If the benchmark of artistic expression is the ability to evoke an inward examination, then Grand Theft Auto V is undoubtedly Rockstar Games’ magnum opus. While detractors and the ratings-ravenous media are bound to critique the title’s sporadic viciousness, unapologetic misogyny, and precarious moral foundation over the coming weeks, they’ll be overlooking a thornier issue: these are the afflictions of America ensnared in a post-economic crisis. Providing a blend of the actual and satirical, Grand Theft Auto V demonstrates Rockstar having the time and technology to construct a dizzying diatribe on vapidity, violence, superficiality, and sociology. Most amazingly, the Edinburgh-based studio doesn’t allow the action to be overpowered by the allegorical. At its core, GTA V parades Rockstars’ passion for cinema, indulging players’ yearnings to reenact some of Hollywood’s best heist jobs.
At the turn of the century, director Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral provided seminal depictions of the City of Angeles, contextualizing crime drama amidst the shared real estate of the haves and have-nots. With Grand Theft Auto V’s protracted playtime, Rockstar North is able to craft an even more nuanced representation. Expectedly, the architecture and postcards picture points are all fastidiously recreated. From the ferris wheel and roller coaster which give the pier its signature silhouette to the sprawling skycrapers that jut from the downtown basin, Los Santos is Los Angeles reimagined- only without the pestilence of traffic.
Yet, it’s the small details which really sell the simulacrum- the propensity for exclusion and conspicuous consumption in the wealthy neighborhoods or the working-class streets which fill during the evening hours. While most open-world titles have detailed environments, GTA V raises the bar, filling the landscape with a myriad of tiny sardonic details. Head over to Rockford Hills, the game’s rendering of the 90210 community, and you might spy a snobbish sports car positioned across two handicapped parking spots. Adeptly, the game’s soundtrack echoes Los Angeles’ sonic landscape, with staples DJ Pooh and Big Boy serving as in-game DJs, while local television voice-over artists lend their pipes for faux public service announcements.
Outside the urban spaces, Blaine County stands in for the Inland Empire. Here, players won’t find the affluent yoga studios, (playable) golf courses, and tennis courts, instead they’ll discover the specter of suspicion which lingers around a dusty meth lab or the locals-only sentiment at the isolated biker bar. There areas are effectively juxtaposed with the urban spaces, conveying a feral menace that’s unlike the danger of the inner city.
Driving, walking, boating or biking through this enormous sandbox reveals the exertion which Rockstar went through to making the sprawling metropolis an enjoyable destination. Whereas water traditionally represented the boundary of Grand Theft Auto’s landmasses, now players can careen across the surface via a jet ski or even explore the ocean depths. Incredibly, campaign missions scarcely compel players to visit the marine environments. Instead, aquatic areas are just another part of the playground, enticing exploration. Likewise, skyward ramps, a plethora of wildlife, and venues which raise a character’s stats all vie for a player’s recreational hours. Some gun shops are more than just markets now, offering medal-bestowing mini-games for players who want to increase their precision. Players can even enroll in flight school to improve their aviation abilities; the potential for self-actualization is remarkable.
The GTA franchise has always been elevated by the tension between straightforward campaign missions and wild, improvisational, mischief making. Amazingly, both sides of the conflict have been enriched for the fifth installment. Rockstar has apparently listened to the fans who complained about the abundance and austerity of driving duties. While players will still spend a prolonged amount of time behind the steer wheel, vehicle physics and roadways have been tuned to make driving more enjoyable. Now, it’s possible to effortlessly weave between cars and execute textbook drifts, recalling Rockstar’s Midnight Club racing series. Similarly, taking cover and shooting borrow from Max Payne 3’s repertoire- mending a chronic ailment in the series. Moreover, replaying entire missions in mended through judicious checkpointing. Frustration would often grow from failing an undertaking multiple times. Now, Grand Theft Auto V is kind enough to allow players to skip the assignment after three botched attempts.
Naturally, these mechanics also improve the extemporaneous play sessions. Elective errands which task players with using certain types of machinery are marked by an escalation of temptation, as players ask a series of “what if” questions. Early on- an assignment took place near an armored car, and the game seemed to recognize my curiosity. An on-screen prompt flashed, disclosing that the valuables were mine if I could figure out how to dispose of the drivers and crack open this steel-clad piñata. Of course, this is just one small, spoiler-free example. Players will be bombarded with enticements every few minutes, as GTA V flaunts its procession of ever-increasingly exotic weapons and vehicles.
