The reason behind the title of this review is that Rockstar decided to invade Activision’s kingdom of mainstream AAA gaming and claim their crown. GTA V was the most sought after game this year. Even people who have never liked GTA wanted it. Even people who have never played a video game beyond the realm of Wii fit or Snake or Farmville wanted it. Even people who didn’t want it wanted it. Even people who never intended on getting it, Instagrammed pictures of themselves with a copy of the game. And that consumerist conformism (or conformist consumerism) is only one of many modern afflictions the game attempts to mock.
Let me start with the good bits: the game plays well and the city’s pretty. Los Santos is Rockstar’s reimagining of Los Angeles (I know! Mind-blowing!) and so it has its movie studios, extremely rich and poor areas, colour-coded African-American gangs, beaches, yoga clubs and therapists. Los Santos runs into the same problem as any other open-world game city: hundreds of buildings but you can only enter a few. Sometimes I just want to walk into someone’s house, murder them, eat a sandwich and leave because I’m role-playing an apathetic sociopath but I can’t because the open world is pretty closed and food doesn’t exist. Having pre-ordered the special edition of the game, I was promised exclusive clothing and haircuts and if I got exclusives, the regular selection is absolutely pitiful (because the selection with exclusives is absolutely pitiful). Rockstar decided to opt out of food stores and go with randomly distributed health packs and Wolverine’s healing factor for its protagonists. I suppose that’ll stop people from making “got shot five times? Have some chicken” jokes at least. Los Santos has its redneck outskirts in Blaine Country where people drive quadbikes and dirtbikes more so than actual cars and shoot satellite dishes as a pastime. The dessert also happens to be a refuge for those wanted in the city, much like Hastings. The environments are pretty, the level design is fairly good and the city planning generally just makes sense, but then that’s always been the case with GTA. The city’s quite big and filled with side missions and random events that try to enforce some structure into your gameplay, but more on that later.
The game can’t decide whether its protagonists are clowns or straights and I think that’s more of a problem than them just not being very nice people. They’re all villains but you’d be hard-pressed to find a sympathetic character in Los Santos at all. First, you have the closest thing to a straight character and Rockstar’s attempt at a likable thug – Franklin. Franklin is an ex-kinda-current gang member who’s striving to “make something of himself” which pushes him into the company of shady characters who have made rich shady characters out of themselves. At no point has Franklin had any aspirations to become an entrepreneur or earn an honest living even if he pleads ignorance to his initial employer, a dodgy car salesman. Franklin has no goal beyond making something of himself and is still stuck on the only woman he seems to have ever had a relationship with. Franklin is the ultimate tag-along, even when he says that whatever his friend’s about to do is dumb and a waste of time, he still comes along for the I-told-you-so. Franklin soon becomes acquainted with the game’s second and probably main (by this point I’m not entirely sure if any of them matter) anti-hero – Michael Finley come Di Santa. An ex bank robber who’s now retired and trying to lead a normal life until he decides to drive a car into the crooked dealership that Frank works for. Michael owns a big house with a pool, hires tennis and yoga instructors for his wife to have affairs with and then beats the shit out of them for having affairs with her. He has two horrible kids who he seems to have just decided to raise halfway through the story ‘because plot’. Finally, you have Trevor – every GTA player’s dream best friend; usually unhinged, occasionally all-too-sane, quick-to-act-violently, fearless, moody meth addict and dealer. All three of the main characters are annoying but Trevor takes the crown for me. Trevor can’t seem to make his mind up whether to kill Michael or bum him and whenever he threatens to kill him it all just seems like empty threats. This is the guy that gets introduced to the player by banging someone’s wife and then killing the guy for moaning about it. Most of the time you can switch seamlessly between the three losers, except when Trevor and Michael are hiding because they’re such badasses.
