Even by this current generation’s standards, GTA V’s San Andreas is the most dense, detailed, ecosystem-driven world built in gaming. From its massive skybox, to its immensely populated streets, to the spontaneous wildlife both above ground and below sea level, there’s a seemingly endless amount of activity to witness and partake in.
The city itself was overwhelming when Rockstar released their latest lovechild on last gen hardware, but to see Los Santos and Blaine County through the eyes of your avatar in GTA V’s new first person mode is nothing less than a game changer, and is one of the most daunting and uniquely exhilarating experiences I’ve been privileged to in recent years.
In case you’re new to GTA V, Rockstar has culminated lessons learned from a number of their past titles over the years, and distilled them into one massive sandbox structured game. GTA V’s entertaining yet increasingly unhinged story follows three social commentating and ironically out of place criminals – Michael, Franklin, and Trevor – as they barely justify their attempts to find solace in robbing banks. The interplay between the three drives the narrative forward in an interesting and imperfect fashion. Being able to switch between all three at any time gives access to a variety of story beats, however the threesome’s conversing interactions are often polluted with aimless bickering. With some negligible statistical and idiosyncratic differences aside, the leading three are best used during GTA V’s climatic heists.
Heists are the result of multiple, yet completely straight-forward, stages of pre-planning that all build up into an explosive big job. The actual heists themselves are multifaceted, segmenting the three protagonists into different specialties and sequences that are smartly interwoven. While Michael is on foot shooting his way out of a swarm of gunmen, Franklin might be offering sniper cover from afar awaiting Trevor to relieve him in a getaway vehicle of sorts. There are multiple ways to play through each heist with hired crew members and opposing methods of approach, but they all result in a hefty payload after completion that opens the doors to GTA V’s robust economy.
- Click here for my full review of Grand Theft Auto V, posted following its original release.
The world itself is often GTA’s biggest draw, with emergent citizens, domino-effect responses to player behavior, and a gigantic city it all takes place in. Rockstar’s efforts in GTA V were an unparalleled feat in world-building design that pushed both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 to their limits, until the point where they completely collapsed under the weight of GTA Online.
Coincidentally, today GTA V feels like it was meant for current gen hardware, a proper realization of the technical colossus that was just too overbearing for last gen to completely process. Los Santos and Blaine County feel bigger, denser, and more convincing than before. Models and textures are sharper, smaller graphic designed details are easily distinguishable, and the performance – from its frame rate to the massive draw distance – is nearly flawless. All of this increased fidelity may make GTA V look like an “as you remember it” remastering from a familiar perspective, but it all feels in complete service of being viewed from the first person.
With a simple button press that cycles through the different camera settings, you can pull the view from over the shoulder to first person. And while on paper it sounds like just another viewing option, in reality, it fundamentally changes the GTA experience.
It goes without saying that viewing San Andreas from a personalized perspective is strangely intimate, allowing you to get up close and personal with Rockstar’s unrelenting parody of American culture. Creating classic 5-star chaos is overwhelming at best, but is also often oddly disturbing. Stabbing, shooting, or hitting someone with a car in first person finally matches that gut wrenching feeling you felt when you first killed someone back when the Rage Engine fully premiered in GTA IV.
Taking a tour of the city is, in particular, highly encouraged. Alongside some new content included for returning players, many of the in-game activities are intensified in first person. This includes parachuting from incredible heights that actually made my stomach turn, and hunting in the woods which bears a striking resemblance to certain moments in Far Cry. Simply driving and flying can often be a sensory overload as well. With audible changes and detailed displays in cockpits and dashboards (coupled with an optimized performance that free the game from technical interruptions), taking county wide cruises in San Andreas is a truly rare experience in gaming.
But might I make a special mention of exploring the city on motorcycles? While allowing you to maneuver your way through the cracks and crevices of the world, the violent tilting of bikes often create visceral thrills, and turning the first person ragdoll option on lends a near-nauseating simulation of what it’s like to fly off of a motorcycle after getting hit head-on by a car. Brilliant.
Not all situations are best played, or even allow you to play them, in first person. Operating special vehicles and aircrafts require peripheral awareness at times that first person just doesn’t lend itself to; and specific moments in particular missions force the camera to pull back during scripted sequences.
Above all else, having GTA V mimic a first person shooter is undoubtedly the most interesting change here. What could be a complete shift in combat tactics with a heavy reliance on precision, for shooter purists, results in a flawed transition despite the plethora of customization options available.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who’ve played some of Rockstar’s previous games. The developer’s signature lock-on mechanic in first person makes gunplay feel more like it’s handicap-assisted rather than benefiting from the subtle accommodation it offers at the default camera setting. The assisted aim of course makes up for the janky camera controls that you otherwise would have had to trudge through if you had chosen to aim freely.
Using the free aim option is a project in and of itself to deal with, requiring some tweaking and leg work in order to make shooting feel more conservative. Clicking the right analog stick switches the default zoom-in to aiming down the sights for better accuracy. And while this option falls victim to the touchy aiming controls, most of the guns’ iron sights offer a bulky and unintuitive view of your targets. To remedy this, I strongly suggest attaching scopes on every gun they’re compatible with. Beware that there are some missions that will limit your character’s arsenal; one forced me to switch back to third person just to complete because I had no scoped weapons on hand.
Since GTA IV, the use of cover has always been a core element of gun play in Rockstar’s games. Unfortunately GTA V’s cover system has seen the roughest transition from third to first person because of how difficult it is to gauge where your targets are from behind cover. The alternative here is to set the camera to “First Person-Third Person Cover”, which is inherently a dissatisfying revert back to playing traditional GTA V where your character is ducking and shooting from third person.
But even if the mechanics aren’t up to snuff, the pacing of the missions themselves bests most shooters on the market. The character switching between the three protagonists, while strictly situational in some cases and painfully unreliable in others, keeps the action at a sustained climax without funneling the action into a corridor design. I was amazed by how shootouts behaved just as well in first person as they did in third, with enemies on foot and in vehicles flooding the scene as appropriate targets, and choppers flying in begging you to turn them into twisted metal fireworks. Heists become the epitome of GTA V’s mission structure, and they’re excellent in first person despite its mechanical setbacks.
GTA Online continues to be the criminal driven cluster-fuck it always has been since last year, and first person does next to nothing to change that. General antics around the city in Free Roam are fun enough, so long as you’re not targeting other players. The way first person factors into PVP scenarios does raise some balancing issues if you’re not careful, however. If you choose to fully commit yourself to the first person perspective in unstructured encounters, you’ll be putting yourself at a severe disadvantage as – like I’ve mentioned before – using cover in first person blinds your general awareness of where your enemies are.
Thankfully, when starting up a mission, online play allows you to set the camera option for the match. Choosing to have no camera default gives room for players to adjust their settings to potentially get the upper hand. However both the third person and first person settings are strict and non-nuanced, meaning that you can’t toy with the options to enable a hybrid of both. In the end, if you’re looking for a multiplayer shooter experience, GTA Online isn’t the place as its strengths instead lay in its light MMO-styled city wide playground.
For those who are returning to San Andreas, the superb world building and emergent elements of the city alone makes GTA V ripe for replayability. However, first person mode, while fundamentally flawed, opens the doors to experiencing GTA in a completely new way. If nothing else, GTA V on new systems is the definitive version to one of the greatest games from the last console generation.