GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta
GTA V’s big gimmick is the ability to switch between Trevor, Michael, and Franklin at almost any time. I was skeptical about this feature – I assumed it would just end up as a muddled mess of a feature – but it turns out to be a masterstroke. During non-mission play, switching between characters provides you with hilarious random moments, like seeing Michael just as he’s walking away from a tryst with a hooker, Franklin stuck in traffic and hating every minute of it, or Trevor just as he’s waking up after a night spent murdering people. There are also plenty of character-specific side missions and activities that further develop each character and encourage you to spend your time with them, most of which don’t feel like tedious busy work.
The feature also gives you copious opportunities to revel in each character’s unique ability. By clicking down on the control sticks at the same time, you’ll activate each ability: Michael’s is a Max Payne style bullet time mechanic, Trevor’s is a ‘rampage’ ability that increases his resistance to damage as well as the damage he deals out, and Franklin’s is a Need For Speed style slow-mo when driving that makes precision turning possible and helps immeasurably during car-centric missions.
Each special ability has a meter that, when expended, cuts the ability off, but as with the game’s other RPG elements (more shortly), the more you use the special abilities, the longer they last, making for a very intense final section of the game that feels genuinely like the culmination of 40+ hours of grueling criminal tomfoolery.
The feature pays off even more when you consider that each of the three main characters is an analogue for the gamers who are actually playing the game. Michael is the game player who’s beaten the game and can’t think of anything else to do. Trevor is the player who doesn’t even play to win, they just want to blow up cars and murder people. And Franklin is the player just starting out the game, unsure of whether they’ll approach it with completion, or simple mayhem in mind. But that description doesn’t do justice to how distinct they are from one another, or how those distinctions pay off during the game, especially when you’re forced to play as a specific character.
The aforementioned torture scene is perhaps the most compelling such moment, but other times in which you’re forced into playing as a specific character do an excellent job of making that character’s specific skills, or even their personal story, integral to mission success. It all comes together almost effortlessly and makes every instance in which you’re forced to switch characters feel like a brand new game.
There is also the size of the map. Incredible, loving detail has been put into every single thing you’ll see. Hell, people who live in Southern California will spend weeks, if not months, poring over the hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny, hyper-specific nods to Los Santos’ real world counterpart. Better, unlike San Andreas, which was fun but saw so much of the wilderness sections of the game devoid of anything to do other than drive through it, GTA V’s map is packed with things all over. Not only activities like parachuting, triathlons, golf, tennis and the like, but plenty of random encounters (pick up every hitchhiker you encounter, ok?) that make just driving around and seeing what there is to see rewarding.
Worth another mention is the overall excellence of the game’s graphical presentation. It’s firmly current gen, but it’s the best-looking GTA game yet made. This isn’t exactly a high compliment of course – sacrifices must be made in order to render such a large game world. But even with that qualification it largely looks great. Sure, you’ll notice a lot of very geometric human beings during some cutscenes that’ll remind you of the series’ infamous man-paws from the 6th generation, but that’s about it.
Related: Grand Theft Auto 5: Easter Eggs, Secrets & References
There are some problems with the map – see the next section for more on that – but considering that every single LA-area resident will be able to find specific parodies of things they see every day, these problems are mostly easy things to forgive.
Driving is far better in GTA V than GTA IV. As befits Franklin’s expert driving ability, cars handle better and can actually keep up during chases and races even without mods. Better, motorcycles are actually fun again, with bikes having actual heft and, thank the gods, maneuverability that was sorely lacking from the previous game. It helps that players can change the default controller setting to one closer to standard open-world driving games. (You can also play Southpaw, btw.). In this regard, improvements added to The Ballad of Gay Tony and Lost and Damned are present in GTA V, but they’re simply better here.
Combat is, on default settings, almost pathetically easy. However, the differences between each character’s skills, and the way switching between them during missions is so integral to the game, places greater emphasis on tactical play that makes encounters feel earned, even if all you do is lock on to an enemy and shoot, then repeat. You can of course turn off the easy combat settings if you like for good measure, making things more challenging. There’s also the gold badge system, imported from TBOGT. Once you’ve completed a mission, you’re awarded a bronze, silver or gold badge. At any time, you can return to a completed mission and try it again for a higher score.
Meanwhile, the deep RPG elements from San Andreas return, and for the most part it’s a blast. Character leveling is back, but unlike San Andreas, which required an almost sisyphean effort to maintain and increase your stats, leveling up in GTA V is quick and easy. Every time you do something for more than a few minutes, you get better at it, and the improvements come quickly. You could conceivably see each character’s special ability completely leveled up before you reach mid game, and if you’re playing right, combat abilities will be fully powered well before you reach the end game. A vast improvement over the tediously slow leveling up seen in San Andreas, where you might almost make it to the last mission before finally unlocking double shotguns.
It’s too bad you don’t get to use double shotguns (or pistols) in GTA V – the game’s emphasis on the kind of ‘realism’ seen in GTA IV precludes that. But it’s not really missed. And speaking of realism, game physics are as real-feeling as they’ve ever been in a GTA game. Characters struggle up hills, fall if they ram into a wall, and numerous other funny interactions that are helped by the unique ways each character will react physically to stimuli.
Property purchases are back, but rather than simple safe houses, they’re assets that earn you money and provide side missions ranging from booze runs to defense against robbers. They’re often tremendously expensive – particularly the movie theaters that cost $20 million apiece. But there are tons of ways to make money in the game, most of them fun enough to be worth the time spent doing it.
For example, you can play the stock market. For the most part, this is an inscrutable chore, but if you pay close attention to news reports on the radio, or to certain missions, you’ll get tips that will tell you how to invest your money. There are also a couple of random encounters that introduce you to the stock market more gently. Thankfully, you’ll eventually earn considerable money from heists, making the stock market more of an optional diversion, and that saves it from being tedious. (Though there are still some problems. Again, see the next page for more.)
Special note must be given to the excellent soundtrack. Once again, the licensed music is carefully curated, with the deep music knowledge of each radio station’s curator crafting the best GTA soundtrack since San Andreas. (I’m particularly in love with The Lowdown FM, hosted by Pam Grier, and Los Santos Rock Radio, hosted by Kenny Loggins.) Better, Rockstar takes a page from Volition by incorporating licensed music into a few key scenes for dramatic and comedic effect, a first for the series. You’ll never think about Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” the same way again, and god bless Rockstar for it. But the original score that occurs whenever you’re not listening to music and, often, during missions, is particularly excellent. A moody, largely electronic soundscape that calls to mind the film ‘Drive’ as well as Rockstar’s Bully soundtrack, it helps to ensure, much like Saints Row IV did, that every moment in the game feels cinematic.
Overall, GTA V is just enormous fun, with hours and hours of diversions that provide an often hilarious, often thrilling experience that makes every play session turn helplessly into lost hour after hour. If it sounds perfect, it often comes close. Alas, there are some niggling problems that become obvious pretty quickly.