Update: We've updated our review to reflect the changes made to the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V. Please scroll to the bottom of the story to find the updated content. - PB, 4/15/2015, 02:00 PM PDT
Update: I've now had a chance to play the Xbox One version of GTA V, and there are no discernible differences in image quality, or performance between the two versions, at least to the naked eye; the slight frame rate slowdown experienced during busier scenes on the PS4 is also present on the Xbox One. While support for Remote Play and the DualShock's speaker and lightbar obviously isn't in the Xbox One version, it does have support for the Xbox One's haptic triggers, which subtly vibrate when you fire a weapon, or hammer the accelerator in a vehicle. - MW, 11/19/2014, 09:00 PST
I have just spent a half-hour planning the perfect heist. I'm going in smart, knocking out the guards and the staff behind the delicate jewellery counters of the store with a carefully placed smoke bomb, and smashing into each cabinet with the butt of a semi-automatic rifle before making my escape on a nearby getaway bike. I'm reducing my cut so I can hire the best hacker to disable the security system, and a skilled gunman to handle crowd control. And yet, despite my best efforts, with one poorly-taken corner on my bike, it all goes wrong. I should be driving down a dank sewer tunnel, sneaking my way under the city to freedom. Instead, I'm here, mowing down wave after wave of police on the city streets, and for the first time while playing a Grand Theft Auto game, I feel immensely guilty about it.
This isn't because of some grand moral awakening on my part, but an interesting side effect of what is the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version of GTA V's most compelling new feature: first-person mode. Even when GTA games were top-down shooters, there was always something of a disconnect between the sometimes shockingly violent scenes on-screen, and the mentality of the player. You could imagine that, despite directly controlling a character, it was this virtual caricature of a criminal committing the crimes--you merely played witness to them. First-person mode fundamentally changes how you view GTA V's world. It has the power to make you stop and think about your actions, and to deeply question a character's motivations. And in a series that has long been criticized for glorifying a life of crime, rather than questioning it, this is no bad thing.
Yes, there are plenty of violent first-person shooters around in which issues of morality can be raised, but few are paired with the stunning Hollywood production values of GTA V. The city of Los Santos is one of the most beautiful and convincing open-world environments to have ever graced a video game, and in its new higher-resolution guise, it's even more spectacular. Compared to the last-gen versions, the new GTA V is noticeably sharper, largely thanks to improved antialiasing. Textures resolutions have been bumped, surfaces are, well, bumpier (thanks enhanced tessellation), and there are all manner of new particle, light, and lens effects. You can cruise down Vespucci Beach and pick out little details in its trinket stores and skateboard shops that weren't there before. You can drive around in the rain, marvelling at the beautifully rendered raindrops and puddles on the ground. And when you stop admiring the scenery to cause some anarchy, explosions from a hastily thrown grenade pop in a dazzling display of fire and light.
To admire this all in first-person is a delight. The wide, cinematic field of view is very different to that of your typical shooter, as is the slower pace with which you walk; think P.T. and you're on the right track. Where the camera once easily tilted up above and around the city, at ground level everything looks bigger and more imposing. I found myself walking along the city streets, watching as the many weird and wonderful citizens of Los Santos went about their business. I wandered into shops, even those where I couldn't buy anything, just to admire the astonishing level of detail at eye level, with nifty depth of field effects helping to sell the immersion. It's all very lifelike, the gentle head bobs and animations as you leap over walls and tumble out of cars drawing you into the game in a way that third-person mode never could.
This is especially true when the action heats up, and where the grizzly reality of GTA V comes into sharp focus. With most missions revolving around some form of gunplay, the bloody splatter of a drug dealer laid to waste on the sidewalk, or the groans of an injured cop writing on the hood of his car have far more of an effect than before. Of course, not everyone will be as affected by this as I was, but there are some practical points to ponder too. Shooting and throwing explosives is easier in first-person, even with GTA's assisted aim disabled--provided you turn down the obscene levels of controller sensitivity before you start--but the cover system isn't quite there, and there were times when I wasn't able to peek around a corner properly and got shot as a result.
Then there's the driving, which, no matter how hard I tried, I found far too difficult to master in first-person. The fully working and wonderfully detailed vehicle interiors might be impressive, but the twitchy controls that work so well in third-person for pulling off outrageous driving stunts are just far too sensitive to easily keep cars on the road during a frantic police chase. There are also vehicle missions that simply weren't designed with first-person in mind either. Trying to catch Michael's son as he dangles off a boat on the highway, or performing a speeding drive by on the highway is very difficult. It's arguably more realistic, but I found myself switching back to third-person in order to get them done. Thankfully, it's not an either or situation when it comes to your viewpoint. You can drive in third-person and have the game automatically switch to first-person when on-foot if you like, or even pan out to third-person when you take cover.
