Grand Theft Auto V: Ambition in the Big City
For all the ridiculous popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series, it’s difficult to identify a single reason why the franchise resonates with so many millions of gamers around the world. Then again, this very fact might actually be the central ingredient in Grand Theft Auto’s special sauce, because it does so much so well. When I recently sat down with folks from Rockstar to take in an extended demo of Grand Theft Auto V, I kept this point in mind, identifying not one aspect of the game, but many that will almost certainly contribute to it being an immersive, addicting, and entirely outrageous experience.
GTA V tells its story from the perspective of three playable characters — Franklin, Michael, and Trevor – a well-known fact about the game at this point, but still a bold and daring choice for Rockstar to make. I admittedly harbor fears that a more focused experienced based on a lone character might actually be the desired path for an adventure like this to take, and yet it rapidly became clear that this trifecta of characters makes GTA V quite different from its amazing predecessors. Indeed, this design choice represents the single biggest change in the series since the jump from 2D to 3D over a decade ago, especially when it comes to how each character interacts with each other within the confines of Grand Theft Auto V’s all-new, robust mission structure.
Rockstar admitted during the course of the demo that the studio is striving to create “the ultimate open-world game” with Grand Theft Auto V, and these three interweaving characters represent a focal point in their attempt to do just that. With rare exception, all three avatars are playable at virtually any time and can be switched on the fly with only a brief period of loading in-between. Each is integral to the success of the main narrative, but can also undertake his own litany of sidequests and ancillary activities. The way they work with each other will prove pivotal, and yet each is his own man with his own set of problems, desires, and goals, and the game encourages you to explore their stories individually as well as collaboratively. And of course, each is expertly voice acted.
At the outset of the demo, you may expect that I was reintroduced once more to this small gang’s ringleader, a clean-cut older gentleman named Michael. Michael is intent on continuing his notorious crime-ridden ways because nothing else in his life of government-protected luxury makes him happy, but for the time being, we see events from his friend Franklin’s eyes. Franklin is a repo man, an expert wheelman and a typical San Andreas criminal, but here, we see him in an unusual situation: launching himself out of a plane, where he immediately engages a parachute and floats slowly and surely towards the ground below.
Doing this gave me a chance to take in the ridiculous scope of San Andreas, GTA V‘s setting. This is a location that spans a considerable amount of territory, with geodiversity in spades. You’ve never seen anything quite like it in the Grand Theft Auto series. Mountains, forests, rivers and more grab your eye, but what I really stared at during the descent was the city of Los Santos in the distance. While Rockstar promises that missions, sidequests and much more happen everywhere on the map, it’s the big city that beckons the most, especially with GTA V’s new ambient soundtrack playing softly in the background, further pressing how deceivingly quiet and serene things are out there in the country when compared to the nearby metropolis.
[San Andreas] is a location that spans a considerable amount of territory, with geodiversity in spades.
Once on solid ground, Franklin ditches his parachute and begins to explore the wooded region around him. Two men are fishing nearby, humorously paying no attention to the man that fell out of the sky not a dozen feet away from them. This recalls memories of Grand Theft Auto IV and how alive Liberty City felt, even if the responses of those around you aren‘t always hyper-realistic. Grand Theft Auto V seems to take this emphasis on a living, breathing world and ups the ante, because even out here in the woods, in the middle of nowhere on a map many times larger than GTA IV, there was attention paid to small details. Animals run through the trees. The nearby river flows steadily and quietly. The sun shines in the sky above. Everything seems normal and every day, even if you know full well that Grand Theft Auto is anything but.
But for as much as the blue skies above portrayed serenity, it was the underwater sequence I experienced that truly burned itself into my brain. Long gone are the days where you drown when jumping into water in a Grand Theft Auto game, for GTA V goes in the exact opposite direction. Not only can you swim, but you can don SCUBA gear and go underwater and explore, too. Rockstar promises that there’s a lot to find under the waves of the ocean and the calm waters of lakes and rivers alike in the San Andreas region, and for as big as the map is on dry land, it’s far bigger when you take into account that aqueous locations are also available to be explored at will. It’s a tantalizing prospect for players who like to see every inch of a sandbox game like this.
