on 17 September 2013
Video gaming has come a long way since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Game budgets have balloned into astronomical proportions and marketing campaigns have become blitzkrieg extravaganas. Major video game titles, like the major "tent pole" movies of the summer Hollywood so heavily relies upon, represent significant investment of capital. If you believe the marketing copy, each of these big budget video games represent the very best the video game industry has to offer. *
Sadly, such hyperbole is very seldom the case, especially with non-Nintendo titles. Unlike Nintendo's IPs, which are consistently recognized as some of the most enthralling, well-designed games out there, and also certainly among the most bankable, newer games must establish such a strong, realised world and marketing presence that big budgets are in demand. While Nintendo and Mario/Link are the family friendly alternatives, there exists an large opening for more adult oriented fare to enter and dominate the market place. Enter Rockstar and the GTA titles which, while always controversail, has long helped bring adult themed video gaming into the mainstream with writing that is both brilliant and deeply satirical of modern day life..
GTA V follows the Grand Theft Auto social commentary satire the series is so famous for, and expands it tremendously, becoming a mirror of post-economic collapse America. Nothing is held back from Rockstar's barbed wit: the game tears apart such recent social realities as Facebook (called Life Invader) and the rather sinister undertones by which Mark Zuckerburg and Co. selling our personal data for profit, the ever deepening political divide between the right and the left, America's obsession with celebrities, and their preoccupations with drugs, sex, and violence, and the carnival, fun-house mirror perceptions of America's darkside. Pop culture is alluded too everywhere, from the Sopranos to Breaking Bad to reality TV to the "entitlement" mentality to the absuridty of video game culture and the continual retreating of "Call of Duty" to Millenials. Smart phones which extensively use the Internet (complete with parody websites that also include Twitter) are also heavily featured, which has become a mainstay in today's culture and catapulted Apple into the world's most valuable company..
CHARACTERS: Rockstar changes up the GTA formula by introducing three main protagonists. Introducing for the first time three different characters, GTA V features Michael, a retired criminal in his forties; Franklin, a young gang-banger reminsent of Carl Johnson, and Trevor, a psychotic, in-your-face nutjob who is so unhinged that you can't help but feel he is little more than a caricature than an actual person. Of the three characters, Trevor is by far the most over-the top. A raging lunatic, Trevor is a perfect zeitgest for the GTA player, and is what Hunter S. Thompson would be if he appeared in a video game.
One of the weak points with the GTA series has always been the sometimes unavoidable narrative inconsistencies brought on by its open-ended gameplay, all the while moving the characters down specific narrative arcs. A notable example is Niko Bellic philosophically railing against violence and then engaging in deeply violent behaviors. Likewise, the Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda suffer from this flaw to some extent. By introducing three characters, Rockstar is able to marry that illusion of cohesion between character and gameplay much better than the superficial unions of past games.
At any time (other than specific points restricted for story purposes) you are able to switch between the three characters. The game will then take you to where the characters happen to be at the time - Michael may be at his therapist's, or at the golf club, etc; Franklin may be at a strip joint or other various locals, and Trevor could very well be surrounded by dead bodies in the desert somewhere. Each location fits into the character's story and place in the GTA universe.
STORY: Rather than gradually introduce a wide cast of supporting characters and develop their backstory, Rockstar has streamlined the writing, focusing largely on Trevor, Franklin, and Michael, at the expense of having numerous, secondary characters that so frequently stole the show in previous titles. That's not to say there aren't any memorable secondary characters; rather, the narrative focuses on the big three (and I don't mean Harry, Ron, and Hermione) and delves expensively into their lives and how the characters' fates become inextricably intertwined as the game proceeds.
SETTING: After the sprawling landmass of GTA: SAN ANDREAS, which featured three cities divided by expansive countryside, deserts with secret government bases that may or may not hold alien bodies, and rural communities that appear to be straight out of Deliverance, GTA IV focused on a reimagined New York City. GTA V returns to the west coast, taking place in Los Santos, one of the three cities first introduced in SAN ANDREAS. While not as widely broad and disconnected as "San Andreas", GTA V features the series' biggest map yet, which also includes surrounding mountainsides and Sandy Shores, a costal village.
Unlike previous titles, the entirety of Los Santos and the surrounding areas is available from the very beginning. The gaming world, while always artificial, feels truly alive, with people camping in the woods and bustling city life, and characters interacting with each other in what appears to be (but of course isn't) unscripted, natural way.
