Rockstar returns to the car-jacking, gun shooting, rootin’-tootin’ urban sandbox with GTA V, a broader, deeper, prettier, more varied urban crime that is hollow and flawed.
OK, that might seem harsh. Granted, there are many things that Grand Theft Auto V does exceptionally well. The expansive cityscape of Los Santos (a thinly veiled Los Angeles) and surrounding rural environs are stunning to wind your way though. Racing up the highway to Paleto Bay, taking a sky tram to the top of Mount Chilead or whipping a motorcycle through the nooks and crannies of urban Los Santos are all rewarding, beautiful explorations. The mission variety has broadened from previous iterations of the GTA formula, primarily with the addition of chapter-bookending heists.
The heists are really the centerpiece of the game. The half dozen super-missions involve a novel planning stage that allows you to tailor your approach to your playstyle. Will you kick in the door of the jewelry store and scare the patrons into obedience or will you steal some animal tranquilizers, dump them in the ventilation system and make the shoppers take a nap? Additionally, you can hire differently skilled members of your heist team to regulate how much of the take you actually get to keep. This ability to customize your missions adds some much-needed depth to the tiresome “Drive to Point A/Shoot Target B/Return to Point C.”
And you’re not exactly running these crimes solo. GTA V makes a bold step forward by introducing multiple protagonists that you can (mostly) instantly swap between. Though this does provide some intriguing tactical options, it is best served in splitting the plot across multiple characters. The result is a rich tale of violence, betrayal and ambition, and I would argue it is the best story the GTA series has seen.
But, for me, the engaging story, signature heists and beautiful vistas just don’t cover the sore spots. Despite its stab at realism and enormity of locale, GTA V still sticks you on pointlessly meandering roads to create the illusion of distance. You are extremely fragile in a gunfight (which, while realistic, just isn’t much fun) and, though the assisted targeting can be used on foot, when shooting from a vehicle you are forced into manual aim — which is off-putting not for the challenge but for the abrupt difference.
The other conflicting spot is the audio and voice acting around Los Santos. GTA V brings back its wide array of radio stations, which have a great variety of music as well as numerous talk radio segments. Sadly, though, the signature Rockstar humor hasn’t matured along with the series. The “satire” of politics, technology and the economy is thin, and the ticker-tape parade of profanity is a poor substitute for wit. The more pointed “jokes,” which are almost universally at the expense of women and minorities, have ceased to be skewering caricatures of racism and sexism and fall limp to everyone but the troglodytes in the audience. It is sad to imagine that this is the audience Rockstar thinks we are — one mature enough to appreciate a multi-threaded narrative, but stupid enough to treat almost every non-white, non-male figure as acceptable target for cruelty masquerading as humor.
— Glenn Given
Glenn Given is a writer, designer and game maker. You can find more of his reviews at gamesbyplaydate.com.