Moko asked me on the twitterz about my first impressions of GTA V. Long story short: brilliant. I’m going to write a long essay about it, probably next week, so don’t want to go into great detail here, but a few things stood out. The scripting is every bit as good as any you’ll find in an HBO series. That’s on the micro level of dialogue, of course. I can’t vouch for how the characters play out over the long arc of the story. And it is a very long arc. Most of the pro reviewers are talking about a minimum of 30-35 hours game play on the main storyline alone. For a punter who doesn’t live with a controller in his hand that would probably mean two or three times as long.
In writing terms it’s nothing like a movie, with which games are most often compared and, to be fair, the art form Rockstar has been most obsessed with emulating, if not imitating. But as more than one critic has written, GTA V more closely resembles an epic, character based TV series like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. And it’s the uses to which character are put that really, really stands out in this edition. The decision to write three playable protags has had enormous implications for everything from the narrative structure to the mechanics of combat.
It looks like a triumph, but I’ll make my own call on that next week.
Below are some extracts from the most significant reviews, all of them going straight to this issue:
Franklin is the most traditional GTA antihero, brought up in poverty and working to escape it, ideally by honest means but knowing the reality will likely be different. Michael, the retired bank robber living in Los Santos under a new identity after faking his death at the climax of the opening flashback, is, by contrast, a character who could never anchor a GTA game by himself. His story – a faded hoodlum in therapy, whose wife cheats on him, whose kids hate him and who finds himself increasingly irrelevant in a city that prizes youth and beauty more than anywhere else on the planet – simply doesn’t fit the traditional GTA mission template. Yet his inclusion enriches the story and its setting, adding in modern Californian themes like therapy, infidelity, the emptiness of wealth and young America’s unquenchable yet unfussy thirst for fame. You can’t shoot your way round those. His story can be cutscene-heavy, but is so vividly realised and finely delivered that you won’t even notice, much less complain. And even if you do, there’s enough bombast elsewhere to make up for it.
Most of that bluster comes from Trevor. He’s brilliant, blessed with most of the best lines, an unstoppable ball of aggression, hate and pathological violence. He’s the sort of person who’d pick up a hooker then run her over and take his money back, or uppercut a hiker off the top of a mountain. The kind of guy who’d bring an RPG to a knife fight, and who’d wake up on a beach wearing only his underwear and spend a couple of days doing missions in his pants. If Franklin is the lens through which we have traditionally seen Grand Theft Auto and Michael is the story its creator has long wanted to tell, Trevor is the character who best embodies the way tens of millions of GTA fans actually play the game.
Interestingly, throughout my time with the game I’ve found that it has more in common with Red Dead Redemption than GTA IV. Freaks and Stranger missions are on offer as distractions from the main quest[s], and you’ll often come across a random, emergent event in your general travels. These might be related to performing a good deed, or just being duped by a bunch of stooges. None are essential to take part in or complete however, they’re basically in play to help bring the world to life, though a few of them do offer pretty interesting rewards if you’re willing to roll further down the rabbit hole. V’s lighting and less urban parts of the environment are also embracingly familiar to Rockstar’s Western opus, which still stands as a current-gen benchmark as far as open-world games go. And in keeping with said familiarity, it’s not only rich with character, but also wildlife you can interact with in a variety of different ways.
Initially I was a Franklin fan, purely because he’s just a cool character and his plight is familiar in the GTA space, but the further I got into the game the more Michael spoke to me. In many ways he’s an allegory for the modern games industry: beat-up and run down, undeservedly rich yet commanding of respect for his years of effort and sacrifice. Lifting him out of his rut, as you can bet your life you will, is a glory I’ve not experienced in the videogame landscape before and when you literally take flight with the character, you’ll colourfully see that design and direction maturity from Rockstar I talked about earlier -- honestly, it’s one of gaming’s greatest moments.
Grand Theft Auto 5's inclusion of multiple protagonists makes considerable headway in the series' struggle to sustain a narrative thread over more than 30 hours of story. The three leads share the central storyline, but also have their own handful of conflicts that, over time, weave in and out of the broader picture. It's a television-style serial structure, with missions playing out like episodes, the entire game a season. Now, dozens of characters and conflicts help to shoulder the burden.
Better yet, a single character no longer has to act as a narrative catch-all for the variety of mission types the game throws at the player. Appropriate missions are served to the most fitting character. Big-shot Hollywood missions go to Michael, a 40-something reformed criminal millionaire going through a midlife crisis. Low-level crime goes to Franklin, a disenfranchised up-and-comer conflicted about which side of right and wrong he falls on. And mayhem belongs to Trevor, a sociopath who loves to kill people and blow up expensive things.
Buying real estate, trading stocks, and dropping off hapless tourists into the hands of nearby cultists will make a little money for you, but heists are what generate real wealth. I would be a terrible reviewer if I told you anything specific about them, so I’ll paint in broad strokes. Each character is capable of kicking off a heist, and all of them have very different planning methods ranging from scribbling on an apartment wall to a more tactical corkboard approach. You’ll need to do a bit of planning and resource gathering, so don’t expect it to be a quick score. You’ll usually have a loud or quiet approach, and a choice of exit methods, but all require more than the trio of main characters. As the story unfolds you’ll encounter all sorts of unsavory people, and these accomplices can be used in heists. Each of them has a skillset package that grows the more often you use them. The choices matter because the slightest screw-up can suddenly make your quiet heist into a loud smash-and-grab. They can also screw up and get caught, costing you whatever portion of the take they might be holding. Since a proper heist can net you millions, a single bag can be a painful loss.
There is one huge reason to replay Grand Theft Auto V – experiencing the same mission from another perspective. For instance, when one character finds out that his girl was sleeping with someone else you can experience this in the first person as that character, or you can experience it as another character as you drive up the driveway and see the cheater bailing out of the second story window. This is just one purposely vague example, and this game is absolutely chock full of them. In fact, there are a total of 69 missions, 42 hobbies and pastimes, 14 random events, 20 “Strangers and Freaks” side missions (repossessing vehicles, stealing random things from celebrities, etc.), and much more. If you felt like Grand Theft Auto IV took out your favorite hobby, there is a fair chance that it’s here for you to discover all over again.
When you tire of randomly wreaking havoc, the story is prodded along by accepting missions, and Grand Theft Auto 5 introduces a new type: heists. Heists are multi-tiered missions with big cash payouts, and they typically begin with a recon overview that outlines the overall objective. Once the story behind a heist is established, you're given the chance to plan how it will play out. Two different options of execution are offered. Generally you're given a "smart" way to complete a heist that lengthens adversarial response time and initial resistance, or the "loud" way that often brings the full weight of your enemies down on you like a hammer.
In the first heist, for example, you can use the air ducts you spotted during recon to knock out the customers and employees of a jewelry store with sleeping gas, allowing your entire crew to focus on cleaning the place out. Or you can go in loud, forcing one of your team to keep the crowd in check. Based on the crew you select and how well you execute your part of the plan, your take of the payout can change. When selecting your team, you have to weigh each crew member's take – their asking price of the total score – against their abilities, and your greed can come back to bite you if you're not careful. During a jewelry heist, I hired a gunman with relatively low stats. His asking price was lower than someone of greater skill, but he was ultimately sideswiped by police and knocked off of his escape motorcycle – along with a million in jewels. The choices you make all have their effects, running the gamut from changing the difficulty of a mission to altering how much money your crew can pull in.