Everything seems normal and every day, even if you know full well that Grand Theft Auto is anything but.
And what of Michael’s other friend? Trevor is an alcoholic and drug addict who always seems just one frame ahead of his latest bender, and when the Rockstar employee playing the game switched over to him for the first time, we saw him in classic form. Sprawled out on the beach, dirtied and bloodied and wearing nothing but his briefs with the corpses of some members of The Lost motorcycle gang around him on a beach, Trevor cleans himself up and gets into the action, likely unaware of what even transpired before he blacked out. That is apparently Trevor’s character in a nutshell; he looked a great deal like this during a mission a little later, when he’s expected to be at his sharpest.
Each of these characters comes packing his own distinct personality and skillset – Michael is all about firearms, Franklin is a driving expert and Trevor, somehow, knows how to pilot aircraft – and they work together to complete a series of crimes known in Grand Theft Auto V as heists, which Rockstar was finally willing to expand upon.
Men About Town
“Heist” isn’t just a throwaway word when talking about GTA V; it’s a central theme. Rockstar promises a series of highs and lows in the campaign, as opposed to Grand Theft Auto IV’s run towards an ultimate conclusion, meaning you’ll crescendo as you get closer to completing each heist, only to reset and start again on another heist thereafter. This is a novel approach, made even more unique by the way the three characters intermingle with one another to complete each task that makes the heist at hand successful. It made me forget, for a time, my concerns about there being three main characters to worry about instead of only one.
“Heist” isn’t just a throwaway word when talking about GTA V; it’s a central theme.
During this demo, we got to look in as Michael, Franklin, and Trevor plan an attack on an armored vehicle in order to steal its precious cargo. To do so, previous missions we unfortunately didn’t bear witness to are required to obtain the necessary tools, such as acquiring the party’s costumes and (ridiculous) masks, as well as the gigantic dump truck that they’ll need to tip the armored vehicle on its side and the escape vehicle that will whisk them to safety. In this way, Grand Theft Auto V creates a need for preparation, something the series simply hasn’t done before. This, in turn, promises to create anticipation as you work towards a goal by putting each piece of the puzzle together slowly and methodically. It’s a satisfying system that creates additional context for your actions, at least if you’re not out for instant gratification.
Not surprisingly, tipping the armored vehicle during the course of the mission doesn’t go quite as planned, something that won‘t come as much of a surprise if you witness Trevor in particular in a completely disheveled state during the mission‘s opening cutscene. The boys get what they were looking for, but the private guards within the vehicle tripped the alarm before going down in a blaze of glory. Before long, cops swarm the location of the robbery and players will be forced to defend themselves before making their getaway. This brings forth another interesting part of the quick-switch dynamic between the characters, as Michael, Franklin, and Trevor will each take a specific position in the area, each armed with a different weapon, as they do away with the police.
Toggling between characters is entirely in-the-moment, as evidenced by a happenstance where Trevor launches a missile from a rooftop, our Rockstar tour guide quickly switches to Michael down on the ground, and the rocket flies right by and explodes in front of him. It was a memorable moment I’m looking forward to replicating when I finally get my hands on the game. These characters can readily defend themselves when you’re not playing as them, too, but switching between each of them regularly appeared to be the key to keeping the cops at bay as their numbers are steadily whittled down. And it’s worth noting that, while I wasn’t given the opportunity to actually play, it’s pretty clear that the shooting mechanics are far, far tighter than they were in GTA games past, more in line with Saints Row 3 than Grand Theft Auto IV. So breathe a sigh of relief.
