Being a progressive playing Grand Theft Auto is like a vegetarian being handed an artisan cheeseburger. You can pile on as many lovingly-styled vegetables and sauces as you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that underpinning it all is a big old chunk of dead cow. So it is with Grand Theft Auto V.
Let’s get my major criticisms out of the way first – it’s an unabashedly sexist game with little to teach us which revels in its ridiculousness like a dog rolling in its own faeces. And yet, it’s still good. And isn’t that the mark of a great piece of artwork? Triumph of the Will depicts the Nuremburg rallies and we all know how awful the Nazi regime was, but there’s a reason film students still examine its cinematography. To put it less intellectually, the fact that you’ve painted everything with pink and brown polka-dots doesn’t stop you living in a well-built house.
To begin with, it’s worth explaining that it’s nearly impossible to see everything in GTAV, particularly when there are only three days between launch and the review deadline. That’s a tall order for a normal game, and with GTAV it’s just not remotely likely to happen. But I stayed up far longer than I should have done to play this, which is a good sign.
The setup is this: three characters – a black youth doing repossession work for a dodgy car dealership, a retired career criminal living the high life, and a rural-dwelling meth lord – all find their paths intertwining around the city of Los Santos. Franklin – the aforementioned repo-man-turned-tough – is by far the most likeable and empathetic character, wanting to stand on his own two feet rather than carry on a dead-end job. As such, it’s hard to think of him as a bad person even when he’s frequenting strip clubs or mowing down civilians.
It’s this kind of – yep, I’m gonna say it – ludonarrative dissonance which forms the core of the relationship between Grand Theft Auto’s gameplay and story. One second, main character Michael is bemoaning his love of danger to his psychiatrist, the next he’s ramping his car off a bridge and sniping people in the balls.
Still, it’s not all violence, and this is actually where most of the dissonance comes in. In between the carnage, there are myriad extra activities to undertake, including but not limited to golf, tennis and, for some reason, darts. Even if it’s rather jarring to go for nine holes after vast slaughter has taken place, it’s nice to see this level of depth in a sandbox, even if that is par for the course in this genre. It’s additions like that which add to the sense of life and immersion to be found within the game.
Of course, exploring everything will take weeks – from a dirt bike at the top of a mountain which just screams “ride me all the way down!” to a cable car, jet skis, boats, it’s all there and there’s always something to do. Emergent gameplay is the watch word, and making your own fun is part of the joy of it all. It’s fun to floor it across open desert, or race a train, or see what happens when you take a boat outside the game boundaries (it falls off the world, that’s what – nice glitch, Rockstar) and you don’t need to do the story missions to discover that.
Having said that, you should be doing the story missions because they’re universally entertaining and well-written. It’s got great characterisation and a variety of gameplay – it’s not just driving fast and having shooutouts (although we should be clear, that is much of what’s involved).
That’s not to say the game is without its problems. In addition to the aforementioned bewildering social attitudes, it’s also got a couple of bugs, which although inevitable in a sandbox can be quite jarring. Mostly I’m referring to the tendency of characters to brain themselves on random scenery, and the one or two occasions I got stuck in a small space. It’s not game-ruining, but it is annoying and breaks immersion.
Secondly, the cars still haven’t been fixed and driving is like trying to steer a greased-up ocean liner around an air-hockey table. The turning circles are huge and brakes seem to be an irrelevance in the face of a rapidly approaching truck. Shooting from cars is automatic, which isn’t really ideal since you end up wasting ammunition, and the only genuinely good use I saw was the fact that you can spray water from the fire truck.
Planes, added again after a long absence, have all the elegance and ease of use of riding a wobbly bike through a wind tunnel. I suppose it’s realistic that they’d be hard to control, but so are cars and I’ve not seen anyone wanting to turn GTA into Gran Turismo. Honestly, there’s very little reason to use them unless you’re doing a mission where they’re required, so overall a trick has been missed.
Grand Theft Auto V is, to put it simply, very good. It could have been better, with a bit less of the old idiocy on the content front and better controls and the like, but once you start playing most of those issues melt away. Well worth a purchase. 87%