All I wanted to do was buy a suit. But as I sped toward the high-end shops in town, a motorcycle cut me off and I swerved, hitting a pedestrian. No time to check on her — the cops were already coming. A 15-minute-long chase ensued, and at one point I was sure I heard a chopper following me. I only escaped by jumping off of a cliff, speeding through some poor farmer's field, and hiding out in a marsh, where it seems the cops didn't think to look. Now everything's calm, so I can finally see about that suit — but I should stop at the body shop first.
There are plenty of reasons to play Grand Theft Auto V. It's set in a massive city, for one, filled with lots of fun diversions and cars to steal. And the core gameplay, from the driving to the gunplay, feels better than in any previous game in the series. But the best part might just be the story.
GTA V is the first game in the series to have multiple protagonists, and rather than being a gimmick, the trio of anti-heroes elevates a cliché crime story into a lengthy, engaging narrative. While many blockbuster video games inch ever further toward what feels like interactive cinema, GTA V shows developer Rockstar moving in a different direction: expanding beyond its previous fixation on film and crafting a story that works specifically because it's a game.
Trevor is essentially GTA V's id
Grand Theft Auto V is like a series of interconnected heist movies following the lives of three different criminals. There's Michael, a seemingly successful former bank robber with a big house and an ungrateful family, who is forced to come out of retirement to keep it all together. Franklin is an up-and-coming young gangbanger with big dreams that start with moving out of his aunt's house. And there’s Trevor, essentially GTA V's id: he's a sociopathic meth dealer and a former partner of Michael's, who kills at the slightest provocation and holds personal grudges for a very long time.
They're three very different people with three very different goals: Michael just wants to live a quiet life with his family; Franklin wants money in order to gain respect; Trevor just seems to want to watch the world burn. In a testament to Rockstar's writing abilities, all three characters are likeable despite being pretty terrible people. Trevor is an angry, murderous racist but he's also the most sympathetic of the bunch; when he mourns the loss of a brief love interest, it almost makes you forget all of the hundreds of people you've killed while controlling him.
The three stories intertwine as circumstances force them to work together, and the key conceit of the game is that you can switch between the characters at almost any point in time with the press of a button, which lets you see the game from an entirely new vantage point. You'll be spending large chunks of time with each criminal before switching off, as certain missions are character-specific, but when you're not quite sure what to do next, taking control of a different character is usually the best solution. The switching mechanic also helps make each of the characters feel like real people living real lives outside the game, as every time you switch they're already engaged in some sort of activity. You'll see Michael arguing with his wife and Franklin walking his dog, and Trevor ends up drunk and naked in out-of-the-way locations with alarming frequency. These moments are relatively minor, and you can miss them by sticking with one character over another, but they go a long way toward the world building. They also ensure that everyone’s playthrough of the game will be slightly different.
The narrative itself is pretty standard fare. Set in Los Santos, the fictional version of LA previously featured in GTA: San Andreas, the game sees the trio of criminals taking on increasingly risky missions with increasingly lucrative payouts. The story eventually takes a turn for the epic and somewhat outlandish, touching on everything from terrorism to government conspiracies.
GTA V covers a lot of territory over its lengthy run time, but Rockstar manages to make everything feel connected within the game's twisted reality. But it's the different characters, and the fact that you can actually experience the game from their perspective, that really breathe life into what could have easily been a cliché, The Departed-inspired story. Los Santos is a huge place, and each character represents a different part of it, from the projects to the luxurious hills to the trailer park-filled outskirts. And you're able to see the events of the game unfold from these three different perspectives in a way that you can't in a movie. It may be a largely linear story, but the three leads give it a unique texture. And being able to switch between them at any point gives you some semblance of control over how you view events as they unfold. Whereas games like San Andreas and Vice City were clearly inspired by films like Boyz in the Hood and Scarface, GTA V stands much more confidently apart.
But the more sophisticated narrative also means that the disconnect between the story and what you're doing on a moment-to-moment basis is greater than ever. Outside of the main story missions, there's an almost ludicrous breadth of things for you to do. From silly diversions like going hunting or racing jet skis, to fully fleshed out characters and storylines that are completely optional, you're never left wanting for things to do. And outside of that, in traditional GTA fashion, you can also just make your own fun, stealing cars, creating panic in the streets, and just generally being a murderous nuisance for the fun of it. These moments have a more serious feel than in earlier games, but they can still be pretty fun. When you're meant to be fighting to get your family back, or searching for a kidnapped friend, it just feels weird to be able to steal a dirt bike and go joyriding through the mountains. This has always been the case in GTA, and the freedom is a large part of the franchise's appeal, but it often feels off this time; GTA V's more engaging story makes this discrepancy larger than in the past.
