Shoot, stab, and explode your way across town in a series of dangerous heists.
PC Release: April 14, 2015
By Ian Coppock
I’ve started up a side project called the Arkham Knight Disaster Watch, in which I watch news feeds everywhere like a hawk for signs that the game will actually be finished and released properly for PC. Of course, with Warner Bros. taking the game off of store shelves to fix it, I get the feeling that we PC gamers are in for a long wait while Rocksteady does what it should’ve done months ago. The thing that excited me most about Arkham Knight was pancaking thugs into the dirt with the Batmobile. Bereft of being able to do that, I sought out another way to drive around a massive city, destroying lives and annihilating order.
The answer was clear immediately: Grand Theft Auto V.
There’s a lot that Rocksteady could learn from how Rockstar handled its own prickly port situation. A lot of PC gamers were mad as hell when Rockstar announced that this would be the last version of the game to be released, and it only came out 60 days ago. I would’ve been perfectly happy if Rocksteady had taken a few extra months to properly optimize the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight, an outcome that we’re all going to have to wait for anyway.
But, even though Rockstar delayed the PC version of GTA V by almost two years, they optimized the shit out of it. They added 60 fps capabilities that consoles do not have. They added a host of new graphics and visual options. They added mouthwatering features like the Rockstar world editor to allow machinima and mods. And it took off onto the Steam store like a beautiful butterfly. Like the metamorphosis of one of those magnificent creatures, the wait was long, but it was worth it.
Before GTA V, I had played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and GTA IV, the former of which is a fun game with a surprisingly enjoyable story, and the latter of which is a hamstrung shitheap and one of the worst games I’ve ever played.
Given my experience with GTA IV, I was worried about the direction Rockstar would take with its sequel, but the studio implemented what made Red Dead Redemption so great and made this into the definitive Grand Theft Auto experience. Fun gameplay, interesting story, and only a few bugs here and there (which is a rarity for AAA PC ports these days).
GTA V takes place in 2013, the year of the game’s first release, and returns the series to the SoCal facsimile of San Andreas. Unlike the previous games in the series, the overarching narrative is split between three playable protagonists: a retired bank robber, a young hoodlum, and a crazy guy who huffs solvent gasoline. Right off the bat, this innovative mechanic triples the fun players will have with the game, though it doesn’t necessarily triple the content.
Anyway, middle-aged bank robber Michael De Santa lives in Los Santos (read: Los Angeles) with his wife and two kids, and events beyond his control collide him with Franklin, a young guy trying to get out of the hood, and Trevor, his former robbery partner-turned-unhinged psychopath. Despite a wealth of personal and interpersonal problems, the three make an effective heist team, and run jobs for various government and underworld elements. The story swings back and forth like a shopping cart with a bent wheel, between incredibly dangerous heists and encounters with wacky characters.
GTA V is set in a vast open-world mirror of contemporary Los Angeles. The city of Los Santos is awash in celebrity worship, rampant drug abuse, materialism, and pants-shittingly terrifying cosmetic procedures. You’re also free to explore the vast tapestry of towns and wilderness orbiting Los Santos, and in a first for the GTA series, all areas are unlocked right from the get-go. Everything from the pretentiousness of its hipsters to the worthlessness of its greed is modeled after southern California.
How was I able to spot this so quickly? Because the world that Rockstar has cooked up is outstanding. This is the most “alive” city I’ve ever encountered in a video game, with hordes of people, busy lanes of traffic, bustling businesses and of course, underworld elements. Everything has been carefully built to deliver a scathing parody of American culture, one that I found to be only one or two steps from the real deal. They brought back the hilarious talk shows I loved so much in GTA: San Andreas, and JB Smoove’s performance as a clueless alternative healer had me crying with laughter. It all blends together to create a morbid atmosphere akin to a Tarantino film: macabre, but also comedic.
The biting social satire and beautiful environments are brought to life with sound game design. The game’s visual fidelity on ultra-high 60 fps settings is pretty goddamn awesome. Whereas GTA IV‘s environment felt morose and dull past the grittiness Rockstar was probably going for, Los Santos pops with both bright colors and grimy textures. From the gleaming corners of downtown to the rundown ghettos near the highway, everything has been meticulously detailed with color and props to create an absorbing environment. Rockstar’s attention to detail shines through well, and you’ll easily lose yourself driving around the city and countryside.
GTA V‘s level design includes the smart city grids that we’re all used to by now, but it also packs a lot of rural variety that San Andreas missed. Outside of the city, you can follow dirt roads into sandy hills, climb mountains, delve into forests, and visit small towns on the edge of civilization. The level design changes to reflect the new areas, but with no less fidelity than what Rockstar put into the urbanity it knows so well. Yet another lesson probably learned from Red Dead Redemption, and holy shit what a good game that is.
