Monday, 21 October 2013
Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
It's no secret that The Ephemeric and Grand Theft Auto V did not get off to the best of starts. But now that the dust has settled it's time to finally get down to business. Grand Theft Auto V is easily the most highly publicised videogame release of the year and arguably for many years, it demands a full review. The gloves are off, the gaming goggles are on. Let's do this.
First it's necessary to detail the events which led to our 0-star mini-review a few short weeks ago. Upon receipt of the game, a process which already took longer than expected thanks to Amazon's penchant for unnecessary red-tape, the disk could not be read by the Xbox 360. Upon further investigation it transpired that the disk drive of the Xbox itself was busted (that would be broken Xbox 360 number three for The Ephemeric) and so a replacement was hastily acquired. Then, just as we were about to retract our previous criticism and issue an apology: the game disk still could not be read. Yes, it seems that The Ephemeric was just lucky enough to be in possession of a busted games console as well as a busted game disk. It is however worth noting that although much has been made of the Xbox 360's difficulties in running GTA V off the internal hard disk, we did not notice any such issues, and so will not be taken into account by this review. Following yet another short delay and the delivery of a new game disk, we were finally ready to rock.
We need to step back and remind ourselves of the evolution of the Grand Theft Auto series. Grand Theft Auto had always conducted itself with an air of satirical absurdity, reaching its peak with GTA: San Andreas some nine years ago, a game which featured the most ridiculous action set pieces in the franchise's history, complete with airborne battles, riding bikes out of jumbo jets, and even jetpacks stolen from Area 51's secret alien project. The game's business and property investing aspect also meant that by the end you could pretty much run the entire game-world.
But then with GTA IV Rockstar Games decided to head in a more serious direction. Gone were the absurd action set pieces, along with the ability to become the big shot in town. The story was much grittier and complex, certainly the most substantive and mature fiction in the series. Players ended GTA IV, almost nihilistically, alone and isolated, with a tiny apartment and only the disturbing yet thought provoking ending to ponder. Even the physics was dialled down to be less cartoony and more realistic. It was a drastic change for a game series which previous allowed you to parachute shirtless out of a harrier jet and take down a group of Chinese gangsters with kung fu.
But the more narrative-focused approach also saw the loss of much of the open-world toys that fans had gotten used to. No more purchasable properties or business, no car customisation, limited ability to affect character appearance (and certainly no weight or muscle gain as with San Andreas), a much more straight-jacketed affair that polarised the fans to an extent.
With Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar have struck a middle ground between the two styles. The realistic aesthetic and more fleshed out characters remain, but players are once again given the freedom to customise cars, own businesses, and complete missions with as much gratuitous extravagance as you wish. GTA V even includes a number of crazy supernatural elements that I won't spoil here, but google "the Chiliad Mystery" if you're interested. Cleverly most missions offer players two distinct paths to completion, one subtle and realistic, the other ridiculous and awesome.
It's this kind of philosophy that pervades Grand Theft Auto V, it tries to be all things to all people. In fact it's this philosophy that's behind the game's biggest new innovation, multiple protagonists. For the first time in the 3D era, Grand Theft Auto allows you to play as multiple characters, and for the first time in the entire series, each playable character has a unique personality, style and story. For those of you who played GTA IV and its add-ons, which introduced new characters to the same world, imagine if all those add-ons had been integrated into the main game and you have some idea of what they were going for.
But that's only scratching the surface of this mechanic. Each character is designed to represent the common styles of play for a Grand Theft Auto game. Franklin, the young former gang member serves as the more relatable everyman, starting small and working his way to the top through missions, his focus being on cars and driving skills very much in the vein of San Andreas' protagonist CJ.
Michael on the other hand is a married ex-criminal turned FBI informant who has been given a fake name and all the money he needs to live in Los Santos with his estranged family. He focuses more on the "being a big shot" property owning, wealth amassing style, using exploits in the system to get ahead akin to Tommy Vercetti of Vice City (or glitching multiplayer enthusiasts perhaps). He is also the embodiment of some of the new gameplay features that we will come on to later.
Trevor completes the trifecta, a former associate of Michael who believes him to be dead. This batshit insane wildman is the character for players who like to rampage across the game-world causing as much indiscriminate carnage as possible. Let's face it, most GTA players have done that at some point. There's a character for every style of play.