The switching mechanic was included to accommodate three player characters without including extra players. On missions where the characters are together it works much like the LEGO games. While in the open world, the screen goes brown, the camera pans out on a bird view of the city, the game takes a few seconds to figure out where the character is and then zooms in on them. Most of the time when you take control of a character, they’re in the middle of something. Franklin’s usually sitting at home or the strip club and at other times he’s commuting between the two. Michael is usually throwing away an unfinished coffee or cigarette or just having a nightmare. Trevor usually roots through bins or runs around in a tight dress, shooting people. You have no way of knowing where the characters are until you actually switch to them. This contributed largely to my dislike of Trevor. Trevor is like a drunk acquaintance that you have to take care of and stop from swimming in the ocean with only his underpants on or running away into the woods. The meth-ridden maniac is always in the middle of nowhere or the middle of a gunfight and frankly, it got on my nerves after a while. He chases a guy with a shotgun, while dressed in a size zero wedding dress and then attends business meetings. Trevor switches between crazy and sane more than Jodie does in Beyond: Two Souls and to be fair to Jodie, she does have a poltergeist following her around. I’m making the same point twice because it’s no minor misdemeanor, it’s manslaughter (of character building). Each character has their own distinct special ability. Franklin can make time slow down around him while driving to allow for precise manoeuvring at high speeds. His ability gets introduced in the most ridiculous way: “Yo, do that thing you do.” Yo, Franklin, my N-word, do that thing you do when you drive and everything slows down around you and goes mute while you still drive at a cruise speed. Michael’s ability is to slow down time around him when he isn’t driving. I don’t remember this being introduced at all, it just sort of occurred to me at some point that I haven’t tried his ability out yet. Trevor, being insane and Canadian, can’t slow time down; his ability is to become the incredible Hulk. Trevor gets really angry and suddenly bullets don’t hurt him. This ties into his rampage mini game where he gets pissed off with a gang member, murders between 15 and 50 of them and then everybody forgets all about it. The rampage mini game is the only time gang members run from a losing battle, which annoyed me about The Last Of Us too. Surely, if a single guy murders eight out of a ten member crew, the other two would just run away. But then, maybe I’m naïve and all Americans work on a strictly ride or die basis.
The actual gameplay has been much improved and simplified. The driving no longer feels like there’s an evil spirit on the back of every car creating a five tonne counterweight. It’s actually possible to take corners at high speeds without spinning out. Your car being overturned no longer causes it to explode, you can simply hold the left stick to turn it back onto its feet which allows for car acrobatics. The spirits of dead Indians that left the cars have now possessed planes and helicopters and the flying mechanics are simply dreadful. The plane shaking and misbehaving isn’t as much challenging as it is tedious. The game insists on you landing the planes as opposed to jumping out of them and parachuting like one Rico Flores (Just Cause) which adds to the tedium. For those who thought the driving had been ‘dumbed down’, I offer a bullet to the chest by simply pressing aim and then shoot. Yes, GTA V offers an auto aim system. You don’t even have come out of aim and back into it, simply flick the right stick towards your next target. This helps since the average missions pits you against 20-odd enemies. The combat is cling-onto-cover based, which I thought we were done away with after Tomb Raider and The Last Of Us offered a player-friendly alternative. Shooting-while-driving mechanics are better than in any game I’ve played in recent memory, the controls don’t get in each others way as much as they tend to in other titles (I’m having a real bad time with this in Saints Row 2 at the moment). You can get your character drunk to make his vision blurry (which I’ve never experienced while drunk myself) and his body wobbly which translates to bad aim and swerves while driving. There’s a side mission that misrepresents another drug, where your character smokes weed and hallucinates. I’m not quite sure whether that’s laziness, creativity or an attempt to appear ignorant. Finally, there’s a new type of story mission, not to be confused with a game mechanic that is a constant during gameplay, there are only about five of these during the course of the story. I’m speaking, of course, of the ground-breaking, innovative, revolutionary, fresh, repetitive heist missions. You get to collect Intel on a target that the game chooses for you and then you get to plan your heist by choosing option A or option B. You have full customising control of the members of your crew and your weapon inventory. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m being cynical here. The choice of your crew members affects gameplay – a poor hacker will buy you less time, a poor driver is more likely to crash and lose a portion of the take etc. Really, I couldn’t see a reason to go cheap with the crew, the more skilled ones take a bigger cut but there’s also a bigger pot to share with them on board, so swings and roundabouts.
