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Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V

Review in Brief
Game: A sandbox game set in a fictional Los Angeles starring three protagonists pursuing a lucrative life of crime.
Good: An incredible variety of activities; an enormous, spectacularly dynamic game world; gut-bustingly hilarious satire; a strong main cast of characters.
Bad: No well-developed, deep gameplay options; frustrating, inconsistent controls; a weak supporting cast and weak plot arc; inadequate information for the player; several underdeveloped or underused mechanics.
Verdict: A great sandbox game with little else to hang its hat on, and that isn’t quite enough for true greatness anymore.
Rating: 8/10 – “Great – fun to play, some minor but no major flaws”
Recommendation: Still a must-play.

“Jack of all trades, master of none.”

Grand Theft Auto V is a massive, breathtaking technical achievement. The sheer size of the game world is enough to earn the game an incredible rating on its own, and the seamless dynamism with which the world loads and reacts around you is absolutely astounding. The variety of activities available to you is nothing short of amazing. I sometimes refer to the game as a “reality simulator” given the massive options available to the player. That description sparks cynical eye-rolls from people that can’t see past the violent nature inherent in the franchise and the game’s title, but violence does not define Grand Theft Auto V. What defines the game is the sheer enormity of the world and its living, organic nature. You can get a ton of gameplay out of the game without ever touching the game’s adult content – that’s simply how massive the game is.

But while Grand Theft Auto V is an incredible technical achievement, the fact is that it actually does not come anywhere close to the most fun I’ve ever had playing a video game. I like a wide variety of video games, from the action-packed Uncharteds to the deeply strategic Fire Emblems to the story-driven BioShocks to the avant-garde Journeys, so I don’t believe this is a matter of a genre mismatch. I love sandbox games as well; Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite games of all time. The problem with Grand Theft Auto V, though, is that in its quest to do so many things decently, it fails to do anything truly spectacularly. Its spectacular features are its world and its dynamism, and while those are certainly incredible, they do nothing to save the game’s gameplay. The gameplay isn’t bad by any stretch, but it is most often merely average. There is not a single game mode that the game executes as well as the state of the art of that general genre.

Perhaps, though, that isn’t a reasonable criticism specifically of Grand Theft Auto V. Perhaps this is more of a broader referendum on the state of sandbox games in general. In earlier generations, the very ability to create a sandbox game, with all its flexibility and open-endedness, was itself an appealing prospect. It didn’t matter that the shooting wasn’t as good as a dedicated shooter or that the missions or levels weren’t as engaging as a more traditionally linear game; the sandbox structure was enough of a selling point on its own. Now, however, at the very end of the seventh console generation, the sandbox game has become the rule rather than the exception. Games that easily could be structured more linearly, like the Batman: Arkham Asylum games, the inFamous games, and the Assassin’s Creed games, are opting for sandbox approaches. These games, however, define themselves first by their gameplay and second as sandbox games. In defining itself first, foremost, and solely as a sandbox game, Grand Theft Auto V executes the genre better, but the state of the genre is that simply being a good sandbox game is not enough anymore.

Grand Theft Auto V does many more things than any of the other sandbox games released this generation. However, the great sandbox games of this generation had some things they did especially well. Grand Theft Auto V, however, does not. It does dozens of things decently, but nothing spectacularly. The most engaging points in the game are not nearly as engaging as those in several other games this generation. It’s a jack of all trades but a master of none: it sets out to do 10x more things than most games, but does all of them only half as well.

The Game
A sandbox game set in Los Santos, a caricature of Los Angeles, Grand Theft Auto V stars three playable protagonists: Michael, a retired wealthy gangster with a wife and two kids; Franklin, a young man from lower-class area of Los Santos; and Trevor, a psychopath living in the outskirts of the Los Santos desert. When a series of events forces Michael back into the criminal lifestyle, he quickly finds himself indebted to several individuals and required to execute increasingly daring heists to clear his name. Franklin seizes the opportunity to ride his coattails up in the world while trying to stay grounded to the neighborhood, and Trevor, Michael’s old partner, jumps at the chance to get the gang back together and pursue some new scores. They quickly find themselves in over their heads, though, and only an escalating series of risky raids can keep the various authorities and figures from their pasts off their backs.

Los Santos is an enormous open sandbox world with various different districts and terrains, ranging from urban downtown to rural abandoned deserts. Playing as your three protagonists (amongst whom you can switch at almost any time), you can complete dozens of different missions and sidequests around Los Santos. The range of activities is broad, with each character having several sidequests available to them. There are also properties to buy to unlock new missions, and random events that occur around the city every day. The majority of gameplay is divided between driving and cover-based shooting, but other gameplay centered on sports, flying, and various other activities plays a prominent role. There’s no short way to summarize everything that can be done in Los Santos, so suffice to say, if you can think of it, you can probably do it in Grand Theft Auto V.

Disclosure of Biases
I never played any of the earlier Grand Theft Auto games, so I’m not equipped to compare Grand Theft Auto V to the earliest installments. I may, then, comment on features that have actually been part of the franchise for several installments as if they’re new, or I may overlook improvements that Grand Theft Auto V makes over previous installments if the improvement does not bring the feature up to the level of being a positive contribution.

The Good
Grand Theft Auto V is without a doubt an incredible technical achievement; even if it were not fun at all to play, it would still be a marvelous creation just to witness. It does a couple other things very nicely as well, mostly keeping the player (or in my case, his wife) in stitches with some of its satirical social commentary and executing a surprisingly strong main cast.

Jack of All Trades…
There are two achievements of Grand Theft Auto V that undoubtedly deserve to be mentioned far and above all else, and both have to do with the sheer immensity of the game. The first, and the characteristic that provides half the title of this review, is that it is the proverbial jack of all trades. I joke that Grand Theft Auto V is basically a reality simulator, an idea that draws eye rolls from people familiar only with the game’s violent content, but ultimately that analogy is not entirely inaccurate. Almost everything you can think to do, you can do in this game. The number of options available is simply astounding.

