By Nicholas Simonovski
Let’s face it: Grand Theft Auto V is a freaking beast. Everyone’s been looking forward to it, and it’s a safe bet most gamers – hardcore and casual alike -- have already picked up the game. An open world sandbox to some and a hardcore crime simulator to others, the best part about Rockstar’s long-established franchise is that there’s usually something packed in there that will cater to everyone.
Nevertheless, Rockstar's latest game drops on the eve of a new generation of consoles and into a market already flooded with companion apps and sandbox games. That, coupled with a five year gap between Grand Theft Auto IV and V leads us to ask if Rockstar was really able to live up to all the hype surrounding game number five.
The answer is, of course, yes.
Putting the game’s story aside – cause we know you’ll want to explore that yourself – the game really does excel at driving. And shooting. Not to mention fighting, flying, swimming diving… you name it, and the game’s basically got it. If you want to follow the game’s story, you can progress from mission to mission. If you’d rather ditch that and head straight to airport to hijiack a plane, well, you can do that too. You’ve access to the entirety of Los Santos straight off the bat this time around, meaning you can do pretty much everything that the game’s world has to offer.
The only downside to that? You have to play through enough of the game’s story if you’d like to unlock all three of Grand Theft Auto V’s characters. Thankfully, the relationship between the game’s antagonistic protagonists is one that you’ll delight in uncovering.
Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes to Grand Theft Auto V is in its gunplay and combat. Starting with the former, players of both Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 will notice the influence Rockstar's latest titles have on how you shoot in this game. Similar to that of GTA IV, players have the option of either pressing the left trigger slightly to free-aim or a full press to snap-on to the nearest target. Gone are enemy health bars; instead, when your target dies, the final shot turns the aiming reticle from a dot to a cross. Overall, it doesn’t feel nearly as stiff and is perhaps the most comfortable and user-friendly gunplay that we've seen in a Rockstar title to date. It should be noted though that much like GTA IV, shooting while driving a vehicle is still just as frustrating as ever. This isn’t helped by the fact the reticule is so small that you can’t see it. Fortunately, you can snap onto targets, which provides for some much needed assistance.
Rockstar has also improved hand-to-hand combat, a gameplay mechanic which -- if we’re honest -- has always been rather lacklustre. While fighting in GTA IV often felt clunky and nothing more than mashing the attack button and hoping you’d get the strike in first, GTA V actually doesn’t feel too bad. You can focus on a target and taunt them to see if they’ll engage in a fight, and if so, you can then either press the B button to strike or, if timed correctly, X to dodge and then B immediately after to counter. Timing your dodge and counter combo isn’t as difficult as we expected it to be, but things can get out of hand quickly when more than one person engages you in the fight (where most times we ended up dying – which, we should add, doesn’t seem that hard to do in this game). You can also randomly walk up and king-hit civilians too, which often makes for a one-hit knock-out; this really is hilarious to watch and do. Obviously, don't do it outside of the game.
When it came to Grand Theft Auto IV, we were part of that minority group which actually enjoyed the physics of the cars; the weight of the vehicles meant the game didn’t feel as stupid as Saints Row, and we actually had a lot of fun playing around doing donuts and burnouts. In GTA V, the driving physics seem to be in-between what we saw from GTA IV and Saints Row 3. While it took us some time at the beginning of the game to get accustomed to the lighter and more nimble feel of the cars, it wasn’t long until we found ourselves drifting around corners, weaving in and out of traffic, and essentially, just having a fun time. No car really feels difficult to drive and the motorbikes are also surprisingly enjoyable to ride too. Our only complaint is that Rockstar now allows you to essentially flip your car over without much of a hassle should you land on your roof, Halo-style, and this just feels too unrealistic (as stupid as it sounds), and does remove that feeling of risk and consequence if you find yourself driving a little too erratically. You can also control your car while in the air too, and this also just feels rather odd. And without letting to much out of the bag, Franklin's special ability is amazeballs.
Another noteworthy amendment is the level of detail that Rockstar have taken with respect to damage -- both to the car models and also your character -- when in accidents. We were driving down the freeway in a sports car when we veered off the path and into a concrete barrier. Expecting to merely travel through the windscreen, bounce off the gravel and get-up, we instead ended up dying on impact, despite having full health. It was cool to discover that accidents like that could end up with an unexpected trip to the hospital and a $400 bill. Damage to the cars themselves has also been improved significantly from the last title, where scratches to the paint and dents and breaks in the bodywork are now considerably more authentic.
Now, while driving the cars and motorbikes are a blast, the same can’t be said for the aircraft in this game. Even in just a light stunt plane, we found ourselves struggling to keep it in the air. You’ll constantly be fighting to keep it level and we found ourselves crashing (and dying) more times than we could keep count. Given the sheer scale of Los Santos and how great it is to fly over the map and view the mountains and skyline from above, it’s just a shame the planes are so difficult to control.
