Grand Theft Auto V deserves accolades for its innovative triumvirate of antiheroes, its many and varied missions, and the sprawling depiction of Los Santos and the hillbilly outbacks. But to rip off what an erudite author once said about Oakland, there is no "there" there. I can't imagine any scenario in which a literary icon like Gertrude Stein would be critiquing a video game, but that legendary putdown can also apply to the Greater Los Santos Area. There is something missing in GTAV that makes the game less engaging than the sociopathic sandboxes of GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas, the two GTA games that will perpetually be my measuring sticks for the franchise.
What is missing most of all is a solid sense of place. Both Vice City and San Andreas reveled in nostalgia. Vice City reeked of the '80s, from the pitch-perfect radio stations to the Crockett and Tubbs lookalikes that showed up in their Testarossas--er, Cheetahs--when you cranked your wanted level to three stars. San Andreas evoked the early 1990s in a similar way. San Andreas' theme was not as developed as Vice City's, but the game still depicted a recognizable time and place in its grim cartoon look at Los Angeles--with sidelong glances at LA County, San Francisco, and Las Vegas--during the explosion of rap and the racial tension that saw a good chunk of SoCal go up in flames after the Rodney King verdict.
Both San Andreas and Vice City seemed like real places. Rockstar's biggest achievement in these games was in creating places that you wanted to visit. Vice City was most successful at this. I practically moved to Vice City; I knew the streets by name and could find my way around there better than in the real world. This devotion speaks to Vice City's power to invade my waking thoughts. Long after the game's release, I would go for long drives around town, listening to the radio and indulging my inner hooligan in a rampage or three. The same is true of San Andreas, although the allure of the '80s theme usually won out before I got the San Andreas disc into the system. Rockstar hasn't forgotten how to do this sort of thing. I liked visiting the faux West of Red Dead Redemption just as much as I did Vice City, and still load up the game to ride around the lonely prairie.
GTAV, much like its immediate predecessor, GTAIV, is too almost-modern for its own good. While the setting is ostensibly today, the plot goes back to the 2008-2009 depths of the Great Recession. The story feels dated, and not in the good way of Vice City and San Andreas, which were intentionally retro. Instead of thinking, "Cool! That Exploder: Evacuator Part II movie commercial perfectly sums up how dumb action movies really were in 1986!" you're thinking, "Man, the developers started writing this stuff a long time ago."
Look beyond the jokey stuff, and you discover an unrelentingly bleak, black-hearted look at humanity.
Not that the economy is really a whole lot better today, of course. But worries about the housing crisis, the implosion of Lehman Brothers, and the bursting of the housing bubble in the US--all things that clearly motivated a lot of the storyline in GTAV--are not exactly current. We've moved on to new economic meltdowns, like the stateside debt ceiling crisis. Its critique of mainstream media is equally archaic; taking shots at reality television for being crass also isn't cutting-edge comedy. Grand Theft Auto V was a clearly expensive game to make and obviously took a long time to develop, but a story that is only contemporary when work begins in earnest on a project of this magnitude ultimately looks dated. It suffers from the curse of trying to be too current.
Los Santos, at least, is brilliantly realized, particularly as a technical achievement. The city and the surrounding meth-producing rural environs form the most realistic depiction of a metropolitan area to ever grace a game. The whole burg lives and breathes, offering colorful slices of life whether you're creeping through backyards in the dead of night or just wandering down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. I don't think I ever encountered any window dressing; all of the people seemed to be present in their own moments, not just there to serve as my personal backdrop. But it's so damn big. I long for the simpler layouts of Vice City and even the more sprawling San Andreas. You could get to know them in a reasonable amount of time, which added to that easy sense of familiarity that turned them into real places in short order.
This is the most personable GTA game, with a strong emphasis on the three lead characters that delves into their psyches (and even into your own psyche by the end of the storyline). That isn't always a good thing, especially when it comes to Trevor, who's probably the most reprehensible dirtbag protagonist in the history of gaming, if not everything. Still, I couldn't look away. Trevor's most malevolent lines were also some of the most hilarious in the game. He forms a vital part of the triumvirate of playable characters, which are a commentary on life in 2008-era America. Trevor represents bottoming out, while burned-out Michael is the guy who's got it all and is still up to his neck in ennui (he's sort of Tommy Vercetti, 25 years later), and up-and-coming Franklin is the man on the rise who's eager to do anything to make the money needed to be regarded as a success in Los Santos. The three are a before, after, and way after.
The script is brilliant, from the start with Franklin and his idiotic buddy Lamar, through Michael's spoiled-brat family life, through Trevor's meth-lab murders, through the multiple-choice endings. GTAV gets back to the psychopathic comic strip best represented in the craziness of Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, but with more plot points and tighter characterizations to hold the story together. This game hates everyone and everything, expressing an unrelentingly bleak, black-hearted look at humanity, with even the few rays of sunlight bookended by atrocity. Trevor shows mercy on occasion, though the biggest act of charity he offers in the entire game comes right after introducing a guy to creative uses for a car battery and a monkey wrench.
