single game their competitors have released, and improved on all of the above. Driving is now indistinguishable from Midnight Club. San Andreas‘ character stat system returns, though they keep the hunger system out of it. The shooting feels like a (slightly) more forgiving Max Payne sequel, with a little bit of Red Dead Redemption thrown in for flavor. Each playable character has powerups that simulate some of the slowdown/invincibility options from them, on a limited scale. They’ve even stolen some random good ideas from their contemporaries, including Sleeping Dogs‘ health system and mission replay options. And no, you’ll never HAVE to call your cousin to hang out, ever.
The AI, for both allies and enemies, has gotten a wonderful boost as well. Enemies will still often willingly line up for their bullet injection, but know how to flank, when to conserve and go for headshots. Chases with the cops are fast, tense, and involve far more strategy than playing Who Has The Faster Car. More often than not, they play out like the opening scene from Drive than anything from The Fast and the Furious, though of course there’s some of that, and some of the scripted chases you’ll find yourself in give even that series a run for its money, especially since, just like Furious Six, one of the best ones here takes place on an airfield, with a far more brutally amazing climax.
Missions are mostly the same, with the usual go-here-shoot-some-guys-go-back-home structure, but as time goes on, the twists are legion. The big gimmick this time is the three protagonists, who can be switched between at any time. It’s a gimmick that’s been done on the small scale with games before, but never in something with this much going on. Sometimes, you switch back just because there’s different dialogue going on. No matter when you do it, you will find these characters simply going about their days when you return. The juggling act is brilliant in its own right, but you also have new minigames, activities that open up during, options on how to tackle specific tasks, and miniature achievements to achieve gold medals. Red Dead Redemption‘s random Stranger quests show up again here, with just as eclectic a collection of activities, and vastly weirder people. The bones of GTA are here, but they’ve packed on just enough weight to never feel as repetitive as games past.
The second big addition is heists, big missions involving multiple characters, that get to be planned out far in advance, have multiple, branching approaches, and usually culminate in big-ass 5-star getaways through the streets of Los Santos. Heists are, simply, the shit. While there have been attempts at this kind of thing before–two of the better ones (Payday 2 and Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine) have been this year, even–none of them have been on this scale. Heists involve costumes, days of planning, resource thefts, high profile, multi-vehicle escapes, all while the score from Tangerine Dream gets down to superb, Michael Mann-ish business. If this is the foundation upon which GTA Online will be built, the world will be a supremely awesome place come October 1st.
This is the GTA game Rockstar knows every fan has secretly been waiting for, and a heroic attempt is made here to convert a few of the folks they lost on IV as well. You will, and should love them for it.
Even though, one suspects, they’re kinda on the fence about you.
I mentioned in my review for Saints Row IV that that was a game that finally made peace with its GTA also-ran past, and made itself something better than everything it had done prior. GTA‘s relationship with itself is far more complex, and bottled. Rockstar has had ambition since this generation started, and that ambition has been often waylaid by the neverending struggle between what Rockstar wants to do, and what gamers expect them to do. GTA IV, as mentioned, took no small measure of shit for leeching away some of the joy of games prior in order to focus on Niko’s voyage through Liberty City’s seedy underbelly towards violent relapse, or profound, existential disappointment, when all a lot of gamers wanted to do was run over pedestrians and perform drive bys on a public park. There’s a reason Red Dead Redemption almost destroyed Rockstar, and was considered a calculated risk all the way up to the midnight release.
So buried under all the love and affection and brilliance of GTA V‘s campaign is not just the subtext of the American Dream becoming the dead eyed, soulless American Nightmare, but also the bottled seething hostility of spurned advancement. The game’s overarching question of its characters, of itself, and of the player comes down to “Why do we do this?” All the crime, all the mayhem, all the sociopathy, is it making us better or worse at what each of those people do?
To explore the question, we have our three protagonists. The only thing separating Michael De Santa and Franklin Clinton from being Tommy Vercetti and CJ Johnson is pixel count. Trevor could very well have been GTA III‘s Claude Speed or Niko Bellic, but instead, he’s the living Ghost of GTAs Past, a guy who represents every terrible amoral, contextless instinct GTA has been mythologized to breed, and now, the player is able to embody in full. For all intents and purposes, the very first second we catch up with the guy, he is might-as-well-be-literally fucking narrative in the ass, nailing Lost and Damned‘s Ashley in his trailer, before curbstomping Johnny Klebitz to death into the dirt.
