I’m no stranger to Rockstar games. I know how these things go. And when I purchased Grand Theft Auto V yesterday and brought it home, I had already prepared my mind and body for the rigours of the experience.
I could see myself sprawled on the couch in a state of hibernation, breathing and heartbeat slowed, my body expending only minimal energy to sustain basic cognition and fine motor skills. Thus, like a bear, I’d be able to game continuously for days without food or water, sleeping only in twenty second bursts.
To maintain basic hygiene, I might occasionally lick myself.
Surprisingly, I was able to tear myself away after a good six hours, partly because I knew I had to be refreshed this morning to work on the website, and partly because I left the radiator on until it became extremely hot, and then tried to compensate by turning on the fan, which just churned the hot air into a sort of localised ‘heat storm’ that engulfed the room.
Even having clocked a few more hours this afternoon, I’m quite sure that what I’ve played so far is only a sliver of the whole experience. But by the time I’ve explored every nook of cranny of its vast, intricate cityscape (which I fully intend to do), any review of GTA V would be more or less redundant, so let me instead tell you what you need to know straight up.
This shit is bananas. BANANAS.
Grand Theft Auto V, like its predecessor, is both a narrative of loss and a deeply cynical examination of the American dream. It follows the intertwined stories of three different characters: Franklin, a teenager from a slum neighbourhood with dreams of making his fortune, Michael, an ex-bank robber disillusioned with his comfortable retirement and distant family, and Trevor, Michael’s embittered and psychopathic ex-partner-in-crime, now running a meth operation in a redneck town he resents.
Michael, in particular, shares many qualities of past Rockstar anti-heroes like John Marston and Neko Bellic; he’s a man who, despite his troubled past, makes some attempt to wipe the slate clean, however unsuccessfully. It’s unusual to find yourself rooting for someone even as you help them rob a jewellery store, but then, there really are no “good” or “evil” characters in this game; even Trevor, for all his homicidal madness, has greater humanity than the corrupt, self-serving federal agents whose political in-fighting and shadow games drive much of the narrative.
The backdrop to their criminal exploits is Los Santos, a sweeping coastal metropolis that more than heavily satirises Los Angeles – there’s even a Vinewood Hills, big white letters and all. It’s as glamorous as it is grotesque, and the developers spare no opportunity to ridicule every malaise of Western culture: our empty obsession with celebrity, our addiction to social media and the stupefying effect of reality television are all put on morbid display.
The commentary, while exaggerated, is often disturbingly accurate; every mobile, for example, is connected to Lifeinvader, a Facebook-esque social media network that has the right (and the inclination) to harvest the most private details of a person’s life and make them public knowledge. In many ways, it’s worse than an Orwellian dystopia – this is not just a hypothetical future, but one we’re already living in.
But all social deconstruction aside, the most important thing you should know about Los Santos is that it’s a BIG FUCKING CITY.
The first hint you’re given at the sheer mind-blowing scale of Los Santos comes in the game’s packaging: two discs, one to dump about eight gigabytes of game data onto your console and the other to actually play it. The installation takes ten to fifteen minutes, but the result is extremely brief loading times in-game, which is especially impressive because the city is just ridiculously huge. Did I mention that?
It’s not only significantly larger than GTA IV’s Liberty City, but noticeably more diverse. Sun-kissed beaches and luxury hillside mansions around the coastline give way to trailer parks and slums further inland and, beyond that, vast stretches of San Andreas desert; you’re introduced to all of this through a slick, sweeping montage at the end of the tutorial. Thankfully the UI includes a constant GPS map in one corner, because otherwise you’d never find your way from meth lab to the next.
More than just scale, what the setting captures so brilliantly is your utter insignificance within it. From the realistic traffic patterns to the random altercations between people in the street, everything around you is in constant, organic movement. It’s the little moments that make it special – that girl on the pier who’ll shout lewd obscenities at you as you jog past; the guy outside Vangelico who’ll cheerfully tell you about his doomsday cult; that one dude who, after you’ve stolen his car, decides he’ll steal another car to chase after you.
And Los Santos is a much brighter and sunnier locale than Liberty City. A far more cheerful backdrop to your gang banging.
Gameplay wise, most of the controls and mechanics are unchanged. The biggest addition is the ability to seamlessly switch between characters at will, which I was initially surprised by, given that Rockstar games are usually centred so intensely around the journey of a single person. But the technique is used quite effectively during pivotal moments in the storyline, and it allows the player to jump instantly between different regions of the city, which is especially handy.
Franklin, Michael and Trevor each have their own special ability and set of traits – strengths and weaknesses that can be improved through use, such as stamina, shooting, driving, and so on. I was a little obsessed about increasing all of these; Franklin’s strength is fairly low at the beginning, for example, so I spent a great deal of time walking through the streets and punching random people in the face.
And the missions are just as diverse. One in particular has you chasing a forty-foot luxury yacht down the highway while your partner jumps aboard to kill some pirates who’ve kidnapped your son. What about secretly filming a teen actress having anal sex in a hotel garden, followed by a car chase when she tries to run you off the road? (No screenshot of that one, unfortunately.) Jet skis, aerial gunfights… Just good, clean fun really. The developers have no shortage of land, sea and aerial vehicles at their disposal, and you’ll get to pilot just about all of them eventually.
There’s very little ambient music in the game; most of the sound is provided by sixteen incredibly well-scripted radio stations that you can tune into anytime while driving. These include a mixture of fake news reports and interviews, all hilarious, as well as actual songs; I found myself driving through the desert at one point listening to Queen’s Radio Gaga, for example. But my favourite moment came while on the run from the cops – I stole a sedan from a woman waiting in traffic, and as I took off, Amerie’s 1 Thing started playing. An abysmal song, but surprisingly, not at all a bad accompaniment to a high-speed police pursuit.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned any criticisms at all here, which is not to say that there aren’t any. But Grand Theft Auto V is the sum of so many parts that the parts themselves seem minute and trivial; individual, niggling complaints like, “The fire on that helicopter wreckage looks a little two-dimensional,” or, “The camera angle is less than optimal here,” seem absolutely inconsequential when compared to the absolute immensity of the experience.
Rockstar does two things particularly well – it creates immersive sandbox worlds and it weaves compelling, deeply complex characters to populate them. But unlike other open-environment developers such as Bethesda, its ambition never escapes its ability – everything here is achieved with polish and finesse. Rockstar set the bar high with GTA IV, even higher with Red Dead Redemption, but this is most certainly the grandest artifice that it has ever constructed, and one of those rare AAA titles that deserves its hype and adulation.
Jess and I have not yet formally agreed on a rating structure for our reviews, so here I shall apply a simple rating scale tailored specifically to this game.
10/10 BITCHES SMACKED UP