Top positive review
A game of two halves
on 20 March 2017
Grand Theft Auto V should really be thought of as two separate games. First you have the singleplayer story mode but then you also have GTA Online, which has taken on an identity of it's own that's separate from the main game itself.
Visually the game looks fantastic on what is now a decade old console. Both the character models and the surroundings look fantastic and GTA V is one of the best if not the best looking game on the platform, although one irritating negative is that you can also see textures pop in from time to time and the console does occasionally struggle to keep up with everything that is going on, but fortunately it does maintain a good framerate throughout with only very rare dips.
Similarly it takes a good minute or two to actually boot up the game, and you also have to deal with significant load times when switching between the three playable characters or between the singleplayer and multiplayer, though luckily there's minimal loading once you're actually in the game itself. The game itself is occasionally glitchy and prone to freezing too, especially in GTA Online, and although it isn't that common it's something to bear in mind.
The game also features excellent voice acting and a great soundtrack, which is both a mix of music made specifically for the game as well as licensed tracks from all sorts of genres, as well as radio talk shows. I often found myself just sitting in the car listening to the music or laughing at the jokes being made by the radio DJs. As a whole the GTA V is presented very well and is incredibly polished.
The story is very good too. GTA V bucks the trend of giving you a single protagonist and instead lets you control three people. Michael, Franklin and Trevor all bring diverse and interesting perspectives to the table and banter between them is charming and funny. The dialogue itself is full of pointed satire and is smartly written.
The minor characters too do a good job, all the way down to the small conversations you can overhear as you're walking the streets of Los Santos.
That said it was somewhat irritating that Michael was the only one out of the trio to have any real character development, whereas watching Franklin and Trevor not change at all ended up feeling boring from time to time, especially with Trevor.
In terms of gameplay itself there have been a lot of significant if minor changes. Rockstar haven't quite reinvented the wheel so much as redesigned it, but for the most part the changes are very welcome.
The weighty cars with their slippery driving that existed in GTA IV are now gone and the cars in GTA V have noticeably better traction - sure, it feels cartoonish, but it's fun.
The same thing happens with guns where you get the same massive arsenal but now they come with more customisable options and give you a little more freedom in playing how you want. The cover system has been tweaked and now the characters are a little more intelligent in how they navigate the environment.
There's also some light RPG elements where you get skills for each one of your characters, and what's great is that they get trained orgnically, such as the "Driving" skill going up when you drive at full speed and have near misses with other cars, although some seem useless too, like the "Stealth" skill, which is of no use outside some scripted story mode missions.
The Friends system is updated too and instead of them phoning you and nagging you to spend time with them it is entirely up to the player how much or how little time you spend with them, which is great.
The only real downside to these sorts of tweaks are the police, who are somehow hypercompetent and incompetent at the same time, being able to know that you committed a crime even if you were in the desert with no witnesses and shooting your tires out from half a mile away while at the same time giving up looking for you if you get out of their sight and hide for a few seconds.
The game world itself is great too and has a whole host of activities to do - you can race on land, sea or air, you can play the stock market, play tennis or golf, or even go parachute jumping, you can get a haircut or get tattoos or change your facial hair or buy businesses. All these things and many more give you a lot to sink your teeth in to and you can easily put in dozens of hours here without much thought.
The biggest change by far at the heists, which technically existed in the older games but now are properly organised, needing you to do setup missions before you go in, like securing specific vehicles or outfits, and professionally go in and do the job when everything is ready, coming away with massive spoils. These were incredibly fun to do and using the replay menu you can do them again and again, with the choice of alternating between the silent or loud treatment, which is a lot of fun.
However one big disappointment here is the mission rating system where your performance is rated and awarded with a gold, silver or bronze medal at the end of each mission, showing you which optional objectives you completed, similar to how they were in The Ballad Of Gay Tony. These sound okay in theory but in reality you don't get given the option to turn them off or even being told what the optional objectives where until after you've done the mission, making them feel incredibly cheap and unnecessary. This is further made worse by the fact that some want you to complete a mission in a certain amount of time and yet at the same time counting cutscenes as part of the timer, penalising you for caring about the story. More than once I'd finish a fun mission only for the game to let me know that it was disappointed I didn't finish it in the exact way the game wanted me to and presenting me with a 20 second unskippable report card. It felt somewhat contradictory too since you'd think open world games like GTA are meant to be all about player freedom.
