Grand Theft Auto 5 releases on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 today, bringing Rockstar’s expansive open world game to the new generation of consoles. Digital Foundry will beassessing the technical differences throughout the week, and we’ll be bringing you more on what’s new and how the original stands up nearly a year on from its release. To start, though, here’s our original review, first published in September 2013.
If there was one criticism of Grand Theft Auto 4 that evidently stung Rockstar, it was the complaint that it lacked an endgame. Liberty City was an incredible place, cramming as much character into one city block as most open worlds manage in a thousand, but once Niko settled his last score, there wasn’t much to do but cruise around waiting for the DLC.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is a welcome overreaction. Rockstar has rammed Los Santos and the surrounding desert and mountain areas with more things to do than I could describe in half a dozen reviews. I’m not sure it feels like the biggest open world in the series’ history, but I think that’s just because it’s so easy to travel across quickly, and it’s certainly the most densely packed with hedonistic thrills, stuff to buy and steal, random events and weirdoes who want something. Then there’s the promise of GTA Online, the evolving, persistent multiplayer component due to land for free at the start of October.
Packing in all those activities – from trash-diving to skydiving – hasn’t impeded Rockstar’s world-building either. Los Santos takes the basic geography of Los Angeles and files it down into something tight and entertaining to navigate, where every street has its own story etched in phony colonnades or chain-link fences and landmarks are lifted from real life (Grauman’s Chinese, Chateau Marmont) or the silver screen (the house on stilts in Lethal Weapon 2 springs to mind), then woven together with practised ease.
Layered on top of that is Rockstar’s trademark cynicism. GTA 4 took a few swings at fear-mongering 24-hour news, right-wing neo-cons and reality TV, but GTA 5 is spoiled for choice and the gag writers go for the jugular, skewering TV talent contests, self-help gurus, social media, internet trolls, political hypocrites and our obsession with sex, sex, sex. You can’t go half a block without walking into a punch line and every radio ad is telling you to buy a new smartphone because you might as well get that last bit of liquidity out of the house while you still can, or else just keep jacking off in the garage after the kids have gone to sleep.
Perhaps these are obvious targets and perhaps GTA has little to add to the discussion, but the way the writers and designers crystallise what’s absurd about them is still rare and welcome in a mainstream video game, and it feeds into what I love most about GTA: cruising around, glorying in the details and watching and listening as the game holds mirrors up to things we see every day – and then breaks them over someone’s head. There’s an intoxicating richness to that experience when you first arrive in Los Santos that I’ve missed in the five long years since GTA 4, and the game bites just as sharply after 30 hours.
The main thoroughfare through the game, though, is Rockstar’s latest narrative hike up the criminal mountain, except this time it’s delivered with a twist: GTA 5 has not one but three main characters, each with his own history and goals. Michael’s a retired bank robber, bored out of his mind in a Vinewood mansion where his wife flirts with the tennis coach and the kids play video games and hang out with sleazebags. Franklin’s more sympathetic – a young black man with a gangster-wannabe best friend and an appetite to learn. Trevor, who we meet later, is a certifiable bad guy who kills people for no reason and is tougher to like.
Things start off interesting as Rockstar plays it fairly straight, dragging Michael out of retirement with wit and a few good set-pieces as Franklin falls into step alongside him, before they plan a heist together and Trevor comes onto the scene. Apart from a few story-specific periods, you can switch between the three of them at any time by picking someone else on the character wheel. The camera zooms out into the sky, pans to their location and zooms in to find them – you might catch Michael cycling through the hills or Trevor waking up half-naked under a rock – in a process that only takes a few seconds. If they’re in the same location then the transition is instant.
The best thing about their adventures together, which span 69 story missions, is that it breathes new life into Rockstar’s mission templates. You still spend a lot of the game driving around having conversations, crouching behind walls, hunting down red blips on your mini-map and watching people swear at each other creatively in cut-scenes, but in the heat of battle you have more tactical options, and Rockstar has more directorial ones.
