Platform(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Reviewing a Grand Theft Auto game is like writing a book report on War And Peace, in Greek, with no light. The game is huge…like EPIC huge. The map is staggering in scope, with a living, breathing populace and a magnificent cast of characters that manages to flesh out its already massive sense of scale. To write a GTA review is no easy task, and one that I’ve dreaded for the last few days. With so much to cover, discuss, and explain, writing a review of this magnitude is a daunting task. That said, I’ll try to keep it concise, on point, and as thorough as possible without boring you to tears. If you’re already bored, my condolences.
But first, the install.
So you’ve just grabbed your copy of Grand Theft Auto V, you get home and fire up your console of choice, insert the game, and its time to rock n’ roll, right? Wrong. Get ready for the mandatory install. Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of the game require an approximately 8gb install to your system’s hard drive, a process that takes roughly 20-25 minutes. Given that the Xbox uses DVD’s, GTA5 comes on 2 discs, the first being the “install” disc, versus the PS3’s single Blu-ray.
I started the install and went to wash the dishes. Feel free to take a quick power nap as well, you’re not going to be turning this game off for at least 5 hours. (Ok, maybe that was just me)
One of the first things you’ll notice about GTA5 are the vastly improved visuals over GTA4. I’m not saying that the previous game looked bad- on the contrary, it looked amazing, but that was 2008. In the 5 years since, Rockstar has honed its skills at designing for both the 360 and the PS3, and GTA5 proves that both aging consoles still have a little fight left in them to deliver a gorgeous graphical experience.
The variety between landscapes, terrains, buildings, houses, and businesses is simply amazing, with each area looking distinctly different while still seeming interconnected. The lower half of the map features the mighty city of Vinewood with its plethora of neighborhoods, towering skyscrapers, and a genuine gritty-city feel that is nothing short of graphical shock and awe. Just to the north lays desert wastelands, mountainous forests, sandy beaches, hilly grasslands, and some of the most amazing water effects I’ve ever seen in a video game. This all combines to create an almost surreal experience that not only feels real, but serves as a massive playground for the characters and stories waiting to be brought to life.
Facial expressions, textures, attention to detail, and a staggering amount of variety showcase a huge leap forward from previous installments of the series. There are entire sections of the map that are fully fleshed out and painstakingly detailed, yet serve no purpose other than to contribute to the visual and realistic feel of GTA5. On one occasion, I decided to simply go out “exploring” rather than tackle any story or side missions. I took my time and walked the streets of Vinewood, inspecting back alleys, side streets, and otherwise off-the-beaten-path type places. What I found was incredible. The fact that you can go just about anywhere you want is great, but when you can go to some obscure backstreet, a place there is absolutely no reason to go, and hear music or TV playing inside someones apartment is nuts. Another time I was jet skiing along a rural coastline and came across some campers enjoying their morning coffee outside of their tents, the sun just beginning to rise across the water. As I approached, they were deep in conversation about their university’s basketball team, and as I got closer, they seemed to take notice of me and become a little uneasy.
Graphically, GTA5 is a masterpiece that really shows what our retiring consoles can do. While I wouldn’t mind seeing an HD version on the Xbox One or Playstation 4, I’m completely satisfied with the graphical marvel that the current-gen has accomplished.
The MEAT of it all.
In GTA5, you actually play three different yet intertwining characters: Michael- a middle-aged ex-con living under witness protection with his incredibly dysfunctional family; Franklin- a repo man from the wrong side of the tracks; and Trevor- a highly unstable criminal who years ago pulled off a bank heist with Michael which ended badly.
The previously mentioned bank heist is the first thing you’ll do in the game, which also sets up Michael and Trevor’s relationship to each other. Faking his death during the ensuing chase and gunfight, Michael is left behind while Trevor escapes and moves on with his life. Having struck a deal with the FIB (Federal Investigation Bureau) prior to the heist, Michael is able to go into the witness protection program in exchange for letting Dave, a crooked FIB agent, make the bust. Everything goes to hell though when local cops, not aware of the sting, attempt to thwart the getaway themselves, causing the whole take-down to go sour. Nine years later, you pick back up as Michael and eventually meet Franklin with whom you get back in to the heist business with. Trevor isn’t a playable character until a few hours in and his sudden reappearance triggers uneasy feelings between himself and Michael, whom he thought was dead all of these years.
Among this cast of terrific characters, all of which were voiced and motion-captured, Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are by far the best. Each one brings an entire layer of flavor to the game and you really feel like each one has a completely different life and backstory. Of the three, I found Michael’s story to be the best, as he not only has to deal with bank heists, mob bosses, and Trevor suddenly coming back into his life, but also with an entirely batshit-crazy family. Voiced by Ned Luke, Michael is the kind of character that you’ll want to keep playing as even after you “beat” the game- he’s that enduring. Trevor (Steven Ogg) is a close second, as an over-the-top, maniacal bad guy that stands in stark contrast to both Michael and Franklin. Although Trevor never fully turns to the lightside of the force, he does lighten up a bit and becomes a little less homicidal throughout the game, even becoming somewhat likable by the end. Franklin’s character (Shawn Fonteno) just didn’t interest me much aside from his involvement in the main storyline. Fonteno did an excellent job in bringing Franklin to life, and while he did have his moments (especially scenes with his gang-banger best friend, Lamar), I didn’t latch on to him as much as I did the others. Either way, all three main protagonists are exceptional examples of video game characters done right.
The ability to switch, at will, between Michael, Trevor, and Franklin is a brand new feature in the GTA series and one that works incredibly well. Aside from a few mandatory switches, usually occurring during story missions involving all three characters, the swapping is up to you. Feel like cruising Los Santos as Franklin on his motorcycle, stopping for a round of golf, and then taking on a few side missions? Go for it. (And yes, there is a full 18-hole golf course which you can play to your heart’s content.)
