Grand Theft Auto V: Mayhem Meets Masterpiece

GTA V is an art form spread across a digital state, a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, mind-melting experience

By Rhuaridh Marr
October 18, 2013 8:47 AM |

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What is there to say about Grand Theft Auto V that hasn't already been said? Rockstar's magnum opus has crushed every competitor, dominated every sales chart, consumed every gaming forum and proliferated itself across the Internet to near-saturation point. Racking up $2.5 billion in sales, with that number still rising, garnering seven Guinness world records and outselling its predecessors by a significant margin, it'd be crude to consider GTA V as anything other than a roaring success. In gaming terms, and in entertainment as a whole, it is the new golden standard for a successful release.

However, is it deserving of its success? How much of its sales energy is driven by hype and expectations, carried across its previous iterations as gamers seek the perfect Grand Theft Auto experience? GTA IV promised so much and was beloved by many reviewers, but it had its flaws. Liberty City arguably gave us the closest thing to a living digital world up to that point, but was hampered by a focus that dragged the series into realms that were far too serious, far too eager to eschew the fun and openness of Vice City and San Andreas. Liberty City was a gritty, tough, sprawling place where you worked hard and dealt with constant emotional turmoil as you struggled to help Niko Bellic rise through the social ranks. It was an incredible game, but it was far from perfect.

GTA V corrects all of that. Bringing the setting back to Los Santos and the fictional state of San Andreas, Rockstar has turned everything up to 11, and then broken the dial by turning it even more. Gone is the American Dream idealism of GTA IV, with its focus on a decaying society clashing with the wide-eyed optimism of those immigrating to America seeking a better life. In its place is post-financial-crisis realism, mixed with the insular, vapid nature of a celebrity-focused, sun-drenched culture that can only exist in Los Santos -- the game's recreation of Los Angeles. Here, superficial is the norm, with a glistening, sprawling, incredibly well-realized recreation of the City of Angels covering up a world that is as corrupt, seedy and crime-filled as any GTAtitle.

The state of San Andreas is vast -- bigger than any previous entry to the series -- and mixes the urban grandeur of Los Santos with open countryside, beaches, airports, deserts, mountains, lakes, vast highways, dusty back roads, military bases, pockets of grossly exaggerated -- but also somehow realistic -- redneck civilization and a myriad more biomes and areas to explore. You start in the beautiful West Vinewood -- West Hollywood, to you and I -- but as you explore the map, every inch of which is open from the start, you unpeel the numerous layers of San Andreas, visiting life away from the vapidity and gang culture and urban rush of the city.

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Los Santos's natives range from rich socialites and movie executives to working class immigrants and gang members. From Vinewood to Vespucci (Venice Beach), Little Seoul to Cypress Flats (Long Beach), glistening glass towers mix with low-income housing, mansions and apartments blend into industrial zones and beaches. It's a heady mix of every socioeconomic group, distilled into one grand city. Leave Los Santos and drive through one of the towns in the game's northern regions and the locals will be sitting on their porches smoking, going about their small-town lives or stumbling out of bars. You'll see trucker caps and plaid shirts, ATVs driving around and more pick-ups than you can shake a stick at. San Andreas is a living, breathing world, with nuances that change from setting to setting. The people you meet change as you move around its map -- I haven't seen the same character twice, and the locals who reside at the state's northernmost point are far different to those struggling to survive in some of Los Santos's gang-ridden streets, or driving their SUVs and sports cars through the mansions in Vinewood Hills.

