Where do you begin talking about Grand Theft Auto V? Do you start with the vast, varied, beautiful open world? Do you start with the innovative structure that gives you three independent protagonists you can switch between on the fly? Maybe you talk about the assortment of side activities you can engage in, or the tremendous number of ways in which you can go about making your own fun. Or perhaps you dive right into the game’s story problems, or its serious issues with women. GTA V is a complicated and fascinating game, one that fumbles here and there and has an unnecessary strain of misogynistic nastiness running through it. But it also does amazing things no other open-world game has attempted before, using multiple perspectives to put you in the thick of cinematic heist sequences and other exhilarating, multi-layered missions like no open-world game before.
Those perspectives come courtesy of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Michael’s a former criminal who’s dissatisfied with his current life of privilege and relaxation. His marriage is on the rocks and he struggles to connect with his shallow daughter Tracey, who dreams of making it big in reality TV, and with his lazy, entitled son Jimmy, who spends most of his time spouting hate-filled trash talk while playing video games online. Franklin’s a talented young driver and repo man who doesn’t seem to have too many opportunities to move up in the world, until he has a chance meeting with Michael. Michael finds Franklin easier to connect with than his own children, and he promptly takes him under his wing and ushers him into a life of big-time crime.
Moments of hypocrisy and inconsistency diminish the otherwise strong characters.
And then there’s Trevor, a former friend and business associate of Michael’s who is now a methamphetamine entrepreneur living in a desert town north of Los Santos. Trevor’s a truly horrible, terrifying, psychotic human being--and a terrific character. He possesses a chilling combination of intelligence and insanity, and he’s so monstrously violent and frightening at times that he almost makes the other two protagonists seem well-adjusted by comparison. Exceptional voice acting and animation help make Trevor a character you will never, ever forget, even though you might want to.
When circumstances reunite the long-estranged Trevor and Michael, the tensions between them complicate the entire group dynamic; Michael, Trevor and Franklin may work together, but they don’t always get along. Their dialogue is sharp and snappy and it’s usually a joy to watch them interacting with each other, but unfortunately, the characters sometimes behave in ways that don’t feel consistent. For instance, Franklin takes the moral high ground in an argument with a paparazzo, then casts his reservations aside to help him take degrading photos of a female celebrity. And when Trevor shows up in Michael’s life after an extended absence, the speed with which the two start working together again is at odds with their deep-seated reservations about each other.
Perhaps most troubling is a mission in which you’re instructed to torture a man. Trevor states that torture doesn’t work, and the person ordering the torture is an arrogant and corrupt government official, suggesting that the scene is meant to be a critical commentary on the United States’ use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods. But the fact that Trevor (and you, if you want to progress through the story) tortures the man regardless, and that he does end up spilling more information as a result, sends a very different message. These moments of hypocrisy and inconsistency diminish the otherwise strong characters; it feels like they are leaping into situations not because it's what they would actually want to do, but because the mission design demands that they must.
Thankfully, the missions are frequently incredible, which makes it a bit easier to overlook the occasional contradictions in character behavior, if not the mixed political messages. The high points of the game are the heists, big jobs planned by Michael and the gang. These jobs usually give you a few different options for how you want to approach a situation, and your choice completely changes how the heist plays out. On one job, for instance, one option has you posing as a janitor to infiltrate a building and plant bombs, then triggering the bombs and entering the building with your crew disguised as firefighters. The other, more direct option involves parachuting onto the building and busting in, armed to the teeth.
It’s exhilarating, swapping between these roles and these perspectives, and it’s part of what makes GTA V the current pinnacle of open-world mission design.
These are elaborate, multi-stage sequences that involve prep work. You might need to acquire equipment ahead of time, find a good place to hide a getaway car, and make other arrangements before you’re ready to pull off the job. You also need to select supporting members for your crew, as some jobs may require a hacker, an additional getaway driver, or another gunman. More skilled crew members typically take a bigger cut, but if you hire cheap, inexperienced people, they may end up failing at their tasks and compromising the operation. Of course, not every step of this process is thrilling, but these early steps make you feel more invested in the job when it does go down, and they evoke the feeling of films like Heat in which the slow buildup to the crimes makes the payoff in the action-packed scenes more intense.
There’s a terrific contrast between the urban lives of Michael and Franklin and Trevor’s existence in a poor, secluded town in the desert.
These missions and many others have you switching between characters. You might rappel down a building as Michael, provide sniper cover for him as Franklin, and fly a getaway helicopter as Trevor, all on one mission. In another exciting mission, you take out a plane’s engines from a great distance as Michael, then pursue the doomed, burning aircraft over land as Trevor. It’s exhilarating, swapping between these roles and these perspectives, and it’s part of what makes GTA V the current pinnacle of open-world mission design. Even putting the three-protagonist structure aside, the mission design is frequently surprising and sometimes stupendous. You don scuba gear to infiltrate a heavily guarded laboratory via the ocean, recklessly fly a small aircraft into the bay of a large cargo plane, and get thrust into all sorts of other memorable situations.
