This review’s been a long time coming, and in truth it’s because it’s taken us a long old while to blast through Rockstar’s massively ambitious open-world remake. Having patiently waited more than a year for the the PC version to arrive, I buckled and decided to check out the next-gen version first. There’s one caveat to this review though, and that is I’ve never touched the original, so I’m going in blind.
Of course I know Grand Theft Auto V has had a graphical cleanup for this re-release, but on the actual specifics and minute changes, I’m not acutely aware. Of course waiting all this time brought with it a barrel-load of expectation. Everyone I knew had been playing GTA 5 for months, and all I was hearing was great things, but knowing there were better versions around the corner, I patiently waited, as many PC gamers are doing now. Starting up GTA V for the first time, I went in expecting the absolute best thing since sliced bread. Tempering my expectations would have been the logical thing to do, but instead the opening few hours played out and I could feel a tangible sense of disappointment. This wasn’t what I’d entirely believed it was, this was just another game. Until it got its hooks in me. Big time.
There’s plenty wrong with GTA V, but it’s totally outnumbered by how much there is to love. You can tell it’s a successor to the bizarrely humourless GTA IV, embracing all the positives of that but making a return to the much needed joviality and all-round fun of the likes of Vice City and San Andreas. It’s no longer taking itself too seriously, and it’s all the better for it.
Key to GTA 5’s success is the central trio of characters, a remarkable bunch that bounce off each other in unpredictable ways. Franklin’s the archetypal low-level gang member, making a living robbing stores and jacking cars, while Michael’s a classic bank thief turned family man trying to make it straight, and finally Trevor, well, he’s unlike anyone else out there. It’s fairly clear he’s clinically insane from the off, but his warped psyche is the driving force behind practically everything. He’s aggressive, emotionally unstable, and shows little remorse. He’s the antithesis of the typical videogame protagonist, and his refusal to concede to whiter-than-white hero stereotypes means he’s one of the most genuinely interesting videogame characters to play as in years. He’s basically the sort of character Ubisoft needs to take a look at once in a while, because he’s hugely memorable and, in a large way, makes this game what it is.
The sprawling plot centres around this oddball group of characters pulling off heists and raking in the dosh, complicated by some FIB involvement, Michael's less than happy home life, and more than a few skeletons in the closet. Where GTA V succeeds is in the individual dramas and situations, the voice acting is absolutely top tier and it's easy to get caught up in the situations they find themselves in. Extrapolate it to the plot at large however, and there's a few loose threads tying it all together but much of time you'll wondering why you are doing what you're doing. That's not to get in the way of the missions though, which display a huge array of variety throughout its 69 mission length. There's a few clangers in the mix but for the most part you never know what's going to happen next, whether its hijacking a submarine, breaking into an army base, driving a motorbike onto a high-speed train, of having an epic police chase through a storm drain. It's magnificant and addictive, and the bite-sized nature of many of them means it's perfect for small gaming sessions or an all-day marathon.
When you get tired of ploughing through the story missions though, there’s absolutely heaps you can do on the side. An odd assortment of side-missions can have you stealing underwear, gathering nuclear waste, kidnapping a Hollywood star’s dog, playing a full round of golf, or just being a plain old tow-truck driver. There’s dozens upon dozens of activities, and if you want to just breathe in this world you can practically double its length. Much of it is repeatable and also grants you medals depending upon performance, so you can push for perfection and achieve high scores.
What you're doing in this world almost seems secondary to main event, and that's Blaine County. In this recreation of San Andreas, Rockstar has stitched together the most incredible open-world in gaming, bar none. Nothing comes close, in terms of scale, level of detail, and personality. Everywhere you turn there’s things to check out and interesting nooks and crannies, and this extends to the whole map. On its own the main city of Los Santos is easily as big as Liberty City in GTA IV, if my memory serves me well, with every area imbued with a distinct flavour and charm. Obviously inspired by LA, you’ve got the incredible Venice Beach, the ghettos, the financial district, the steep streets of Vinewood Hills, and the hustle and bustle of the docks. Its incredible, and the first 10 hours or so can easily be spent just within the confines of this city, without you even daring to leave it.