The physics system is a little wanting too, like the ability to jump and hold on to something or the ragdoll physics that were present in GTA IV being removed, making the movement of the characters look and feel just that little bit worse.
There are also the side missions, which, while great overall, often have confusing ways to get you to start them, and some are difficult to discover unless you go through a convoluted process in the game to gain access to them. There's one series of missions in particular which you can't have access to unless you go on the in-game internet and fill in a specific quiz specifically with Michael - how on Earth is anyone meant to know that you're supposed to do this?! That's just bad design.
Similarly the game throws you an option on how to do things a few times in the story mode, but the choices either tended to have an obvious best option or they were of no significant consequence, making them serve no real purpose.
One thing that's really impressive are the tiny little details. For example if you're driving in a car and someone is talking then they stop talking if there's been a crash, and continue when the journey continues, or if there's some damage on the wheel of a car then instead of falling off immediately or having it stop working immediately it instead deteriorates slowly before eventually popping off the axel.
The game is also chock full of random events where you meet various characters in a lot of different situations and are often given the choice to help or hurt them.
There's also a wonderfully convenient system where if you turn up to do a mission at the wrong time then the game simply moves the game clock to the appropriate hours instead of telling you to come back like they did in the older games, though unfortunately this is limited to the story mode missions and doesn't work with the side missions.
These kinds of of tiny details are all great and really help the whole game world feel fluid and alive.
And then there's Grand Theft Auto Online.
Similar to the singleplayer it has a lot of stuff to do, including some things not present in the singleplayer, like being able to buy houses and garages, however this is let down due to the fact that the vast majority of the actual game modes are dead. Despite having a massive online community the only four modes that get played are the Heists, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Last Team Standing. Most others are largely ignored and if you care about doing anything else then it takes quite some time to get people together to do those other activities.
This especially ends up being problematic when you reach level 15 and get given "daily objectives", which require you to do 3 different things each day - these are often simply unable to be completed as they might require you to do something no one wants to, like playing the Capture game mode.
A lot of aforementioned modes are littered with user made missions too, which tend to be very poorly designed if not downright biased towards the host who made them, which isn't fun to play.
The matchmaking too suffers from serious issues. The online community is large but even then the game takes several minutes to get even the most played activities populated. Something as basic as this really shouldn't have such a hard time getting people together to start a game mode, especially with a company that has the resources and talent of Rockstar.
Similarly GTA Online on the PS3 has been abandoned. Apart from the Heists (that came 18 months after launch and after several delays) the newer updates don't reach this platform at all, so you'd have to be careful if you have any plans to keep playing this in the long run.
Speaking of heists, though, they are by far the most fun element of the Online experience. You have to do setup missions to get everything in place and then do the "heist finale" where each of the four players gets a certain role and walk away with a lot of money. These are often hampered by incompetent players - presumably because a lot of them are children - but if you can get a decent team together it is a ton of fun to pull off a heist. They really get your heart racing and are incredible fun to play.
Unfortunately the heists too are let down by bad matchmaking. In addition to taking too long for the game to find you players, the system decides to dismantle the entire team if even a single player leaves, ruining the fun for everyone, when instead it should send you back to the lobby so the remaining players can wait for a replacement player to turn up and carry on with the heist.
There are also "contact" missions where you get a text and are able to do missions for various characters, some of which you know from the story. These tend to be as varied as what you'd see in the story mode, and fortunately they can be done alone, meaning you don't need to wait for other players if you don't want to. These are quite fun, too, although they don't generate that much money.
Speaking of money, there are only two ways to make a good amount of it - heists or shark cards. Heists are great but with the occasional tendency of having teammates that are let downs, but shark cards work entirely through microtransactions and need you to cough up additional real life money in order to be able to afford the truly expensive things in the game, which feels awfully exploitative.
Ultimately you have Grand Theft Auto V, which is good if with some flaws, and then you have GTA Online, which has some redeeming factors but for the most part needs a significant overhaul to be considered good, chiefly with its flawed matchmaking system. On balance I would say it's worth it to get the game if only for the singleplayer.