The idea came first. Last year’s parodist indie homage Retro City Rampage showed that the notion of an open-world sandbox for a citizen with criminal tendencies to romp in was possible back even in the days of the NES, but it wasn’t until years later that DMA (later Rockstar North) cemented the idea firmly in the gaming public’s consciousness with the original Grand Theft Auto, a quirky, provocative top-down shooter with a line in anti-social antics and subversive humour. Sixteen years later and look how far we’ve come.
It’s a three-for-one deal in terms of protagonists: there’s Michael, the ex-con now living a witless existence in witness protection, Trevor, his terminally unhinged former running and gunning partner, and Franklin, a small-time car thief who gets caught up in their ill-fated reunion. After the initial opening missions, control of the three compatriots can be swapped at will, and while the loading time is noted and excusable, it’s covered expertly with a satellite-image style transition as the camera pans over the city to find the other guy in the middle of something (if it’s Trevor, usually something unsavoury). This wait time is eliminated when the three are on a mission together, and the excitement is palpable in moments where you are juggling between them to remain on top of the situation. Each guy has a special ability which can be activated in times of duress: Michael can use bullet time in combat for precision aiming, Franklin uses a variant of this while driving to duck in and out of traffic with ease, and Trevor can use his boundless rage to absorb and dole out vast amounts of pain. Franklin’s power feels especially good to use, as the screen darkens and twin neon trails emit from the tail-lights.
Elaborately planned heists form a key part of proceedings – cork-board, scribbles and all. Each one has a number of components that have to be acquired or prepared beforehand, providing a nice sense of building up to the main event. Oftentimes you’ll have a choice in how to proceed in the caper: to play things cool with a stealthy option, or to bust in with guns blazing. This greater sense of scope combined with the new, more lenient spacing of save points makes for some exhilarating moments.
Graphically GTA V is a major step up for the series. The dour grey skyscrapers of Liberty City may have been a fitting locale for the dashing of GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic’s American dreams, but that seems a lifetime ago when faced with the sun, sea and sensationalism of Los Santos. There is a moment where Trevor, having drove down from the boonies to seek out his erstwhile partner in crime, climbs a small hill to survey the Big City in all its hazy evening glory, and if you squint your eyes just right you can almost believe it too. The waters are crystal blue, the cars are gleaming chrome, but still something is definitely off. GTA V is as real as the movies or the lies they show on television, but still falls a hair’s breadth short of convincing reality. We have reached a new depth in the uncanny valley where the little behavioural faults that linger in the actions of Los Santos’s myriad residents betray the perfection promised in its cool shoreline waters and pristine skylines. Some might rush to bestow that label of perfection on this achievement, but it hasn’t been earned quite yet. Rockstar have given us the world, but it is the world that Truman Burbank found himself in, where the papered-over cracks that stood so starkly in contrast to the idealism all around grew so maddening that the only logical recourse was to escape. The aging hardware has been pushed to breaking point, and at times the illusion will be spoiled by clipping and texture pop-in. That said, it’s certainly the biggest and most realised world we’ve seen in gaming so far, and as ever with the series, many of the fond stories people find themselves recollecting about their time there will likely have nothing to do with the main plot at all. The sheer amount of ancillary content is staggering, from the impeccably curated radio stations and biting television spoofs to the in-game stock market which responds to events you set in motion, to the hitchhikers who you can ferry to their destination, or if you’re feeling less than charitable, deliver to a sinister cult.
Controversy runs deep in this series’ veins, but it seems every iteration moves the goalposts and pushes the boundaries of good tastes a little further. The ‘Hot Coffee’ scandal uncovered in GTA: San Andreas, now infamous in gaming circles, seems a hazy memory of an affront to decency when confronted with a mini-game where you have to feel-up a topless stripper without the bouncer spying your wandering hands. It seems plain the broken mirror reflection of America that the GTA series portrays is very clearly satire, but of a kind that is bleak, all-encompassing, and hard to look in the eye. Games like GTA V and Spec Ops: The Line before it show us what depths we’re capable of sinking to, and we cry foul and blame the messenger. Problems can definitely arise when people take the shameless exaltation of violence and excess at surface-level, but how that is even possible in a game with its tongue as firmly embedded in its cheek as this must remain one of life’s little wonders. The writing is sharp as a tack and made this reviewer laugh out loud on several occasions, but as always when you’re cutting this close to the bone there’s little room for manoeuvre, and when the standard slips for a moment towards the infantile and puerile, the cheap laughs provide unwelcome ammo for opinionated outsiders who would deem this game indefensible.
Occasionally we’ll get a glimmer of remorse or unease from Franklin, the young gangster-in-training, as he half-heartedly tries to back away from a mission in the name of credibility, but we all know he does the mission because it’s there to be done. And there’s the rub; non-interactive media like cinema, television and literature allow us to dispassionately observe horrifying tales from a distance in the name of edification and drama on the one hand and titillation on the other, but when player agency places the gun, or rather the controller, in your hand, the entire affair is rendered exceedingly personal. To be fair GTA V does try to address this - in addition to Franklin’s aforementioned pussy-footing we have Michael the ex-con visiting his exorbitantly priced shrink to discuss how sometimes he feels his actions aren’t quite his own, and it has been argued that the character of Trevor represents the exact kind of uncontained id that the unstrained and consequence-free world of GTA encourages, and wreaks havoc in; in other words, the average player.
Technically the game cannot be faulted, it’s a massive achievement to have a game of such graphical fidelity and scope running on hardware about to be eclipsed by the latest tech. The sheer number of options you have to spend your time in Los Santos has to be applauded; you can play a round of golf or a few games of tennis, take in an arthouse film at the local cineplex, battle for pole position in a street race, but ultimately you’re just killing time until it’s time to crime once again.
Arguably the culmination of Rockstar’s work so far, GTA V incorporates the best of their back catalogue; the car handling from Midnight Club: Los Angeles, the vast fauna-populated scrublands from Red Dead Redemption, and the gunplay and bullet time from Max Payne, folding them in to form an experience unparalleled in variety. That a video game is being simultaneously lauded, discredited, and discussed in this level of detail is encouraging, but also highlights the distrust the mainstream media still has for ‘evil’ video games. GTA V has raised the bar, but become a victim of the new standards thrust upon it. Depending on how far you can suspend your disbelief and how black you like your humour, like the cars that you steal, your mileage may vary. For the rest of us though, it’s a rollercoaster ride of fast cars, big guns and questionable morals that you will find hard to break away from.