But even if you choose to ignore first-person mode completely, GTA V has lost little of its lustre since release. Even now, after the years of progress in the industry and all the wonderful games that I've played, I'm surprised how few have managed to replicate the Hollywood feel and effortless, natural dialogue of a GTA. This is a series that has consistently been the most convincing and the most cinematic in games, and GTA V continues that tradition with aplomb. Even something as basic as credible characters are a rarity, and yet GTA V manages to create a whole city full of them, as well as three authentic leads with which to journey through it. That's not to say these leads are likeable characters, but perhaps that's the point. There may be a few times you sympathise with retired gangster Michael as his family life crumbles around him, or when you believe that wannabe gangster Franklin might be a nice guy just because he says he's always trying to do the right thing.
But these are narcissistic, psychopathic killers who don't blink an eyelid at killing hundreds of perfectly innocent people when it serves their own means. This is particularly true of Trevor, who remains far and away the most interesting and well-written character of the lot, a terrifyingly insane yet remarkably intelligent criminal who constantly seems on the edge of some kind of mental breakdown. Scary doesn't even begin to describe it. These characters are not without fault, though--there are moments when a character will contradict his own motivations, seemingly just to fit the structure of a mission--but the fact that these characters can be so convincingly terrifying, and so sharp and snappy in their interactions with one another is a testament to just how fantastic the writing in GTA is.
This is a series that has consistently been the most convincing and the most cinematic in games, and GTA V continues that tradition with aplomb.
That extends to the world at large too: the sprawling, gorgeously detailed metropolis of Los Santos deftly satirizes its real-world inspiration of Los Angeles, and of America as whole. Highlights include the self-proclaimed god of social media, Lifeinvader CEO Jay Norris, And his company's beanbag-filled offices; the constant barrage of adverts for celebrity magazines, prescription drugs, and plastic surgeries that are savaged on the radio; and the corrupt government agencies like the FiB that often act worse than the criminals they're trying to put away. Sure, GTA V is sometimes heavy-handed with its satire, but there are few games that dare go as far as GTA does with its nihilistic commentary, and fewer still that do it with such conviction.
Running through it all are bombastic missions that play out like Hollywood blockbusters, and the finest of gangster films. Heists remain the highlight, and the whole process of planning them out, hiring members of the team, gathering equipment, and then hoping that the fuzz doesn't interfere on the big day is utterly engrossing. Bombs are exploded, helicopters are smashed into the side of skyscrapers, and entire squads of police give chase as you make a futile attempt escape down the highway; the sheer thrill of a four or five star chase as what seems like the entire state's quota of law enforcement descends upon you cannot be understated. And yet, GTA V remains stuck in the past in some ways. There are chase missions where losing sight of your target thanks to a poorly taken turn on the highway means making a frustrating restart, and assassination missions where, if you jump the gun and kill your target before the game expects you to, you have to start over again.
But the sheer spectacle of it all drags you back in for more. GTA has never really been subtle, and the game steamrolls its way through its less exciting moments, filling them with crafty pop culture-filled conversations and breathtaking landscapes for you to ogle. There are extra missions to play too, including the random creeps of Los Santos who ask you to do things as mundane as tow trucks for them, or to smoke weed and mow down aliens in an hallucinogenic rampage through the city. There are the multiple leisure activities you can indulge in, or the real estate you can buy, and the stocks you invest in along with the markets you can manipulate. Or you can just slack it all off completely and use Los Santos as your own wonderful digital playground, setting up sticky bomb-filled booby traps in the middle of traffic, or stealing jumbo jets from the airport and trying to fly them under bridges. Indeed, it's the adventures you create yourself that often prove to be the most fun.
And then there's GTA Online. It's safe to say GTA Online didn't get off to a good start, with server issues and all manner of balance problems. With GTA V, online gets a few boosts, including an enhanced character creator, as well as support for up to 30 simultaneous players (with two additional spectators), and the inclusion of all 11 of GTA Online's existing updates. And yes, you can play in first-person too. These are nice additions, but Online still suffers from a lack of direction. Although you can easily import your old character, I opted to create a new one, after which I was dumped onto a sidewalk in Los Santos armed only with a map full of confusing icons and little idea about what I should do next.
Once you're over the hump and you've figured out the process of finding jobs to do like stealing packages from characters, or taking part in street races--and people to do them with via your trusty mobile phone--things get more interesting. Once you've built up a suitable pile of cash (which does take some time if you're starting from scratch), you can buy a nice apartment to stay in, and fancy cars to put in its garage. To what end, I'm still not sure. Much has been said about how GTA online is too open, and how sessions often turn into mass deathmatches, which is even more of an issue with 30 chaotic players around--but for me that's always been part of its draw. Trolling someone who's taken themselves far too seriously in a street race by creating an epic roadblock, or simply roaming the streets robbing convenience stores and then performing a smooth getaway still manages to raise a smile.