While the aforementioned changes are significant, they are dwarfed by Grand Theft Auto V’s narrative reformation. Whereas previous installments focused on a single character, GTA V’s storyline interweaves follow a trio of protagonists that cater to different play styles and story beats. Franklin Clinton is an inner-city youth with his eyes fixed on a higher economic status; regretfully, he lacks the social connections to make the jump. An unlikely assistance comes in the form of Michael De Santa- a retired bank robber whose growing increasingly frustrated with the tawdriness of life in Rockford Hills, where a mansion, entitled children, and cheating trophy wife are triggering a mid-life malaise. Tension is injected into the storyline, as Trevor Phillips enters the picture. Once Michael’s best friend and partner in crime, Trevor’s life has followed a radically different trajectory, with years of drug use and resentment transforming the character into a wild, unpredictable psychopath.
In effect, the roster represents the Rockstar trinity. Franklin is the plucky underdog we can all root for, Michael provides the pensive story that the developer wants to tell, while demented Trevor offers an outlet for the unruly mayhem and killing. In effect, the trio marries Grand Theft Auto’s elements in a way that Niko Bellic’s inconstant attitudes toward violence couldn’t. In execution, the mechanic is brilliantly executed, allowing players to shift between storylines at will and also give endow each character with a sense of presence. A press on the directional pad brings up a radial dial allowing the selection to be made. After, gamers are given a descending aerial shot which cumulates in the character caught in their usual routine. Much like The Sims, there’s a sense that each persona is a living breathing character- whether Trevor is passed out, underwear-clad in a restricted zone or Michael is longing by the pool, sipping a drink to sooth the sting of dysfunction. Dexterously, each character is articulated with a pleasing amount of depth. I found my actions subliminally steered by the ambitions of each protagonist, which was a new sensation for the series.
The use of a character triangle is also expertly employed during GTA V’s showcase heist jobs. Pleasingly, the game gives a bit of leeway in the preparation, allowing players to engineer either a stealthy or infuriated robbery. Players determine the role of wheelmen and hackers, balancing experience with a portion of the plunder, which has a noticeable effect on the execution of the raid. While inexperienced contractors may save gamers a bit of coin, their slower cars and unproven security breaching skills will make the raid that much more challenging. Stunningly, this kind of variable tracking isn’t unique to the game’s heists. A player’s actions can even affect the world’s stock market, making gamers truly feel powerful. It’s little wonder when Michael complains to this therapist that he feels like he’s being controlled, because we are manipulating every small detail in Los Santos.
Although the game runs at a fairly fluid framerate, and only divulges draw-in when players take to their air, there are a few blemishes which sully the sense of immersion. One of the largest offenders are mission rules- which are customarily imperceptible to gamers. When players perform the unexpected, such as shoot an enemy too early or pass a car that they are supposed to be chasing, the title bares its logic tables, and stumbles over the unforeseen. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence and Rockstar should be commended for fumigating the bugs from GTA V’s sandbox. Across over 35 hours of play, I only experienced a few, forgivable glitches- not of which required a restart or reboot.
For some, GTA V’s weary worldview might induce a bit of detachment. Beyond the stinging (and relevant) harangues on American culture- from our obsession with youth and celebrities to our ambivalence toward torture, the title’s outlook can be nihilistic. In the end, every entity in the game has an egoistic and rancorous side, from the main protagonists, secondary characters, to the game’s corporations and government bureaucrats. I can’t dispute the perspective, but for those seeking a reprieve from the viciousness and backstabbing, should know going in to GTA V that the Houser Brothers aren’t going to sugarcoat their standpoint.
In an era where sequels are often little more than recycled cash grabs, Grand Theft Auto V stands as an exemplar. Each of the game’s core mechanics- shooting, driving, mission structure and story development have all been reworked, merging into a mesmerizing playground which pleads for exploration. Even without Grand Theft Auto Online, a separate online component slated for download services on October 1st, 2013, GTA V is one of the richest, most enthralling experiences in all of interactive entertainment.