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Grand Theft Auto V: The Grand Piano of the Sandbox

We all love the moments when we’re driving ATVs out of the back of a cargo jet, or tearing through a small town police force with a mini-gun, but a game’s narrative is truly successful when moments such as driving a truck full of expensive, stolen vehicles down a very-long countryside road is just as powerful, if not more so, due in part to excellent writing, in a very accomplished, highly ambitious, Tarantino-style narrative. At the very least, it does butt heads with the very best of Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, in case you were confused).

I consider Grand Theft Auto IV a watermark on this generation of consoles, and when taken together with its DLC partners, tells one of the best narratives in all of gaming. I had very little hope that V would surpass it, and… I was right, at least in my opinion. I don’t think this game is better than IV, story or atmosphere-wise. It does, however, house much more customization and content than IV. This is a wildly massive game, taking place in a massively detailed world without a single loading screen, and can be truly considered as the most technically-impressive game of this generation. Even the most remote trees have considerable detail put into them, each having their own unique little element that sets them apart from all of the other trees in the area. Los Santos and Blaine County are two very beautifully detailed locales, highlighted by superb lighting and the amazing level of life inhabiting them.

This goes double for AI pedestrians, who actually seem like they have something to do, something going on in their lives. You’ll find them hiking, doing yoga, playing golf, and being chased down by the police, much like yourself. The AI is very good and realistic, without having to be dumbed down (a case of excellent AI having to be dumbed down is The Last of Us). Enemies take cover and flank you, rather than running right out in front of you (as in Bioshock Infinite).

It takes some skill to pull off some of the tougher shots, which, for the first time in the series, is actually possible without luck. The combat has been perfected, and gunplay-heavy missions no longer require insane amounts of luck and auto-aim (first time many people have ever played a GTA without auto-aim). The shooting is ripped straight from Max Payne 3, just without the bullet-time air dodges (we’ll talk more about bullet-time later). You can stock up on much ammunition at the local Ammunations around town. There you may also buy upgrades for your weapons, so they can inflict damage from wherever you may need it, be it in the dark or from far away. If you feel you need some time to perfect your gunplay, you can visit the Ammunation stores that house firing ranges in the back, with many challenges just waiting for you to master (I spent much time here, early on).

I must tell you that I was a very devoted fan to not just GTA IV, but to its wonderfully borderline-simulation driving, so I was at first a little disappointed when I heard V would have a considerably more arcade-y driving system. Those fears were shot down once I got to drive, and found it to be the perfect balance between IV’s realism and the past games’ incredible arcade-iness. The cars just all feel right, in both weight and control, and boy are there many, many wonderful cars. Don’t go expecting it to be an easy task hiking mountains in a mini-van- that’s what dirt bikes and ATVs are for. You can modify your cars to your liking over at Los Santos Customs in town or Beaker’s Garage over in Sandy Shores, both of which feature a vast amount of customization options.

I mentioned before how this game was missing the bullet-time air-dodges of Max Payne. That is true: it is missing the air-dodges, but the bullet-time is technically there. It’s one of Michael’s(one of three main characters) special abilities, that of being able to slow down time to line up the best kill shot possible. Franklin has the ability to focus drive, giving greater control to your driving, and Trevor has a berserker rage that enables him to have the capacity to cause more damage, all while taking very little himself. How long this can be done is indicated by a yellow bar under your GPS, next to your health and armor (or lung capacity) bars. These all come in handy, though I’ve found Franklin’s to be an absolute lifesaver on the road, while Trevor’s has saved me from death by mountain lion quite a few times.

Yes, these three are all the main protagonists of the game. Franklin is a smart young man, being forced to deal with idiotic gangster “friends” while trying to make his way out of that life and into an infinitely more successful one. Michael, a successful bank robber, has everything he could ever have asked for, which makes life quite boring for him, and his terrible family doesn’t quite alleviate that mood. And then there’s Trevor, an absolutely deranged, but brilliant, psychopath, who uses fear, murder, rape, and cannibalism to instill loyalty in his backwater employees, those that make up the great Trevor Phillips Industries (or Enterprises; doesn’t really matter which one you call it).

You’ll be able to control all three of them throughout the game. When not on a mission (and not under the heat of a police force), you can freely switch between the three by holding down on the D-pad, and using the right stick to select a character. Many missions, however, allow you to freely switch between the three, allowing for much variety, tapping down to quick-switch to the currently most relevant character. Don’t feel like shooting as Michael at the moment? Switch over to Franklin driving a getaway vehicle. Don’t wanna fly a helicopter as Trevor? Switch over to Michael, firing a machine-gun out of the side of it, or over to Franklin on a nearby building, where he is equipped with a sniper rifle. When playing as one character, the others continue their life. Switching over to one after not switching for a while will have them out somewhere, living their life; examples include Franklin being stuck in traffic, or Trevor pushing some poor soul off a bridge. They may have also changed their wardrobe since then.

