Review – Grand Theft Auto V – Xbox 360

Where GTA V is reviewed and babies are born

Grand Theft Auto V is an interesting game.  It boasts major production values, gaming’s most expansive world, and a genuinely interesting couple of lead characters that would shine in almost any game.  Unfortunately, GTA V is not defined by its strengths, but by its weaknesses.  For all the obvious time and effort that went into the game, it feels listless.  GTA V is the culmination of incredible success, overwhelming ambition, and an inability to bring that all together into a strong, cohesive package.

The basic mechanics of the game should be familiar to any series stalwart or lover of open world action games.  The player controls one of three characters, Trevor, Franklin, or Michael, as they accept missions, plot plans, and interact with the population of Los Santos.  GTA V’s first big innovation to the usual activities is the new heist system where the player plans and executes major thefts by selecting one of two mission types, picking a crew based on their skills and payment, and completing  a variety of missions surrounding heist.  These missions are generally well executed and provide variety beyond the straight shoot out.  They help the player feel as if they are participating in a heist, rather than just another mission.  Unfortunately, the limitations of the options become obvious quickly undermining the feeling of choice that Rockstar was attempting to convey.  Like many of GTA V’s mechanics, heists don’t feel as fleshed out as they should, but they’re still a pulse-pounding good time.

The other new mechanic is the introduction of three main leads.  Trevor, Michael, and Franklin are three unique bank robbers with conflicting and intertwining motivations for engaging in a series of audacious heists.  The player can switch between the leads on the fly allowing for different gameplay and perspectives on the events.  Once again, the mechanic feels underutilized as the perspective is often just a different view on the same event, but the occasional time spent as a dog, or torturing a prisoner while teammates assassinate a target are highlights of the experience.   More differentiation between character skills or genuinely different experiences for each character would have made this mechanic more engaging and will hopefully be developed in the sequel.

The three characters are the highlight of what is a generally a bland cast of vapid stereotypes.  GTA V’s attempts at satire and humor transform the supporting cast into one note commentary on the shallowness of life forcing the three leads to hold up the story.  Franklin, the black tough from the streets, is little more than a suggestible gun whose lack of emotional depth and repeated willingness to go along with bad plans make him a more developed, but still flat character.  Trevor and Michael, on the other hand, are the real stars of the game.  Trevor’s amoral psychotic behavior and Michael’s oscillating views on violence and crime come together to create an interesting alchemy.  The constant clashing between these two and their motivations serves to develop their personalities, create GTA V’s best interactions and drives much of the plot.  Trevor and Michael’s relationship is the star of GTA V’s storyline and it produces a gripping narrative.

From the first step into the world of Los Santos, it’s obvious how much love Rockstar put into this world.  The graphics are gorgeous, the setting is varied, and the sheer size of Los Santos is absolutely mind boggling.  Walking down the street, the player hears conversations in progress as people in the world go about their everyday lives.  Even the main characters feel organic, rather than player controlled automatons.  Take control of Trevor and you might find him in a drug fueled haze without any explanation for the dead bodies that surround him.  Switch over to Franklin and watch him finish up his exercise for the day.  All this combines to create a feeling that Los Santos is a living, breathing world and not just a level crafted for a particular mission.  This adds to a feeling of realism that few other games can match.  Actions, particularly the anarchic destruction that the series and the genre is known for, feel all the more impactful because it’s contained within a world that feels like a world.  Almost every open world game allows the player to drive fast, blow up cars, and fight cops, but few can match GTA V’s sheer authenticity.  That feeling adds additional excitement to each car chase, shoot out, and game event.

Unfortunately, for all the strengths of GTA V, Rockstar never seems to bring them together into a cohesive whole.  Various elements seem to exist to add more things to the universe rather than building a cohesive game.  The use of money is a perfect example.  After the first heist, the player has enough money to afford the best weapons in the game.   Beyond guns, money serves little purpose.  There are properties to buy, but they just provide more money, and at a dramatically reduced return than if the player had kept the money in the first place.  Other than that, the monetary reward from the heists is useless.  The same can be said of the side missions, mini games, and other ancillary aspects of the game.  They float in a giant world without context or cause.  The narrative suffers from a similar approach where characters and events are mentioned once for the purpose of a plot development and then dropped.  Franklin, a character in desperate need of development, has a romantic back story that is mentioned twice in a side mission and then used as a catalyst for an end mission.  Rather than feel organic, the use of Franklin’s ex-girlfriend feels forced and unnecessary.  The same can be said of any of the side events.  GTA V often feels more like parts of a game rather than a well crafted experience.

Puzzling design choices also plague the game.  GTA V is miserly with information by hiding it behind menus and simultaneously over and under explains concepts.  GTA V will remind the player what a hideout does every time the player acquires one, but fails to remind the player about how to fly a plane.  This is made all the more aggravating by the numerous control schemes that Rockstar implements.  With varying controls for driving, shooting while driving, running, creeping, flying, and lifting things while flying, it is hard for the player to know what the control scheme is for a given event.  This leads to unnecessary confusion and frustration when a simplified system would have made for a more approachable experience.  When the player does understand the controls, they are marred by questionable decisions such as including a button to switch to a cinematic, but totally useless, camera while relegating the map behind a menu.  Like the story and the gameplay, the controls feel like a victim of feature creep.  Tons of activities and ideas are jammed together without focusing on what actually matters.  Rockstar couldn’t seem to identify the line between where more is better and more is clutter.

GTA V is not a bad game.  It contains a degree of polish that is hard to achieve and signifies considerable talent.  The problem is that it never focuses.  Rockstar didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with the game and so it tried to do a little bit of everything.  With a stronger vision and a more disciplined approach, Rockstar could have created a tighter, more cohesive experience.  Hopefully future iterations of this franchise will.

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