Even when not on missions, you can switch between the three protagonists, and the transition is handled via a stylish satellite view sequence that zooms out from one character’s location and then zooms in on another’s, building up anticipation as you wonder what the character you’re swapping to might be doing at this particular moment. Sometimes you find them in relatively ordinary situations; you might happen upon Michael relaxing at home in front of the TV screen, indulging his love of classic movies. At other times, the circumstances you find them in are more dramatic. Trevor might be on the beach in his underwear, surrounded by dead bodies, with no explanation offered for how they got there. Each character has his own contacts and his own missions, and because the characters have such different vibes, the freedom to switch between them at will makes the game feel more multifaceted than it would otherwise. There’s a terrific contrast between the urban lives of Michael and Franklin and Trevor’s existence in a poor, secluded town in the desert.
The three-protagonist structure also means that you can be engaged in street races in Los Santos one minute, and hunting elk in the forest the next. In fact, the number of activities available to you throughout GTA V’s world is almost staggering. You can play golf or tennis or darts, or participate in races on streets, offroad or on the water. You can take in movies, buy businesses, and play the stock market, which is designed to respond to player transactions, creating an opportunity for collusion and insider trading. You also stumble upon random occurrences in the world from time to time, creating a sense that this is a place with a life of its own. You might go into a salon for a haircut, only to find that the place is being robbed. You might rescue a woman from a burning car wreck who then becomes a potential getaway driver for you on future heists.
And of course, there’s no end to the ways that you can make your own unstructured fun. Maybe you want to use a truck to block lanes of traffic, pour gasoline from a gerry can all around the stopped cars, ignite the fuel and watch the spectacular explosion that occurs. Or perhaps you prefer to see if you can fly under bridges in a jumbo jet. Maybe you want to parachute onto the roof of the tallest building in Los Santos, or climb to the peak of Mount Chiliad. Or you can blow up a gas station and then run into the hills, where you might be safe from the cops but find yourself being pounced on by a bobcat. Whatever kind of freeform mayhem you cause, you’re sure to get the authorities on your case from time to time. Police pursuits here can be tense on city streets, where you might try to find secluded back alleys to hide in until the cops give up the chase. They can also be silly at times; you might shake off some police pursuers just by driving offroad up a hill in plain sight of the cops.
Whether you’re evading the police in a rickety junker or a road-hugging sports car, the handling in GTA V is great, and the fact that vehicles feel so different from each other means there’s a real reason to store the cars you like in the garages at your characters’ homes or in ones you can purchase in the city. Driving is so much fun that you’ll likely enjoy crossing even great distances in the game’s large world, taking in everything from the artwork on buildings along Vespucci Beach to the setting sun reflecting on the Alamo Sea. Should you tire of commuting across Los Santos, however, you can call a cab and warp to your destination.
GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.
When shooting breaks out, as it often does in the lives of these criminals, you have a terrific variety of weapons at your disposal that you can customize with suppressors, scopes, flashlights and other doodads. By default, your aim snaps to enemies. This makes picking them off quite easy, but gunplay is a lot of fun despite the ease of aiming, because you’re regularly fending off so many attackers and you still need to make good use of cover to stay alive. If you’re looking for more challenging shooting, you can switch to an aim assist option or to free aim at any time.
There’s so much more to say about GTA V. In series tradition, it has an eclectic assortment of radio stations featuring great songs from numerous genres and eras. In a break with series tradition, it also has an excellent ambient score of its own that lends missions more cinematic flavor. On a less positive note, it’s deeply frustrating that, while its central and supporting male characters are flawed and complex characters, with a few extremely minor exceptions (such as the aforementioned optional getaway driver), GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.
Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny, with ads that equate manhood with sleek sports cars while encouraging women to purchase a fragrance that will make them “smell like a bitch.” Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism. The beauty of cruising in the sun-kissed Los Santos hills while listening to “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood turns sour really quick when a voice comes on the radio that talks about using a woman as a urinal.
So Los Santos is a place of contrasts, of luxury and poverty, tranquility and violence, beauty and ugliness. GTA V is an imperfect yet astounding game that has great characters and an innovative and exciting narrative structure, even if the story it uses that structure to tell is hobbled at times by inconsistent character behavior, muddled political messages and rampant misogyny. It also raises the bar for open-world mission design in a big way and has one of the most beautiful, lively, diverse and stimulating worlds ever seen in a game. Your time in Los Santos may leave you with a few psychological scars, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from visiting.