Impressions: Grand Theft Auto V

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Truth be told, my engagement with videogames hit an all-time low this year: aside from playing through Halo 4 in co-op with a friend, and a little Borderlands 2 in co-op with the same friend, my consoles have essentially been collecting dust, or serving as DVD / Blu-Ray players or Netflix / VOD portals.

Part of that has simply been being too busy with other ventures to really be able to clear time to sit down and play, and part of it has been not really finding any new games to truly engage with and make me feel like I need to clear my schedule to accommodate it.

Then Grand Theft Auto V dropped last Tuesday.

I’ve been a die-hard fan of Grand Theft Auto since III (I can’t claim the fandom heritage to have been with the series since its inception and 2D, top-down roots).   Part of it is certainly that I love crime noir fiction, and GTA taps directly into that Quentin Tarantino / Elmore Leonard / Martin Scorsese vein quite nicely, but GTA III was my first real experience with sandbox design, which I’ve come to absolutely adore.

There’s something about the idea of being plopped into a virtual world that has some semblance of ‘life’ and not being force-fed linear progression through levels that really gets to the closet cyberpunk under my skin, and GTA has always been king of the hill for me.  I appreciate the effort involved from a creative standpoint to craft a sprawling story that plays out over dozens of hours and the world-building Rockstar North has always done to flesh out their digital worlds and make them inviting.

While other designers and developers made fun sandboxes, none of them were as interesting to push around a dump truck in (and run over plastic army men with) as Grand Theft Auto.

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I’m one of those people who want engagement with a game in terms of storytelling: I can enjoy a game that doesn’t have a solid plot and characters that I find fascinating, but I’ll take plot and personality over technological innovation (i.e. graphics) any day of the week.

As they say, looks aren’t everything, and graphical fidelity fades quickly: what’s state-of-the-art now, in six months’ time, will look a little haggard.  It’s fun to be dazzled by eye-candy, to be sure, but for me, memorable moments in gaming have nothing to do with pixel shaders, lighting effects, and the like.

While a lot of gamers didn’t seem to really appreciate the more sophisticated themes of GTA IV, that was exactly the evolutionary path I wanted the franchise to take.  Yes, part of the fun of GTA is, and always will be, the more sociopathic elements, but beating hookers with a baseball bat eventually does start to seem a little Beavis and Butthead-esque.  It was time for the franchise to really grow up  — and for those moments where a sense of arrested development is what one needs to scratch a particular itch, there’s always Saint’s Row, (which I also enjoy and appreciate, even if SR III seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be over-the-top.)

Seeing the American Dream filtered through the eyes of an Eastern European immigrant and the commentary on how the promised milk and honey is a bit on the curdled side was fantastic.

GTA V takes interactive storytelling to an entirely new level with an ambitious multi-character narrative that is, as far as I’m concerned, the new gold standard for any developer, regardless of genre, to beat.

No generic storylines based around a make-your-own-character one-size-has-to-fit-all aesthetic here.  With a trio of vastly different protagonists — hustler Franklin, who wants to make it big and prove himself; jaded and exasperated veteran thief Michael, who did make it big and found up ‘success’ wasn’t what is was cracked up to be; and flat out maniac Trevor, a perfect mash-up of the cold-bloodedness of Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde with the off-the-charts complete insanity of the Joker — each of the characters brings a different vibe to the table, and Rockstar North was careful to tailor the individual solo story beats to their unique personalities.

While on the surface, each of the three men seem to be broad, trope-laden stereotypes, the game’s writers are quick to establish each of them have quirks that make them more than just one-note cardboard cutouts.  Michael, for instance, is a brilliant thief who relies on patience and planning, and yet he’s also got anger management problems that cause him to lash out irrationally and get himself into some uncomfortably hot water.  These three characters are more well-rounded within hours of starting the game than some gaming icons have been after decades and hundreds of hours’ worth of dialogue and cutscenes.

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Any one of the three would be strong enough to base the entire game around, but the real magic starts to happen when, about a dozen or so hours into the game, their paths cross and begin to intertwine.  Trevor’s insanity is irresistibly fun to engage in, but you start to realize that his crazy is going to be a huge fly in Michael and Franklin’s ointment, and it’s probably not going to end at all well.

(And yes, I realize the irony here — saying you play Grand Theft Auto for the story is a bit like saying you subscribe to Playboy just for the articles.  I must be getting older, though, as it took me maybe fifteen hours before I engaged in any ‘solicitation’ and that was more laziness than titillation: I wanted to fill up my health bar so I didn’t have to track back across town to the safehouse for a medpack.  And I let the working girl keep both her life and payment for services rendered.  I may be a virtual thug, but I’m not a barbarian, thank you.)

