In the interest of FULL DISCLOSURE…
I’ve been a gamer my whole life. I even planned my move to
Los Angeles Los Santos around the launch of the PlayStation 2. (Oct 26th, 2000!) I wanted to make sure I could pick up my pre-order in Chicago before heading west. Years earlier, I dropped an exorbitant amount of cash on a Japanese version of the Nintendo 64 just to play Mario 64 months before the U.S. release. The entire mission screens were in Japanese! Let’s talk why not?!
The release of GTA III in 2001, however, was pretty meh for me. My friends spent hours, probably closer to days, in Liberty City. Me, maybe three hours total. I hated the controls, hated the forced satire and above all, loathed the beyond frustrating unforgiving save system. (Forty minutes on a mission, half of it trailing some van only to have to redo everything because the auto-aim of my AK-47 missed the headshot was awful.)
Flash forward twelve years later. Here I was Sep 16th, 2013 in line at 9pm with hundreds of other nerds at my local GameStop for the midnight release of GTA V.
What happened? Niko Bellic and GTA IV happened.
In 2008, IV was the first game to receive a 10/10 from IGN and Gamespot since Soul Caliber in 1999.
Granted GTA: San Andreas earned a stellar 9.9 from IGN, remaining a favorite among fans. IGN gave Vice City a “terrible” 9.7. Still, a 10 for IV and that same year a 10 for Metal Gear Solid 4 was monumental. I had to crack this bad vibe I’d had with Rockstar’s franchise.
I ended up completing IV’s story mode five times: three times on the 360, twice on the PS3.
I wanted to give this disclaimer of sorts before diving into my impressions of GTA V because the reason I love IV (and to a lesser extent III, VC and SA all of which I went back and played after falling love with IV) is not why most gamers love GTA. I couldn’t care less about killing hookers, rage meters or any other sense of chaos that many indulge in while seeing just how much mayhem they can muster.
First and foremost, I’m a fan of the worlds that interactive entertainment allows me to explore. It’s why I played Mass Effect, The Last of Us and Portal 2 multiple times. It’s why the underwater city of Rapture has stayed with me.
To revise Bill Clinton’s ’90s motto: It’s about the world, stupid!
So far I clocked in over 24 hours in V, so this is in no way a complete review of the main story. I’m currently at 34% on the completion meter.
Lastly, though the game comes packaged with GTA: Online it will not go live until next month.
As usual, minor spoilers…
Leaving behind the more muted (some thought depressing) tone of IV, the newest installment takes us back to the hyper-colored, superficial world of Los Santos, i.e. Los Angeles. This was also explored in San Andreas, but here the focus is much more on LS the city proper and the nearby desert landscape of Blaine County.
For the first time in the series, you’ll control three characters in one game: middle-aged Michael, from the streets Franklin, and meth dealer Trevor. Rockstar tried this idea somewhat with the two DLCs for IV but you couldn’t switch between the Niko, Johnny and Luis on the fly. Here you can.
It works perfectly.
10. Radio Still Effective, Score Even Better.
Crank it up, gramps!
Some of my best memories of any GTA game are the radio stations. Not just all the great licensed tracks (except in part III), but all the hilarious talk radio jabber. Hearing “Weasel News: Confirming Your Prejudices” is grin inducing. And yet, in the world of smart phones, how many of us actually still use radio nowadays? Best not to dwell on that. In San Andreas and Vice City this wasn’t an issue since they were set in the ’90s and ’80s, respectively. Here, as in IV, V is set in the present and the writing is effective as it makes fun of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m not quite sure what it means that I’m more inclined to listen fictional disc jockey Lazlow Jones than any real radio DJs today.
In a first for the series, many of the story missions now come accompanied by a strong musical score. Red Dead Redemption had to do this since there were no portable radios or Pipboys in the Old West. Nevertheless, I always missed having one even if it made no sense while riding a horse. Having both features in V is fantastic. I can’t go back now.
Kenny Loggins, Pam Grier and Bootsy Collins are just some of the guest DJs!
9. Torture Mini-Game.
The only clip I found that is funny/torture-related. Enjoy!
About halfway through, Trevor is tasked with getting information from a hostage by any means necessary. While you can switch between Trevor and Michael, you have to do the torturing. There’s no way out. At first, I was kind of annoyed, but as the captive guy kept giving info whether or not I shocked him with a car battery, I realized that co-writer Dan Hauser was heading towards a moment where the craziest guy in the game (Trevor) comes across as somewhat humane. It’s a nice touch delivered with witty remarks.
8. Franklin: Helluva Repo Man
Refreshingly, no one in the GTA V starts off as just a common thug. Not even the youngest, Franklin. Like CJ, he’s from the hood, but he and his friend Lamar are doing “legit” work as repo men. From a story POV, it works since it means when they steal a car, they in theory have the pink slips to avoid the police harassment. In a bigger way, it shows how Franklin really doesn’t want to be a bottom feeder.
As an added bonus, the way Franklin and Michael meet is genius.
7. Missions Improve the Story, Are Not Tedious.
Hands down these are the most well-thought out missions in the history of the series. When you think of it, open world games don’t really give players that much variety: drive this car, follow that dude, kill these other dudes, pick up that briefcase, repeat. And yet, the way Rockstar’s team has the player juggling them all at once gives the illusion of doing tons.
Even if there weren’t the whole new three-character switch mode, there are a lot of ways even with just one character I was kept on the edge of my seat.
When missions do involve more than one, like Trevor visiting Grove Street (!) with Franklin… just wow. Hilarious.