A high-speed chase on a freeway can see Michael firing out his window while Franklin climbs aboard a stolen yacht on a trailer, for instance, or Michael can shoot out a plane’s engine with a high-powered rifle so Trevor can chase it on a dirt bike until it crashes spectacularly in the desert. Even simple gunfights are elevated by the ability to switch from Trevor in cover here to Michael on overwatch there to Franklin sneaking around on the flank. There are different approaches and outcomes throughout, and far fewer standard shooting galleries. Each character has a special ability, too – Franklin can briefly slow down time while driving, for instance.
The high points are the heists, where the gang’s tech wizard friend Lester puts together a plan, you choose the approach and backup personnel, and then the trio spread out and collect the materials needed to pull it off before everyone plays a part in the score. It’s all very scripted and stage-managed – go buy three boiler suits, steal a fire engine, modify some cars and stash them under a bridge – but each heist has a blockbuster set-piece feel to it, and when they go to plan and you walk away with a thick stack of cash to spend on Los Santos’ many expensive distractions, you feel like you’re living the life.
In a way, though, your criminal success is also the downside to GTA 5’s lengthy story, which loses its way after an interesting start. Michael and Franklin could both carry interesting games on their shoulders – Michael’s going through a midlife crisis, depressed because he can’t control his family after giving them everything, while Franklin’s torn between his roots and a desire for more. When Trevor arrives, though, the game reverts to a standard crime story – can’t escape my past, enemies everywhere, one last job, etc – and more interesting themes are abandoned in favour of endless cut-scenes of roaring arguments.
The problem is that Trevor is an asshole. When you first meet him, he does something so unpleasant that you wonder how you’re ever going to empathise with him, and before long you’re rotating an analogue stick so he can pull a tooth out of someone’s jaw with a pair of pliers. These are serious and intense moments, but Trevor is too shallow and unconvincing to justify them, and instead his antics derail the narrative. He’s such a distraction to Michael that his family become a footnote rather than a subplot, while Franklin is almost completely forgotten until a bit of last-minute catch-up near the end of the game. The outcome ties up loose ends, but I’d lost interest by then.
All the heist stuff is difficult to reconcile with the world Rockstar has built, too. This is a game pretty much designed from top to bottom to equate the American Dream to some sort of elaborate pyramid scheme, but the message is that hard graft buys you a mansion in the hills, a helipad downtown and a fleet of tricked-out sports cars? This contradiction was at the heart of Vice City, too, but it made more sense in a love letter to Scarface. GTA 5 captures the absurdity of modern life, but I expected it to do more than join the party.
When the story cuts loose from the hard-edged heist film template and has some fun, it’s much more entertaining. Trevor’s missions are a perfect example – when the writers stop treating him as a serious character, sending him off to hijack a plane or rob a money train instead, the rage goes out of his voice and he feels like the cartoon creation underneath. Franklin’s adventures with his friend Lamar are the kind of unpredictable, high-energy capers that stick in the memory, too, and a great chance to spend time with Lamar, who steals every scene he’s in.
A greater emphasis on this stuff would have been more welcome and honest in a game of nihilistic thrill-seeking, but GTA 5 is still an easy sell. There’s so much excellent stuff to do, see and hear throughout the dozens of hours you can spend touring Los Santos that you’ll easily overlook the inconsistencies in storytelling, if that stuff even bothers you in the first place. This is also the slickest, easiest GTA game Rockstar has ever made, full of fine detailing that smoothes your experience moment to moment, like proper checkpointing and gentler law enforcement.
Most importantly, though, it’s the first game in the series where you feel as though you can strike out in any direction and find something entertaining to do. You can wander onto a golf course and find yourself in a reasonable facsimile of a Tiger Woods game, enhanced after every shot by Michael swearing and banging his club on the fairway. There are innumerable well-hidden items to recover, some of which are well protected. At one point I drove into the desert and found some sort of camper van, got out of my car, heard a weird zapping noise, then woke up naked on a railway line. Mystery! Serendipity! There’s a huge prison complex I haven’t even been to yet. It goes on and on.
GTA 5 may not be the Hollywood-beating crime story it wants to be, then, but it’s the best video game it’s ever been, and I’ll take that.