Where the split story really works wonders, gameplay-wise, is that it allows Rockstar North to mine the width and breadth of criminal activity to base missions from, and not have it feel forced as in earlier games in the series, where the protagonist was forced for gameplay’s sake to engage in something that didn’t feel ‘natural’.  Michael is a seasoned thief, not a hustler or drug dealer, so having him take on a Mexican cartel to defend a meth lab or undertake menial jobs for a little extra dough and cred wouldn’t make sense, but they’re a perfect dovetail fit for Trevor or Franklin.

I’ll never use the word ‘realism’ when talking about GTA, but it gives an incredible consistency of internal logic that just sucks you in and makes the illusion of a living, breathing virtual reality that much more solid.

Gameplay-wise, Rockstar North was careful not to upset the apple cart by reinventing the wheel in GTA V, just hammering out a few flaws.  Mission structure is far more generous with ‘invisible’ checkpoints, so there’s very little frustration in failing a task and having to repeat the whole thing over again from the beginning, and yet it doesn’t feel like a ‘cheat’ or make the game too easy.

The biggest beef just about everyone had with GTA IV was that vehicle handling was a little too dependent on authentic physics and not as much actual fun, and as a result, vehicles in V hit a perfect sweet spot medium with cars and bikes that have a touch of arcade handling yet are still adherent to rules of artificial gravity and physics.

North also borrowed other minor bits and pieces from other Rockstar games — most notably Midnight Club and Red Dead Redemption — and mixed them seamlessly in: the ubiquitous street racing segments feel a lot more like an actual racing game than an annoying side-mission hurdle, and the inclusion of random ‘encounters’ from RDR leads to a mouth-watering emergent style of gameplay that all but ensures no two players will have the exact same experience, even playing along through the game at the same pace.

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Oh, and perhaps best of all — I’ve got twenty-plus hours in and at least so far, the dreaded escort missions, where you’re tasked with trying to protect a seemingly suicidal A.I. controlled character that is hellbent in walking directly into a hail of bullets?

Gone.  Extinct.  THANK YOU, Rockstar North.

It’s difficult to really dig in without spoilers, but I will say that my all-time favorite segment of any of the GTA games was here in V: being able to plan a heist, from casing the joint to learn the layout, to gathering necessary tools and equipment, to hiring a NPC crew with the understanding that who I chose and what their ‘stats’ are will make an actual impact on my experience — as well as the amount of the much-needed loot I’ll make off with, since better getaway drivers, hackers, and gun thugs will demand a bigger cut of the take.

(I chose to cut a few corners and ended up with some snags and a substantial loss in revenue, as my gunman couldn’t drive well and ended up wiping out during the getaway, leaving him and the share of the loot he was carrying to the untender mercies of the Los Santos P.D.)

That really did feel like a short interactive heist film in and of itself and is a far cry from just being given a set of make-or-break linear parameters, where a robbery was just another type of mission to pass.  Pure bliss for a crime fan and worth the price of admission for that alone.

According to my stats, I’m about a quarter of the way through the main ‘track’ of GTA V, and with my percent-to-hour ratio, it seems like there’s easily a hundred hours of gameplay here, but to be honest, I’m having so much fun that I’ll probably take on any and every side-mission I can to extend the experience.  DLC?  Bring it on and take my money.

I’ll have to come back and do a formal post-game review later on, but it won’t be anytime soon, as I’m going to savor every bit of meat on this particular bone.

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!

I used to review videogames and get paid for it.

See, the hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life.  I had Game Boy Advance carts stashed in the kitchen, and I didn’t even cover handhelds.  I had a bowl full of Sugar Daddies next to the Xbox.  Anything I wanted was an e-mail to a PR rep away.  Free games.  Cheat codes.

I’d spend twenty, thirty hours over a week playing a game to write a review and then I’d trade it in and blow the Gamestop credit in a week or go to Gamefly to get my next fix.  Didn’t matter.  It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke I would go out and review some more.  Everything was for the critique, the analysis.

And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part.

Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around in line like everyone else instead of having the Fed Ex guy bring me review copies to the door. Can’t even get decent snacks. Right after I got here, I ordered a double expresso latte and I got Folger’s Instant and non-dairy powdered creamer.

I’m an average nobody.  I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook with a gamertag.

gtamike

 

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