Want to try your hand at the entrepreneurial side of life? You can buy and manage property, buy and sell stocks, and take on other odd jobs like driving taxis for money. More of the athletic type? The athletic options available are incredible, from tennis and golf to triathlons and yoga. Extreme sports are on the menu, too, as parachuting makes several appearances. Those extreme sports extend to racing as well, allowing you to race everything from speedboats and jet skis to mountain bikes and ATVs to, of course, motorcycles and tricked-out cars. Instead of all that, though, maybe you’re just interested in aimlessly killing time. For that, there are carnival rides, strip clubs, prostitutes, flight schools, wild game hunting, and other random diversions to keep you busy. The character customization available in the game is incredibly thorough as well, with literally hundreds of outfits and accessories and dozens of haircuts and tattoos. Cars get in on the customization as well; there are dozens and dozens of vehicles in the game including a huge variety of cars, all of which can be saved and customized with paint jobs, extra equipment, and other add-ons.

All of that content is without touching the game’s main plot, or even its structured sidequests. The game has three different types of set-up missions: plot missions, property missions, and “Strangers and Freaks” missions. Plot missions are the missions that advance the plot while property missions are in service of ownership of some of the properties around the world (such as delivering marijuana to your Medicinal Marijuana store or defending your Junkyard from thieves). “Strangers and Freaks” are the game’s sidequests, and there are several of them (20, I believe). These include quests like taking paparazzi pictures of celebrities behaving badly, performing assassinations to manipulate the stock market, stalking illegal immigrants with some vigilante border patrolmen, and joining a creepy Scientology-esque cult.

On top of all that, while you move around the game world, things will just happen. I’ll touch on this more in a couple sections, but these are even more things to do, such as chasing down robbers who just stole wallets and purses, robbing armored cars, or getting caught up in police chases. And even beyond all that, even if you are not engaging in any kind of set aside activity, side mission, or random happening, the game world itself is still very fun to play around in. It’s called a sandbox for a reason after all: it’s fun to just go around and wreak havoc and see where it leads you. This is all part of the enormous number of choices and opportunities they game gives you; there is always something you can go do, and it’s downright difficult sometimes to pursue the main plot because the game’s other content is so distracting, in a good way.

Enormous World
While the number of activities available in the game accounts for half of the game’s immensity, the sheer literal physical size of the game accounts for the other half. It was well-publicized before release that the game features 49 square miles of territory to explore, and you can feel it. Flying over the game world makes it feel simply unlimited, and the natural tendency is to assume that most of the ground underneath you is merely placed there to fill in the screen and look realistic without actually being accessible. That’s not the case, though; the entirety of the map is dynamic and interactive. You can visit every single inch of it; if you’re out flying around in a helicopter and see something on the ground that looks strange (as happened with me and the game’s outdoor amphitheater), you can land and take a look.

The world is impressively varied as well. I never played the earlier Grand Theft Auto games, but my perception was always that they’re largely urban landscapes with little variation. Grand Theft Auto V, though, provides everything from urban landscapes to beachfront properties to small towns to mountain roads. Although there’s a natural question of how people get on the island that holds Los Santos when no highways leave the island, the game world feels remarkably natural. The different areas of the world seem internally consistent, whether it be the slums in one area or the high-class mansions in another, and the areas fit together believably as well. It’s very interesting to see how every element of the different areas is structured to fit together; in the slums, for example, you see run-down settings, smaller homes, cheaper cars, thugs on the streets, and police cars roaming through. In the higher-class areas, the pedestrians, cars, homes, and décor all shift to complement the new area. In the lower-class areas you even find gang members who will pull a gun on you at a moment’s notice while the high-class areas feature more passive pedestrians, further emphasizing the different areas.

The immensity of the world also has a positive impact on the game’s story, although the story is not strong enough to truly take advantage of it. In most games, the game has to do something to convince the player that they are playing in the context of a broader game world. In sandbox games, this is done by showing the player the world, but often the effect of this is that the world feels small and static, limiting how much the player actually feels responsible for their role in the story. The immense world of Grand Theft Auto V, though, provides a perfect backdrop for the story. It’s legitimately believable, for example, that two people can live close to each other in the game and never see each other because the world is simply big enough to facilitate that. There’s very little suspension of belief regarding the world in which the game’s events occur because, with such a massive world, it’s easy to believe that all of the game’s events could coexist somewhere in the area.

In addition to the gameplay contributions of the game world, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention again that the size of game world is a remarkable technical achievement above all else. Most games operate based on progressive loading, wherein the world loads around the player as they move around; this removes the need for loading screens. The problem here is that if the player moves too quickly somehow, the world does not fully load graphically; players can, for example, run into trees that have not yet been rendered. In all my time playing Grand Theft Auto V, I never experienced these issues. More impressively, though, the area that the game loads is absolutely astounding. At one point I found myself on top of a skyscraper and used my sniper rifle to find some cars on a freeway in the distance. I took a few shots and was astounded when the cars actually reacted to what I was doing. The cars weren’t being rendered simply as background animations, but rather were thinking and reacting agents just like the ones you encounter when walking around. The game’s ability to load such expansive areas quickly it remarkable at a technical level even before considering the positive gameplay implications.

The one count against the size of the game world is that while it’s enormous in two dimensions, it’s not enormous in a third. The vast majority of the buildings in the game cannot be entered, which takes something away from the size of the world. Much of it is clearly just background rather than truly dynamic. I speculate that one of the biggest selling points of Grand Theft Auto VI will be that the entire interior of all the buildings in the game world is also rendered and interactive.

Dynamic World
Having a big game world, however, is not inherently a good thing. A big world, in many ways, just means more work to fill in the game world, making it feel real, dynamic, and continuous. If you do not do this, you risk a game world that just feels hollow, inhabited by NPCs that are coded to walk around in circles to give a semblance of crowdedness. This was, in my opinion, one of the problems with inFamous, another seventh generation open-world game: there was so little to do in the game world and so little occurred within it that it ended up feeling hollow and empty. It felt like one big level rather an actual world.