Obsessive attention to detail seems to have been Rockstar's focus when crafting this iteration of San Andreas. The number of features and additions are breathtaking, but if you slow down and really admire the world that Rockstar has made for you, it's the smallest details that begin to stand out, and subsequently blow you away. Fail a mission and have to repeat? You'll find the dialogue has slightly changed to help avoid repetition. Wade through water and your clothes will get wet, but only as far as you waded. Block traffic and other drivers will flick you off. Run for too long and sweat will seep through your clothes. Hikers on Mt. Chiliad, the game's largest mountain, stop to take photos on their phones. Open a car, and the interior dome light activates. Die and get sent to a hospital, and your character will emerge with cuts and bruises. Pedestrians will duck and cover their heads when it starts to rain, seeking shelter. The GPS that guides you loses its signal when you enter a tunnel. In a police shootout, if you injure an officer another will drag him out of the way. DJs on the in-game radio say "good morning" or "good night" depending on the time of day. Drive too far from the city and certain radio stations stop working. When it rains, puddles and small rivers form over time. There's an in-game Facebook spoof, which updates as you play, with other characters posting on your wall in reaction to your missions. Punch someone wearing glasses and the glasses will fly off. Visit the beach at night, and it'll be dotted with campfires and people playing guitars and chatting away. Drive at night with your lights off, and other drivers will flash at you. Pick up a prostitute, and they'll occasionally get a phone call revealing they need to pay off a student loan or are trying to afford their rent.

None of these things are game-changing or life-altering, but these and hundreds of other small touches help elevate GTA V above every other open-world game. It's an obsession to detail that carries through to every aspect.

GTA V is without doubt the best looking game I have ever played. It doesn't have the greatest graphics you'll ever see, and certainly it's hampered by the 7-year-old hardware inside the PS3 and Xbox 360, but what Rockstar has achieved is jaw-dropping. Lens flare, a dynamic-lighting engine, some of the most beautiful water you'll ever see in a game, stunning scenery, detailed realistic buildings, character models and cars, lifelike movements -- every aspect of GTA's visuals will leave you breathless. Cars leave visible tracks in mud and sand. Early morning smog blankets Los Santos and mist rolls down the mountains in the north. Characters lip-synch their dialogue as they drive or walk around. Fire burns and crackles, casting shadows. Bullets pierce surfaces, their impact changing depending on the material. Cars reflect buildings and lights, and gradually build up a layer of mud or sand if you take them off-road. Dynamic weather rolls across the state -- Los Santos can have beautiful sunshine while the east coast of the state experiences a torrential thunderstorm, complete with flashes of lighting. Even after clocking up days of in-game time, GTA V still finds ways to surprise with its beauty, which is made more remarkable by an almost total lack of loading screens as you navigate its world.

That same effect carries over to sound. I will say this now: GTA V's soundtrack will not go down as the series' best -- that title still belongs to Vice City -- but it's passable, with a good mix of genres, and the always entertaining DJs, advertisements and updates from Weasel News (a parody of Fox News), which reports on missions and actions you've taken in game. For the first time in the series, though, there is a soundtrack for when you have no music playing. Turn the radio off and, depending on what you're doing, you'll be greeted with a myriad of background songs to accompany what is happening on-screen. Taking a leisurely drive? The music will be soft and relaxing. In a high-speed chase? It could be dramatic and harsh. Taking part in a rip-roarious mission? Heavy rock to get your adrenaline pumping will start to play. It's a nice touch.

Complementing that is GTA's excellent voice acting. The entire cast bring their characters to life, and Rockstar must have recorded hundreds of hours of dialogue as no two conversations ever feel the same. Depending on who you play as, your character will comment on their surroundings and actions, mission cutscenes are dramatic and expertly acted, and one character -- Michael -- can even visit his psychologist to reflect on his life, family and even comment on things you've just done. Run someone over on the way to his office? Michael will turn and say, "I think I killed someone on my way here." It's a fantastic addition and really helps open up his backstory as Michael processes everything he has done and tries to balance his family life with his criminal side. On top of that, there are thousands of background sounds to animate the world. Trees rustle, cars backfire, sirens wail through city streets. Pedestrians will stop and talk to each other or engage in phone conversations. Head into the mountains and coyotes will howl and cougars will roar. Go off-road and tires scrabble for grip as birds sing overhead. Head out in a boat and waves crash against the sides as seagulls caw overhead and your boat splashes down between waves.

