GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta

When you finally reach the end of Grand Theft Auto V, you’ll find yourself doing something you almost never do after beating a game: sitting back and just letting the credits roll, without skipping them or getting up to do something else.

That feeling of “holy f*cking sh*t” at the end of an awesome movie, or at the finale of a great TV series, you get it fully with GTA V. When it’s over, you just want to sit back and think. And probably call up a friend and swear – a lot – about how much you liked it. And then play it again.

Grand Theft Auto V has aspirations of being taken seriously as a work of fiction, and it mostly succeeds. Behind the scores of dead bodies, the wreckage of exploded automobiles and the drug-fueled mayhem is a surprising maturity. Not just the rated-M kind, but of the actual “growth and life experience” variety. All at once, it’s an engrossing crime thriller, a somewhat nuanced exploration of the mid life crisis, a dense and scathing attack on the way masculine angst is stoked for political gain in modern America, and an unrelentingly cruel subversion of the gleeful sociopathy inherent in the wish fulfillment fantasies provided by open world crime games.

At the same time, it’s also an incredibly fun game. Problems that plagued Grand Theft Auto IV, both narrative and gameplay, have been corrected. The enormous parody of Southern California in which the game takes place is breathtakingly beautiful and eerily accurate (in broad strokes, naturally). Elements from previous Rockstar games that appear here have been perfected. Even mundane diversions like tennis and golf serve mainly to flesh things out, and never feel like tedious padding that masks a lack of content. And nearly every significant development of the seventh generation is combined here to mostly excellent effect. The result is something that feels like a living, breathing world on par with an MMO. A living, breathing world, of course, that you can terrorize to your heart’s content.

That it pulls all of that off is a testament not only to the ability of video games to tell complex stories, but to the fact that those stories are increasingly informed by how the people who make them have grown and changed as they approach middle age. But – and it’s a bigger ‘but’ than it should be – it is also somewhat kneecapped by the annoying ways in which its creators have refused to grow and change.

Much like an intense movie you only later realize has a flimsy plot that barely ties the first and third acts together1, or a great TV show you only notice during a Netflix binge has abandoned an entire story arc in the second season, GTA V’s many strengths are punctuated by needless problems. Those problems may seem minor in relation to the size of this game and the sheer volume of its successes, but they’re impossible to disregard unless you ignore them, especially if you’re willing to think for more than three seconds about the media you consume.

But make no mistake. Grand Theft Auto V is a spectacular, if somewhat flawed achievement that we will be debating and, of course, playing for years to come.

Grand Theft Auto V
Platforms: Xbox Live, Playstation 3 (reviewed), PC (expected, unannounced)
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Take-Two
Released: September 17, 2013
MSRP: $59.99

1) I’m looking at you, The Dark Knight. Also, The Avengers.

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8 Comments on GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta

Isaac

On September 23, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Best soundtrack of them all? No just no the radio stations are all awful and repeat everything way too often. The score is good but the radios are laughable.

Greyson

On September 24, 2013 at 8:51 am

He wasn’t talking about just the radio stations…

No More Liberalist BS

On September 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

Stop whinging about the lack of female characters. It’s in your head. There’s loads of female characters in the game (Amanda, Tracey, Denise, Patricia, Diane, Molly, Franklin’s girlfriend and several others who are available for side missions). Your ideology continues to blind your judgement.

Ed

On September 24, 2013 at 10:47 am

Excellent review. Pleased to see the game’s flaws being acknowledged while not ignoring just how damn incredible the overall product is.

@No More Liberalist BS *rolls eyes* – I think the one-dimensional nature of the female characters is the problem. They’re basically just boobs with names that whine about stuff. It’s a problem when the satire in the game isn’t funny or particularly well thought out and in particular when it seemingly tries to make fun of sexism while not simultaneously presenting female characters that show how ridiculous those prejudices are.

Dan Miller

On September 24, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Great review overall, but I’ll of course show up to nitpick a few points you mention (though which have been widely noted so you are hardly alone). I haven’t been a huge GTA fan historically (never played San Andreas) and I think the criticisms of the game are huge stretches.

First, it’s not satire. GTA has never been satire. Satire is a hugely misused word in game criticism today. Satire has a goal of societal improvement through it’s depictions… GTA is better described as camp, presenting an exaggerated picture of life in America in 2013, from Wall Street to hookers to violent video games. It’s self aware in a way that most satire is not, in that it doesn’t try to push an agenda – it portrays everything as ridiculous. It’s much closer to Spring Breakers than it is to Candide, and it’s only sensible to attack the political ideology of the latter.

Second, the criticism that there are no strong females feels contrived. I haven’t read a similar criticism of a video game ever. Is it progressive? Sure, and I’m all for that. But to start demanding females with agency for the first time, of a game that is otherwise largely perfect, seems overly reactionary to the sexual content of the game itself. Female protagonists is a macro issue in video gaming, not specific to GTA. If your problem is with the stereotypes of women presented, GTA is regurgitating popular tropes right back at us. We are a shallow society when it comes to gender and GTA is just reminding us. It would be compromising to its own vision to do otherwise. A deep, likeable character with strong moral guidance of any gender would stand out in this environment.

I’m about 10 hours in and this game has a remarkable scope, with a specific and well-executed artistic vision, without giving up a minute of fun to achieve it. Its a very, very short list of games that hit those marks. Having lived in LA for 7 years, the detailed recreation in the game is remarkable and adds tremendously to the experience. On a lot of metrics, I think GTA V is the best game I’ve ever played.

raiden

On September 25, 2013 at 2:46 am

i want to play gta games

max

On September 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm

am i the only one on earth who realized you could have tire flat on a tank ??????????????? and the tank seem to be as light as a Feather, when ur cannon is blocked in a wall or tree, and u try to keep turning it, its ur tank that is moving as if it was full of Air. the tank look like a reskinned truck……… SO LAME..

Micheal

On September 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm

This game is badass

But was killed when they put Miley Cyrus in it…