By far, though, my favorite missions involve Michael, the middle-aged retired criminal. The banter with his millennial ingrate son is priceless.
Trevor, I think, will be loved by gamers who adore just how “crazy” he is. Personally, I think a little Trevor goes a long way, but he does have some great moments.
6. Rappelling Down a Skyscraper!
When can I do this?
A moment that probably took less than five minutes of the over twenty hours I’ve played, being on top of the world while traversing down a glassy man-made structure, is one of the OMG highlights of the year. There’s plenty of action as you switch between the three protagonists, but I stopped everything to rotate the right stick around and take in the never-ending skyline of downtown Los Santos. These are the moments that remind me why I love the immersive feel that games can offer. Sure, there are plenty of explosions waiting for me on the streets, but I wished I could just stay suspended up there indefinitely. One of the best moments in any game came when I realized it’s not about trying every possible scenario, but just taking in what feels like an actual real life experience.
5. Tennis, Anyone?
Did you play Rockstar Presents Table Tennis? No? That’s fine, this is better. Ditto playing golf! Tiger who?!
4. The Heists Should Make Michael Mann Jealous. Not Enough of Them Though.
The highlight of IV was the epic-sized mega mission when Niko, Packie and the rest of the crew pulled off a bank robbery. The scene even ended up being used for the opening for the cool second DLC, The Ballad of Gay Tony. (Turns out Luis was there the whole time!) I remember on my first play-through I spent nearly an hour in the bank, then escaping and so on.
I was never bored.
Well, that heist was like a beta version.
Now options have been put into the mix. It works like this: the trio and Lester (think of him as the game’s dungeon master) look at a clipboard. You must choose: do you go in guns blazing? That will cost you an efficient gunman. Or maybe just be quiet and smart? Like hiring a hacker that can delay the police long enough to grab all the jewels from a Rodeo Drive-like shop? Before all that you’ll need to case the joint, find a getaway car and buy creepy masks from a dude at Vespucci Beach.
The only downside? I wish there were more of these big score jobs.
3. Awesome Driving Is Back.
One of the biggest complaints against the previous GTA was the loosey-goosey steering of the vehicles. Personally, I never had that much of an issue, but I can’t deny the cars here feel much more grounded. It’s a bit strange that they flip over (and over) almost always landing on their wheels upright, but I assume that’s just to make less chases go bust. With the streets modeled after Los Angeles and the west coast, the roads are much wider than they were in Liberty City. Great handling when jet skiing, riding a bike, all of it.
Still, the planes and helicopters suck to fly as always.
2. The Fun Cameos by People and Places from Previous GTAs
The three PS2 games (III, VC, SA) were peppered with wonderful cameos (silent Fonzie!) and references to each title. IV ended that, seemingly forever. V has brought that back, sort of. I won’t spoil but the above Bob’s Burgers image hints at who or what Trevor will come across…
So it looks like IV (plus, the two DLCS: Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony) and V take place in the same universe. Woot!
Fans of the series know that a mention and (perhaps?) a glimpse of IV’s lead Niko Bellic is the best we’ll ever get since it’s pretty widely known that the voice of Niko was pretty annoyed by his paycheck versus the over $300 million day one sales of the 2008 game. Come on, cousin!
1. Los Santos, Baby!
The day after my first night with V, I took a walk up to Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. My neighborhood. It’s really telling how spot on GTA is in terms of making a city feel real. Suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw NPCs. There’s the hipster guy! There’s a few cop cars, sirens blazing speeding down La Brea! There’s the gal who looked like she just finished a photo shoot! And so on.
The biggest compliment I can give is that I think I like Los Santos more than Los Angeles, at least for now. Like I said at the beginning, this has zero to do with killing random people. It has everything to do with that sense of serenity I get when I walk out of my Vinewood Hills mansion and take in the sights.
Well, that and that the mansion beats my one-bedroom in WeHo any day of the week.
My Pet Minor Peeve…
The HUD is sleeker but harder to use. Prior to the latest version, all the reticles for the auto-aiming have been big hard-to-miss colored pieces. Now, it’s a tiny, and I mean TINY, red dot. Also, I know Rockstar doesn’t want to copy any open-world game that came after them (Saints Row), but Square-Enix’s Sleeping Dogs had a great way of picking new missions while not having to pause the game and go to the map screen. It was so simple. Having to go to the map in V is not terrible, but it is nonetheless, tedious. It keeps me out of the reality of Los Santos and the outlying Blaine County. That is not cool.
Minor Peeve 2
As has already been widely criticized, all the women that I have encountered are grating, to say the least. Okay, I sorta don’t mind Tonya the tow-truck crack head, but that’s just a personal thing…
Seriously though, the world of GTA has always been a big satire of western culture. I get that. Yet, when the story puts you in the shoes of three very different men, the absence of a female point of view is glaring.
Pretty much every character you meet in GTA, male or female, is over-the-top, but since we ARE Michael we can sympathize with his situation. His shrew of a wife, bimbo daughter, and idiot son are all a waste of space, but even here Jimmy the son is given a tad bit of shading.
This doesn’t ruin the game, but it points out that back in 2001, we were laughing – despite our better judgment – at killing prostitutes to get our money back. In 2013, not so much.
Verdict with a ‘V’: I’ve yet to totally finish the game, but I’m pretty confident Rockstar has delivered yet another landmark achievement in the open-world field. Are the intertwined tales of Michael, Franklin and Trevor as moving as Joel and Ellie’s journey in The Last of Us? So far, no. Then again, I played TLOU three times. Ask me in a year. Maybe I’ll outdo my IV record with V.