It's been a long five years since the last Grand Theft Auto released. During that length of time it's been easy to forget how dominant of a force the series has become since its arrival in 1997, now ranked as the sixth best-selling series in history with fewer than 10 releases. For some, its unwavering allure is the result of its mature themes with crime-drama narratives, violent shootouts, and racing through big cities in luxury cars. For many, its charm stems from its worlds influenced by our own which function as virtual playgrounds.
Grand Theft Auto V has been touted by developer Rockstar Games as a bold step for open-world action games and storytelling since its announcement in 2011. That's a sharp statement by one of the industry's most successful. So, has it delivered on its promise?
GTA V makes a jump back to the west coast with its Los Angeles inspired Los Santos County. You'll quickly immerse yourself in its unfathomably large world using the perspective of three different protagonists: Michael, Trevor, and Franklin. Each character is introduced carefully in order to craft a sense of purpose. You might not find all three endearing, but their personalities are so divergent that you will find at least one to become attached to. While Michael is the "I'm too old for this" guy who brings along confidence and experience, Trevor is outright psychotic. He quickly evolves from crass and unstable to your main source of laughs. As far as Franklin goes, well, he's just a guy trying to make it out of the ghetto. His evolution from petty theft to high-stakes criminal is one that is more tangible than the other two. It's a shame his personal affairs are with egregious characters.
Switching between the protagonists is seamless in missions. One minute you'll be in-charge of a critical task for a job before the perspective shifts to reveal a side of the mission that you would normally be unaware of. It also showcases the game's sense of scale when in the open-world. After switching you'll catch your newly-controlled character finishing an "errand", or even a personal conversation. It's an ambitious and extremely successful system that works wonderfully within the context of the GTA universe.
Progressing through the game's plot is consistently a pleasure. The game delivers deeply interesting missions that never feel repetitive or drawn-out. At times they're challenging, but you'll enthusiastically want to overcome them to see the next interaction between characters and what your next big task is. It always seems like you're doing something substantial, whether it be coming in contact with famous characters in the fictional game world, or planning an elaborate multi-million dollar heist. You could easily argue that it's one of the most well-balanced content deliveries in gaming history.
At times when you're simply driving around town, GTA V makes a conscious effort to entertain you. The world is more organic than any video game in history—move over, Skyrim. Traffic flows realistically while pedestrians react to one another and your actions. While the game's many dynamic events provide a sense of unpredictability, ordinary interactions are frequent and entertaining. Your immersion will compel you to treat the game world with respect. You might find yourself parking perfectly in parking spaces, slowing down around pedestrians, and behaving yourself around the county's merciless police department. If so, welcome to the GTA V addiction which has claimed so many.
Layered between the generous quantity of main missions is a plethora of additional content to enjoy. There are side-missions that are well worth diving into, not only because they reveal more about one of the game's characters but because they provide new ways of interfacing with the game world. Beyond that, you can participate in more activities than any GTA in history. Head to the nearest hill and base jump to take in the game's scenery, or go play a round of golf at the course you just purchased for $75 million. You'll be spoiled by activities and all of them provide reward in one form or another: money, a boost to an attribute of the character you're playing as, or items. Made even better, the game's currency is meaningful. Things such as tuning your car and weapons aren't cheap, so you should be careful when investing in stocks or purchasing property.
For the first time in the series' long history, gameplay is functionally cohesive. During shootouts you'll be able to rely on the accuracy and predictability of the game's many weapons and weapon types. Targeting behavior and object interaction are much better than in games past. Those who played GTA IV will be very glad to know that the driving mechanics have been completely renovated. Driving is no longer a chore, and you'll find it thrilling to buzz through intersections missing cars by mere centimeters.
The engine's refined gameplay is part of what makes the minute-by-minute experience so good. Placing C4 charges, taking shots with your sniper rifle, and hopping over fences to chase enemies leaves a smile on your face. It's clear that Red Dead Redemption's successful improvements to Rockstar's formula have carried over to its latest game. This is an open-world game with the gameplay quality of a linear AAA title.
Rockstar's attention to detail in GTA V, despite its open-world hindered by aging current-generation systems, deserves thunderous praise. Each nook and cranny of its city and outlying territories have been meticulously crafted— there's no copy-pasting, here. When driving through Los Santos at night you can see lights beaming from structures all around you, and planes taking off from the local airport. Once you get to fly an airplane for yourself, you'll admire how much work has gone into the level design.
As near-perfect as GTA V is, it has some minor faults, most notable is that you're forced to use each character's default car. A trip to the shop to trick out one of your beloved supercars only leads to frustration once you change characters and come back to find that your custom car has been replaced. Also, the lack of in-world markers for directions makes driving from point A to point B feel archaic. You'll be relying on your mini-map… again. However, when all is said and done, these minor design issues are streamrolled by the game's mighty fun factor.
Playing Grand Theft Auto V is witnessing first-hand the evolution of the gaming industry. Developers have said for years that making large open-world games is too difficult. Rockstar has proven that the investment is worth it by making the most fully realized open-world game in history, and throwing in a successful three protagonist system while they were at it. GTA V is a celebration of fun, and one of the most entertaining games ever; a perfect sendoff for the seventh generation of video game consoles. We can only hope that future games marvel at its magnificence and aspire to do the same.
Jonathan Leack is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @jleack.
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