Grand Theft Auto V avoids this problem by having one of the most dynamic, responsive, full game worlds in video game history. The only comparison I can think of is Red Dead Redemption, another Rockstar classic, and that game did not have to do quite as much due to the lower expectations on the population of a game in the empty old west. Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, has the expectation of rendering a major, modern city, inherently larger and far busier than an old west collection of towns. It’s true that a significant portion of Grand Theft Auto V‘s 49 square miles is barren mountains, but the city portion is still massive and realistically designed, with highways, different districts, clearly different areas of town, and dozens of streets. The empty mountains also feel naturally placed and purposeful rather than like an attempt to meet the developers’ 49-square-mile quota.

Several different elements come together to make the game world feel truly dynamic and responsive. First of all, one of my favorite features of Grand Theft Auto V was the radio, but not in the way you’ve heard before; yes, the game’s variety of music is very nice and adds to the game world’s realism, but I’m talking about the news reports. Throughout the game, news reports come on the radio about recent events in Los Santos, often describing missions you just completed. What’s remarkable about this is that it never feels like the game is intentionally interrupting you to play these stories like the news clippings in inFamous 2, but rather they feel truly natural. They come on the radio naturally, they are always close enough in time to the actual event to be believable, and they give the player the impression that the events really did impact the world around them.

A similar dynamic occurs in the conversations in the game between the characters. The game does not have an ample number of opportunities for choices that impact the missions, but those that it does have are executed flawlessly. There were times in the conversations in the game where a character will reference a decision I made so naturally that I initially missed the fact that the conversation bit was generated based on something I had done. This reflects excellent voice acting, excellent planning, and excellent technical execution to make the conversations seem as seamless and natural as the game’s other rehearsed dialog. Something similar also applies when you lose a mission; the game actually has two or three sets of dialog quips available, so if you find yourself having to replay a mission over and over, at least the dialog changes rather than repeating the same bottled lines over and over.

Part of the game’s living nature is that as you move around the game world, things will just randomly happen around you. Some of these are clearly somewhat structured, planned events, like thefts and armored cars that show up on your minimap, but others are purely emergent, like a random car chase. You can help make these things happen, too; when you’re bored and don’t really want to do one of the established activities, it can be a lot of fun just to wreak havoc and see the results. The game world responds remarkably well. If you’re on the highway and cause a pile-up, cars will keep lining up behind you in a traffic jam. If you pull out a gun, drivers will get out of their cars and flee. It’s remarkably responsive, realistic, and dynamic.

I have to recount one of my favorite scenes that embodies this dynamic nature. At one point, I went to a mission icon with Trevor, only to discover that the mission could only be triggered with Franklin. So, I switched to Franklin and found him nearby. When I got to the mission as Franklin, Trevor was still there, having just gotten into his car. The game doesn’t let you pull the trigger on a gun if your crosshairs are on an ally, but I thought, “Hmm, I wonder…” and pulled out my rocket launcher. I sent a rocket into Trevor and his car exploded. I immediately switched to Trevor to see how the game would react, only to find him walking out of the hospital exactly as if I had been playing as Trevor when he died. That was pretty funny, but the icing on the cake was when I switched back to Franklin and received an email from Trevor warning him not to try that again and taking money to cover his medical bills. It was an excellent example of the game’s attention to not only letting you do anything, but actually responding dynamically to anything you decide to do.

Ultimately, this dynamic world setup is why Grand Theft Auto V is likely the best sandbox game ever created. That’s not to say that the game is the best game ever that is also a sandbox game; personally, I still give that title to Red Dead Redemption. However, Grand Theft Auto V is the best game ever at being a sandbox game specifically because of dynamic chains of events like these.

Hilariously Satiric
The above three features were pretty much what I expected when I started playing Grand Theft Auto V. I knew the game would be huge and dynamic and I knew there would be a wide variety of activities in which to engage. I was pleased to see those factors were executed well, but I was not expecting much else. I certainly wasn’t expecting the game to be one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, but it legitimately was. Several times throughout the game, I had to pause the game and put down the controller simply because I was laughing too hard to keep playing. No game has made me laugh like Grand Theft Auto V since the original Portal. It isn’t just me, either; one of the very first comments my wife made while I was playing the game was, “Well, you can put in your review that your wife found this game hysterical.”

The humor doesn’t come in individual occasional chunks, either; it’s reasonably pervasive throughout the game. The talk radio is full of parodies, from “Weasel News: Confirming Your Prejudices” to hilarious commercials advocating absurdist cults or insane forms of child-rearing. There were a couple times when I switched on the television in the game just to check out what the options were, only to sit for ten minutes watching something because the shows in the game are more entertaining than shows on actual TV. On multiple occasions I found myself stopping several yards short of a mission trigger indicator because I wanted to finish listening to the current radio broadcast. Even some of the missions themselves have hilarious dialog; I’ve never laughed as hard during a video game as I did during the game’s illegal immigrant sidequest, which provides a thorough and hilarious deconstruction and satire of American immigration policy.

What’s remarkable is that the humor in the game, while pervasive, does not actually make the game come across as humorous overall. It’s all highly satirical and tongue-in-cheek, which means that the game never feels slapstick or light. It complements the game world perfectly as a caricature of Los Angeles (and more broadly, American) society. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it is specifically this humor that emphasizes the idea that Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos is intended to be a caricature. People criticize the Grand Theft Auto franchise’s hyper-violence, but this humor helps emphasize that the violence is merely a parody of American’s present tolerance of several of the exact behaviors present in the game.

That’s not to suggest that the game takes any particular political viewpoint, either. In my opinion, at least, the game mocks everyone pretty equally, from conservatives to liberals and from rednecks to celebrities. No one is spared Grand Theft Auto V‘s satire, and that’s part of its strength; anyone should be able to enjoy it because it parodies everyone equally.