Once the story does force you to step outside though, it opens up a whole new world for you to explore. The countryside contrasts with Los Santos so consummately that it’s a total joy the moment you get out in it, and the first cross-country drive all the way back down south to the city feels like a real journey, giving you an incredible sense of scale and magnificence. The best bit about it is that the world feels like it lives around you, rather than it being a purpose-build place for you to explore. Things are actively happening and little touches like the stock market ensure there’s a feeling that it’s a lived-in world, with real consequences. Traffic jams and accidents, bar brawls spilling out onto the street, couples arguing, an old lady trying to cross the road. Things are happening that are in no way linked to your actions, and it helps you feel part of a larger entity.
Shooting though, is where GTA 5 is a real let-down. In the years since GTA IV it would be fair to say shooters in general have come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to mechanics, but GTA V feels every bit as clunky as its predecessor. Now controllers aren’t traditionally the best for playing shooters but here free-aiming is absolutely terrible, and the best option is to repeatedly pop out and fire, which auto-locks onto the nearest enemy. You end up looking like a crazed jack-in-the-box, which I’m fairly sure isn’t what Rockstar were intending. Ultimately it’s serviceable but clunky, and it can be a bit of a faff changing to grenades and throwing them, for example. It’s a means to an end essentially, and there aren’t many shooting segments which you’ll be particularly fond of.
To that end you’re no Terminator. The trio of characters can die very easily if you’re not careful, and it can take a little getting used to how easily they go down in comparison to other open-world titles. One or two chest shots can flatten you, while a few vehicle accidents have wiped out a full health bar in one. It's not bad thing, but if you're having a mess around things can turn fatal, pretty quickly.
The gunplay might let the side down, but get behind the wheel and it all changes. Driving around Los Santos is absolute sublime, as is taking the wheel of a speedboat, piloting a helicopter, or zooming a plane under a low-hanging bridge. In your vehicle is where you’ll hear all the top-notch radio stations, and it’s where GTA really shines. Every boat, plane, chopper, car, and bike has totally unique handling, and nearly all of them are great to cruise about in. The car handling feels a lot better than previous GTAs though so you won’t desperately be hunting for the best cars around; a lot of the cars just parked up on the street can still be ragged along at a fair old clip.
New to this version is the first-person mode. It’s a bit of a novelty, nothing more. In fact it made me feel a bit sick after a while usually, and you’re at a noticeable disadvantage when driving or shooting like it. If you’re not on an intense mission though it’s great for just messing about, and I found myself occasionally switching to it to get a different view on things or to take a look at some finer details. Firing a gun in first-person leaves a lot to be desired, so it’s not really a major selling point.
With the additional power at hand in the PlayStation 4 it’s safe to say that GTA V looks roughly on par with how Watch Dogs does on High. It’s a very pretty game when considering its scale, and it’s moments such as taking off with a helicopter that you realise the sheer number of man hours that went into created something this vast and yet so varied. You’ll never see copycat buildings, everything feels and looks unique.
If all that wasn’t enough for you though, there’s also the inimitable Grand Theft Auto Online mode. Few open-world games attempt anything anywhere near as ambitious as this, but GTA Online offers support for up to 32 players simultaneously throughout its vast open-world. It’s got everything from competitive racing to first-person shootouts, as well as exclusive cooperative missions and even properties to buy. There’s a ton of stuff to be getting on with there, and Rockstar has stayed true to its promising of supporting it after launch, with this version rolling in all of the release content updates so far, with more set to come, including those all-important online heists.
All in all Grand Theft Auto V is a natural evolution of the series, and it does indeed make it seem difficult to comprehend where exactly they can take it next. There's certainly a few areas that could do with some polish, but fans of open-worlds will find one of the most accomplished games in years, and, despite hours and hours spent prodding around, I think there's some many secrets still for me to find. One thing's for sure and it's got my appetite whetted for the PC version, because once the modding community gets their hands on this it's going to be a joy to see.