In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas it was Carl “CJ” Johnson who said, “After five years of the East Coast, it was time to go home.” That single line accurately sums up how I felt about coming back to the sun drenched city of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V. Leaving the cramped metropolis of Liberty City behind, Rockstar returns to its digital analog of Los Angeles nine years after San Andreas, giving it a facelift that would make every aging Vinewood starlet burst into tears. GTA V is unique in that rather than focus the story on one central character, it splits the narrative across three individuals with their own personalities who view the events unfolding before their eyes in their own particular way.
Set in present day Los Santos, where women fantasize of achieving stardom and the economic downturn has shattered many a dream, Michael finds himself in a rut. Having retired from a life of bank heists, he has everything one would want: a big house, money, expensive cars, a wife, daughter and son. By all accounts, Michael should be revelling in the American Dream. Instead, its left him emotionally and spiritually impotent. His wife might be sleeping around and spends his money, his daughter hangs around with the wrong crowd and spends his money, and his son is a do-nothing video-game-playing-stoner who spends Michael’s money.
Franklin is an African American ex-gang banger who pulled himself out from the streets and found a place in a semi-legitimate repossession business. Franklin dreams of making it big, of getting out of the hood entirely but finds himself surrounded by those happy in their complacency and maintaining the status quo. And then there’s Trevor. An unhinged, unpredictable and violent criminal with ties to Michael from years past, Trevor heads a meth production and distribution network in the redneck infested desert toilet of Sandy Shores. Though these three men live very different lives, a twist of fate brings them together as Michael settles back into the life of crime and professional robbery.
In many ways, GTA V is a return to GTA:San Andreas’ form. Whereas Liberty City was fairly unrecognizable from its 2001 counterpart, those who spent hours with San Andreas will recognize familiar streets, piers, landmarks, clothing stores and fast food eateries. Just like before, each character’s performance is governed by RPG-style stats divided into different categories such as shooting, lung capacity, stamina and driving. Running for long stretches of time, driving well, and shooting efficiently will boost these stats during the course of the game. By taking the time to do so, the player is awarded bonuses that will give their characters steadier aim and better car control. That said, each character has a special ability that gives them a sense of individuality. Franklin is a better driver, Michael is better with firearms and Trevor is an experienced pilot. By pressing in both analog sticks, their respective abilities come into play for a limited time giving the player an extra edge over enemies.
Rockstar learned a few things from Grand Theft Auto IV and Episodes from Liberty City from a gameplay and narrative perspective. Rather than create a world in which the three characters exist in their own version of the game world, Michael, Franklin and Trevor now occupy the same space. This gives the player the opportunity to switch between each character on the fly, be it during a mission or while strolling around town. This has the added benefit of affording the player to mix the experience up a bit. If you’re weary of playing as Michael, switch over to Franklin and compete in races or purchase property. Growing tired with Franklin? Switch over to Trevor and unleash unholy hell. What’s really fascinating about this system is the illusion that these people lead their own lives when not directly controlled by the player. Switching to a character will bring you into their life in medias res, such as Franklin leaving a marijuana depository, Michael watching TV or Trevor doing something genuinely insane. The ability to move between the three extends to story and side missions, so long as at least one other character is available. This allows the player to pass through different roles, be it driver, shooter or support. And that’s pretty damn awesome.
Throughout the game, characters will be called upon to perform all sorts of different tasks, from assaulting a rival meth operation to saving Michael’s wife from the police. Taking a page from Red Dead Redemption, you’ll stumble across random events that do not directly affect the story but make for interesting diversions and give the world a better sense of life. One of GTA V’s heavily advertised gameplay features are the heist missions. Committing a robbery isn’t a simple, one mission affair. When confronted with a target, Michael’s accomplices will guide the player through a series of different tasks and options. For the most part, heists can be conducted in two ways: smart and silent or dumb and loud. Depending on which course of action chosen, the three characters will do their part to case the target, pick up necessary equipment and getaway vehicles before laying out the plan of attack. Once these duties are handled, the player selects a crew, usually consisting of a weapons expert, hacker (for security systems) and a getaway driver. Members of the crew are picked from a pool of AI controlled NPCs that can be recruited during the game. The better the NPC is with their given role, the higher percentage of the take they receive at the end of the job. When selecting a crew, you get what you pay for. Crew members with higher skill points will make the job easier than those with lower skill sets. However, at the end of a job, your crew gets a skill boost, making them a cheap yet potentially valuable asset in the long run.