The vastness of Los Santos also means that gamers may have a hard time just deciding what to go and do off the beaten path. Those who love exploring will have a field day with Grand Theft Auto V, while others will feel direction-less if they veer out of the game's story missions. It's not necessarily a negative, just something to keep in mind. Thankfully, if you're lacking in creativity, there's so much to do in the game's story alone that you'll have hours and hours of content to get through. Heists are absolutely amazing, capturing the feel of the last couple hours of Grand Theft Auto IV's gameplay perfectly. It's great fun -- and very rewarding -- to be presented with several ways to tackle a heist mission, select your plan of attack and the crew you'll need, and then actually make good on your plans.
For the eyes and ears, Grand Theft Auto V is a thing of beauty. After sitting down with GTA IV over the weekend preceding the launch of the latest game, we can confidently say that GTA V is lightyears ahead. Gone are the brown-and-grey tones and weirdly overblown light effects that plagued IV, to be replaced with a rich, vibrant world full of colour, detail and constant movement. The state of Los Santos is varied and a joy to view, ranging from run-down urban areas to resplendent beaches, high-rises and sports arenas to deserts and forested mountains - all blended together seamlessly so that you don't feel like there's a dividing line between them, and topped with lighting effects throughout the times of day and types of weather that can drastically alter the appearance of each area. It's always great to arrive for a mission at the wrong time of day, as you get to watch the area quickly fast-forward around the clock-face to when you need to be, with the lighting and weather shifting in realtime.
Everything in this game is richly detailed, from the cars (of course) to the advertising and background buildings, and the NPCs inhabiting the world. No longer content to simply mill around back and forth, pedestrians are constantly doing things around the world to help it feel more alive. One of my favourite moments came about when -- in the interest of a comprehensive review -- we covered one of Trevor's supporting characters in sticky bombs and blew him up. Within minutes the paramedics arrived and ran over, one even vaulting a fence rather than running around. They discussed with each other that he was a lost cause (he WAS chargrilled to a deep black, mind you) and then one pulled out a notepad to write up the event whilst the other tapped his foot idly and looked around.
It's this level of detail that really sets GTA V apart, but it doesn't stop at the visuals. The audio design here is just as layered, with everything presented in beautiful surround sound as well. From the huge selection of radio stations peppered with news reports detailing your exploits, to the suite of varying soundscapes for your sundry vehicles, to environmental noises from the people and wildlife of Los Santos, the game has a lot going for it. This time around you'll even find ambient music incorporated for some missions to really help bring out the theatrical experience. There's also a huge amount of background dialog that has been recorded for the game; you may have noticed that many characters involved in your missions have full conversations before and/or after a mission, so make sure to hang about and listen through as many of these help flesh out the story and characters. Random passers-by also carry on full conversations, and you'll be surprised at how detailed or long some of these exchanges can be. I highly recommend stopping what you're doing and eavesdropping, if you come across any of these.
It does need to be noted that there aren't many strong female types in the game. Women are often represented as lazy housewives who cheat on their husbands, junkies drugged out of their minds or strippers who don't mind a bit of the touchy-feely. That being said, comparing the violence and over-sexualisation of Grand Theft Auto to a Tarantino film or the recent Kick-Ass 2, we find the themes and treatments to be fairly similar. We're not advocating those themes by any means, but we are going to tell readers that it's fairly obvious that they're present in-game. If you're not crazy about Grand Theft Auto V's potentially misogynistic approach, we'd advise you to avoid the game.
We agree that the video game industry should strive for equality and fair and proper gender representation. That being said, we believe GTA is mostly satire. Just because it's arguably the biggest release of the year doesn't automatically mean that Rockstar is obliged to make sure Grand Theft Auto V caters to everyone at every point in the game. Rockstar faces a double-edged sword because of their success. Do they have a responsibility to be inclusive? Probably. Do they have to? No.
Here's the best part, though. If you're offended by the way in which women are stereotyped in the game but still desperately want to play it, you can avoid the game's story and fly around in a plane. You can hike in the mountains. You can go deep-sea diving. There's so much content there, and different pieces of functionality are going to appeal to very different types of gamers.
Rockstar's game is close to perfection. It's primary problem ultimately is its sheer scope and all you can do. It's all great, but it's not going to be your definitive driving, flying, swimming, fighting or shooting experience.
It's still damn good through.
We'd like GTA Online now, please. Creating a four man crew to write this review was fun and all, but I think we'd prefer a joint heist.
With additional content by Leo Stevenson and Steve Wright.