There are many stores in and around Los Santos designated for clothes shopping. You can pick up some bowling shirts at a discount store, or maybe a nice cream suit from Ponsonbys. Many options to dress each part of your body, and make you look the best you want you to look. Same goes for hair salons/barber shops, and tattoo parlors.

As I said before, there is a ton of content, spread throughout the whole of Los Santos and Blaine County, almost to the point where it becomes overwhelming. You can race four different ways; sea, dirt, foot, and street; you can play tennis, golf (both of which are much more than simple minigames, and both of which you can do with buddies in-game), catch a movie (the best being The Loneliest Robot in Great Britain), watch TV (new episode of Republican Space Rangers!) , browse the interwebs on your phone and home computer, go hunting, skydive, find collectibles (murder evidence and spaceship parts), take on rampages and bail jumpers and Strangers and Freaks missions, and a list that goes on, and on, and on. All of it is fun and intuitive, feeding on gamers’ ADHD complex, and providing gamers with a non-hassled good time while reaching 100%.

If you’re money hungry, you’ll be sad to hear that very rarely do missions give you money in this game. That’s why it’s important to invest money that you do earn from various heists and taxi driving, into stocks, via BAWSAQ (powered by Rockstar Social Club). You can access it from your in-game phone by logging on to the internet app, and going to the money section on Eyefind. The cool thing about the stocks are how you can influence them. If you happen to go destroy a rival business’ competitor’s equipment (like, say, destroying a FlyUS airplane), then said business’ stock prices will go up. Being powered by Social Club means that other players can affect the stock prices for your game. If a lot of players buy a lot of things from a clothing store or Ammunation, said stores’ stock prices will go up. Being smart about how you invest can mean the difference between much more money, and losing money. Another business tactic is to invest in properties, but you really shouldn’t bother with those, as they usually end up costing millions, only delivering thousands on every other occasion.

V has managed to improve upon IV’s wonderful physics, allowing for cooler car crashes, as well as being able to slide across the hood of a car. Be careful though, as the improved physics mean that jumping into a ledge will no longer mean you climb it, but instead hit it, and flip over, losing a bit of health. The realistic movement and physics help this game to be drop-dead gorgeous in the graphics department. The scope has also been modified from IV (I won’t say improved, because IV’s scope didn’t call for such things), with former elements from San Andreas making their triumphant return, such as (much improved) swimming underwater, flying airplanes, tanks, mini-guns, and the wilderness.

Out in the wilderness, or in town, you’re bound to see animals. Franklin himself takes care of a dog named Chop, who you can walk, and play fetch with. For smartphone owners, you can download the iFruit app, which also comes with an app that allows you to teach Chop tricks, and a Los Santos Customs app, which lets you design your own license plates.

As usual, the radio is almost-flawless, featuring the likes of Queen, Robyn, Hall and Oates, Pet Shop Boys, and Eddie Murphy, with the only real flaw being that Lazlow doesn’t have his own dedicated talk show radio station. But, the biggest and best audio performer here is the incredible dynamic original score, that highlights moments of intense action and/or subtle moments of drama. Every piece is much better than anything you’ll find on the radio. Another highlight is the phenomenal voice-acting from damn near every participant (sans Michael’s family), but none more so than the three protagonists, Franklin’s right-hand man Lamar, and their chief heist organizer Lester. They all give off hell of performances with the motion capture, with true honest-to-God emotion leaking in all over the place. It’s very hard not to like these characters, and each of them made saying goodbye to all this very, very hard.

It seems that whenever Rockstar makes a new Grand Theft Auto, they take elements from games they made in-between installments, and mix them into a huge stew of awe-inspiring game design. San Andreas had elements of Manhunt, IV had Rockstar Table Tennis and Bully, and this game has GTA IV, San Andreas, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and Max Payne 3, all slumming it in the same delicious stew, to bring us what may very well be Rockstar’s magnum opus, as well this generation’s, on a purely technical level. The wonderful characters, well-written narrative, and biting satire are all just icing.

Dan and Sam Houser have definitely matured since the first game, and that has had a polarizing effect on the series. It went from mindless, senseless violence for the sake of controversy, to a sophisticated, satirical look on modern-day America, told through exuberantly well-written narratives; as well setting the player loose, free to indulge in massively-inhabited game spaces, in both content and atmosphere, and in that regard, this is their masterpiece.