The controls for both shooting and driving have been improved since the last game. Driving cars in Los Santos feels much better than before as they feel nimble and more responsive unlike the heavy, boat-like vehicles of GTA IV. Vehicle performance can be boosted by upgrading them on garages throughout the city. A helpful game changer that Rockstar implemented is the ability to flip a car right side up if it has tipped over, easing the frustration of coming close to the end of a race or mission objective only to spin out because of some dick move by the AI. Shooting has been adjust to allow for an auto-target system that is useful for taking out larger groups of enemies but makes free aim a little tougher to control at times. This option can be shut off in the options menu should you wish to do so.
A word about the law enforcement. When your antics gain the attention of the police, instead of driving outside of a pursuit sphere a la GTA IV, ending a chase involves outrunning cops until the mini-map switches to a Metal Gear Solid-style design with cops showing up as radar blips attached to a line of sight “cone.” Stay out of these cones long enough (or get the car resprayed) and the cops will give up. Beating the police in this new system can be a little difficult at times but it feels so much more exhilarating than before.
Rockstar has honed their craft in every conceivable aspect of the game, from visuals to audio to character animations. Los Santos is rendered with an amazing sense of detail and for someone who has been to Los Angeles several times, I had a great time pointing out familiar landmarks. In fact, for those who spent hours in San Andreas, much of Los Santos will appear familiar (Vespucci Beach, for example). The sun reigns high in the sky, the sunsets are beautiful and the nights glow with artificial light. Although the outlying area of Blaine County lacks the hustle and bustle of the big city, it is far from empty and dreary. In fact, some areas – especially around Mount Chiliad – are downright beautiful.
The sound production is just as amazing as the sights. Walk down the streets in Los Santos and you’ll hear the shallowness of Vinewood society complaining about losing a movie role or going on some crazy, insane diet. Drive over train tracks or wooden bridges in Blaine County, and the you’ll hear the difference. The voice actors for each character offer the very best performance, Michael in particular. It’s really interesting to watch him as he struggles, sometimes violently, to live the life afforded to him. And Trevor…well, he is who he is. I imagine he had to be a tough character to portray because of his unpredictable nature. He be calm and collected one moment and fly into a red rage at the drop of an errant piece of criticism.
Grand Theft Auto Online is not yet available but the player is given some degree of online connectivity through the Social Club app, iFruit (currently available on iOS, Android to be released later). Within the app, you can customize Michael, Trevor and Franklin’s primary vehicle as well as train Chop the dog in a tamagotchi-style mini game. Unfortunately, access to the app and its functions was severely limited for this review, as I no doubt guess the Social Club’s servers are getting hammered. The app is not necessary for play but I hope this isn’t some sort of harbinger for the forthcoming online component.
I could go on and on about what one can expect to see and do in Grand Theft Auto V but that would take away from the different surprises and discoveries that await. In each new release, Rockstar finds different ways to iterate on a formula that has served them well since Grand Theft Auto III. Not only does GTA V combine the very best of Rockstar’s previous IPs, it is simply the best experience of the franchise. The controls have been improved and the changes to familiar elements and mechanics add a great deal to the experience. Furthermore, the game offers a considerably more lighthearted tone than its predecessor (it can also be surprisingly deep at times), though it still finds opportunities to get rather dark especially when Trevor is involved. Grand Theft Auto V is everything you’d expect in a Rockstar product and once again, they have managed to significantly outdo themselves.