“GTA 5 is great, but it’s not perfect.”
GTA V REVIEW
GTA 5 is a blockbuster game that will please fans of the GTA series but doesn’t have the same revolutionary feel that GTA 3 had when it was released a decade ago. The game looks and feels a lot like GTA 4 with a different approach to the story and some gameplay enhancements. The multiplayer mode, GTA Online, has a lot to offer and a lot of potential, but at release it was mostly unplayable and some problems persist. GTA 5 is a game worth playing, but it is not without its share of problems and shortcomings.
GTA 5 looks a lot like GTA 4. The characters look a little more detailed, the cars look a little shinier, and there is slightly more detail in the environments. It feels like there are more people in the streets, and the addition of wildlife makes the game feel more realistic. Despite those additions, as in all the GTA games since GTA 3, the city sometimes feels hollow and empty, like a movie set or theme park instead of a real city, because most of the buildings are there just for show and cannot be entered. While the trimmings of a city are all on display, there’s no substance to most of them.
Rockstar hasn’t found a way to top the sound of GTA: Vice City. By taking popular hits from an era and making them part of the game environment, Vice City came to life and really felt like all of the gangster/mafia movies from which it derived. In GTA V, the music is almost completely ambient, and mostly comes from the radio stations in whatever vehicle you are driving. I recognized only a few of the songs that I heard, and none of it was good enough for me to listen to outside of the game (as compared to Vice City which made me crack open a few albums I hadn’t listened to since I was a kid). Plenty of cutscenes could have benefitted from a more dynamic original soundtrack. The sound effects are fine, some sound recycled from previous GTA games. The acceleration and braking in the vehicles does sound especially good and makes getting behind the wheel of a sports car a lot of fun.
STORY – NO SPOILERS
GTA 5 had a tough act to follow, with GTA 4 featuring a movie-quality storyline and a memorable main character in the anti-hero Niko Belic. Rockstar wisely chose to take a different approach entirely, coming up with a fresh story that features multiple main characters whose stories are intertwined in a main plot that develops over a longer period of time. It’s a smart move that breaks from the example set by every other GTA game and adds much needed variety. It also makes sense from a gameplay perspective, because a game that prides itself on some measure of realism shouldn’t have one character be an expert at everything and pulling off complex crimes alone.
The story moves too slowly, though, kind of like a movie that goes on for a half hour too long. It opens big, with an exciting bank heist that goes wrong, and then fast forwards a decade and slowly fills in the gaps piecemeal. While I really like the juxtaposed storytelling method, which reminds me of a Tarantino film that bounces from time to time instead of telling a linear story, it gets slowed down when Rockstar tries too hard to work missions into the plot. The story is fun and engaging, and the characters are generally interesting, but like a movie that goes on for too long, the game could have used more editing, and the ending was a little disappointing and anti-climactic.
GAMEPLAY – STORY MODE
If you’ve played other GTA games, you know what to expect from GTA 5. Missions, guns, driving, it’s all here, and while there are some changes and additions, the fundamentals haven’t changed a bit. You still advance the storyline by completing missions triggered by going to certain locations, stock up on weapons at Amm-U-Nation, personalize your character at tattoo parlors, clothing stores, and barber shops, and spend free time doing things like going to strip clubs (now featuring explicit nudity!), street races, collecting sports cars, and going on crime sprees. It’s fun, yes, but by now the act is getting tired. It’s no longer as much fun as it used to be to explore the city, blow stuff up, and steal fancy cars, because I’ve been doing it in every GTA game (and in the Saints Row games, which emphasize fun over substance) for the last decade. I’ve been playing in the same sandbox for 10 years, and I’m starting to get bored.
The game does change a few things up for the better. There are heists, which are more complicated missions that involve gathering intel and equipment before executing the main job, but they feel overly simple. The first heist is a job on a jewelry store, and the game lets you pick between using brains or brawn in the execution. I picked brains, thinking it would be more fun to be sneaky and plan a complicated heist, but the game doesn’t really make things very complex, and the differences between the smart approach and the brute force approach aren’t as stark as you would expect. The other heists in the game also offer two plans to choose from, but other than offering replay value, it doesn’t seem like one approach is much different than another.
The game features multiple main characters, each with their own skill sets and special abilities. This is also an improvement, but in practice each character is not that different from the others. One is good at driving, another is good at flying, another is good at shooting, and so forth. There could have been more variety in the special abilities, and that could have led to smarter gameplay, which is something this series desperately needs. GTA needs to grow up – many of its fans already have. Saints Row wants to be the fun, juvenile alternative to GTA, and it does a really good job at pulling that off. If GTA wants to be the more serious, gritty, and “realistic” approach to sandbox gangster games, then it should step up and embrace that instead of offering half-baked changes to the same formula.
