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Grand Theft Auto V feels like a culmination of Rockstar Games’ journey this console generation. From bringing the series to HD with GTA IV, which I admit that I overrated it when it came out in 2008, returning to the City of Angels with Midnight Club: Los Angeles, making another statement in the open world genre with Red Dead Redemption, and improving their shooting mechanics in Max Payne 3, GTA V brings everything they learned in the past few years and the result is another open world masterpiece by Rockstar North. The highly anticipated sequel contains a memorable and unforgettable story from beginning to end, to which I can’t say the same about the last game now, with three lovable characters to play as, refined gameplay mechanics, and not surprisingly tons of stuff to do as a whole keeping players busy for numerous hours. Simply put, Grand Theft Auto V will remind you why you love videogames and that’s something only a handful of today’s games can do these days.
The game actually starts out with a prologue where you’ll meet two of the three main characters, Michael and Trevor. The two along with a team of other people are a middle of a heist at North Yankton till things go wrong. Trevor barely escapes the police, but the same can’t be said for Michael who was presumed dead, but we do see him in Los Santos talking to his therapist about his daily issues. We do meet the third character of the trio right away as well with Franklin as him and his best friend Lamar are stealing cars being repo men for a car dealership. Franklin and Michael meet up in an interesting way in one of the game’s early missions as Michael ends up impressed with Franklin’s skill set. He takes him under his wing as some young apprentice since Michael’s early actions make him return to the heist game. The result of one of the heists does catch Trevor’s attention even though he lives at Blaine County, GTAV’s version of the desert. The storyline is full of memorable twists and turns along with supporting characters you will love and enemies to hate.
In terms of the three protagonists you play as themselves, yes you actually play as three characters instead of one compared to past GTA games, they are three that are among the best characters in the franchise. Franklin is a young one living in the streets wanting to escape the gangster lifestyle to do bigger and better crimes. Michael is your family man that seems to be doing okay being retired from bank robbing, but of course wrong decisions lead to him returning to the life he doesn't want to go back to. Trevor is simply the psychopath and the ticking timebomb of the bunch. He embodies the Grand Theft Auto mindset of just wanting to cause chaos, which surprisingly the franchise never had someone like him. You will get attached to these guys as the story progresses and eager to know how things play out especially at the end of the game.
The core structure of playing Grand Theft Auto V remains the same from past games for the most part. You drive up to main story missions, watch some cutscenes, drive to a different area, steal another car, kill a certain target, etc. Most of the missions themselves have their highlight moments that are very exciting and satisfying to play through. Besides the story missions, there are various side missions to complete as well and they are presented like the storyline ones with cutscenes and more. These side missions are called Strangers & Freaks and also where the game gets a little more weird. Notably GTA IV was known for having a more serious tone to the main story and lost a bit of the weird charm that now other open world games like Saints Row IV and Sleeping Dogs have. The side missions was Rockstar’s chance to mix things up like they used to do in the PS2 GTAs and they succeeded here in this sequel. From being a paparazzi taking photos of celebrities, killing aliens in some nightmare because you smoked some weird substance, and doing extreme stunts like parachuting, there is a good amount of variety with these missions in GTA V as they can be as good as some of the main missions.
The shining star of the main missions are the heists. These heists open up your choices in terms how to approach your goal. Usually there would be a smart and methodical approach where you have to prep by finding certain vehicles (for either a getaway or another plan to destroy a spot) and items to improve your chances of a successful heist. Otherwise, there is the guns blazing approach where it is pretty self-explanatory. After deciding the approach, you get to decide the crew that helps along with the heist. Besides Michael, Franklin, and Trevor, there is a cast of other characters to choose from and they vary on stats of certain skills. For example, you can choose a better gunman and/or driver, but you get less of the cut because they’re highly skilled. If you prefer taking a chance on less skilled gunmen and drivers to make more money, there is that option well, but during my playtime I tend to go with a stacked crew to increase my chances of success. I wish there were more of these heists in the main game (we’ll probably see more of them in GTA Online next month), but I do love how the elaborate plans of these approaches work out proving why GTA V’s mission design is superb.
Then there’s all the miscellaneous activities and hobbies you can also do in the world of the new San Andreas. Playing various sports like golf, tennis, and darts feel like fully fleshed out games especially with tennis if you played Rockstar’s Table Tennis game for the 360. In addition, races are what you expect in a GTA game with checkpoints to follow taking place in the streets of Los Santos, offroad at Blaine County, and the sea via jet-skis. Other mini-games range from yoga, parachute jumps that require to land on a specific target, improving your shooting stats in the Ammu Nation’s gun range, going on triathlons, taking flight classes, and so on. It is no surprise that there are lots of things to do in Grand Theft Auto V and even though it takes players on average to beat the story in at least 30 hours, which is refreshing in today’s world of games, of course it take you longer to 100% everything especially finding the various hidden collectibles hidden throughout San Andreas.