The gameplay in GTA V is… pretty good. Rockstar knows the ins and outs of handling a car by now, and while the vehicles have a nice weight to them, they turn like shit, and the camera tends to zoom in way too far on the rear bumper, leaving me having to constantly reshuffle the mouse to keep the damn camera at a steady hover. Off-road driving or driving in rainstorms is also iffy; even in a 4-wheel-drive SUV, going offroad feels like piloting a buttered ham with fireworks glued to the ass-end. The on-foot controls are pretty conventional, except for the swimming, which is awful. How does it make sense to make WASD the depth controls? In fact, there are a few questionable key bindings, like tying flight controls to the number pad, but you can change these in the settings.
The gunplay is also nice, but it doesn’t really innovate; it’s the same third-person shooting mechanics that we all know by now. You duck behind cover to avoid damage, peep out to shoot a ho (is that what the kids say?) and mow down enemies and civilians alike with an alarming array of weaponry. GTA V shrugs off the two weapon-carry prevalent in games right now and lets you be a one-man wrecking crew, able to lug five or six weapons into the fray at once. Unlike GTA IV, these weapons are easy to obtain, because it’s not like the game is encouraging you to spread violence.
With solid driving mechanics and standard third-person gunplay, are the gameplay elements in place for one hell of a narrative? The short answer is yes. The long answer?
Well, the game’s main storyline is a compelling journey between three people, two of whom have a history that goes way back. One has spent a decade eluding the authorities, and the other put himself up in a Hollywood (excuse me, Vinewood) mansion. We have a young gang member who wants to escape the ghetto and live a better life. The cast of supporting characters evolves along with the main characters, in a break for the series, but most retain some sort of wacky niche. You’ll encounter drugged-out politicians, fanatical paparazzi, and other characters that carry Rockstar’s uncommon writing talent. Of course, I’d be lying if African-Americans trying to escape the ghetto was not a common trope.
Aside from the main storyline of robbing banks and appeasing mobsters, you’ll find characters scattered across Los Santos’s vivid landscape. There are lots of activities to partake in, like street races, and players can customize their characters with clothing, haircuts, tattoos and weapons. GTA V brings back the humor that was sorely missing in GTA IV; the main storyline contains most of the grittiness that modern GTA games pack, but the wacky humor can be found in the side missions.
These missions pop up only for specific characters and will appear as you progress through the story. All missions have that annoying GTA habit of baby-stepping you through the mission (go to car, get in car, get out of car, blow up car, walk away from where car used to be). Rockstar, I realize that a lot of your fans are probably perpetually high off of Ritalin and Red Bull, but give us some credit.
Most of the characters in the game are at least partially sympathetic. Michael is experiencing a mid-life crisis and hates what he’s doing to innocent people, despite his outer persona. Franklin sees the violence and money only as a means to a peaceful life, and the psychopathic Trevor just huffs solvent gasoline and goes murderfuck on the nearest group of people. That aspect was less sympathetic, but all three characters are fascinating. Some will be hardened by the violence you incite, but others will be unwound by it.
Another thing that’s less sympathetic? A handful of annoying bugs. In addition to spinning cars, the game has way too much pop-in. You’ll be driving down the road and occasionally bump into a car that wasn’t in front of you two seconds ago. Once or twice the game has gone into windowed mode, for some reason. I also noticed some framerate dips; none of these are acceptable on a quality gaming rig.
Random encounters return after last being seen in Red Dead Redemption. You’ll be driving along and suddenly a woman gets robbed, or a gang of bikers jumps at you from the brush. These events keep you on your toes and make the liveliness of Los Santos jump beyond the audio-visual scope. Another means of keeping things lively is the ability to buy businesses and use them to generate revenue, but driving truckloads of wine out to a seaside restaurant gets old fast.
This is the most sexist GTA we’ve yet seen, and that’s pretty damn terrifying. You can go to a digital strip club and get digital lap dances (why?) and solicit prostitutes for twenty seconds of opaque camera angles and porno audio. Rockstar claims that this is to increase the gangster vibe. I say that it’s incredibly demeaning and a serious mark against the game. And yes, you can kill hookers with a baseball bat. I think that’s become Rockstar’s private joke.
Grand Theft Auto V has a pretty good story that I would call repetitive if the heisting wasn’t so much fun. Switching between characters mid-mission, coming up with a plan, and getting away with a load of cash is a mechanic that is at once new to the franchise, but totally original considering its main theme. We have three complicated people in a very complicated city, and it’s a setup that puts the spotlight on driving around and screwing with people. This is the case with a lot of open-world games but none more so than Grand Theft Auto V.
If assing around in a giant digital playground with limitless cars, tons of guns, and zero police supervision sounds fun to you, than your Christmas just came in. The portrayal of women in this game is ruinous and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, so I would offer this as a caveat to those of you who like to be mindful of what media you support with your money. Grand Theft Auto V satirizes our culture, it maddens the senses, it features a plot that tends to whirlpool around the same themes but will leave you wanting to jump back in for more.
I had a lot of fun with it, you probably will too.
You can buy Grand Theft Auto V here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.