Excellent Main Three Characters
When I first heard that the game was going to feature three main characters, I was skeptical. It seemed like a gimmick to make the game appear larger than it was, or an indecision among the writers that was never resolved. Ultimately, though, the three main characters are very strong, in three different ways. The characters themselves are strong, the three-character dynamic contributes to the game’s story, and the gameplay behind having three characters is well-done as well.

First of all, while some have complained that the main characters in Grand Theft Auto V are not likable, I was pleasantly surprised by how real and three-dimensional they are. To a certain extent characterization of these characters was always going to be difficult based on the multitude of activities their personalities had to justify them performing, but ultimately it is relatively believably executed. The individual characters themselves are very different from one another, and each is given a significant amount of depth and complexity. It is compelling to see what each character does and how they react to different situations, and each does exhibit some notable development over the course of the game. They may not be individually totally likable, but a likable protagonist is often a boring protagonist. Grand Theft Auto V‘s antiheroes are flawed, but very human.

The presence of three stories contributes notably to the game’s story as well. The game’s story, although weak overall, focuses largely on the relationships between the three characters including their pasts. Focusing on that story from the perspective of only one character would risk turning certain characters into two-dimensional antagonists or supporting protagonists. Exploring all three characters as playable characters, though, frames all the relationships as differences in viewpoint; the player can sympathize with each character and understand their reactions to the various events, even when they put the characters at odds with each other. The presence of three protagonists also excuses the game from making any one protagonist totally sympathetic. It is acceptable that all the game’s protagonists are severely flawed because the game does not rely on the player’s relationship with one of them individually, but rather with all of them collectively.

The ability to freely switch among characters also plays a major role in some of the characters’ development. The player gets the impression that each character leads a life that is not totally dependent on the player’s actions with the character. Many games have a problem with managing player characters’ relationships in that the player is always running the character’s life, and thus the game has no leeway to build or elucidate the relationships unless they are in scripted cutscenes. In Grand Theft Auto V, however, your characters go about their lives (in theory) when you switch away from them, giving the impression of more dimensions than just what you see when playing as them. It makes it feel like the actions you take while controlling the character are just part of their broader lives rather than defining their broader lives, and that’s a strong contribution to the game’s character development.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the three-character dynamic performs a major service to the gameplay. Being able to freely switch between the characters gives multiple incentives, perspectives, and methods for exploring the complex world of Los Santos. That free switching is also a great facilitator of more open exploration. On multiple occasions, I took one character way to one corner of the map or to the mountains in the center, knowing that I would not have to put the legwork in to get them back to civilization: I could just switch to another character and let the game figure it out. Within missions, the ability to switch characters to see the action from multiple viewpoints was enjoyable, and probably the only notable aspect of the game’s actual gameplay in any dimension.

The Bad
For all its impressive achievements, the main problem with Grand Theft Auto V is that it isn’t always, or even that often, all that much fun to play. It’s interesting, entertaining, and never really outright bad, it’s just very rarely all that good. If you can imagine a chart of how much fun you’re having over time while playing the game, most games would have big peaks where the action gets really intense and compelling. Grand Theft Auto V is just pretty consistent throughout, never doing anything all that well but never doing anything poorly, either.

…Master of None
The biggest flaw in Grand Theft Auto V is that while it offers a wild and incredible variety of different content and gameplay, it ultimately does not execute any of that content or gameplay particularly well. While it is a jack of all trades, wearing the hats of everything from a cover-based shooter to a driving simulator to a sports game, none of the individual modes is particularly remarkable. All pale in comparison to the exact same content implemented more impressively in other games.

The two major modes in the game are, most likely, driving and shooting. After all, it is a “grand theft auto” game, so driving is certain to play a major part. The driving takes a bit of getting used to, but ultimately it is rather well-executed. The problem, though, is a question as to the actual purpose of the driving. There are races, sure, but the majority of the time spent driving around the game world is simply to drive from mission to mission, shop to shop, etc. There is not a whole lot of purpose specifically to the driving, and in the end, far too much of the game feels like it’s spent just driving around because the next mission icon happens to be on the complete other side of the map. So, while the driving itself is well-executed, the fact that it’s well-executed doesn’t really add anything to the game. Don’t get me wrong: had the driving been poorly executed, it would have been a major flaw in the game, but even though it is well-executed, the fact that it lacks a primary positive function limits what positive impact it can have on the game’s bottom line.

The other major gameplay element is shooting, and this is where the game, in my opinion, truly stumbles. The combat portion of the game operates generally as a cover-based shooter, the genre that has come to dominate the industry in the past few years. The fact that the genre dominates the industry gives us plenty of comparisons for Grand Theft Auto V, and it fails at them miserably. The controls behind getting into and out of cover are unpredictable and frustrating, and the controls for moving around within cover are even worse. Cover is necessary as face-up fighting is largely a deathwish, yet cover itself is unreliable and unpredictable. Enemy AI during these combat sections also leaves much to be desired: most enemies tend to adopt either the kamikaze approach of running straight toward you or the whack-a-mole approach of randomly popping out of cover every now and then. It’s a very primitive, simplistic implementation of cover-based shooter combat, and yet of all the different types of gameplay the game offers, the cover-based shooting is arguably the most significant.

As mentioned earlier, those things only scratch the surface of all the different gameplay styles that Grand Theft Auto V offers. For all of them, though, this same criticism applies; they are overly simplistic, often poorly-implemented, and overall do not compare to the execution of those same gameplay elements in other games. For some of these, of course, this is excusable: no one expects the golfing minigame to compete with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 or the property management to compare favorably with any game ending in the word Tycoon. However, the lackluster implementation of the various gameplay modes is systematic. It’s fine to have some simple minigames and modes, but it’s not fine for every mode to be like that. Only in one mode, the cover-based shooting, does the game even attempt to be contemporary and complex, and in that mode it still fails. As a result, it feels like while the game provides lots of options, none of the options are that great.

