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The Art of the Steal - Grand Theft Auto V Review

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Note: I published this review about six weeks ago. Re-posting it as a blog is a test of sorts before I decide whether or not I want to dive into all my usual year-end list-making to see if a decent number of people can still find and read my stuff despite this horrendous new site layout effectively killing off the unified user blogosphere.

Sometimes the desire for more can leave you with much, much less. Such is the theme that resides at Grand Theft Auto V's bleak and mean-spirited core. Rockstar's new vision of San Andreas is a loud and abrasive depiction of a society stripped of any moral decency as its denizens endlessly strive for more money, power, and respect - though they ultimately receive none for all their misguided ambition.

Quite ironically, and very unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto V's central messages apply rather easily to the finished product we have before us after a half-decade of development time. Grand Theft Auto V is bigger than its predecessors, but in seldom few ways is it truly better. The story is nihilistic and ham-fisted, and its unrelentingly harsh depictions of people in all walks of life end up making many of the messages it conveys just as questionable as the twisted culture it illustrates. The gameplay is more multi-faceted than ever, but a number of Grand Theft Auto V's mechanical structures - including new and central conceits like heists - are only satisfying on a superficial level. And Grand Theft Auto Online, though a frequently entertaining multiplayer offering, is poorly constructed and overly complex. Rockstar's insane ambitions are on clear display in Grand Theft Auto V, but the granular details of this vast experience pale in comparison to its broader strokes.

Luckily, Grand Theft Auto V has more than a few exceptional ideas going for it. In a commendably daring move, the game centers around not one, but three protagonists, between whom players are able to switch while out of missions with few restrictions. As you might imagine, this new power lends the game a snappy sense of pacing; Michael, Franklin, and Trevor, the game's three leads, spread themselves out across the gargantuan new map pretty evenly, ensuring that each swap-out will allow you to cover significant ground in short periods of time, getting you closer to whatever activities or locales might interest you in no time flat. Rather brilliantly, most swaps are lead in by short, voyeuristic vignettes that acquaint you with what these guys have been up to when you weren't controlling them, and they're often quite funny - getting a glimpse of some of Trevor's wild antics are a particular treat.

But this conceit isn't merely an inspired way of subverting the lame auto-travel options that pop up in just about every open-world game these days; the game's three protagonists are interesting characters in their own right, and are easily one of the game's foremost strengths.

Michael is my personal favorite, and easily stands as one of Rockstar's best characters. On the surface, he's is a seemingly sensible guy who's resigned himself to a quiet family life after years making a living as something of a master thief. But a chance run-in with Franklin reawakens the volatile criminal within him, and what follows is a compelling story arc that sees him struggling to reconcile his old ways with his new life. Here, Rockstar have finally found a way of crafting a character both possessed of nuance and a bottomless capacity for chaos.

Trevor, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the impulsive, brutish attitude that becomes frighteningly easy to adopt while playing a Grand Theft Auto game. He enjoys causing random havoc just as much as we all do when lost in Rockstar's digital realms, and this thuggish simplicity serves as a welcome change of pace from the likes of Vic Vance or John Marston, whose complexity of characterization never quite felt aligned with the mechanics they were bound to.

Franklin is somewhat bound to this archetype, but his exasperation with the people around him seems to purposefully ring false, as we catch glimpses of him reveling in all the mayhem just as much as the game's seemingly more unstable characters.

The game's story is at its very best when it focuses its attention on this captivating trio. Grand Theft Auto V wisely takes its time in connecting their stories, allowing palyers to get a good sense of how these men operate on their own before seeing the ways in which they influence each other. And once they join together as a formidable crew in the name of pulling off audacious heists, their core drama impresses even more. Grand Theft Auto V makes many attempts at thematic resonance, but the game is most effective when it focuses in on these three men, applying its uneasy and highly critical storytelling lens to their insatiable greed.

In this way, the game is particularly clever in how it handles dishing out monetary rewards. Though your capers would seem to pull tens of millions of dollars on a regular basis, the fruits of your criminal plots are regularly taken from you in various ways. The real kicker here: each character has all the money they could possibly need by about a third of the way through the game. Thus, your desire to put yet more cash in their pockets is pure, unadulterated greed. You may feel frustrated as the fat stacks are regularly kept at a distance, but that speaks to the game's cleverness rather than poor or unfair design; by the game's end, you'll have subscribed to the same delusional lust for meaningless socioeconomic advancement as the three thieves you take control of.

But, being a Grand Theft Auto title, the character arcs that drive Rockstar's latest are wrapped up in a holistic and farcical take on modern American culture that savages everything from social media to border patrolmen, celebrity culture to fitness crazes. Indeed, Grand Theft Auto V possess the kind of narrative that, within the games industry, could be labeled "edgy" or "smart." Truth be told, however, there's relatively little of such nuance to be found. The attitude that pervades the game's storytelling style, conversely, shows Dan Houser's increasingly blunt writing in dumber form than ever. Say what you will about Grand Theft Auto IV's dissonant qualities, but by the time the impossible trinity's stories came to a close, there was an undeniable clarity to what Rockstar was trying to say with these characters, and how their stories were inseperable from the environment they were placed in. Meanwhile,Grand Theft Auto V, though in more desperate search of meaning than ever before, mostly comes up empty when it comes to interesting commentary.

