It’s been nearly a month since Grand Theft Auto V released and you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz. A three-day record of over $800 million in sale which lead to more than $1 billion overall for developer Rockstar. Countless perfect or near-perfect scores with entire reviews dedicated to lauding the advancements made to the free-roam genre. And while the writing -- the story in particular -- is an amazing extension of the overall gameplay and every piece fits neatly into the personality of the three main characters like a jigsaw puzzle, the game is being exaggerated. It’s not that the game isn’t good, excellent even, it’s that Rockstar has made advancements to the game world at such a level that they’ve attained a nearly true-to-life simulation experience. Admittedly, that’s an amazing feat, but there’s an inherent problem: our normal, everyday life is pretty boring and when you step outside the craziness that GTA V offers, that world is pretty boring, too.
There is craziness in the world of Los Santos, the imaginative world that is the setting for GTA V, most of which is created by Franklin, Michael, or Trevor, the three protagonists that players can switch between. Typically the trouble is injected as players are simply roaming around the world, moving from one story objective to the next. Often you’ll be met with a random event, such as spotting a mugger or a car thief, and you’re asked to stop them. Get the money back from the thief and you can return it (for a small reward) or keep it for yourself. Further, alternate events occur that are typically mundane, often offering simple rides to an NPC’s destination. The saving grace from these incredibly boring missions is that Trevor, the meth-addicted psychopath that he is, can deliver those in need to a local cult, resulting in a small stipend into your bank account. What is just grossly mundane, essentially having players act as local police on beat patrol or as a taxi service, is only made fun and interesting by elements that players inject, and even then is limited.
Aside from the random events though, players will find some of the most interesting narrative ever to grace a GTA title. This may be due to the three-pronged approach that the writers have taken with Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. In years past players became familiar with one character, learning earnestly what his motivations were and why he was trying to claw his way up from the gutter. With the three characters in GTA V players will find that each of them is, in their own way, sitting at rock bottom. Michael desires respect and love, neither of them being provided by his family. Franklin is looking for a way to get out of the ghetto and, despite being a homeowner, has a live-in reminder of his status with his aunt and her flavor-of-the-week interests. Trevor is simply trying to make a name for himself as a businessman, but what sort of business savvy does a criminal-turned-meth addict have? It’s this conflict with the characters that creates some of the best tension within the game, both with the other characters and NPC’s, and with themselves.
Beyond the story and the writing, the gameplay takes a step away from what we’ve associated GTA with historically. You’re still stealing cars, murdering innocents, and outrunning police, though rather than an entire radius to escape to drop your wanted level, the line-of-sight cone used by police this time around works far better and is a more accurate representation of how police will spot you -- though by no means entirely accurate. The key points of the game are well-planned, intricately setup heists which require extensive prep work to execute and while these are masterfully done, the steps leading to them can be mundane. For such a key part of the game, for such a fun, exciting moment that is enormously rewarding, the fact that it’s precluded by what amounts to no more than “busy work” is disappointing. Having players obtain masks on a pier, unidentifiable work suits from Ammu-Nation (the local gun store), then boosting a garbage truck and a tow truck are not what you’d consider fun. Surprisingly though, the result of your labor is a robbery and getaway that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Other adjectives fit as well: adrenaline-pumping, action-packed, death-defying, and dozens of other cliches that hardly do it justice. Perhaps it’s that heightened sense of adventure that casts such a bright light on the menial tasks. It’s not that the steps taken prior to the heists are bad -- quite the opposite, they’re technically sound and it’s interesting to see everything happen according to plan. The point remains though, lots of what GTA V has to offer seems to be just “filler”.
The filler exists in other places as well. The world is enormous and any reasonable person can understand that intrigue and adventure doesn’t rest around every corner. Rockstar is no ordinary developer though and they’ve done their due to ensure that there is something to do at every corner of the city and outlying countryside. Unfortunately, most of the events fall into the same category as most of the other activities: unremarkable. In the world there exists tennis, golf, darts, yoga, triathlons and more. While it’s commendable that level of detail can be included in a game, it’s hard to imagine anybody putting in GTA V thinking, “I think I have time for 18 holes, stealing those cars can wait.”
Transversely, some content in the game is so well done, so intricate and thought-out, that I’m left wondering if I’m playing the same game. Playing as Michael, a level-headed man with a cheating wife, spoiled daughter, and foul-mouthed son, you’ll find yourself spending time at your therapist. Strangely, what you’d expect to be a waste of time provides a deeper look into the motivations behind your character and how he views his inner turmoil. Likewise, side missions are rife throughout the map, presenting opportunities to step outside your normal “point-A-to-point-B” mission system to give players something unique and fun to do. Paparazzi missions create an element of stealth mixed with voyeurism while celebrity item thefts help create a parody of the Hollywood lifestyle. Additionally, missions that take advantage of each character’s own “special ability” exist throughout the world to act as a speed bump in the road that is your main story. Though these speed bumps are typically bodies that explode into confetti and nudity when you run them over, making you want to find them as often as you can.
Online gameplay is available as well, unfortunately that element was never stress tested against an enormous player base, causing problems at launch that made it unplayable for everybody. Some problems still linger, resulting in lost characters (both online and in single player), broken missions, and other nuisances that could have been avoided. Rockstar went so far as to issue a statement explaining that online would experience problems, but that players shouldn’t get discouraged because the problems would be resolved as soon as possible. An unconfirmed report even indicated that Microsoft’s Xbox division reached out to offer some assistance to resolve the server issues, but the offer was ignored.
If you’re able to connect online -- which has admittedly been better as of late -- you’ll create your own character, a process that’s so intricate that you can even determine who your parents are. Once finishing the tutorial you’re greeted with the open world of Los Santos where you and up to 15 other players can ... roam. If driving around the city randomly killing the other players isn’t your thing, which doesn’t really get you anything except a pissed off player, you can partake in a variety of events. Races, deathmatches, even buying your own home is an option and the longer you play, the more money you earn and the higher your rank goes.
Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing game and the world that Rockstar has made is nearly perfect. The biggest problem is that the world is so advanced that they’re able to simulate real life, normally an accomplishment, but in the world of GTA V I don’t want to simulate life. I want to steal cars, murder prostitutes, sneak into strip clubs and get free lap dances, and earn millions of dollars doing it, things I’d never do in the real world. That needs to be said so that people understand that the GTA series is violent, but that doesn’t mean I want to do these in real life. I’m looking at you, Jack Thompson. There isn’t another game that can compete at a technical level with GTA V. It’s beautiful, the audio, including soundtrack and talk radio options, is flawless, and seeing what Rockstar has done to take advantage of hardware that’s eight years old inside of these consoles is breathtaking. But fantastic tech doesn’t immediately make the game perfect. If Rockstar is able to make the mundane tasks interesting, their next title very well may be the greatest game ever developed. For now though, Grand Theft Auto V will have to settle for “just a really great game.”
Overall score: 8.5 out of 10