On top of that, the game is not even a strong exemplar of some of the prototypical features it implements. Take, for example, the game’s checkpoint system. Like most games nowadays, the game auto-saves throughout missions and gives the player unlimited opportunities to replay a section. In most games, these auto-saves are a couple minutes apart, with checkpoints sprinkled seamlessly across the level. In Grand Theft Auto V, the checkpoints are too far apart; often, several minutes of gameplay are lost at death. Considering accidental deaths are common in the game, this is often frustrating. One could argue that is part of the game’s challenge, but in other areas, the checkpoints actually take place before cutscenes. Failing to shoot a deer the first time in an introduction to the deer hunting minigame forces you to rewatch the 20-second lead-in cutscene. Dying during one of the game’s biggest battles puts you back before a one-minute scene where you take turns running your characters to different positions.

Besides this, it’s also important to note that offering lots of gameplay options isn’t desirable when many of the options themselves are boring. One of the game’s sidequests involves running tow truck missions for a character’s cousin; not since the forklift minigame in Shenmue (or, more recently, the forklift minigame in Grand Theft Auto V itself) have I found a minigame so boring. Some might say, “Well, if you think it’s boring, you don’t have to do that sidequest.” The entire appeal of a sandbox game, though, is the availability of sidequests and miscellaneous activities like this. To say, “You don’t have to do that sidequest” is to suggest ignoring the only specific appeal that the game has.

Some might suggest that these criticisms are nitpicky or unfair. After all, Grand Theft Auto V is not a cover-based shooter, so why should I hold it to the standard of Uncharted? The reason is two-fold. First and more basically, reviewing games is a matter of reviewing above all else how fun and engaging they are. The combat in Grand Theft Auto V is too simplistic and straightforward to be engaging, and the same can be said for all of the game’s gameplay. As a result, it is not as fun or engaging within these areas. It is more varied, which carries a different appeal, but it never quite reaches the flow-inducing highs of more carefully constructed games. Second and more strictly, this is a question of expectation. Why can’t Grand Theft Auto V be as good a cover-based shooter as Uncharted? Does it require more disc space to have better-designed levels and areas? Does it require more computational power to have better recognition on getting into and out of cover? Does it require doubling development budgets to create better enemy AI? Absolutely not to all three; these are simply design decisions. Yes, you need better designers to make these systems better, but that does not mean absolutely breaking the game’s budget; it just means supplying enough resources so that the individual different gameplay modes are internally well-structured instead of just sprinkled in with only passive attention to their quality. Put simply, there is no reason why Grand Theft Auto V cannot have cover-based shooting as good as Uncharted, information as readily available as inFamous, or multiple gameplay approaches as well-implemented as Batman: Arkham City. It just chooses not to. Sure, it implements a lot more features than any of these games attempt to, but it does not implement any one of those features as well as it could have.

To use another analogy, Grand Theft Auto V is like that diner in your town that serves literally every kind of food you can imagine. The menu is subdivided into categories that each could bolster entire restaurants, like Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and American food. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, has a variety of desserts, and is quick to jump on the latest fad dishes. They make everything, but they aren’t going to be winning any prizes for their Italian food compared to other Italian restaurants. If you’re craving Mexican food, you’re going to go to El Azteca, not the diner. Sure, they make Mexican food like they make every other type of food, but they don’t make it particularly well. It’s all decent and serviceable, but none of it is remarkable. That’s Grand Theft Auto V. If you want a good cover-based shooter, play Uncharted. If you want a good racing game, play Gran Turismo; if you want it with the criminal theme to it, play Need for Speed.

Of course, if you’re craving a sandbox game, you can play Grand Theft Auto V. But what does it mean to crave a sandbox game? A sandbox structure is not itself a gameplay structure, but rather it exists specifically to arrange and contextualize other gameplay. Grand Theft Auto V does not execute any of that other gameplay very well.

Frustrating, Inconsistent Controls
By the end of the game, I was reasonably well-accustomed to the controls in Grand Theft Auto V, but throughout the first half or so of the game I found many of the controls very frustrating. First, the game does not have a horizontal camera inversion option, an omission I consider completely stupid. It costs literally nothing to include and many people are accustomed to it, so why in the world isn’t it there? Grand Theft Auto V is of course not the first game to omit a horizontal inversion option, but the omission is no less egregious.

In the game, the left stick is used to walk, while holding X jogs and repeatedly pressing X runs. There is so much wrong with this. First, the only times in the game where you ever walk are contextual, so there’s no need to have a separate button for ‘jog’; just set ‘jog’ as the default and slow the character down during the instances where you would be disallowing jogging otherwise. Second, mashing X to run faster is completely pointless. The player is going to do it, so it doesn’t limit the end result in the game, it just serves to frustrate the player in the meantime. Third, even when jogging or running, the pace of the character’s movement is frustratingly slow. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at the rate of Assassin’s Creed‘s free-running, but the pace shouldn’t be half as fast as every other sandbox game released recently. The result is that stealing a car is essentially obligatory even when your destination is in sight because walking there will still take a frustratingly long time. Fourth and most notably, however, assigning a button on the right side of the control to ‘jog’ or ‘run’ prevents the player from using the camera while jogging or running. The camera is the right stick, used by the right thumb, which is busy mashing X if you’re running. That’s a major restriction.

The other major problem with the controls is that they’re often inconsistent from play mode to play mode. Grand Theft Auto V has easily a couple dozen different play modes, so of course the same twelve buttons and two joysticks have to map onto several different modes. That’s fine, but the problem comes when the same action is executed by different controls in similar contexts. Shooting is the best example of this. During the vast majority of the game, L2 aims, R2 shoots, and L1 changes weapons. If you’re driving a vehicle, however, then L1 shoots, Square changes weapons, and aiming is automatic while shooting. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is difficult to mesh two such different control schemes as driving and shooting without stepping on each other, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible. Mapping the accelerate and decelerate actions to Circle and Square, for instance, would avoid the issue, as would mapping aim and shoot to L1 and R1. There’s an obvious benefit to having the triggers mapped to accelerating/decelerating or to firing, but the benefit there does not outweigh the benefit of having the same button fire your weapon for the entire game. Another example of this comes with ascending and descending. In the helicopter, R2 ascends and L2 descends, whereas in the submarine, X descends and Square ascends (I believe). The concepts of ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’, however, do not change, so they ought to be mapped to the same controls.

