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Grand Theft Auto V Review: Swan Song

Following breakout success with Grand Theft Auto 3 and its sequels, developer Rockstar Games has spent this generation honing its craft, iterating on its biting and confident sense of style and satire while building on its gameplay shortcomings. Playing a Grand Theft Auto game has always been an exercise in sacrifice, a trudge through weak shooting and poor pacing in exchange for some of the best writing and characters of the medium.  With Grand Theft Auto 5, Rockstar is trying to provide more of a balance, while simultaneously closing out a formative generation. While GTA 5 isn’t as much of evolution of formula as one would initially expect, it’s without a doubt the most polished and enjoyable Grand Theft Auto game yet.

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In a departure from its predecessors, Grand Theft Auto 5 features multiple protagonists, and this has some interesting story and gameplay ramifications. There’s the middle-aged Michael, a boozy and depressed ex-criminal who attempts to revive the glory days through violent outbursts,  the opportunistic Franklin, a gang-banger looking to expand his horizons, and Trevor, a violent and murderous scene-stealing psychopath with a bizarrely stringent set of moral codes. While the game initially focuses on the faltering family life of Michael, and his sudo-mentorship of Franklin, the plot eventually groups the three men together in a series of increasingly audacious heists. Grand Theft Auto 5 tries to say and do a whole lot of things over it’s massive twenty hour campaign, using it’s massive cast to tackle relatively well-tread themes of crime, government corruption, and nationalism, while also delving into newer and more interesting ideas like masculinity, internet privacy, and age. It’s nice that the game has such a large scope, but this also means it often loses focus on the central conflict, giving the story a bit of a discombobulated tone. That said, the plot here is engaging, well-written and fantastically acted, and it’s far better paced than previous entries in the series.

…the plot here is engaging, well-written and fantastically acted…

You can switch between the three protagonists through a relatively quick Google Maps style pull-out transition, and everyone has their own unique set of missions and abilities. This is an ingenious way of solving the disconnect between character and action that plagued past Rockstar games, since Trevor’s violent missions match his character (and his stats) far better than it would with Michael or Franklin. Some of the missions bring the three characters together, allowing the player to quickly switch between perspectives. It’s a fantastic way of tightening the pace of shoot-outs, and Rockstar uses this mechanic to craft some wonderfully complex late-game missions. Further, this let’s you traverse the massive open-world world quicker than ever, since the three heros are rarely in the same general location.

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Grand Theft Auto 5 has one of the best open-worlds in recent memory

That said, you probably won’t mind exploring the world of Los Santos. Grand Theft Auto 5 has one of the best open-worlds in recent memory, a sprawling landscape full of variety and detail. Vinewood is the center of GTA 5’s world, a Los Angeles derivative that’s about as sleazy and dirty as one would expect. However, most of the gameplay area is rural, and the plot and missions give the player good initiative to visit the vast deserts and massive and lush hillscapes of San Andreas. There’s a fantastic variety to the world, and just about every environment is gorgeous. At a certain point, it’s staggering to think about how much time was spent on this world, and it’s shocking that this can even exist on our six-year old consoles.

While the missions in GTA 5 have been markedly improved, the act-ending heists are the true gameplay highlight. Franklin, Michael, and Trevor have a fantastic chemistry and rapport, and these missions give the three men an excuse to work together and bicker in some enjoyable ways. As for the heists themselves, there’s a surprising amount of variety, ranging from military base raids to classical bank heists. You’re often given the chance to customize parts of the heists, such as going in quiet or loud and picking crew members. This gives the relatively linear missions a sense of openness, even if it’s a little disappointing that many of the latter heists don’t allow for as large a degree of choice. That said, they’re fun and intense, providing some of the greatest gameplay sequences of the year, and they benefit heavily from the improved shooting and movement.

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To put it simply, everything about moving, shooting, and driving feels better in Grand Theft Auto 5. Rockstar has clearly taken cues from 2011’s Max Payne 3; the characters move more naturally and the shooting feels far more impactful than before. The cover system is still a little awkward and the traversal clearly isn’t designed for tight corridors, but you won’t tire of firefights. Meanwhile, the cars feel realistically grounded yet maneuverable, especially when combined with Franklin’s slow-motion special ability. Weapons and cars can be customized to a surprising degree, giving the player a strong desire to keep gear and wheels from mission-to-mission.

Despite all these advancements in mission design and gameplay, some of Grand Theft Auto 5 still seems strangely stuck in 2007. While the story itself is great, the tone feels a little off. The game wants to have dramatic character moments-and it’s strong writing means they’re mostly successful-but the ridiculous nature of the world itself undercuts them a bit. Some of the characters, especially Michael’s family, feel too over-the-top to be truly relatable, and the situations they are involved in fall flat more often than not. The merciless satire of previous games returns, but it feels less biting and relevant than before. Perhaps most problematic is the lack of any strong female characters. I understand that the story focuses heavily on the idiosyncrasies of masculinity, but the lack of any notable female characters was very noticeable and slightly off-putting. While these are minor complaints in an otherwise fantastic game, it’s still disappointing than these elements haven’t evolved since GTA 4.

…some of Grand Theft Auto 5 still seems strangely stuck in 2007

Whatever complaints I have about the tone aside, Grand Theft Auto 5 is still a fantastic book-eneder to a great generation of gaming. It truly feels like the culmination of everything Rockstar has learned in the five years since GTA 4, with markedly improved shooting, storytelling, driving, and pacing. GTA 5 is the definitive Grand Theft Auto experience, and it’s one of the best games of the year.

Grand Theft Auto is back, and it’s better than ever

Review Overview

Total Score - 9.5

9.5

Masterful

Summary : Whatever complaints I have about the tone aside, Grand Theft Auto 5 is still a fantastic book-eneder to a great generation of gaming. It truly feels like the culmination of everything Rockstar has learned in the five years since GTA 4, with markedly improved shooting, storytelling, driving, and pacing. GTA 5 is the definitive Grand Theft Auto experience, and it’s one of the best games of the year.

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