For a game whose aim was to become more fun, GTA V is very temperamental. Whenever I’d start having fun, the game would do something to spoil it for me. Oh, you’re excited to fly a plane, are you, Pat? Let me make it handle like a winged bull on steroids. Oh, you’re having fun shooting people? Let’s see you fight off helicopters. Oh you’re having fun chasing this bike? Let’s see how well you can aim your gun while driving. The game couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be easy or hard, a difficulty setting might’ve helped. At times, I found myself breezing through a mission only to get stuck in the middle of it. It’s a 21st century AAA game, so there’s inevitably quite a bit of hand holding and pointing to things you need to shoot because that’s easier than creating coherent graphics. On the bright side, I don’t remember seeing a QTE. I found that a lot of my fun was lost on the game’s attempts at satire. There’s a God-awful mission where Michael infiltrates Apple (might as well be) and the writing staff decided to throw in every outdated cliché about programmers that has ever existed. I have toyed with the idea that it was meant to signify that apple staff are incompetent but Rockstar has neither the balls nor the skill for that in my eyes. The story feels pointless, the journey seems to be heading from unhappiness to unhappiness in riches and if the moral is that a life of crime is a sad existence, Rockstar have hit the nail on the head (but it’s not). Not one of the characters is happy and not one of them is doing any work towards reaching happiness. Trevor is in denial and believes he will be a big shot in the criminal circles, which he never will because he entirely lacks organisation. Franklin has just about the same aspiration but is utterly clueless without Uncle Lester or Grandpa Michael to hold his hand; once an errand boy, always an errand boy. Michael pretends he wants to lead a normal happy life with the family he doesn’t care about beyond the fact they represent him as a husband and a father. To accompany our protagonists on their pointless journey there are arsehole NPCs who are meant to be amusing eccentrics but I wish I could just shoot them all and normally I’m against PC on NPC violence. The worst of them all is the eccentric, new age multibillionaire who weasels his way out of paying you and hires a private army instead. In what twisted, half-arsed, retarded, backwards mind does that make sense?! I could pay you £1mln but I’d rather spend £50mln on hiring a private army to protect me from you. But then, maybe he gets a major NPC discount.
GTA V single player is: being stuck in a semi-lucid nightmare with Piers Morgan, Frank Bruno and Kerry Katona/10
Now, admittedly, I hadn’t tried out the multiplayer mode while writing my single player review. In large part because I find multiplayer games pretty dull in general. Obviously some multiplayer modes are better than others, like The Last of Us or Assassin’s Creed. The only thing that was setting GTA’s multiplayer apart early on was the fact it didn’t work, wasn’t at all functional. And that’s the secondary reason why by this point I haven’t played it. Of course then I decided to review the game and I decided to dedicate a separate micro-review to the multiplayer section, so here we are.
Once the bloody thing loads, you get a nice introductory cut scene and meet the game’s hardest working voice actor and a semi-finalist in my most annoying character contest – Lamar. He sets up a race and makes a call but nobody turns up to race with the two of you which sums him up as a character and me as an online gamer. Though when I think about it, experiences may vary, I just don’t have too many friends. Once I beat Lamar in the race I was sent to ‘get the drugs’ which meant killing a bunch of dudes and driving toward the marker. I don’t remember getting any exposition beyond “yo dawg, I heard you want gameplay and in-game currency so I’ve set up some more introductory gameplay that’ll reward you with in-game income, dawg”. No, really he just said “you straight” (which I am , funnily enough) and mentioned a friend of his that requires jobs to be done. I haven’t encountered any player characters along the way, unless they were driving very incognito.
Eventually, I was lead to a deathmatch job to compete against another player, if one was ever found. The game eventually managed to throw three other poor mugs into the mix and the games began. Glitching, that is. After losing my first deathmatch, I tried another and then some other jobs. There were races and death matches, both singles and teams. The one mission type that stood out for me was the Patriot Games, GTA’s version of capture the flag. Each player was required to track down a truck, steal it, lose the cops and deliver it. The police chases coupled with fighting off other players made up for the lack of players although I found the trucks to be scattered too far away from one another and as much as chasing another player who’s stolen a truck was great, finding the trucks in the first place was a tiresome task. Overall, it took me a whole two hours to get really bored of the online mode. Then again, I entered with a negative attitude and I might change my mind in a week’s time. But I won’t.
GTA online is: being at a club with only 6 other people, including the DJ/10 (that doesn’t mean 6/10, it’s not code, I actually found it awkward and boring)