…it’s pretty clear that the shooting mechanics are far, far tighter than they were in GTA games past…
Outside of this main mission, I also got to glimpse a sidequest involving a starlet being stalked by the paparazzi. In classic Grand Theft Auto form, you can walk up to her, agree to assist her, get into her car and watch her somewhat awkwardly path-find a way towards the passenger side door. Once she’s in, we’re off to her surprisingly modest estate in the upscale hills surrounding Los Santos, trying to lose the paparazzi all the while. I asked the guy from Rockstar playing the game why he didn’t just kill the paparazzi instead of trying to outrun them. That’s apparently cause for an auto-fail. Color me surprised.
This mission showed off GTA V’s driving mechanics, which looked the same as Grand Theft Auto IV’s, but are apparently reworked and tighter than ever. While players of past GTA games had legitimate gripes about on-foot movement and combat, Rockstar always nailed driving, and if they’ve refined the system even further, whether in a car or truck, or in a plane or boat, then all the better. Either way, it was great to see someone driving carefully around Los Santos, because it was certainly a different approach than I take when I’m behind the wheel in GTA.
Indeed, seeing this side quest through to completion was a relief to me, since it showed me that GTAV will stay rooted in many of the conventions we know and love – complete with ridiculous dialogue, insane gun battles, booming stereos and car chases — but it also concerned me, because Grand Theft Auto V still seems to have that sort of GTA-like awkwardness to it that Rockstar still hasn’t completely ironed out. I was happy to hear that checkpoints in particular will be more forgiving in GTA V, but the wonkiness of the female getting in and out of the car alerted me that some of Grand Theft Auto’s old tricks are still very much alive and well.
Glitch in the Matrix?
It’s easy to forgive older GTA games for their occasional technical shortcomings based solely on their ambitious nature, and it’s worth noting that Grand Theft Auto V is still a solid six months away from being released, so additional polish will no doubt be applied. But GTA V does currently have GTA IV’s texture pop-in issues, and graphically, it’s unimpressive. It looks like an enhanced version of Grand Theft Auto IV with an extra sheen added, but it also doesn’t stand up to its far more graphically-impressive contemporaries. It doesn’t look five-plus years newer than the game that came before it. The good news is that no one plays GTA for its aesthetics, but it’s nonetheless worth noting that the game looks decidedly dated this late in Xbox 360’s and PlayStation 3’s lifecycle.
Thankfully, a deluge of weapons and vehicles promise to keep you busy when you finally get your hands on Grand Theft Auto V, likely making you forget about some of those minor technical problems and complaints. Rockstar has included more tools in your arsenal and cars, trucks, motorcycles, watercraft, and all manner of aerial vehicles than ever before. Better yet, they’re all fully customizable and upgradeable. In the biggest title Rockstar has ever created geographically, it seems rather fitting that everything around the actual terrain is growing in scope, too.
The good news is that no one plays GTA for its aesthetics…
Making the game even deeper, Grand Theft Auto V also totes an experience system that finally gives players real control over the growth trajectory of their characters. And no GTA: San Andreas-like obnoxiousness is required, either, so no eating or working out. Each character is judged based on a series of nine statistics – Stamina, Shooting, Strength, Stealth, Flying, Driving, Mechanic, Lung Capacity, and Special – and each statistic is built-up specifically by doing the action given. Drive around a lot, and you’ll become a better driver. Swim the depths of the bodies of water around you, and you’ll become a more adept swimmer. The Special statistic is especially interesting, since it represents each character’s specific talent, catered to the individual strengths of that character. And while some characters will start off inherently stronger in some areas than others, through simple use, they’ll all gain parity with one another in every sense.
In many ways, Grand Theft Auto V is simply more Grand Theft Auto, which is awesome in its own right. But it also does a lot of new stuff, too, that promises to freshen up the experience, make it deeper and give grizzled old veterans of the franchise new tools to play with. GTA V may not astound with its looks, but it’s certainly primed to in just about every other way, and if Grand Theft Auto V wasn’t on your radar as one of your most-anticipated games of 2013, it certainly should be.
Colin Moriarty is a Senior Editor in charge of IGN’s PlayStation coverage. You can follow him on Twitter and IGN and learn just how sad the life of a New York Islanders and New York Jets fan can be.