To get more specific, Michael is Tommy Vercetti laid low from on high. After one final guns blazing heist, leaving him for dead, Michael retires to Vinewood under a new name to live the Henry Hill schnooklife, with the adulterous trophy wife, an airhead daughter, an asshole wigger son (who I still don’t believe isn’t Jonah Hill under a pseudonym), and a therapist who is zero help. He’s pulled out of his atrophy by Franklin, a young, smart kid from Not-Compton who is stuck living with his self-improvement obsessed aunt, doing repo-man bitch work with his friend Lamar (who, dumb as he is, has some of the best dialogue in a game full of amazing dialogue), trudging towards that one big score that will catapult them to the major leagues. Franklin comes across Michael when repoing his son’s car, but sees the kid’s potential almost immediately to get him back in the life. A couple of small time thefts later, Franklin gets a taste of the high life, and Michael feels the spring in his step, until Trevor, his old loose cannon friend who’s been living in the Northern San Andreas desert with his idiot Juggalo assistant, finds out he’s alive, and drives down to invade.
A proper, normal GTA plot does play out here, with all the expected satire that goes with it. The outward facing theme of the game is the deconstruction of what these men are told is supposed to make them happy, and how they deal with the fact that it completely doesn’t. Fight Club, it isn’t, but it does have plenty worthwhile to say on the subject, and does it as entertainingly profane as anything that’s come before. But GTA has always held America, as viewed through the sardonic lenses of pseudo-New York, 1986 Miami, and Los Angeles, under a skewed microscope, and scoffed at what it found there. It’s the commentary from Rockstar lying beneath every single act these characters perform that makes it something for the ages in terms of its medium. Michael loves what he does, but seems surprised that, treating the women in his life like objects to be obtained, every woman in his life is objectified. His son lies, cheats, steals, and is a homophobe. There’s a conversation he and his son have early on about how awfully he talks to his friends over multiplayer in Righteous Slaughter (the game’s hilariously screwed up Call of Duty parody) that literally has the son asking the question “How do I develop moral sensibilities when yours are so fuckfaced?”
Franklin’s side isn’t as well explored as it was when it was CJ Johnson’s story, so the criticism of the gaming landscape he finds himself in becomes more prominent. Franklin’s willingness to do any and everything without question to get ahead is his downfall. Watching him come to the realization that he’s surrounded on all sides by not just terrible human beings, but manchildren who can commit crimes like adults, but who are still subject to the emotional development of 12 year olds is where his story achieves something more, and the game’s final choice coming down to him is surprising in how harrowing it is.
And then there’s Trevor. Trevor is one of those characters that’s going to come up every single time we have a conversation about immorality in games from this day forward. Trevor’s a psychopath. Period. Whereas there’s been a growing unease with having the good men we know CJ/Niko/John Marston to be perform increasingly evil deeds to get ahead, none of this seems out of character for Trevor. In fact, Rockstar use the man as a one-stop depository for several games worth of insanity. Some frightening, some sad, some just plain vulgar, even by my standards. The game’s most amoral tendencies, Trevor is all that, distilled. There’s been conversation already about the game’s misogyny, most of it coming from Trevor, and while there are so howlingly awful things said about some of the women in game, and this too has its place in the commentary, it’s also the wrong label. It’s misanthropy. It, and this character, hates EVERYONE. And yet even the sociopath has a beating heart, black, twisted, and comic as it may be.
The interesting part about him, and where the game’s most fascinating explorations come from is the question of what the viewer/player/Rockstar gets out of him. Are we entertained by just the random violence, or is it exploring the nature of Trevor’s immorality while he still holds such a strong, unyielding sense of loyalty and honor? Is this guy literally “the fun” people kept complaining about losing in GTA IV? Somewhat late in the game, Michael announces his intent that, after “the big one”, he plans to retire, and start making movies, which is one of a couple of moments the game drops any hint of subtlety about its navel-gazing as it concerns about Rockstar’s own journey this gen. Trevor asks, petulantly, where that leaves him. “This isn’t a game! It’s a way of life!” he exclaims. It’s a question the game never has truly satisfactory answers for, to its mild discredit, but it’s still pointed directly at the player’s intent, in a far less dour-faced way than, say, Spec Ops, and the only uncomplicated way to read it all is Rockstar wanting stories to be stories, period, motherfuck pigeonholing, and finding themselves literally and figuratively at war with what greater forces expect.
Maybe that’s the end goal of Grand Theft Auto V, as gameplay and as story, the answer to why Rockstar does this. GTA V has granted the player more freedom and greatness than any game in the medium’s history. Rockstar have been subtlely asking for the same in return. GTA V is Rockstar pointing a gun at its audience, coolly, calmly, but seriously saying “NOW.”
There is absolutely zero doubt with this game that they’ve unabashedly earned it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars