Grand Theft Auto V begins with a heist. Three guys rob a bank in a backwater, frozen town and when they try to make their getaway, one of their men dies and two others are gravely injured from gunshot wounds. Things are looking grim until the game fast forwards several years and Michael, one of the men who was shot, is sitting in his therapist’s office, complaining about how his wife is cheating on him, his daughter is ungrateful and his son is an entitled bastard.
The game does a good job of setting the mood with its opening mission. It’s an exciting and fun way to begin the game, and delivers promises of what’s to come. Shortly after the introduction, you are introduced to the multiple protagonist mechanic. You shift control from Michael, the former bank robber who is now living in a suntanned personal hell in spite of his money, to Franklin, a young man who grew up in the ghetto of Los Santos. Almost immediately, the tone shifts. When playing as Michael, the game feels like a dark family comedy. When playing as Franklin, the game shifts to a gangster story. Through a series of events, Franklin begins to learn about how to be a great criminal from Michael. Eventually, a third protagonist, Trevor, a mentally unstable and violent psychopath who lives in the country, is introduced and the story unfolds from there.
The narrative is strange in that a lot of it feels aimless. Each character has their own little story threads that tie into the bigger picture (the trio eventually get roped into working for several different people). So, often, you will do a mission where you work for one of the big guys, but then, maybe as Michael, you’ll work for someone else entirely. Still, a lot of the writing is pretty good, and it’s enhanced by the acting and motion capture. Trevor is undoubtedly the standout character, though. He is violent, crude, but often times really hilarious; some of the game’s funnier moments come from his blood soaked hijinks. Events sometimes feel disconnected from one another, but everything ties together in one of the three endings (although I will say that, having watched all three endings, only one of them is really satisfying in any way).
Since there are three protagonists, each one has some kind of special ability to make them stand out. Michael is basically Max Payne; he can enhance his reflexes by slowing down time in order to take more accurate shots. Franklin is an excellent driver; he can slow time while driving to perform almost impossible stunts (turning on a dime, dodging traffic, etc). Trevor can enter a rage mode where he takes half as much normal damage and deals twice as much while he yells out goofy lines. These abilities are interesting, but I found that a lot of the time they are under used.
One of the biggest attractions to this game are the heists. In these, each character has a role to play (you can plan them all out ahead of time and choose the personnel and everything- all of which affects the outcome). And in some situations, you can switch between the three of them on the fly in order to get a better vantage point or perform some kind of action. The issue is that, too often, the mechanic is used as an excuse to force the player into doing something. For instance, in one heist, you must play as Michael for an extended period of time before automatically switching to franklin in order to give cover fire with a sniper rifle. You can only play as Trevor once he comes in a helicopter and the only thing you can do is fly away. Situations like this are too common for my tastes. Not only that, but characters are often given roles that are counterproductive to their specialties. I lost count of how many times Michael was the driver even though Franklin was present. Dodging the cops is also a hassle in this game. More often than not you end up having to just hide under a bridge somewhere while waiting for the heat to cool down. This makes it even more baffling that you can’t play as Franklin in so many of the chase parts.
But that leads me to another issue: driving. There is, simply put, too much driving in the game. I don’t think there’s a single mission where you don’t have to drive for an extended amount of time before doing something else. Hell, there’s one mission where you chase some guys in sports cars all the way around the map (and despite all three characters driving, you can only play as Michael after a certain point). It goes on for far too long and becomes monotonous.
Another big issue is that once you stop driving, sometimes all it leads to is more driving. The missions on hand here are a huge mixed bag. For instance, take the heist missions. Before each one, you need to perform a variety of tasks in order to prepare. Things like stealing a getaway vehicle, getting outfits, etc. It makes sense since in real life you would need to do that, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. Another mission has you playing an incredibly dull crane mini game in order to cover for the fact that you’re scouting out a location. I think the game is trying to inject variety into the proceedings, but the fact of the matter is that many of the attempts aren’t very much fun.
That’s not to say that the game isn’t fun, though. There are many exciting missions and fun times to be had if you can get through the dull ones. For instance, one mission has you hopping on top of a moving train before blowing up a bridge. Another one has you escaping from a government facility where the feds think you’re a threat to national security. When the game is good, it’s really good, especially on the chaotic heist missions. There are also some side missions to perform with each character, and, like the main missions, they are a mixed bag. Trevor has the most interesting ones (hunting, bounty hunting, etc) and the others tend to be dull. Franklin can tow cars, which is about as exciting as it sounds, as well as work with an online “journalist” to get dirt on celebrities. Michael can… well there was one mission where you race a woman to the beach and I think that’s about it (although there is a guy who promotes the legalization of weed that can be encountered by each character, with hilarious results).
You can also explore the well realized city of Los Santos. There are multiple shops scattered around, like gun shops, barbers, chop shops and more. The production values and attention to detail is also quite stunning at times. Every pedestrian is always doing something different, and random occurrences can happen at any time. One time I was playing as Michael and walked into a hair salon to get a haircut. It turns out, though, that the place was being robbed. The guys left, saying not to leave the store for ninety seconds. What did I do? Whipped out my automatic pistol, activated bullet time, walked out the door like a badass, and used the extra precision to gun down all three assailants before they had the chance to get out of the car. Little moments like these really add an air of authenticity to the city.
There are a few other issues, though. For one, the writing, while funny, is inconsistent at times. For one thing, the women in this game are portrayed rather poorly. There were maybe two women that weren’t obnoxious and detestable (although to be fair most of the men are also detestable, but they’re made out to be much more sympathetic). Another thing is that the tone can vary wildly and it comes off as sloppy. The infamous sequence where you torture someone as Trevor is a particular standout. It seems like it’s trying to say something, but the fact is that it only comes off as a cheap attempt at being controversial for the sake of being controversial. Finally, many activities feel totally pointless. For instance, you can invest in the stock market to make more money. But the thing is that the heists give you so much money that there’s really no point. By the end of the game, each character had every weapon and more ammo than I could know what to do with, and I still had a ton of money left over. Then there are things like yoga, golf and other sports which, again, don’t really add anything. I never felt compelled to try them and when I did I didn’t really get anything out of them.
Still, the game is an impressive technical achievement and ultimately worth playing to see just how exciting it can be. It’s a shame that certain aspects of the game just don’t work as well as they should or feel shoe horned in.
+ Well realized city that has an eye for detail
+ Three protagonists to play, each with interesting personalities and abilities (especially Trevor)
+ Some of the missions are intense, exciting and a lot of fun, especially the heists
+ Solid shooting
+ Writing is solid and often times very funny in a dark way
+ Story ultimately ties together in a neat way (depending on the ending) and has some interesting themes
- Three protagonist mechanic often feels under used or places characters in situations that feel counterproductive to their special abilities
- Attempts to inject variety into many missions fail more often than they succeed and take up a lot of the game
- Far, far too much driving
- Story can feel aimless at times and the writing can be inconsistent, especially when it comes to women
GTAV is a game that can be truly exhilarating when it gets out of its own way and lets the player have fun. But the extra features often times feel like the developers said “hey look what we put into the game” without really any point. It is a truly great technical achievement that unfortunately leads to a game that is really fun at parts and not fun at all at others.