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It helps that, among all of this visual and aural beauty, Grand Theft Auto also plays beautifully. Gone is much of the awkward balance between floatiness and realism that dogged driving and navigating in GTA IV, and in comes the arcade car handling and tight gun-fight mechanics we've been clamoring for. For the first time, GTA Vfocuses on not one, but three protagonists -- Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Michael is a retired criminal, living in West Vinewood in a mansion with his wife and children. Franklin is a young pseudo-gangster -- he's uninterested in a life of crime, but struggles with being so good at it. Trevor is a psychopath, a completely insane, unrealistic character -- he feels like Rockstar letting its id go free -- who resides in a remote desert town, controlling a meth lab and battling rednecks. I'll avoid spoilers, but Michael and Trevor share a history that is explained at the beginning of the game, and Franklin meets Michael early on and is taken under his wing, helping pull Michael from retirement.

The worry with three characters is that emotional investment would be split between them, with no clear focus or investment occurring. You can jump between all three as you play, with each having separate missions to do, as well as group missions that any character can activate. Mercifully, Rockstar's tight scripting negates any worries here, though I certainly had a favorite character. Michael is my chosen standard, the one I always found myself defaulting to. His plight -- a family man hated by his family, bored and disenfranchised with a wealthy early retirement, stuck drinking and smoking his days away -- leads to a character that comes out of his emotional shell, letting his past catch up with him as he reopens his criminal side, the effects on his family and self making for some emotional cutscenes and incredible snippets of dialogue. He is a deep, interesting, smart, funny character. His missions are calculated, aggressive, but always tempered by his sanity and the hope for success.

Franklin is the least developed of the three. He's living in the hood, stuck stealing cars for a living, when he meets Michael and begins to explore a criminal life that's infinitely more dangerous and profitable than the one he was leading. He's relatively isolated, with just one friend and an aunt that he doesn't like, but Franklin has one of the best relationships in the game -- that with his dog, Chop. Yes, GTA V brings dogs into its world, and Chop gives Franklin his most human moments. All too often I'd find myself taking him for a walk, throwing a ball around, driving him to the beach and letting him run amok, as Franklin looks on and shouts encouragement. They're touching, genuine moments that pull you out of the violence and crime and let you breathe for a moment.

Trevor was undeniably my least favorite character. He's psychotic, brutal, insanely aggressive, and every mission invariably delves into the most ridiculous of circumstances. But he also serves a purpose. He gives Rockstar the room it needs to include every crazy, hilarious, stop-and-stare mission you could think of. Want to ride a bike along the top of a moving train? Trevor. Want to crash a small plane into the cargo hold of another plane before hijacking it? Trevor. Want to kill a family of rednecks and burn their house/meth lab down so you can become the biggest meth producer in the state? Trevor. He's a joyous release, and his missions are some of the most adrenaline-pumping and most rewarding to play. He's just an awful person, but he's okay with that and so am I.

It's in the gameplay that GTA V sells itself. It's just so good to play. Take a car and drive around the map or grab a bike and ride to the top of Mt. Chiliad to watch the sunrise. Play a round of golf or a game of tennis, or do yoga. Race cars, boats and planes. Search the map for the various special missions, which aren't mandatory but add additional layers to the game. Go to one of the in-game movie theaters and watch one of several short films. Sit in your house and watch TV. Take part in a triathlon, go base-jumping, or take an SUV and see how it performs off-road. Head to the pier and take a ride on a Ferris wheel or a roller coaster, or visit the game's version of Venice Beach and ogle the muscle men working out. Walk through a crowd of people and listen to their conversations and musings on life. Take a submarine and explore the depths of the ocean. Find a shark and try to kill it or outswim it before it eats you. Pick a point on the map and drive to it at a leisurely place, soaking in the scenery. Hit a cop car and take part in a high-speed chase across the state. GTA V lets you do whatever you want, wherever you want, in exactly the manner you want to do it.

I stole a car, slammed into the side of a police car and embarked on a pursuit. As I dodged the numerous squad cars trying to ram and block me, I headed for the military base. Dodging tank fire and soldiers as the police chased, I stopped my car -- riddled with bullet holes, broken windows and burst tires -- and stole a fighter jet. Taking off, I engaged in a mid-air dogfight with other military jets before parachuting out and landing on the top of Mt. Chiliad. I stood, watching the sunrise, as police and military tried to reach me, before stealing a dirt bike and jumping it from the top of the mountain, landing and watching as the bike exploded from the impact and I died. That was just 15 minutes of the game.

