Eighteen months. That’s how long I’ve been actively anticipating Grand Theft Auto V. Eighteen months of scouring websites, watching trailers and imagining how it would all come together. As time went on, I began to worry that I might have overhyped it for myself, that no game could possibly live up to the gaming nirvana I’d concocted in my head. Now, after a good sixty hours play, in which I explored everything I’d had advertised to me in those long eighteen months, I know that I needn’t have worried at all. GTAV is very, very good.
To be fair, my first impressions were a little underwhelming. After passing through the fairly by-the-numbers prologue, I then found myself behind the wheel of a sports car, skidding uncontrollably through what at first looked to me like samey, unremarkable streets. Fortunately, within the next couple of missions I got a handle on the controls and began to learn my way around, and started to experience everything Los Santos had to offer.
My first priority was getting to know the three protagonists. After a brief glimpse of Michael and Trevor, I was then locked into Franklin’s perspective for the game’s beginning. As a low-level hood struggling to pull himself up into more gainful employment, Franklin is very reminiscent of CJ—another GTA protagonist who grew up in GTA: San Andreas’s Los Santos—with a bit of GTAIV’s Luis Lopez mixed in. What sets him apart, however, is his budding mentorship with retired bank robber, Michael.
Once I got to slip into Michael’s loafers, I felt like the game had truly begun. I must have spent an hour just driving around in his Audi look-alike, playing tennis and whacking golf balls into the rough. Compared to Franklin and Trevor, Michael doesn’t have a lot of ways to make money on the side, but that fits with his character. He’s someone who already made his fortune and it brought him nothing but misery. This, combined with his genuine love for his family and occasional outbursts of sub-psychotic rage, makes him a really interesting character to play.
I was a little disappointed that Trevor didn’t become playable until after the first heist, which occurs quite a few hours into the game. He proved to be everything I expected: crass, irreverent and very angry. Right away I had him pegged as my Vegas, a character whose psychopathic insanity serves as license to do anything and have a lot of fun in the process. That said, he might be a bit overcooked; some of his scenes go on much longer than necessary just to highlight how nuts he is.
A few familiar faces from GTAIV make cameos as well, but be warned—some don’t exactly get the star treatment. I personally didn’t like how some of these were handled, as I felt they contradicted what we knew or believed about them. That said, hats off to Rockstar for not only letting us finally see long-running radio voice Lazlow, but interact with him as well. And by “interact with”, I of course mean, “utterly humiliate”.
Missions have good variety with a lot of explosive set pieces to discuss around the water cooler. Unfortunately, many of these feature “walk and talks”, long commutes from A to B just to facilitate conversations between characters. I like having something more than the radio to listen to, but when dialogue goes on so long that I have to drive halfway across the state to fit it all in, it should really have its own scene.
With Rockstar’s history of controversy, it should come as no surprise that a few missions push the boundaries of good taste. One particular mission has Trevor torturing a man for information, using every brutal method at his disposal. It’s a very fine line Rockstar walk here, but I’d say they walk it well. Though confronting, the torture isn’t treated lightly or gratuitously. Even Trevor doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in it, and the whole mission works well to show just how far the protagonists are forced to go for their own survival. On the other hand, another mission has a character splattered with poo, so it’s not exactly Shakespeare.
The switching mechanic works well both inside missions and out, and doesn’t feel like a gimmick. I like that missions don’t always force you to be a certain character at a certain time; the sections where I could freely switch between them during a firefight were some of my favourite parts of the game. This freedom extends to outside missions as well, and switching comes in really handy when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere and don’t want to drive or take a cab all the way back to your safehouse.
The protagonists’ special abilities are nice, but for the most part I forgot they were there. Franklin’s is probably the most useful; the ability to slow down time while driving basically functions as an “I’m about to screw up” button for getting out of a crash. Michael’s slow-motion gunplay gives him a bit of an edge in combat, but it’s nothing that Max Payne hasn’t done before, and better. Trevor’s rage deals extra damage while taking less, which isn’t as useful as it sounds considering that you can already kill most enemies with only a couple of shots. The introduction of semi-regenerating health further reduces the usefulness of the Trevor’s ability. It also meant that for most of the game I didn’t bother with body armour, as I could usually just take cover for a bit before moving forward. However, this works well, as I never felt like I was wasting time in combat just sitting around to heal.
I only have one real gripe with GTAV, but unfortunately it regards the cornerstone on which much of the game is founded: money. The trailers showed lots of examples of being cavalier with money, buying a multi-million dollar jet off the internet, for example. Implicit in this was the understanding that players would have ready access to the kind of funds necessary for such purchases. Frustratingly, this is not the case; it is punishingly difficult to make a living in this game. Rather than buying things, I spent most of my time looking on at all the things I couldn’t afford. As someone who has to pinch pennies in the real world, having to do it in a game is not my idea of fun.
The only big money you make is in the multi-mission heists, but the first of these lulls you into a false sense of security. I figured there would be more easy money to come, not realising that this first score was one of the best paying in the whole game. Only a few of the half-dozen heists actually net you any money at all, as with the majority of the missions. While there is a deliberate theme of working hard for no reward, it’s laboured to the point of frustration.
The supposed solution to this problem comes in the form of the in-game stock market. “Buy low, sell high” is a simple enough concept in principle, but I lost over a hundred thousand dollars investing in cheap companies that never bounced back. Players are supposed to be able to increase a company’s share price by frequenting their businesses and attacking their rivals, but this is unreliable and often produces little to no impact whatsoever. And if it does work, then Rockstar have given us an infinite cash exploit, expecting us to grind for our dollars, which we should have been paid on missions in the first place.
Another option is to invest in properties around Los Santos and Blaine County, but the return on investment is so abysmal as to not be worth it. Properties take months, even years of in-game days just to break even, and they cost so much that you’d have to spend actual months of gameplay saving up. The only feasible way to afford these properties is to hold off on certain stock market-affecting missions until the end of the game, when you have the most capital to invest. This is not something anyone could stumble onto during their initial playthrough, and more than once I thought I should restart my whole game.
As downloadable content is pretty much inevitable for games these days, we can probably expect some expansions for GTAV within a few months. While a little more variety with hair styles and tattoos would be welcome, I think what this game really needs is more heists. The six here are fun, but don’t make enough use of the variety we were promised. Driver and hacker crew members barely get any play, so I’d like to see some heists that really focus on their talents, rather than gunmen getting all the glory. More paid heists and missions would also alleviate the financial stress I feel as I struggle to make ends meet, and they could easily be slotted in at various points throughout the story.
Despite its few flaws, GTAV is still a masterpiece of gaming. Los Santos is more than a setting—it’s a home. The protagonists aren’t just avatars—they’re people with lives, struggling to get by the only way they know how. If Rockstar ever make a GTAVI, it’s hard to imagine what they could do to improve on this.