Big heists are the core of GTA V’s story missions, and they’re one of the game's highlights, forcing you to use multiple characters to plan, organize, and execute crazy schemes to steal valuable goods or sneak into dangerous locations. Not only do you get to choose the best course of action for these missions, but you'll also have to do the prep work to pull them off — you might have to find a getaway car and some disguises, for instance, or do reconnaissance to figure out the best way to sneak into a building. They're like a bunch of smaller missions strung together, and the results are satisfyingly epic, especially with some of the more complex capers featured later in the game. You'll even need to use the character-switching to take on multiple roles: you can use a sniper to help clear a path, then switch to one of your teammates to rappel down a skyscraper. Sometimes it’s up to you if you want to swap back and forth, while other times the mission will force you to play as a specific character. There are some moments of calm where you can venture off on your own, but if you’re in it for the story it’s easy to push through while ignoring the rest of the game.
Big heists are the core of GTA V’s story missions
Outside of the heists, though, the missions can start to feel a lot more generic. There's a lot of simply driving to locations in order to grab an item or kill someone, and though the reasons change, the activity starts to feel very similar. And occasionally the missions are downright boring. One particularly egregious example has you driving a truck full of stolen luxury cars across a huge expanse of the map. While this does a great job at driving home just how big Los Santos is, it also makes you realize why truckers need so much caffeine to stay awake. In contrast to the thrilling heists, which feel ripped out of the best caper movies, the standard missions can feel like simply passing time before you can get to something more interesting.
And time is definitely something you'll need to play GTA V. The map is mind-bogglingly huge, bigger than Rockstar's last several games put together. But it's also very dense. While you still can’t interact with everything in the world, it's rare that you'll come across an area that's completely void of things to do (and that’s not even including the multiplayer mode GTA Online, which will be available a few weeks after launch). If you're stuck in the woods, you can amuse yourself by hunting deer. Even a simple drive in the sticks can turn crazy when you stumble across a police shootout at a dingy motel. The amount of time you can waste just tricking out your car or buying new clothes is immense, and when you factor in the ability to play the stock market or buy real estate to earn some extra cash, you have a game that can easily soak up dozens of hours of your life. Some of these diversions are remarkably deep, too: slap some ATP branding on the tennis mini-game, and you could probably sell it as a standalone product.
It's these smaller details that really make GTA V feel alive. When middle-aged Michael runs for too long in the sun his back will start to sweat. Each character has their own smartphone (psychopath Trevor’s looks quite a bit like a Windows Phone) that can be used to send and receive texts, emails, and phone calls, or browse the web for extra information. There's even a camera that lets you take selfies — it's not something that will help you progress in the game, but simply a thing that exists in this world. The visuals add to this sense of place: GTA V is one of the more graphically impressive current-generation games, especially considering its ambitious scope. A few technical issues aside (in the PlayStation 3 version I played, I was occasionally able to move vehicles through solid objects, for instance) the game looks beautiful, with dynamic weather and detailed environments. It really feels like you’re driving around a digital version of modern day Los Angeles.
In traditional Rockstar fashion, the game is also loaded with satire aimed largely at American culture. This time around the jokes tackle everything from reality TV to social networking to hipsters, and while the results can be hit and miss, the sheer scale is incredible. You can waste a lot of time simply listening to talk radio or watching fully developed shows and commercials on TV. As in the past, many of the jokes are about race, gender, and sexuality, and they can sometimes be uncomfortable. GTA still seems to struggle with gender in particular — all of the female characters in GTA V are minor ones generally designed to play a specific role, like a mother or daughter. And yes, you can still pick up prostitutes in the game.
All of these elements add up to make GTA V the best game in the series to date, though it's the narrative that really stands out, especially in comparison to the rest of the franchise. I wanted to see what would happen to Trevor, Michael, and Franklin more than I wanted to try jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train — and I really wanted to try landing that jump. In the past, GTA games have given you an exciting world to explore but little reason to push through the actual story. GTA V does both, offering a sprawling world coupled with an engaging narrative that keeps you moving. And the fact that I could see events unfold from all three perspectives made it all the more compelling. GTA V fulfills the promise of GTA IV, offering a sophisticated story and fully realized characters in addition to GTA's typical criminal antics. It doesn’t always gel together perfectly, but when it works, GTA V almost makes you want to be the bad guy.
Grand Theft Auto V launches tomorrow on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.