An expansive, open-world crime saga based around three unique protagonists with interlaced storylines in a richly detailed location may seem like an overly ambitious title to release toward the end of today’s current-gen systems life cycle, but with Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar once again proves why they are the masters of the open-world genre.
Set within the San Andreas city of Los Santos, GTA V is a sprawling tale based around criminal maniacs on a blood-splattered rampage to get revenge, clear debts and ultimately escape their daily life routine. After a brief prologue sequence that introduces the fundamentals of the game, you’re introduced to Franklin Clinton — a young, ambitious small-time gangbanger and repo man looking to change his financial situation. Through an expected turn of events, Franklin befriends Michael De Santa, a movie obsessed retired thief, whose attempt to living the American dream while balancing his family life and his own personal demons is making him crazier by the minute. Franklin’s motives act as a catalyst for Michael’s return to crime, and this in turn introduces us to his old partner Trevor Phillips, an ultra-violet sociopath led by instincts and urges without any consideration for others.
More than any other entry in the series, GTA V scales down the focus on supporting characters to fully emphasize on its three protagonist. The result is a more comprehensive narrative that allows you to switch between Franklin, Michael, and Trevor whenever you want (except during plot-driven restrictions). You may drop in on Michael sitting on a park bench smoking a cigar while telling off a police officer, or catch Franklin leaving the strip club. Not knowing what to expect when you jump into the shoes of each character and seeing San Andreas through the eyes of three wildly different personalities is a major factor of what makes GTA V unique, and sans some tedious loading moments, it’s as seamless as you could possibly imagine.
Though you’re controlling three protagonist this time around, GTA V follows the same format used for the past decade — steal cars, complete story missions, and indulge in a wide variety of distractions. Each character has a unique series of missions, some of which span multiple characters, and bring with them a unique style. A lot of classic gameplay, from secretly tailing enemies to taking down key targets, are represented during the course of the game, with a few new twists thrown in for good measure. Missions are graded depending on completion time and the fulfillment of optional objectives, and each one may be replayed at any time for a better score. If you fail a part of a mission three times, you also have the option to skip it in exchange for a lowered mission grade. While some may complain that this is a means of “selling out” to casual gamers, being able to bypass an infuriating mission is a nice option.
The biggest addition to the mission structure is the introduction of heists. These are some of the lengthiest, intricate and most action-packed missions in the GTA series. You’re not just showing up to a marker on the map and taking part in a robbery, you’re an integral part of the planning process of these magnificent cinematic moments. Choosing from one of two choices — action or stealth — you then seek extra equipment based on how you want to tackle the heist and select crew members who specialize in areas like driver, gunmen, and hackers. Experienced crew members take a larger cut of the bounty, but will ensure the job goes more smoothly, while amateurish allies take a smaller cut but their lack of experience may make the mission harder. Each heist is memorable and gratifying as you see your hard work unfold, but the unlocking and ranking of crew members, feels like a wasted opportunity.
The plot driven missions and heist are varied, but where GTA V truly shines is when you’re wasting time roaming around San Andreas. From playing tennis to watching movies within a movie theater, it’s astonishing to see how much detail was put into the game. I literally spent minutes within a strip club (don’t judge me) trying to get a stripper to like me during a lap dance, while avoiding getting caught by the patrolling bouncer as I laid my hands on here. Needless to say, my wife found the inclusion of this mini-game a bit disturbing. My reward for “making it rain” was the ability to call her for a “booty call,” and receive provocative text messages to my in-game smartphone. There is also an opportunity to train your dog Chops to do tricks and assist you on your missions, but being forced to download an iFruit app on my tablet to participate in this Tamagotchi-style mini-game is asking a bit too much.
As with Red Dead Redemption, random markers will appear on your map suggesting that something of importance is happening nearby. Whether it’s a punk stealing a woman’s handbag, or a group of criminals that need a getaway car, it’s up to you whether you want to participate in any opportunities that present themselves. The city is also full of establishments to be purchased, either to make more money from businesses, or unlock helipads, garages, and docks. There’s even a dynamic stock market that reacts to in-game events, allowing you make even more money by researching missions before you complete them. The list of activities to participate in goes on and on and the number of moving parts in GTA V is astounding. You’ll be amazed by how well they all work together.
Rockstar has even gone so far as reintroducing a RPG style leveling system similar to GTA: San Andreas. By performing various activities, each character can level up various stats; running improves your stamina, driving improves vehicle maneuvering, and so forth. While leveling up isn’t essential, being able to increase your stats without being subjected to mundane mini-games certainly doesn’t hurt. In addition, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin each have their own unique special skill. Activated by pressing in both analog sticks, Michael can execute a bullet-time effect during combat, Frankin can do the same while behind the wheel of a vehicle, and Trevor can boost his damage and defense after getting really angry. Using each is optional, but the benefits will help during some of the intense situations like car chases.
Whether you’re evading the police in a sports car or going off-road on an ATV, driving is vastly improved. Each vehicle handles differently from each other, turning gracefully, and allowing greater air control to make stunt jumps and high-speed chases far less frustrating to accomplish. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for helicopters and planes as they still handle awkwardly. GTA V also introduces a new way to shake off the cops when your wanted level has increased. When “wanted,” you’ll need to escape out of the line of sight of pursuing cops by either driving into an alleyway (unseen of course) or finding a secluded place to hide. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush and stealth aspect it brought, and it’s a more natural way than what was introduced in previous GTA entries.
One of the other vast improvements in GTA V has to be the shooting and cover mechanic, which now allows for free-aim and lock-on targeting. Shooting felt very smooth and natural, but didn’t feel like a shooter, which helped it retain a great deal of its own identity. You also have a great variety of weapons at your disposal that you can customize with suppressors, scopes, flashlights and other accessories. The hand-to-hand combat still felt quite clunky, as it just turned into little more than punch, dodge and counter, which feels outdated in comparison to games where you can fight multiple foes or slam opponents into the surrounding environment.
GTA V‘s visuals makes it one of the best-looking open world games currently available on consoles. San Andreas and the city of Los Santos is huge, dwarfing the environments of previous games, with undersea exploration and mountain ranges adding a ton of variety to the surroundings. This is one world that offers so many possibilities that it would be hard to ever see them all. The game’s massive, sprawling, detailed world is obviously pushing the hardware to its limits, so don’t be surprised to see framerate drops or objects popping into existence as you speed through the city or along a mountainside.
As you might expect, the voice acting is exquisite as always. From Franklin’s street smart seriousness to Michael’s barely controlled rage, the performances found in GTA V are some of the very best in the series. The acting is backed up by a great soundtrack. In a break with series tradition, the game has an excellent ambient score of its own that provides missions with more cinematic flare. Although not my favorite GTA soundtrack, there are loads of radio stations playing over 200 licensed music, from popular artist like Smokey Robinson and Rihanna to lesser known artist like Soulfly and Tom Vek, there is enough variety to please everyone. Talk radio is also back with hilarious segments like a right-winged Richard Bastion Show and a celebrity gossip radio show called Fizz!.
Looking past all of controversy associated with the franchise, Grand Theft Auto V is an achievement in every sense of the word. Though some elements of the game remain old fashioned, the city of Los Santos is as close to a beating, living metropolis that you’ll lose hours exploring this digital world. If you don’t yet own GTA V, you’re missing out on one of the best games available on the PS3 and Xbox 360.
Editor’s Note: Grand Theft Auto V was reviewed using a PS3 copy of the game. The online component, Grand Theft Auto Online, is targeted for release on October 1st. We’ll update this review accordingly upon release. Also, if further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.