I’ve had a fairly interesting ride with the Grand Theft Auto series throughout my lifetime. After playing the very first game under cover of the night from my parents, the series has had its ups and downs for me, with the absolute low being Grand Theft Auto IV. Yep, that’s right, I didn’t really like Grand Theft Auto IV for multiple reasons, mostly because it just felt uninspired, textbook, and drab.
Then The Lost and Damned expansion hit, and renewed my faith in the franchise. Shortly after that, The Ballad of Gay Tony blew me away, and added a few welcome mechanical changes. But they were only setting the stage for Grand Theft Auto V, which is a step up from IV in nearly every way.
To be blunt, GTA V is still very much a GTA game. You’re still going to be driving around quite a bit, you’re still going to be doing missions and odd jobs for eccentric characters, and you’ll still shoot up a few blocks or two while you’re doing it. But this time the characters and missions are so enjoyable that it hardly ever feels tedious, which is a true testament to how much Rockstar has learned from their body of work following GTA IV. This time around, you’ll fill the shoes of three brand new characters — Michael, the volatile family man in witness protection who is longing for the glory days — Franklin, an up and coming gangster who hangs out with some particularly poor company — and Trevor, a wild card so wild that no past GTA character would dare cross him.
These characters are all endearing in their own way, or at the very least, relatable.No, I don’t mean that the common person would necessarily identify with the homicidal criminal tendencies that these characters portray, but rather, appreciate the nuanced performances and layers of depth. When you see Michael trying desperately to win the hearts of his family and quickly blowing up on them after failing, you feel the human side of him, even if for a brief moment.
As American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman once phrased it, Trevor’s “mask” very rarely slips, but when it does, you see a man who cares deeply for those important to him. Franklin is one of the most interesting characters of all, and watching him try to go legit and fall into a life of crime while his friends and family constantly berate him is captivating.
As an added twist, you won’t be taking on mission after mission with the same exact character — instead, you’re able to switch between the three at nearly any time in the game by simply holding a button. Much to my surprise, the three character system actually works, and it works well. Normally in a GTA game if you find yourself outside of some abandoned warehouse in the hills, you’d have to hoof it down back to civilization — which as we all know, isn’t very fun. In GTA V, you can just switch to another character, and randomly find them in some sort of trouble or action sequence. Most of the time the transitions feel a bit canned and fake by way of small cutscenes to justify where they are at the time, but the concept itself works nonetheless, and the transitions always fit the character in question.
The “switch” mechanic works even better on key missions, where you’ll have to toggle between the trio at various intervals to accomplish different mission parameters. Borrowing a few cues from crime films like Heat, GTA V will also have a few “heist” missions throughout the story, which are easily the highlight of the game. For instance, Franklin tends to play the role of the sniper, carefully picking off enemies while Michael (usually the cat burglar) sneaks in and takes care of business.
True to form, Trevor is usually the wild card of some sort, and has a penchant for flying since he’s ex-military. It’s missions like these that really let the main characters shine, as they not only have believable backstories, but they’re also playing out their lives in front of your eyes like no other GTA game has been able to convey before. It also allows for some incredibly varied gameplay, as you can readily replay missions on a whim from the menu and go about them in a completely different way.
Aside from the heists, throughout the campaign you’ll interact with various mission givers who task you with objectives like “deliver this car” or “assassinate this subject.” While they aren’t all winners, the world of Los Santos itself helps alleviate most of your qualms with the way it plays out, since it’s wonderfully designed, and teeming with personality. For the first time in years, I actually had the itch to just go cruising around looking for things to do, and had a ton of fun doing it.
I’m pleased to say that driving is vastly improved compared to the molasses-based physics of GTA IV, and combat has been fine-tuned a bit to the point where it’s less of an issue thanks to mechanics like tighter controls and hip firing. While it’s not up to par with say, the Max Payne series, you’re free to use assisted or free aiming mechanics at will, and I didn’t really have any major issues with shooting anything I needed to — in other words, it’s a fast improvement from the murky “hard lock” system traditionally featured in the series.
Visually, GTA V isn’t going to blow you away, but it’s damn impressive, mostly due to the endearing design of Los Santos itself. Nearly every corner feels unique, whether it’s another golden shrine to the game’s depiction of vapid Hollywood culture (which is also brilliant conveyed through its fake in-game internet system), or a collection of oil derricks out in the boonies. The same could be said of the voice cast, which delivers their lines with such gusto that it’s collectively my favorite package of Rockstar talent yet — with a special shoutout going to Trevor’s performance and writing. The soundtrack is excellent, and there are a ton of guest stars that litter the game’s radio stations to help add a bit of extra personality to them. There’s really something for everyone musically, and it’s easily my favorite score since Vice City.
Like any good sandbox romp, there’s a ton of stuff to do in GTA V while you wait for GTA Online go to live next month. You can practice yoga, play tennis and golf, cruise around looking for odd jobs from a ton of optional sources, go deep sea or sky diving, fly a plane, and a lot more. Each character has their own set of missions unique to them (like going on dog walks with Franklin, or expanding your drug empire as Trevor), and the world is so large that you could spend nearly 100 hours in it and still have plenty to discover. Random missions also dot the landscape and could appear at any time, allowing you to choose to get involved in situations like stopping purse snatchers or other criminal acts.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a GTA game in your entire life, Grand Theft Auto V will deliver pretty much everything you could want. Although it does suffer from a few problems that have plagued the franchise since the beginning, the improved driving controls, captivating leads, and the sprawling city of Los Santos should win the hearts of any open world fan out there.
This review is based on a physical copy of the Xbox 360 game Grand Theft Auto V.