GRAND IN EVERY SENSE
When we reviewed Grand Theft Auto 5 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 16, 2013, it earned a score of 10 out of 10 – a masterpiece. Here’s what we said then:
Grand Theft Auto V is not only a preposterously enjoyable video game, but also an intelligent and sharp-tongued satire of contemporary America. It represents a refinement of everything that GTA IV brought to the table five years ago. It’s technically more accomplished in every conceivable way, but it’s also tremendously ambitious in its own right. No other world in video games comes close to this in size or scope, and there is sharp intelligence behind its sense of humour and gift for mayhem. It tells a compelling, unpredictable, and provocative story without ever letting it get in the way of your own self-directed adventures through San Andreas.
It is one of the very best video games ever made.
Virtually everything in that review stands true of the 2014 version on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This is the same 30-plus hours of action-heavy story missions with the same three satirical protagonists, and nearly limitless potential for driving, flying, boating, or biking around. Just a smattering of minor new side quests, different types of wildlife (from cats to dolphins), and collectibles top off its already enormous pile of content.
The key difference between GTA 5 on new-gen consoles and last year’s version is that developer Rockstar has done an outstanding job of updating this still-amazing game so that it feels right at home on these platforms. Everything looks strikingly better running at full 1080p resolution, with dramatically enhanced textures, lighting effects, and detail in general. A greatly increased draw distance makes the vistas of the San Andreas region extremely impressive, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an in-game rainstorm as convincing as these. With this revamp, GTA 5 has reestablished itself as the high bar for what an open-world game can be in terms of scale, graphical quality, and density of things to do.
While the PlayStation 4 version has a slight graphical edge over the Xbox One, featuring noticeably more grass and plants in some areas, both generally do a good job of maintaining 30 frames per second, with only occasional minor slowdowns that mostly kick in when approaching busy intersections at high speed. Other than that, the only appreciable differences I spotted were that the Xbox One’s rumble triggers give driving a more tactile feel, and the DualShock 4 plays cell phone conversations and beeps through the controller’s speakers, and the light on the controller flashes red and blue when the police are after you.
The big new feature for the new-generation consoles is the optional first-person mode. It’s a whole new way of experiencing Grand Theft Auto like we never have before. Rockstar has gone out of its way to make sure everything looks great when viewing it through your characters’ eyes instead of over their shoulders, and the controls work pretty much the way you expect them to in a first-person shooter. An impressive amount of control configuration options let you tailor it to your liking, and you can even set it to automatically switch from first to third person when you enter cover or get into a car. The different perspective made things feel more like they were happening to me, rather than a character I was controlling, which makes GTA a surprisingly different experience. Driving or flying is, of course, a lot tougher with the more limited view, but still lots of fun, and the ability to switch at will makes it a luxury.
It’s impressive how virtually no opportunity to throw in a subtle little touch was missed. There are now first-person-specific animations for all kinds of activities, including climbing ladders, getting yanked out of a car you’ve just stolen and thrown to the ground, and flipping the bird. Even in-mission events, like when Michael’s son hands him a soda in the car, are animated – Michael’s hand reaches out, takes the drink, and brings it up to the camera as he takes a sip.
GTA 5 for new-gen consoles also includes the still-problematic Grand Theft Auto Online multiplayer mode. It’s absolutely great for small-scale multiplayer antics, where you and a few friends get together and do co-op jobs, races, death matches, vehicular combat battles, or just sew random chaos throughout the San Andreas region. However, in a week of trying, I’ve never been able to get into a game with more than seven players – far short of the advertised increased limit of 30. Worse, the wait times to get in and out of matches has been extreme, to the point where my GTA Online experience has been roughly 60 percent playing and 40 percent waiting to play, with frequent disconnects and occasional crashes. Because of that, I can’t strongly recommend getting GTA 5 based on the multiplayer experience alone.
Grand Theft Auto 5 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is a masterwork for all the same reasons mentioned in our original Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 review. Its world is a truly astonishing achievement in so many ways, and these two versions are currently the best way to experience it, aside from the hobbled multiplayer matchmaking. If you missed GTA 5 before, it’s absolutely a game that has to be played. Whether it’s worth buying a second time is entirely dependent on whether you’re interested in replaying the same game again – and only you can answer that. But I’m glad to have had a reason to revisit it, and am happy to find it even more impressive than it was before.