The two aspects of the American identity that Rockstar casts a particularly critical eye on are the depthlessness of modern entertainment (which, perhaps calls for some humble self-awareness on Rockstar's part) and the corruption of counter-terrorist agencies - a match that, as you might guess, isn't exactly like chocolate and peanut-butter, especially once you add in the action-comedy antics that underlie our trio's self-starter missions. The game's critique of the media is perhaps the more pointed of the two, as some run-ins with a strangely principled paparazzo and a sleazy game show host, among others, are brutally funny, as is the absurd degree to which seemingly every character values social media, and the indirectness of text messaging and email. Ultimately though, there's no real nuance here - the superficiality of Rockstar's messaging is more or less equal to the society they're so intent on skewering.

Satire at its finest.

What the game attempts to say about government corruption is far more bothersome. This is chiefly because Houser and co-writer Rupert Humphries try to say meaningful things about far too many exceedingly complex subjects. Private armies, infighting amongst government agencies in the name of glory and funding, protective compromises with criminals, illegal surveillance, and torture are all scrutinized under the falsely intelligent scope of the game's writing, and almost each and every one of the commentaries the game offers fails to be compelling or funny, much less eye-opening. The fact, too, that such weighty subjects are left to such a surface-level satirical treatment is especially bothersome. When one mission forced me to endure an extended cringe-inducing torture sequence, I desperately hoped the game would have something at least slightly interesting to say about it, but this section is book-ended by a weird (though admittedly dark and humorous) monologue that more or less side-steps the issue entirely. The segments of the game that revolve around these concepts ultimately succeed in tying back to the main story in a relevant, and even somewhat striking fashion, but there are a lot of ham-handed punches to roll with whilst the game laboriously brings its themes full circle.

Luckily, there are plenty of engaging side activities to bail you out of the game's insistent and consistently underwhelming narrative whenever it may start to weigh down on you. There are races galore, rampages make a gleefully chaotic return, you can do some yoga (which isn't all that fun), and can hang out with friends much like you could in Grand Theft Auto IV - but worry not, it's always up to you to initiate these meet-ups. The biggest surprises, however, have to be the golfing and tennis mini-games, which feel incredibly well-crafted, and possess a shocking depth that solidifies their unexpected replayability.

When it is time to indulge in the main story missions, it becomes abundantly clear that Rockstar's level and scenario design values spectacle far more than substance. Though robbing trains, chasing down crash-landing planes, or escaping from an abandoned factory after being ambushed by a horde of attackers might all seem incredibly badass, the high wears down significantly once you realize that you're essentially playing a high-stakes game of Simon Says. In spite of whatever cinematic flair is brought to the fold, the vast majority of missions consist of you simply moving from point A to point B, hiding behind walls before popping out to shoot enemies. Grand Theft Auto V quickly becomes unbelievably creative and high-concept in terms of what sort of visual surprises drive its biggest moments, but it never flexes an equal amount of design ingenuity, often leaving you out of its bombastic action, hoping there was some extra level of mechanical depth to get you more involved in the proceedings.

This problem becomes especially glaring when it comes to the game's big heist missions. When scoping out the first big score, for example, I'd been given the instruction to take pictures of things within the store that would be relevant to the upcoming robbery. On my way over to the jeweler in question, I began considering things that would be important to point out - guards, security cameras, alarms, and so on. But no sooner than I had arrived, ready to meticulously survey the things I thought might be of some import does the game simply point out exactly what needs to be photographed, seemingly just to get things over with. Though heist preparation is certainly a novel concept, the whole process becomes immensely frustrating as the game continuously refuses to afford you any significant amount of leeway in how you'd like things to play out - you simply choose one of two general approaches, then proceed to do precisely what the game tells you to do in order to kick off the main event.

Heists don't fare any better as they're actually taking place, as, yet again, you simply do precisely what the game asks of you. Even the character-switch mechanic, which houses the potential to allow so much exciting dynamism during these moments, becomes highly restrictive, forcing you to choose certain roles whenever it's most convenient for the game. Even as robberies begin their inevitable spiral out of control, a back-up plan is instantly formulated for you, leaving you to once more follow extremely specific directions.

Missions like these look cool, but never manage to truly engage.