Rockstar has learned a lot from GTA IV’s gameplay flaws heading towards this fifth game. The shooting and driving mechanics weren't all there especially with the cover system. Fortunately, the shooting controls are improved significantly from the last GTA. Coming from Max Payne 3, everything seems so refined with a better cover system, a weapon wheel to switch out guns, and better aiming depending on your settings. I tried the free aim for a like a hour, but found myself going back to traditional GTA settings after that because of the easier auto aiming and targeting. Sure, there were lots of moments where I wasn't careful in these combat sequences being reckless and open then there’s enemies everywhere resulting in a quick death, which you will die quickly a lot in this game. However, that’s my own fault than the game’s and luckily the checkpoint system is pretty generous compared to past GTA games starting you at the nearest spot to keep proceeding. After the end of each mission, there is a medal ranking system of how well you did, from being accurate with headshots, no car damage, and more, so there is incentive to replay them again for gold medals if you did not get them first try. That system alone increases the replay value of the story missions a ton.
A Grand Theft Auto game with three protagonists also changes up a lot of things from a gameplay perspective as well. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor each their own special ability catering to their highest skill statistic. Franklin can slow down time while driving to navigate through traffic and tight turns easier. Michael has bullet time and Trevor gets into rampage mode where he can go berserk for a limited time against the opposition taking less damage. While I did not use them that much, these special abilities are useful in certain situations especially in the main story missions. Where the idea of three characters really makes its mark is the character switching. At any time while not in a mission, you can switch between Franklin, Michael, and Trevor and you’ll see them doing their own thing living their lives. Franklin can be walking his dog Chop around, which can be customized on the iFruit app on iPhones, Michael having a coffee break, and Trevor could be drunk in the middle of nowhere in only his underwear as examples. The character switching can be used also a way to fast travel if your other characters are closer to a mission marker if you don’t feel like driving for a few minutes because this version of San Andreas is the biggest open world yet in the franchise. Rockstar did a remarkable job making these three main characters live up to their personalities not only from a story standpoint, but also gameplay too.
Grand Theft Auto V’s greatest achievement to me is how stunning and breathtaking the new San Andreas is. The scale and scope of this open world is truly something else especially on the end of this generation on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 despite new ones around the corner. It makes you wonder how does Rockstar was able to make all this magic happen with minimum loading on older hardware. The various views of Los Santos in certain spots makes you feel like you’re actually at Los Angeles seeing recognizable buildings and landmarks such as the TCL Chinese Theatre, Santa Monica Pier, and the Griffith Park Observatory. Besides those known locales, there is still so much to explore in Los Santos and Blaine County and how detailed everything is just another reason why GTA V is something special. Sure, there’s gonna be texture pop-in, framerate dips in frantic scenes, and physics bugs, but luckily I did not notice too much of these technical issues to the point it becomes a distraction.
Once again, Rockstar also nailed it in the presentation as expected. The seamless transitions between missions as well as character switching are another of many technical feats along with the fact it it actually lives up to being an open world game with events going on at all times. From the random events you can do like taking someone home that is too drunk to drive, working for your properties that can you buy throughout the game, and many more, there’s always something happening in this rendition of San Andreas. Relying on the mini-map too much when driving will be an issue for some, but it is not that big of a deal to me. Of course, this game definitely lives up to the mature rating and expect to hear lots of swearing and other forms of profane language not suited for kids to hear.
The voice acting and writing are also superb especially with the main characters. Nothing is safe from Rockstar’s satirical takes as jabs are thrown at what’s been currently trending in today’s culture such as technology taking over our lives, reality TV, certain radio stations bashing other genres of music, and other stereotypical observations. Speaking of radio stations, the licensed soundtrack is another hit with your mix of old and new songs spanning across various genres like rock, pop, and of course West Coast rap. I do have to say it is still tough to be as good as Vice City and San Andreas’s soundtracks, but you’ll have your handful of songs you like to hear on repeat while playing Grand Theft Auto V. What surprisingly impressed me more is the game’s original score, which you will usually hear during missions and Rockstar took a lot of influences from heist movies such as Heat to come up with an amazing original soundtrack.
As we head to the end of this current console generation, there is only a handful of timeless classics that will stand out from the rest of the pack and we will still talk about them a decade from now. Grand Theft Auto V is one of those games in that elusive list. While it does not push the open world genre into new places like how GTA III did back in 2001, Rockstar’s sequel is filled with memorable moments throughout the game’s 30 hour story, three protagonists you’ll get attached to right away, and a breathtaking version of San Andreas that push the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 to their limits. It is the most refined GTA yet from a gameplay standpoint with better shooting and driving mechanics, excellent implementation of the three character system, and the hundreds of activities to do that will keep players busy for days and perhaps weeks. I’m still glad that Rockstar maintained their serious tone to the storyline even though they were able to mix things up well with the side missions. Personally for me, gone are the days of wanting to mess around and trying to survive for the longest in higher wanted levels, and I’m okay with that because there are other open world games more suited for that. With all that said, any fan of videogames, casual or hardcore, should not miss out on the best game of this generation.