Switching between characters is awesome and really mixes up the game. In previous games, things could get tedious at times, even a little boring. GTA5’s ability to present three separate characters lets you take a break when things get dull with one character or another. An interesting aspect of “live” switching between characters is that when you leave one and switch to another, you jump right in to whatever they happen to be doing at the time. Example: As Michael, I had just finished a ‘Strangers & Freaks‘ mission and felt like mixing it up. I quickly switched to Trevor. Granted this was at around 3am, so I wasn’t entirely sure what ‘ol Trev would be up to in the middle of the night, but I thought what the hell. As the camera panned out from Michael and went all the way across the map to zoom in on Trevor, I was greeted by a scene I will only describe as interesting. Let’s put it this way, a half-naked Trevor is just waking up on a beach in the middle of nowhere surrounded by empty whiskey bottles, 4 dead bikers, and an empty speedboat drifting lazily in the early morning moonlight. Welcome to Trevor’s day. Another time, I switched to Franklin in the midst of a heated argument between him and his friend, Lamar, about Franklin “not spending enough time in the hood.” You get the idea. A great example of practical character swapping takes place during the main missions when, for example, Michael has repelled off of Trevor’s helicopter down the side of a highrise and comes under fire. Switching to Franklin who is perched on an adjacent building and equipped with a sniper rifle allows you to give Michael some cover fire! After that, you switch to Trevor to make the getaway. Very exciting stuff and excellent use of the switching mechanic.
As far as the main missions are concerned, they are executed with a director’s magic wand, near-perfect pacing, and incredible freedom of choice. Most missions center around a heist of some kind and it’s up to you on how you will complete it. Choose your team, gather the necessary vehicles and equipment, and decide if you will tackle a mission stealthily or just balls-out.
Side missions vary wildly from simple one-off conversations to fully fledged missions that rival those of the main story. Side missions also offer you ways to make extra money, see parts of Los Santos that you might have otherwise missed, and to flesh out the idea that this is a living, breathing city. All that said, there is much more to GTA5 than just the missions. Explore, explore, explore! There is literally so much to do in this game it’s mind-boggling. One of my favorite pastimes is scuba diving in the immense ocean surrounding Los Santos. Yes, an ocean…and not just a bunch of pretty looking water either. Once you acquire the use of either a submarine or a scuba tank, the waters around Los Santos become a whole other world for the intrepid adventurer to discover. Ship and plane wrecks abound, with plenty of things to see and do. Word is there is even a UFO crash site somewhere. Night diving is both spooky and exhilarating, with the occasional Great White swimming up behind you, something that scared the hell out of me more than once.
Obviously, Grand Theft AUTO is full of cars, ranging from Prius-esque sedans to high-performance and exotic cars that will cost you a heavy penny if you plan on buying one. Of course, you can just track one down and steal it but there is a crazy satisfaction you get when you spend $150,000 on a vehicle that you’ll own throughout the game. It becomes yours and you take pride in it. Upgrade it, paint it. I am careless with stolen cars, using them solely as a means to an end. With cars that I spent serious cheese on, I drive them like they are made of glass. Stopping at stop signs and looking both ways is not unusual in order to avoid some jackass nailing you from the side. Cruising down the coast at sunset in your brand new Grotti Cheetah rocking out to ‘Dirty White Boy’ by Foreigner is an in-game experience that’s hard to top. 257 vehicles await you, including motorcycles, big rigs, trucks, bicycles, military aircraft, helicopters, 747’s, Learjets, boats, and jetskis! There are so many ways to get around Los Santos, it’s unreal. If you perked up when I said military aircraft, it’s not going to be a walk in the park to get one. Be prepared to sneak (or fight) your way onto the base and steal one, but be warned, they aren’t going to just sit back and watch you fly away in a heavily armed F-18. If you even make it off the ground, they will chase you…hard.
No GTA game would be complete without its signature cornucopia of radio stations, music, and talk shows. GTA5 again outdoes its predecessors with an amazing lineup of stations running the gambit of genres and styles, from Waylon Jennings to Dr. Dre. Lazlo returns in signature slime ball fashion, as well the hilarious Fernando, Weazel News, and of course, plenty of politics. With over 240 songs across 17 individual stations, there is always something to listen to as you blow up Los Santos! As I mentioned, voice acting is top-notch, sound effects are on par with any Hollywood blockbuster, and the music rounds out an entire GTA5 audio presentation that is one for the ages.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto V is the premier benchmark of open-world action/adventure games. Many games will try and fail to recreate the magic found in Rockstar’s undeniable gem of a franchise. Since 1997, the GTA series has never disappointed, with each new game pushing the envelope just a little bit more. With GTA5, Rockstar has knocked it completely out of the park and created one of the most engrossing experiences to be had in video gaming history.
Stay tuned for my Grand Theft Auto Online review! Yeah, this game never ends.
Fun Factor: 10 – Seriously, this game will never stop being fun. There is simply too much to see, do, and blow up. Three separate characters, 250+ vehicles, and a map roughly the size of Manhattan…what more do you want?!
Graphics: 10 – More gorgeous than it has any right to be on current-gen systems. The frame rates are steady 98% of the time and everything looks believable and lived in. One of the finest looking games ever made.
Sound: 10 – TONS of music, great radio stations, sound effects, and of course: STELLAR voice work! It doesn’t get much better than this, Amigos.
Control: 9 – Aside from a few wonky underwater maneuvers and a driving mechanic that I’m still not 100% happy with, GTA5 gets no complaints.
Lasting Appeal: 10 – Huge map, tons of missions, and plenty of exploration make this a keeper! Can’t wait to delve into the online component! Review coming soon.