Finally, just a more specific complaint: the controls for the helicopter are awful. Several missions involve helicopters, and several times this involves hovering the helicopter over a very precise area on the ground. However, there is no easy way to control the helicopter’s forward or backward momentum. In fact, the only way to accelerate is to point the nose downward, which will crash the helicopter if not combined with holding R2 to raise altitude. At one point, I specifically chose a specific option on a mission that would prevent me from having to fly that damn helicopter again. I don’t particularly care if this is a realistic implementation of the way a helicopter controls; in a game like Grand Theft Auto V, entertainment should be the priority above realism when the two are in conflict.

Weak Supporting Cast
While I find the main cast of the game relatively compelling, outside the three main characters, the rest of the cast is decidedly lackluster. Nearly every character is completely one-dimensional, representing little more than an archetype from any other story ever told. There’s the renegade government agent, the seasoned veteran agent, the slutty wife, the ditzy daughter, the deadbeat son, the psychotic lackey, the mentally challenged henchman, the thug best friend from the hood, and several other prototypes for simplistic characters. A handful of these show a hint of character progression, but for the most part they are all entirely one-dimensional set pieces with little to actually characterize them as actors in the story. The main three characters are strong and tell an interesting story amongst themselves, but every other character is nothing but a function that needed to be executed to facilitate the main characters’ stories.

I’m going to hijack this section (hey, it’s my review, I can do that) and also talk about how this weakness in supporting cast negatively impacts a portion of the game’s theoretical appeal, and how it relates to some of the criticism Grand Theft Auto V receives. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of sexual content. It has strippers that strip to nothing but a G-string, it has strippers that will come home with you and then send you skimpy selfies the next day, it has a Playboy parody with women walking around topless, and it has prostitutes that will hop in your car and have sex with you. There’s more available nudity in the game than probably any other. The game is accused of being sexist and misogynistic in part because of this sexual content; it portrays women merely as objects. This is the criticism when you portray plenty of naked women but fail to include any as relevant actors in the story. There’s nothing wrong with having a story with no women; what’s wrong is having women but failing to actually treat them as equal characters.

But I’m not going to complain that much about that. Yes, it’s true that it’s misogynistic that the game does not include any females in notable roles, but plenty of other people have already beaten that horse to death, so I don’t feel the need to. Several have criticized the game for featuring three protagonists but making them all male, a criticism that has some merit, but I honestly feel that that bit of misogyny actually saved the game from greater misogyny. Had there been a female playable character, the game would have had to feature as robust a system for character customization for her as for the males. Most gamers would probably have her running around Los Santos in a bikini half the time. She’d have to be able to do oddjobs as well, and if nearly every job under the sun is available to the male protagonists, then how could the developers justify not allowing the female protagonist to be a stripper? The all-male playable cast was a good decision, in my opinion, because the developers could not stay true to the Grand Theft Auto universe while also implementing a female protagonist in a non-sexist way.

My complaint, strangely enough, is on the other side of the coin. Yes, the game features lots of adult content and nudity, but it’s all ultimately meaningless specifically because none of these women are characterized or developed. Others would criticize the game for featuring strippers, yet I am criticizing the game for failing to develop those strippers’ characters. That’s not to say that the strippers themselves needed to be developed, but rather that more broadly, the writers fail to understand what can actually make sexual content appealing. A character is necessary. The internet is full of photos and videos of literally millions of different naked women, yet when a big-name actress performs a topless scene for the first time it’s still big news. Why? Because we have gotten to know her through her movies and career. There’s a personal element there. Countries that have legalized prostitution do not suffer from a complete lack of romantic relationships, but if sex is just about sex, why would men in these countries still even bother dating? The reason is the same: nudity, sex, and adult content are about more than just the nudity, sex, and adult content. The reason the adult content in Grand Theft Auto V comes across so childishly is because it is only the visual element with none of the personal touch. Had the game chosen to have a well-developed female character that engaged in even the most faintly suggestive adult scene, that still would have been a far more engaging scene than any of the lap dances or pole dances that Grand Theft Auto V currently offers. People often criticize games for being sexist by featuring women as nothing but decorations, but the solution is not to get rid of the decorations: it’s to give them more substance in the first place.

Little to No Overall Plot Arc
In many of my reviews, I have to articulate the difference between a story and a plot. A story, on the one hand, comprises all the relationships, conversations, and developments among the cast of an entire work. The plot, on the other hand, is what actually keeps the viewer, reader, or player turning the page or starting the next mission. The plot drives the game, while the story happens throughout the game. The story includes the plot, plus much more. For example, in BioShock, the story is the entire history of the development of Rapture, while the plot is the pursuit of the different antagonists throughout the game.

Grand Theft Auto V has a pretty good story. Much of the game’s story is in the background and is told through little bits and pieces throughout the game’s main real-time story. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it’s interesting to see how the characters’ different personal histories, family dynamics, and relationships with each other developed over time. The majority of the story, in fact, has already happened before the game even begins. The real-time story can largely be described as drudging up old dirt from the story that took place before the opening cutscene. The story is decent enough; I’m not giving the story its own section because it is entirely character-driven, and thus is subsumed within the praise for the main cast of characters above.

The problem is that the game has basically no plot arc whatsoever. The game does not tell one long, cohesive, clear story. The stakes of the game do not really rise as the game goes on. Throughout the plot, I often had the impression that my characters could stop right now and nothing would happen; nothing was depending on their continued activity for the majority of the game. The events of the plot themselves weren’t well-chained together either; the majority of the plot could easily have been restructured as a series of sidequests rather than the game’s main driving narrative. In a way, one could say that even the main plot was performed in sandbox style; it was available to play, but was by no means mandatory, and barely was more than just another series of missions on top of the ones already available. I almost think the game would have benefited if it had framed these missions that way instead, though leaving out the main story altogether is a gamble I would not expect the developers to make.