None of this is to say the missions are outright bad. On the contrary, the hectic chases and white-knuckled firefights that they frequently supply are generally thrilling, and character swapping adds a good dose of variety to the mix. Moreover, it's undeniably true that the missions in the Grand Theft Auto games have always been a hyper-linear counterpoint to the sandbox stylings of its out-of-mission gameplay. What makes this restraint so crippling in Grand Theft Auto V, however, is that many of its central conceits, namely switching perspectives to orchestrate intricate capers, would seem to call for a much greater open-endedness that what we're ultimately left with, and it's a true shame the game's most intriguing concepts remain novelties and set-piece fodder rather than fully-fledged gameplay systems.

Luckily, Grand Theft Auto V's core mechanics are good enough to keep the action engaging even amidst all its befuddling design choices. The shooting structures, though not entirely satisfying, are still probably the best that can be found in an open-world game. Much like they did with Max Payne 3, Rockstar places special emphasis on the animations that underlie on-foot combat; characters don't simply glide into cover, they sprint and stumble their way there; weapons can't recover from recoil at the drop of a hat or be swapped out instantaneously. There's a certain rhythm to get used to here, and it's quite engaging. Furthermore, each character has a special ability that can be quite handy in combat scenarios - Michael slows down time Max Payne style, Trevor flips out and dishes up extra damage, while Franklin can slown down time in vehicles, making drivebys much easier.

Driving around, even when you aren't shooting anyone, is still a lot of fun - better than it's ever been, even. In Grand Theft Auto IV, vehicles had to be wrestled with more than the wild stallions found roaming Red Dead Redemption's vast plains. In Grand Theft Auto V, however, all those issues are remedied. The strange physics and control inconsistencies that formerly made commandeering cars, boats, and choppers a genuine pain are problems of the past. Cars feel especially slick, and helicopters benefit from some extra weightiness to their movements. Submarines make their debut, and planes make a welcome return, offering some uniquely stunning views of the new environment.

And on that note, I'd be remiss not to talk about how incredible Rockstar's new vision of San Andreas is. The city of Los Santos is undoubtedly the highlight, as Rockstar does a fantastic job of compacting the seemingly endless sprawl of Los Angeles, giving players a broad (and of course, exaggerated) sense of the culture it houses. Atmospherically, the city gives off a Michael Mann-esque cool, especially when it lights up at night and the game's brilliant ambient soundtrack (handled by Tangerine Dream and The Alchemist, among others) starts to kick in. The back-country proves equally enthralling, as Rockstar draws on imagery not only endemic to southern California, but also Nevada, New Mexico, and NorCal. The desert flatlands that Trevor calls home are a particular joy to tear through in off-road vehicles, while biking down the stunning new Mount Chilliad is a uniquely breathtaking experience.

San Andreas is as varied and vibrant as open worlds come.

It must furthermore be said that the radio stations providing the backing tracks for all this environmental exploration house top-notch playlists. Of particular note is how well the game represents West Coast hip-hop culture; songs from the likes of YG, Black Hippy, Dr. Dre, and Too $hort abound, while DJ Pooh and Flying Lotus hold down their own stations. Radio Mirror Park, a synth-pop station, and a wonderful soul station (DJed by none other than Pam Grier) are also highlights.

If I were getting paid by the word to write this review, I'd probably be able to retire already, so I'm going to keep my thoughts on Grand Theft Auto V's multiplayer mode, perhaps expectedly titled Grand Theft Auto Online, very brief. In short, free roaming with a group of friends is a huge amount of fun, and the absurd restrictiveness of the game's singleplayer missions is mostly absent. But there are also numerous frustrations, including connectivity issues, save file loss, possibly the most obtuse character creation system ever made, and a laborious character progression system; the grind required of you feels particularly suspect when considering the game's not-so subtle hints toward its many microtransaction options. It's also a huge disappointment that the widely-touted multiplayer heists are nowhere to be seen as of right now. Still, the core Grand Theft Auto experience has always been one that desperately cries out for multiplayer madness, and I find myself glad to participate in the over-the-top hijinks despite all the nagging flaws.

What makes Grand Theft Auto V great is largely what makes Grand Theft Auto III great; moving through a meticulously crafted environment, soaking in the atmosphere and generally doing as you please in an unhurried fashion is what has been this series' central appeal for over a decade now. It is thus easy to take for granted all the things Grand Theft Auto V does so right, from its ridiculous production value to the simple sublimation of just travelling through the world it presents. But even in accounting for these significant sources of immersion and entertainment, it's hard for me to come away feeling overwhelmingly positive about my experience with the game. It simply seems to fall back on its tried and true formula far too much, often only making a minimum effort in branching out into new territory, and its half-baked heists and largely insufferable story highlight this painful problem.

And that's why, flaws and all, I still prefer Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodes to the muddled opus we have before us now. Niko, Johnny, and Luis's stories may not have always been thrilling or consistent, but they reflected a new approach to the open-world genre, one that was willing to sacrifice scope and grandeur in the name of a more cohesive and affecting experience. Grand Theft Auto V is as fun as I'm sure Grand Theft Auto games always will be, but it won't resonate for very long in comparison.