The writing and depth of character is clearly a step up from the older games, but at the same time clearly a step below the more mature work of GTA IV. It's on a par with a piece of good old fashioned crime fiction along the lines of Tony Soprano or Butch Cassidy, definitely more Analyse This than The Godfather. But the characters are not really the star of the show here, it's all about the world of San Andreas.
In this regard Rockstar have outdone themselves once again. GTA V's world includes the Los Angeles inspired city of Los Santos, as well as the surrounding countryside of Blaine County, which features lakes, mountains, forests and even the bottom of the ocean.
Rockstar and the various games journalists have been quick to make much of how this is the biggest GTA world yet, but this is a very misleading thing to say. The city of Los Santos itself is considerably bigger than any city in GTA: San Andreas, and only marginally smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City, but even with the surrounding countryside there's just no way the total explorable area exceeds the combined three cities and countryside of GTA: San Andreas, especially when you consider that most of GTA V's world is taken up by the three giant mountains. It's a game-world that actually feels slightly small by comparison, and wouldn't take long to traverse if not for the crazy winding roads in the countryside. Where this game-world perhaps gets its edge is with the addition of under the sea exploration. A large amount of the ocean surrounding San Andreas is explorable.
However even if this game-world does fail to exceed previous games in terms of total land area, it more than makes up for it in density. GTA V's San Andreas is packed so chock full of activity and unique locations that it's hard to find any wasted space. The world itself is so fully detailed and fleshed out that it creates arguably the most convincing world ever conceived in a videogame.
In addition to all the various missions in the game, GTA V takes a page from Rockstar's previous epic Red Dead Redemption by introducing procedural "ambient" events, ensuring that the world truly feels alive. San Andreas is also chock full of activities like tennis or golf, going to the cinema, racing, parachuting, and many more.
But that's not all. That's not even mentioning the deep sea diving underwater exploration, which is full of sunken ships to harvest for loot, nuclear waste to remove for cash.
But that's not all. In addition both the land and sea are full of wildlife for the first time in GTA history, and hunting is indeed a performable activity.
But that's STILL not all. GTA V also implements a fully functional stock market which allows the player to invest and make money, and more importantly can be manipulated through the player's actions in the game-world in order to make vasts sums of cash. That's in addition to all the businesses one can own.
Finally players can also now buy boats and aircraft for the first time, in addition to land vehicles, all of which can be heavily customised.
Suffice it to say there's enough in this game-world to keep you busy for a long time, even after the main missions are completed. As always the world is also stuffed with collectibles and secrets. In fact there's even more than usual, and most collectibles have missions tied into them each with special rewards. The amount there is to do in this game is simply staggering, and I'm sure I haven't even mentioned everything.
The gameplay itself is standard GTA stuff, satisfying driving with reasonably adept combat. If there is one criticism to make it's that the combat is starting to feel a bit old fashioned on this 6 year old engine, and the cover system is a bit hit and miss, but then the combat itself was never a big focal point of the series.
Welcomely GTA V sees the return of GTA: San Andreas' RPG style player skills, albeit in a much more simplified form. Whereas GTA: San Andreas featured dozens of player-skills that improved as you played the game, GTA V has five or six. It's a nice system to have brought back nonetheless, but loses something without its former complexity. More intriguing is the addition of special unique "powers" for each character that cater to that particular character's skill; for example slow-mo driving for Franklin, and an adrenalin fuelled rampage for Trevor.
However the big new gameplay addition is the "heist" mission mechanic. Certain missions allow you to plan out big heists, including choosing strategy, selecting the best crew for the job, and engaging in various preparatory work to collect the required equipment and resources. It's a very rewarding and enjoyable addition to the series.
It's honestly difficult to find flaws in the game aside from a few niggling gameplay imperfections. It's a shame that San Fierro and Las Venturas were cut out from San Andreas, particularly Las Venturas, whose gambling and casinos are sorely missing in this game. In particular with the new heist mechanic the lack of classic casino heists seems like a massive missed opportunity. Still it seems a stretch to criticise a game for what it isn't rather than focusing on what it is.
The truth is that Grand Theft Auto V is worthy of all the praise it has received. It's a true landmark, beguilingly massive, polished to an absurdly high degree, and just a joy to play for all fifty hours or so it will take to finish. It takes a lot for a game to get past initial technical woes to earn such a high score from us, but that's indicative of just how great this game is.
As a side note, we haven't even mentioned the multiplayer mode in this review, as it is so massive and ambitious as to be considered a separate game. That review will be coming up soon.