One thing that the Saints Row games do very well is keeping the gameplay consistently fun, whereas GTA games too often force the player to carry out errands for no apparent reason other than to make the game take longer. For example, one mission in GTA 5 requires the player to play as a stevedore, loading and unloading containers from a ship in port. There’s no plot purpose to this; the player’s character is going undercover as a dock worker and is made by a foreman to do work and even the character complains that he has to do it, so why the game is forcing the player to do something the game itself acknowledges to be tedious is mind boggling. That’s an extreme example, but after about 10 years of “drive here, then do this, then pick that up, then kill this person” tedium, there’s no excuse for using the same old mission formulas over and over again.
I’m a big fan of the modified use of weapons and ammunition, which favors fun over difficulty and realism. Weapons only have to be unlocked and purchased once, and after that you only need to buy ammunition. So if you get busted by the cops, you keep all your hardware, and only have to restock on ammunition. You also carry all your weapons on you at all times, so you no longer have to pick one assault rifle or pistol. It hurts the realism, since police really should take your weapons too (“here’s your silenced assault rifle and RPG back, but the bullets and grenades are illegal so those are being confiscated”), but it saves the trouble of having to buy everything all over again if you lose, which makes the game more fun. However, I wish they had compensated for this by making the missions tougher, since if there are no/light consequences for losing, the game loses its ability to present a challenge. It’s a tough balance to strike, I admit, but GTA 5 could have done a better job.
And that’s where GTA Online comes into play.
GAMEPLAY – GTA ONLINE
GTA Online takes the fundamentals of Story mode and transposes them onto an Online Multiplayer mode that is a cross between a traditional GTA game and an MMORPG. There are missions you can complete which are different from the Story but follow the same structure (drive here, kill some guys, pick up a package, drive someplace else, kill more guys, escape, etc.) and there can definitely be more of a challenge to these missions, because they are ranked by level, number of recommended players, and the difficulty can be set to easy, medium or hard. There are also deathmatches, races, and lots of mini-games similar to those available in story mode. Every time you log in, you log into a version of the game world on one server along with several other players and/or friends who come and go as they please.
It’s hard to objectively review GTA Online because at launch it wasn’t even playable and even weeks later it suffers from glitches and a player environment that results in unsportsmanlike conduct. In the short time I’ve played it, I’ve been in one too many game lobbies where players just run around killing each other, and me, for no reason, making it impossible to have any type of cooperative play. Sometimes I’ll get a friend online or find someone who does want to do missions, but I often have problems joining games with friends and finding a random person is a crapshoot. You could also do something really fun, like complete a mission or rob a store, and out of nowhere another player kills you, which is either a fun invitation to a deathmatch or an annoying distraction, and the game doesn’t give you much control over that except to limit player-vs-player deaths in some situations.
GTA Online does have a lot of potential. It’s a bold effort to take what has worked in GTA games for a decade and make it work in an open world multiplayer experience. I’m sure that will involve a lot of DLC too, because that would make it more profitable for Rockstar, but even the barebones multiplayer world that exists now has a lot to do and explore. GTA Online might be an attempt by Rockstar to stand out among other sandbox games, and it might be a glimpse into future GTA games – since FPS games like Battlefield and Call of Duty focus on their multiplayer modes and have tossed the single player campaign in the backseat, it makes sense that GTA would try that approach out as well. Rockstar put a lot of thought into how to make the mechanics of the game work (for example, you can buy insurance policies on expensive cars that you customize, unlike in Story mode where you typically just steal the closest/fastest available car). It lacks polish, but the building blocks are there to develop it into a great multiplayer. As of now, it’s an inconsistent blend of fun and frustration.
There is a lot to do in GTA 5, especially if you play GTA Online, and it certainly can be worth every penny if you plan to play every mission and explore every crevice of the city. If you’re a fan of other GTA games, you’ll enjoy this one too. Just don’t buy into all the hype of 10/10 reviews and expect to play a revolutionary game. GTA 5 is a solid entry into one of the most popular video game series of all time, but it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that the single-player aspect of the GTA series is getting stale, and the multiplayer GTA Online has a lot to offer but it’s far from perfect. Still, it’s a great game worth playing if you’re a fan of the series.
FINAL SCORE – 8/10
Reviewer’s Rating: 4.0 – Great
Originally Posted: 12/04/13
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto V (US, 09/17/13)