The Grand Theft Auto franchise has become as much a fixture of as it is a commentary on Americana. The series is known for lampooning much of American media culture through hyperbole characterized by an often dark, sometimes bitter sense of humor. At the same time, developer Rockstar North have sought to created open-world sandbox games that can provide hours of mindless, humorous entertainment, usually in the form of hilarious wanton digital violence. The games are almost schizophrenic at times, and balancing crafted rich stories with fun, chaotic emergent gameplay it a high-wire balancing act.
Grand Theft Auto V is important as it not only balances those two aspects of the series better than any of its predecessors, but also acknowledges its place and role as a participant in the subject manner it depicts (and in how it depicts it). However in creating what is arguably the most balanced GTA game to date, Rockstar has also failed to make the most memorable title in the franchise. Grand Theft Auto V is over-polished, and loses some of its charm because of it. The experience feels finely crafted, but at times hollow and rote.
On the balance, GTA V successfully builds on the foundations of the series. Gunplay and driving feel tighter and more responsive. RPG-lite mechanics introduced in GTA: San Andreas and abandoned in GTA IV return, with each character having difficult levels of proficiency at driving, running, shooting, swimming, that increase over time. The soundtrack is as stellar as always, and the addition to the licensed music of an original score adds texture. It’s all best-in-class, but in a lot of ways, nothing that breaks from expectation.
What is memorable about GTA V is the introduction of three playable main protagonists; Michael, a retired bank robber drawn back into a life of crime, Franklin, a gangbanger with greater criminal aspirations, and Trevor, Michael’s old psychopathic partner. Allowing players to switch in between these three characters on the fly when out-of-mission mechanically addresses one of the largest issues in any open world game: excess travelling. Open world games are all about finding and making entertainment for oneself in the world provided with the tools provided, and being able to switch gears between Franklin boosting a car, Michael attending a therapy session, to Trevor smuggling drugs via plane enables the player to get to the point fast.
The three-protagonist character structure of the game also addresses the common issue in Rockstar games in that their plot is usually completely overwrought and overdrawn. It’s incredibly difficult to develop a character arc and storyline that can sustain 30 hours of gameplay, and few (if any) games ever achieve this. By splitting up the critical path across three characters, it’s much easier to enjoy each slice of the story without getting bored with any particular character or more damningly, taken out of the experience by their willingness to help strangers time and time again after being lied to, betrayed and mislead, as is often the case in Rockstar games. Finally it allows tonal shifts in story to correspond with characters. You know you’re going to get an off-the-rails mission with Trevor, more traditional GTA missions with Trevor, and so forth.
While the three character mechanic is interesting, the men themselves are generally less so. Thematically, they represent the Id (Trevor), Super-Ego (Michael), and the Ego (Franklin), which is interesting but ultimately boils down to Trevor being the crazy one, Michael butting heads with him and trying to keep him in line, and Franklin being the voice of reason who the former two can’t stop bickering. And do they ever bicker. The relationship and history between Trevor and Michael, former partners-in-crime, is the main through-line in the stories that make up GTA V, and does a good job at contextualizing why these thieves would get back in the game, although Franklin’s motivations are fairly under-baked.
Out of the three characters, Trevor is strangely the most enjoyable and interesting to play. He is a methed-out psychopath, prone to outbursts of murderous violence and, like a junkie, driven by an insatiable desire to make that next big score. He is also the character who embraces freedom. He is essentially a hyperbolic personification of your average player of a GTA game. The post-save rampages that many of us indulge in when playing a GTA game are now given a character within GTA V who is also capable of such spontaneous, unhindered violence. Many will rightly find him revolting, and in one particular scene in which Trevor takes a sick pleasure in torturing an innocent, Rockstar cleverly forces a disgust in the player and reveals that we have an aversion to true depictions of real cruelty, despite the links that some try to make between GTA and real world violence. Trevor though is also the freebird, the pilot, the only character aware of the insanity of this perverted vision of The Golden State in which the only logical response is to selfishly indulge in one’s on base and insane desires.
The playground that San Andreas provides for such indulgences is a bit astonishing in its scale. The sheer diversity of the environments the player can explore, from downtown Los Santos (Rockstar’s take on L.A.), to its shipyards and boardwalks, to the desert and trailer parks, the mountains and the forests, the game creates one of the most interesting spaces to inhabit I’ve played. Rockstar ensures that there an plethora of activities to partake in, from yoga to tennis, smuggling drugs via plane to stealing trains, attending therapy sessions to playing the stock market. Along with the character-swapping mechanic, these activities provide a much needed break from the tent-pole moments that the drive the story forward.
Those big top missions though are unlike anything else out there. A series of heists drive the story forward, each with a planning stage that allows for a ‘subtle’ or ‘loud’ approach and requires some initial preparation (usually stealing specific types of vehicles for transport), and allows for customization of the crew members who will provide support for the score. Do you pick the more skilled crew member who’ll take a bigger cut, or run with a rookie crew and keep more of the spoils for yourself? The half dozen or so heists in the game showcase the best mission design Rockstar has to offer, and draws inspiration from movies like Heat and Ocean’s Eleven without pretense. Knocking over a jewelry store is just as exciting as extracting a VIP from a high-rise tower via helicopter, and these missions are often surprising and always satisfying. If anything, I could have used more of these heists in lieu of some of the side missions and activities, but if anything that’s a testament to how entertaining they can be.
The character swapping returns in these heists as well, allowing the player to snap between Trevor, Michael, and Franklin second-to-second mid-mission. One character may be providing support from afar with a sniper rifle, another in the thick of a firefight, and the last racing away from the cops in a turbo-charged vehicle. Being able to switch between characters during these heists lets the player stay in the thick of the action, and allows for more curated play through the more cinematic missions.
The presentation of these missions, and the game at large, is characterized by Rockstar’s signature take on Americana. The target this time is the American West Coast and its obsession with fast cars, tanning, the Hollywood lifestyle, and so forth. The perceived vapidness of society that permeates California is proves good fodder, from disingenuous psychiatrists looking to earn a cheap buck off of troubled individuals, to promiscuous tennis coaches, to manufactured starlets. However GTA’s signature style while usually humorous sometimes feels a bit tired and overly familiar. The in-game take on Facebook dubbed “Life Invader” is a bit too on the nose, for example. The humor, much like its subject matter, can feel a bit insipid and biting.
This is really a common issue with sequels, wherein the stakes need to be continually raised in order to strike the same chords as the predecessor. However, there are instances where this sardonic, pointed tone works exceptionally well. Michael’s son, Jimmy, is depicted as an entitled video game playing millennial and the audacious vitriol that comes out of his mouth while playing a competitive first person shooter ridicules a demographic that makes up a large portion of GTA players. The aforementioned torture scene with Trevor also satirizes the hypocrisy of both those that take no issue killing thousands in games, but take affront when violence against an innocent is depicted in a truly immoral manner, and also America’s two-facedness on the disgust with enhanced interrogation techniques contrasted with the tolerance we have for the loss of life in wars abroad. These examples are heavy-handed, but effective.
That’s Grand Theft Auto V for you though. Ambitious to leave its mark, but also offering a world of delightful, often violent, fun. The spectacles of the story will draw you in and the sheer amount of detail crammed into this game, from the ambient cell phone conversations of the city’s NPC’s to the coral reefs hidden beneath the surface of the ocean, will keep you there. Grand Theft Auto V is intelligent, fun, audacious, and simply stunning in its scope.