The appeal of exploring the map on your own has been diminished.
If you have a dark sense of humor, there are more laugh-out-loud moments here than in all of the previous GTA games combined. Being able to switch between the members of this trio at will is a great mechanic that accentuates the humor. Flipping over to see what Trevor is doing almost always results in tuning in to pure insanity. My favorite such event was dropping in on him just as he was looming over a bikini-clad girl on Vespucci Beach, while wearing nothing but a filthy muscle shirt and tighty whities, saying something about her licking his white bits. Such moments are likely scripted, given how this Walter White moment led directly into a mission opening where Trevor dropped his undies in front of hapless Floyd, but it all seems organic when you're playing.
Missions have also been laid out almost perfectly, with loads of options as to how you play them, especially when it comes to the big multipart heists that see you planning and executing jobs with the help of hired operatives. Events get overly surreal at times, with the trio working together to form something of a James Bond team adept at everything from flying planes to scuba diving. Still, it's all incredibly captivating, and the game does everything at least reasonably well. Flying and landing planes, for instance, still aren't fully enjoyable tasks, but they've come a long way since San Andreas.
Unfortunately, the appeal of exploring the map on your own has been diminished. Attempts at free-form chaos inevitably had me switching back to the scripted stories and missions, which yielded far more entertainment. The only thing I enjoyed about exploring was stumbling upon random occurrences, such as robberies, an apparent bus hijacking, and police shootouts with other criminals. Yet even these great little touches paled in comparison with the scripted missions, and core components of the game design have been tweaked to raise the profile of scripted story at the cost of the open-world concept that has powered previous GTAs. You can still go gonzo in style, but it's not nearly as easy to explode in a random manner when the mood strikes you.
One reason the zaniness feels so limited is that the police are extraordinarily good at what they do and extremely aggressive. They arrive on the scene of even one- and two-star wanted level incidents almost immediately, and a police chopper is quick to show up the moment you hit three stars. Police boats roar up quickly if you try to take to the waves, and cops shoot extremely well, to the point where they can tag you with bullets from a good block away. Basic patrol cars accelerate almost as well as the average Pegassi Infernus, and their drivers are expert at cutting you off and blocking you in. If you want to go on a satisfying tear, you need to armor up, make sure you have loads of the best hardware that Ammu-Nation carries, and have a zippy car nearby. Walking out of a hospital in a bad mood and going berserk with cathartic anger generally gets you wasted again in very short order.
It's a lot more fun to escape the cops by slamming a car into a Pay 'n' Spray booth at a hundred miles an hour than it is to cower in an alley for five minutes while the police gradually give up their pursuit.
You can still go on rampages and evade the police, of course, but you have to do it more realistically by switching cars, hiding in bushes, ducking into somebody's backyard, hanging out in a parking garage, and so forth. This is a more lifelike way of ditching the boys in blue, but it's not very entertaining, especially if you like the intensity of one-man-stand firefights. The best way to eliminate a wanted level now is to hide. I had the most success by driving off-road where the cops couldn't follow me very well. Then I just stuck the car in a gully and sat back until my wanted level vanished completely.
Long gone are the days when you could clock six stars (the game now tops out at five stars), get the army after you, and still escape justice simply by scraping into a Pay 'n' Spray a second ahead of the long arm of the law. Pay 'n' Spray shops have actually been pulled out of GTAV entirely in favor of Los Santos Customs, which is more of a car modification garage than a ready way to escape the cops, since it's useless unless you've already lost your pursuers. Magic car paint in Vice City and San Andreas may have been pretty ridiculous, but it was also a great game mechanism that emphasized the catch-me-if-you-can excitement that made sandbox rampages so integral a part of the GTA experience. It's a lot more fun to escape the cops by slamming a car into a Pay 'n' Spray booth at a hundred miles an hour than it is to cower in an alley for five minutes while the police gradually give up their pursuit.
This is a considerably different style of game than either San Andreas or Vice City, with more structure and less of that eyes-wide-open world where the most fun was surveying the landscape and seeing what kind of trouble you could get into. This is a new GTA, one that is a great game on its own terms, but also one that fails to capture the magic of the freestyle adventures that set the tone for the series. I can't see myself coming back to GTAV very often now that I've wrapped the main storyline, save to check out the expansions that Rockstar is undoubtedly prepping for 2014, or to get into the multiplayer, if and when it lives up to its potential. Here, because the game's structure is so tight, done is done. That's typical of how I play games. But it isn't typical of how I play GTA games.