This is not to say, of course, that the game does not have any interesting or memorable individual scenes. It has several. It does a great job of having scenes take place during gameplay as well, such as conversations between characters while driving during missions. A bunch of interesting scenes, however, do not make a compelling narrative. A compelling narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end; some rising action, a climax, and some falling action; some plot twists, unexpected developments, or rising tension. Grand Theft Auto V‘s plot has none of these. It’s a series of missions just like any of the other sidequests; it does not drive the gameplay as anything more than another collection of mission icons on the game’s map.

I have to acknowledge, however, that successfully avoiding this issue is incredibly difficult to do in a sandbox game. It is very hard to tell a compelling story that is completely at the whim of the player. Tension in a game means that the player feels personally responsible for the events that take place, or at the least is interested in seeing what happens. It’s hard to manufacture that kind of tension while also giving the player the freedom to go spend two weeks in-game playing darts or doing yoga or going on hunting trips. The sandbox-pocalypse of the seventh generation has given us numerous games that execute the sandbox structure badly in this regard. Batman: Arkham City had so much consistent tension that the plot never allowed it to make sense that the player might not go immediately to the next mission. The entire Assassin’s Creed franchise plays like a bunch of levels launched from a sandbox world that disappears two-thirds into the game because the writers don’t know how to let the story continue to take place in the sandbox world. inFamous‘s missions play more like a series of errands running up to the climactic last tenth of the game. The industry is replete with examples of sandbox plots done poorly, so Grand Theft Auto V is by no means the exception to some rule of excellence otherwise.

However, one game did manage to tell an incredible, compelling, tension-filled story with a strong plot arc and interesting, three-dimensional characters while also taking place in one of the most spectacularly open sandbox worlds ever created: Red Dead Redemption. In Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar successfully pulled off the near-impossible and told a great, gripping, well-paced story while allowing the player the freedom to experiment and play around in the sandbox world. The fact that Grand Theft Auto V falls so flat in exactly the dimension that made Red Dead Redemption so good makes me think that Rockstar just got lucky with the old west sandbox game and does not actually have a real grasp of how to make a sandbox plot strong and driving.

Inadequate Information
There are several places in the game where it feels like there is something that the game isn’t telling the player. Sometimes this is information that the game is giving without adequate context to pursue it. Other times, it’s interesting information that the game is just leaving out inexplicably. Still others, it’s useful information that the game makes stupidly difficult to access.

There are several pieces of information that would be very interesting to know throughout the game that are inexplicably not shown. Speeding around the world map in all manner of fast vehicles loses some of its appeal when you have no speedometer telling you how fast you’re going. Certain physical activities rely on a stamina meter, but the stamina meter is never shown as far as I can tell; you don’t know you’re out of stamina until it’s too late. There are several major pieces of the game world, such as certain buildings, that do not have mission icons permanently associated with them and thus are hard to find, even when you need them. For example, one mission says to park a car near a certain building to serve as a getaway car, but it never tells you where that building is. You’ve been there before, but unless you remember it, the game doesn’t help you find it. None of this information is easily available to the player.

In other places, the game makes the information available, but not as easily as it ought to be. The map is used very frequently; nearly every time you go to a mission or a location, you’ll use the map to set a GPS coordinate and get a route plotted for you. The map, however, is hidden in the pause menu, forcing you to jump through an extra hoop to get to it. It’s a minor thing, sure, but you consult the map often enough in the game that it becomes quite notable. Icons on the map are also sorted strangely: they are sorted alphabetically, but divided into multiple groups rather than sorted alphabetically from top to bottom. Time is a major mechanic in the game as well, so it would be nice to have an easily-accessible clock instead of having to pause the game or pull out the phone. The game does not make it very easy to track sidequests, leaving the player often confused as to what options are available. Sometimes the game gives tips on how to play in the heat of battle or while driving, and looking up to read the tip while trying to hide from enemies or driving game-only-knows how fast down the highway is frustratingly difficult. And even when the game gives information, it is often misleading or inaccurate. For example, the game has a stock market feature, but when you go to sell your stocks, it tells you only the profit you will be making rather than the total amount of money you’ll receive. It also shows percent changes that are just not accurate; at one point, it say a stock dropped by 99.81%, yet its highest-ever price was around $500 while its lowest-ever and current price was $250. That’s not a 99.81% drop.

Among all of them, though, the most frustrating instances are when too little information is given. In these instances, enough information is given to know you wish you knew more. The clearest example is the counter of missions available to each character; when switching characters, a little number indicates how many missions are available to that character. Sometimes, however, the available missions are not available at that time of day, or they require the player to make a phone call or go to a certain unknown location to trigger the mission. So, you know that missions are available, but you have no idea what to do to trigger them to actually take place. Other times, mission icons appear and disappear on the map with no explanation. Some are time-based while others are based on other events, but it is very frustrating to be heading to a mission icon only to have it disappear when you’re halfway there for no known reason. On top of these, within missions the objectives or directions are often unclear. In one mission, you are asked to burn down a house, and a gas canister – the first one you have encountered in the game – is illuminated. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see it and think, “Ok, I shoot the gas canister to blow up the house.” No, though, you’re supposed to use the gas canister to pour gasoline throughout the house; you aren’t told that, however, until after picking up the gas canister. And if you make that mistake, you’re sent back to before the last checkpoint, which is a good 5 minutes earlier.

Several Underdeveloped Mechanics
With so many mechanics, it is perhaps unsurprising that several were severely underdeveloped. In fact, I might argue that every gameplay mechanic in Grand Theft Auto V was underdeveloped; the only mechanic I found adequately deep and interesting was the weapon customization system, giving exactly the right variety of weapons and add-ons. However, for many mechanics, this is less an issue of development and more an issue of initial scope; most were initially scoped so small that there was never much room for development in the first place. Three, however, were presented in such a way that they ought to have been a more core, developed part of the game instead of underused afterthoughts. Or, at least the latter couple could have been left out altogether: they just needed to be more important, well-designed, and influential if they were to be included at all.

