Rockstar’s latest blockbuster release sees them return to the San Andreas area from the popular PlayStation 2 era game of the same name. Ever since the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 on the PS2, the release of any new game in the series is one of the biggest of the year, and Grand Theft Auto V is no exception breaking many records for the number of copies sold and the amount made.
Set in the sunny city of San Andreas and the desert towns of Blaine County to the north, GTA V follows the story of three men drawn together to pull off large scale robberies. You’re first introduced to Franklin, who works various small jobs mostly involving stealing cars and dreams of making it big in life and finds his chance when he meets Michael. A former career criminal, Michael is retired from crime and hidden in witness protection after his last heist ended badly. They’re then joined by Trevor, a psychopathic former colleague of Michael.
One of the big draws of this entry in the series is the new emphasis on heists. With your core characters and some hired assistants, you need to pull off a series of increasingly complicated and high stakes robberies. The first heist in the game is fairly simple, with a crew of 4 robbing a jewellery store and escaping on motorbikes, but escalate significantly until the last couple which are just intense.
The other big new feature is the ability to switch between characters. Previous GTA games would have a single playable character for the entire game, with all the missions and other characters revolving around them. While many missions feature all three protagonists, you’ll often have just one or two of them. Trevor for example doesn’t appear until a couple of hours into the game, and when he does his initial batch of missions feature just him.
I’ve been slowly working on playing through Grand Theft Auto V since just after launch, however haven’t really had the time to fully engross myself in it until a recent week off, and the large number of great games released in the last few months certainly hadn’t helped with that. It’s certainly a game best played when you have the ability to spend a lot of time with it, as playing in short chunks can mean only completing a mission or two at a time.
Aside from the main missions, of which there are 69, there are many side missions and diversions to keep you busy. The story missions start off fairly short, but many of the later missions are much longer. As with GTA IV, I found the main story told to be engaging, with high stakes for the characters. The side missions, dubbed ‘strangers and freaks’, are generally shorter and simpler with many being simple tasks such as driving someone around or collecting something. There are also the customary stunt jumps and hidden items, a mainstay of the series since Grand Theft Auto 3, as well as some flying challenges, various sports and races, skydiving and many more other activities. At the time of writing I’m over 44 hours in, and my completion is only at 89%, so even after an above average amount of time spent in the game, I still have plenty to see and do. Each of the missions also have a ranking system, and replaying missions to get gold on everything (if you’re that way inclined) can add some replay value and also mean you can replay favourite missions without playing the whole game again.
Many of the complaints levelled at Grand Theft Auto IV involved how it had toned things down from the previous game, San Andreas. Gone were tanks and jets and other over the top activities, and these make a very welcome return here. The ability to hang out with friends also returns from GTA IV, though thankfully this no longer has the characters texting you regularly insisting you hang out with them to keep your friendship levels up.
Each of the characters starts with a particular skill, Michael specialises in shooting, Franklin is an expert driver and Trevor is a pilot. Through training and regular use, you can increase each character’s abilities in flying, driving, shooting, fighting, running and so on. Michael, for example, is very bad at flying at the start of the game, but you can increase his skills massively by going through the flight school missions.
The map of the game is enormous – larger than any previous Grand Theft Auto by a significant amount. Despite this however it never seems to take too long to reach a destination. Much of the middle and top of the map is fairly empty, so you don’t have to go there very often, and the large freeway running from the top of the map to the bottom ensures that whenever you do have to travel you can do so at top speed. You’re also able to purchase planes and helicopters once you have enough money to do so, and travelling by air makes getting around a lot quicker.
Driving mechanics have again been overhauled, with road vehicles performing better than they ever have in the series. Even at the fastest speeds of the high end sports cars I never found myself losing control of a car. I still think Rockstar have a bit of work to do with how other vehicles handle however, as I found boats to be far too bouncy and planes and helicopters to wobble about far too much, even with the flying skill at maximum. I’m sure if I was to attempt to pilot any of these in real life it would be far worse, but compared to say Saints Row where aircraft are much easier to control using them wasn’t as much fun as it could have been.