And that's before you've even touched GTA Online.

Online is where GTA V will really find its legs. Dogged by stability issues that Rockstar is scrambling to fix, it's unfortunately not as playable or reliable as it should be, but damn -- what Rockstar is trying to do is nothing short of incredible. Giving you the entirety of San Andreas, GTA Online opens it up into a quasi-MMO, complete with other players driving around and engaging in missions -- known as "jobs." Jump into Online and you'll create a character and be taken through the first few tutorial missions before being left to your own devices. Race other players in cars, boats and planes; complete online-specific missions; take part in player-versus-player deathmatches; earn money and become a property mogul; grow your own collection of exotic sports cars; rob gas stations and shops or simply grab some friends and explore the map. GTA Online allows all of this and more.

Its main function is its crew system, which allows you and your friends to join together in a specific, customizable group and play together. Choose a place to hangout. Set specific crew cars with specific paintjobs. Have customized crew emblems and outfits and then embark upon a myriad of missions together.

Want to rob a store? Have one of your group hold up the clerk as the others steal all the money. If you have a headset, you can scream at the clerk and he'll pack money from his register into a bag more quickly. Once you're done, evade the cops as your friends shoot from the passenger seats and then head back to your house to divide the loot. Can't be bothered going on missions? Sit and watch TV in your apartment. What if your friends are involved in a high-speed chase somewhere on the map? Weasel News will flash up and you'll be able to watch a helicopter-view of their escape. See another player winning big and you fancy taking a cut of their money? Kill them before they reach an ATM and deposit it, and you'll get some of whatever they drop. Customize a particular car and want to keep it? Fit a tracker and purchase insurance and it'll be marked on your map and replaced if someone steals or destroys it.

All of this is rolled into a system that rewards play and cooperation -- as well as winning. Reputation Points are gained whenever you successfully complete a job, which in turn allows you to level-up your character when specific amounts are met, unlocking weapons, clothes, cars and further activities. Need more cash in game for a minigun or that SUV you really want to drive? Rockstar is implementing a currency system, allowing you to buy in-game money with real money -- though they promise that this won't balance the game in favor of those who can afford to do so.

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It's a constantly evolving world, and once Rockstar has ironed out the numerous connectivity bugs currently plaguing it, it promises to be the real meat of GTA V. After you've completed the story missions, the side missions, found every collectable, explored every inch of the map and otherwise exhausted the main game -- which will take dozens if not hundreds of hours -- there's the online component to keep you coming back for more and more and more and more.

I'm going to sum up Grand Theft Auto V in the boldest way I can think of: It is the greatest game I've ever played. What it offers is something more than just a game. It's a lifestyle, an entertainment product, a distraction, a relaxation technique, a social tool, a dark comedy, a source of adrenaline and an exercise in obsessive attention to detail. It's an art form spread across an entire digital state, a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, mind-melting experience that absorbs you. I have sunk countless hours into the world Rockstar has made, and as I write this review I'm itching to go back. Itching to further explore the online mode. Itching to drive across a sun-drenched highway. Itching to watch as Michael struggles to do yoga. GTA V finds beauty in the mundane, as well as the high-octane. It blends between fast-paced and a dead stop, but only as the player wishes. I spent as many hours delving through the missions as I did simply driving around the map, attempting to win a game of tennis, or trying my luck at earning money on the in-game stock market.

Grand Theft Auto V is a violent, satirical, bloody, hedonistic, self-indulgent, utterly brilliant behemoth. It's a world within our world, a source of escapism that eschews realism, but also invokes it in the tiniest of details. Rockstar's efforts exude from every crack in the pavement of downtown Los Santos, every rustle of wind that disturbs the palm trees on Vespucci beach, every dust cloud that kicks up as I crash through a sand dune. From the magnificent to the microscopic, every detailed inch of GTA V is there to drag you into a world that you are simultaneously shocked by and utterly enraptured by. This is gaming in its purest and grandest forms. It's art, entertainment and a way of life. It's a perfect fantasy that thrives on the imperfections of reality. It is, and for the near future will remain, possibly the greatest game ever made.

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