The first of these is the heist system. The majority of the game’s major missions are presented as a series of heists. In each heist, you choose an initial approach and are given a series of missions to set up the approach, like stealing certain vehicles or materials. You hire a selection of operatives to help you: gunners, hackers, and drivers. They each have their own set of skills and abilities, and the better ones demand bigger cuts of the heist. Then, once everything is ready, you execute the mission. The mission differs based on the approach you chose and the individuals you hired; for example, in one mission you hire a hacker, and if you hire a good hacker it becomes easier to hijack some of the cars you need for the mission than if you hire a poor hacker. Your hires might affect the take of the heist as well; a bad driver might die in the mission, losing all the money he had been carrying. At the end of each mission, the operatives you hired improve their skills for the next heist.

Honestly, the heist system is awesome. The set-up missions are very interesting, the mechanic of hiring your crew provides a much-needed strategic element, and the dynamic mission responses to your earlier decisions make for incredible gameplay. The problem? In the entire game, there are only six heists. The heists are the backbone of the game’s main plot arc, but they are not sufficiently driving to really drive the game’s entire plot. They are incredibly fun, though, but so underused in the grand scheme of the game that it feels almost silly that the game bothers to set up dedicated dynamics for them. When I was first presented with the idea that my hires would develop their skills if I used them more often, I was imagining something similar to the Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood approach, giving lots of opportunities to use crews of members to rob banks and jewelry stores, increasing their abilities to carry on bigger heists down the road. Instead, with only six heights, the fact that your members develop their skills seems entirely irrelevant. You can recruit additional crew members through some optional missions, but with only six heists, that’s most unnecessary. With all the development and framing behind them, heists should have been a core game mechanic for ongoing, user-chosen missions rather than solely being relegated to the main plot missions. It would have been spectacular to have a set of locations around Los Santos that the user could choose to rob, hiring their crews and really setting up interesting approaches themselves rather than choosing the ones that the game scripted. However, that would be a well-executed system, and as we’ve discussed several times, Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t execute anything particularly well.

Each of your three characters also has a series of statistics dictating how they play, such as shooting, swimming, flying, and running. Increasing the statistics includes their performance, allowing you to aim more easily, hold your breath longer, fly without as much random interference, or run further without running out of stamina. However, all of these mechanics are improved solely by actually performing the behavior that they modify. Want to aim better? Shoot more. Want to fly better? Fly more. There is no way to improve your stats except to suck it up and engage in those activities despite your current low stats. It’s an incredibly pointless system that contributes nothing to gameplay but is frustratingly limited in several instances. At one point, I hijacked a helicopter as Franklin to complete a parachuting mission from atop a skyscraper, but as soon as we took off the helicopter started randomly rotating rather than flying straight. Why? Well, Franklin’s flying stat was low. It didn’t matter that I, the player, had gotten used to flying a helicopter; my character cannot, so the game applies random interference to make it harder to fly. And there is no way to get past this except to just deal with it and fly more often. The stat system was unnecessary in the first place, but if it was going to be included it at least should have done so without being needlessly frustrating.

Similar to stats, each character also has a particular special ability. Think of them kind of as limit breaks from Final Fantasy: the special ability meter builds up over time and then can be triggered to provide a temporary power-up. For Michael, this is bullet-time: time slows down to let him aim more easily and take enemies out more quickly. For Franklin, this is bullet-time for driving: slow-motion while driving around. For Trevor, this is a ‘berserk’ mode: he deals twice as much damage and takes half as much damage in battle. The abilities are entirely unnecessary, though. First, they make little sense in the context of Grand Theft Auto V‘s otherwise realistic world; how can you suddenly decide to deal twice as much damage with a gun? Second, they actually are not all that useful; bullet-time is interesting, but hardly ever necessary. The damage increase in Trevor’s power-up is not enough to sway any battles you would not have won almost as quickly anyway. Franklin’s is the worst as slow-motion driving tends to exacerbate handling issues with the car more than anything; learning to drive in slow-motion is almost a learning curve in and of itself. None of the special abilities are ever really needed; personally, I went the entire game without every activating them intentionally except for the instances when I was curious what they would be like.

The Verdict
Grand Theft Auto V is a remarkable technical achievement. The size of the world and the variety of activities available in it is downright remarkable, and the dynamic responsiveness of the game world is something to behold. It’s the very essence of what makes sandbox games appealing; it’s a fun world in which to just drive around and mess around. If you can think of it, you can probably do it in Grand Theft Auto V. On top of that, the game is downright hilarious with its satirical content, and the main characters are surprisingly strong, varied, and well-developed. I know I’ve spent a lot of this review criticizing the game, but it’s still very good and very entertaining.

While it’s good, though, I would not put Grand Theft Auto V into my upper echelon of best games ever because while it does a wide variety of things, it does not do anything particularly well. Any kind of specific gameplay experience you’re looking for, besides a sandbox experience in general, is better supplied by some other franchise. The game supplies a lot of content, but enormous portions of it are either poorly executed (especially the cover-based shooting), poorly framed, overly simplistic, or prone to rather amateurish mistakes. In a game this size, some mistakes are to be expected, and of course some of the minigames and sidequests are going to be rather simple, but the mistakes and simplicity apply too systematically to all elements of Grand Theft Auto V.

To a certain extent as well, this verdict might apply more broadly as a referendum on sandbox games in general. When console hardware first developed to the point of being able to handle dynamic, enormous game worlds, that very structure was internally appealing on its own. It didn’t matter that the gameplay within that world was lackluster; the very fact that the player received such a big world to play in was a selling point. However, the seventh console generation has so thoroughly beaten sandbox games to death that simply being a sandbox game is no longer enough. The sandbox is now the background rather than the core, and instead it is now necessary to have strong core gameplay that is simply contextualized by the sandbox world. Grand Theft Auto V lacks that strong core gameplay, and thus, while it is a very strong and impressive game, it ultimately falls just a little bit short of expectations.

My Recommendation
The seventh console generation’s last must-play game (well, unless Batman: Arkham Origins impresses.

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