When using weapons the left trigger now acts as a combination zoom and lock on, with the ability to flick between targets with the right stick. The left bumper, which was used to lock on in GTA IV, now accesses a weapon selection wheel so you can select the required weapon much quicker. Guns all work like you’d expect them to and make gunfights in the game enjoyable.
Clicking both sticks activates your character’s special ability. Michael and Franklin’s are both based off their respective skills, slowing time down to allow them to aim weapons or maneuverer cars faster. Trevor’s is a ‘rage mode’, which allows him to do double damage with weapons while taking less damage at the same time.
Visually, it’s incredibly impressive that Rockstar have managed to make the game as attractive as it is. A much more colourful game than GTA IV, San Andreas and the surrounding countryside are bright and vibrant, with lots of detail and little touches. It’s not without its problems, however. You can tell at times that the game’s engine is struggling to keep up, particularly when driving around very fast as elements can pop in very close to you – more than once I’ve been driving along and suddenly come crashing to a halt as a concrete wall materialises in front of me where there was nothing a second earlier. I also had some massive frame rate drops when coming into or going out of the water, whenever the game was trying to render both under and above water at the same time it would nearly chug to a halt.
I understand that concessions had to be made for the hardware that the game is running on, especially considering how old the now-previous generation of consoles were – I was running a Pentium 4 with 2GB memory and a 256MB graphics card when I bought my Xbox 360, and that wouldn’t even come close to playing it if GTA V had had a PC release. If/when it does arrive on PC however then I’d be surprised if this pop up was an issue anymore, but it is a shame that it happens and detracts from the game otherwise looking fantastic.
Much has changed since the release of Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008, and as is now standard with Grand Theft Auto games Rockstar takes the opportunity to mock a whole range of more recent real life trends. Still in its infancy while GTA IV was being developed, social networking features highly, with analogues of Facebook and Twitter popping up both in the story missions and radio station adverts.
The three main characters are voiced and motion captured by the same actors, an increasingly common technique in video games to get the full character’s performance from one actor, with Michael and Trevor also looking like their actors. All three give fantastic performances, with Steven Ogg’s explosive Trevor being the most over the top and entertaining of the lot. The huge number of side characters and pedestrians means the game as a huge cast, and in an unusual turn I don’t think there were any characters with a terrible voice as in most games there are usually one or two.
The music selection is great, as is to be expected from a Grand Theft Auto game. A large number of radio stations give the choice of rock, pop, hip hop, country and many other genres, as well as chat programs, so there’s always something new to listen to on the radio. Even as I was finishing up I was still coming across songs and adverts I hadn’t heard before. I do still miss the original music however – the main games in the series up to and including GTA 3 having mostly music recorded for the game on their soundtracks, with great parody songs of things that were popular at the time and I’ve always found the lack of these to be a big shame ever since Vice City.
Multiplayer returns in the form of Grand Theft Auto Online. Massively overhauled from the multiplayer in GTA IV, you have a character who levels up as you perform jobs and races. As you gain levels you can access higher end jobs, culminating in some larger scale heists like the single player game. Rockstar have said that they’ll be supporting Online for some time, adding more and bigger jobs for players to do. On release the technical issues with Online were quite widely reported, with periods where players were unable to log in, and even once these were resolved there were still some connectivity issues. When last I played with a group the game’s matchmaking was taking priority over the Xbox Live party, so one of our members was told that the job we were joining was full, despite us having a full team to do it, meaning a party member was kicked from the game for it to add a random player. There have been several patches to the multiplayer over the last couple of months, and in recent plays I've not come up against these issues, so I believe they are now fixed.
There’s a good chance that anyone reading this who would be interested in doing so would already have picked up a copy, and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from a couple of slight technical issues the single player portion of the game is a masterpiece, with tons of gameplay to keep you entertained for a long time. While still a work in progress, the online mode also has tons of content, and as long as you have a good group to play with is great fun. As by far the bestselling game of last year, it isn’t a stretch at all to call GTA V a must play game, and anyone with even the slightest liking to the genre should enjoy it immensely.
Grand Theft Auto V is out now on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.