That these activities raise a smile here (even when played in first-person), and yet throw up a moral dilemma in single-player is as much to do with the lack of a narrative structure online as it is to do with my own personal feelings towards most other internet users. It raises an interesting conundrum too: is it better to play in first-person and be moved by GTA V's events in a more profound way, or should you play in the third-person, distancing yourself from the game's more controversial moments?
The fact that I'm even thinking about this at all in a video game that's as popular and as, well, mainstream as GTA V is a testament to its quality. Over a year later, GTA V remains one of the most consistently entertaining video games I've ever played. Even without the spectacular new visuals, first-person mode, the epic new rail gun, the new murder mystery missions for Michael, the new, even furrier animals, remote play support on PS4, a mountain of new songs on the radio (including my personal favourite, I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys on the pop station), and the return of vehicles like the classic Dodo seaplane, GTA V would be still be worth playing.
Aside from a few mild frame rate issues that sometimes take the edge off its more dramatic moments, this is the definitive version of GTA V, and the bar by which all other open-world games, or indeed any game that aims for a cinematic feel, should be judged. It is beautiful, and thought-provoking, and thrilling throughout. Even if you've played through GTA V once already, it's worth going back just to be reminded of what an outstanding achievement it is.
At its core, Grand Theft Auto V on PC is the same game that it is on other platforms, and while it’s never looked as good as it does on a strong PC, anyone who’s played GTA V elsewhere may not benefit from buying it for a second or third time unless they’re desperate for better graphics. If you fall into that camp, you can easily transfer your progress over to the PC version via the Rockstar Social Club to continue where you left off, diving headlong into the revamped Los Santos with minimal fuss.
It looked great on PS4 and Xbox One, but GTA V shines on PC thanks to 4K-grade textures, the availability of additional post-processing effects, and an unlocked frame rate. Previous versions of the game played just fine at 30 frames per second, but you quickly appreciate the added fluidity of playing at 60 FPS (if not more) on PC. If you can give it enough juice (read: afford top-end gaming hardware), then you can marvel at the added flourishes in 4K, even, but even three Nvidia GTX 980's in SLI couldn't push the highest settings at 4K without dipping to around 30 frames per second. Whether in 4K, or at 1080p, the new high-res textures pop with detail, and new lighting effects lead to plenty of awe inspiring moments. GTA V can paint stunning pictures, with the right mix of scenery, subject, and daylight, that highlight the natural beauty of its geography and the grime that pulses through its concrete veins. GTA V has always looked good, but a great gaming PC is the only way to witness the full extent of Rockstar’s admirable handiwork.
Keep in mind that GTA V retains evidence of its last-gen roots, even on PC, with simple geometry abound. You notice low-poly models on occasion as they contrast with the great texture work and lighting on hand, as simplicity and complexity mix before your eyes. GTA V is impressive at times, but you never forget that you’re playing a game that’s foundation was built with outdated constraints in mind.
You get a unique tool in the PC version that allows you to show off all of the game's flare, as well as your creativity: the Rockstar Editor. This tool allows you to record footage during missions or while free-roaming around Los Santos, either by manually recording gameplay or by sourcing the last few minutes of cached actions. More than simply allowing you to cut together clips, you have full control over the camera while going through your gameplay. You can set your angles manually, choose from a list of preset angles, and apply camera shakiness, redefining the look and perspective of a moment in time. Little touches such as blending make it easy to transition from one clip and camera angle to the next, without having to put much thought into it.
In Director mode, you have even more control of the events at hand. You can choose actors, human or animal, to control, rather than being limited to the three main characters. You also have control over time of day, your location on the map, and whether or not cheats are enabled, allowing you to sample from a wide palette of possibilities to craft the scene of your dreams. There's a learning curve to the editor, but Rockstar offers a range of tutorials that should help experienced and inexperienced editors alike.
Playing GTA V on PC means that you can now use a mouse and keyboard, which is a huge benefit during shootouts where precision is key. Whether you play it in first- or third-person mode, it clearly makes targeting easier. However, don't think that you should put down the controller for good. Keyboard and mice lack analog buttons, which are key during driving sequences. Being able to control your throttle with a sensitive trigger is something you get used to and manage naturally, often without giving it a second thought. The binary, on or off nature of a keyboard or mouse button gets in the way of your instincts and takes away the nuanced control afforded by analog triggers. For the best experience, keep a controller plugged in and switch between it and a mouse and keyboard for the moment at hand. Chalk it up to hardware standards, rather than Rockstar’s. - Peter Brown, 4/15/2015, 02:00 PM PDT