GAMEPLAY: The gameplay elements of GTA IV have all been finely tuned: AI is superb, auto-aim works almost flawlessly as does the cover system. You can engage in a wide variety of activities, such as base jumping, cycling, flying, golfing, hunting, tennis, triathalons, vehicular racing, and yoga. Expanding on "Vice City", "San Andreas" and "GTA IV", you can also unlock vehicle storage facilities and purchases businesses and go on missions to help those businesses make profit. You can even play the stock market on your smart phone. There are also individual activities tailored to specific characters (Michael visitng a therapist and playing tennis or practicing yoga, Trevor hunting, etc).
Like any GTA game, there is driving, and a LOT of it. For a series focused so heavily on driving, GTA V is the first time that Rockstar has nailed the driving down so effectivey. Cars handle so much better overall (though the joy rides can still turn into some memorably spectacular crashes). Certain elements of driving in past titles have been frustrating, due to how wildly odd they handle. (Just try driving the combing back from the mission "Body Harvestor" in "San Andreas" and tell me you weren't screaming at the television!) The vehicles handle with precision, while still providing a wide variety of gaming experiences. Rockstar still has not mastered the aerial acrobatics like they have the terrestrial driving, with the plane/helicopter flying still feeling rather primitive in an otherwise impeccable game.
One of the best mechanical revisions introduced in GTA V is that Rockstar has finally fixed the conundrum of mission checkpoints, which saves you from making long, winding drives multiple times if you fail a specific mission.
MISSIONS: The shining point of GTA V, undoubtedly, is the missions, which constitutes the core of the gameplay. Several of the missions are tailor made to one of the three characters. Michael's missions deal with his increasingly fragmented family life as he goes back into crime. Franklin becomes more and more involved with grand theft auto and assassinations. Trevor's missions intimately suit his extremely psychotic psyche with larger-than-life explosions and wild, freewheelin' rampages that would earn anyone in real life a one way ticket to an impenetrable mental instution.
GTA V grades missions on different qualifiers, contingent upon completing optional objects as well as time, appealing to the speedrunners out there. The biggest addition (and it's been a LONG TIME COMING), is, after failing a mission three times, you are able to skip that section of the mission, though your score will be directly effected. Since the 1996 N64 classic "Super Mario 64", open world games have been notorious for having that one, infuriating mission. In the GTA series, often times that mission must be passed in order to progress, and it's high time Rockstar has come up with a solution for those "one mission" nightmares that so often send us into tirades (I'm looking at you, "Wrong Side of the Tracks" from "San Andreas"!). Why develop all these hours of content if, because of one mission early in the game, the player eventually puts down your product, with the game unfinished? Likewise, you can replay missions at any time, another needed addition to the franchise.
A major addition is the heist missions, which involve all three characters. Rockstar is able to show off just how effective they are at featuring three protagonists in the Heists missions, and add a new depth of gameplay not previously seen in the GTA universe. The heists can be done one of two ways: guns blazing, ala Clint Eastwood, or channel your inner Solid Snake and infiltrate and plunder by stealth. Depending on what route you go, the three protagonists then must chose a crew (such as computer hackers, drivers, gunmen, etc) with varying degrees of experience. The better the crew, the more expense, but the less likely the mission will fail or you will run into further complications. The multiple character mode, the choice between stealth and combat, the action-packed setpieces, along with the variables of the crew you have chosen, make the heists some of the most engrossing missions ever seen in an open world game. Unfortunately there is only a handful of such missions in the game. The future of GTA, and sandbox games in general, resides in these type missions, and there is so much untapped potential in them that it almost comes off as a criminal waste.
Off the main story arc, you will find a wide variety of missions, including one where you use a digital camera to produce a sex tape or work with the paparazzi. Trevor also has a rampage mode where he kills onslaughts of enemies.
VISUALS: Fantastic and breathtaking. The game features a wide variety of environments for Rockstar to show off their graphical prowess, from scuba-diving sequences to cross-country to wealthy neighborhoods to seedy, dank areas more terrifying than they are amusing. The variety of locals is astonishing and adds to the overall texture of the game. You will be very hard-pressed to find a more gorgeously looking game on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with all the details becoming much more crisp and the character animations superb.
SOUND: Fantastic as always. GTA V does everything the other games in the series does and more, with a wider variety of musical content, new original music, and the best talk radio (featuring the GTA III perennial favorite Lazlo) this side of Rush Limbaugh. The voice acting is top-notch, as always.
CRITICISM: The game comes across as rather misogynistic, with no strong female characters treated with respect, even given the criminal nature of the gameplay. While boundary-pushing content has always been a hallmark of the game, there is an (unskippable) torture mission that Trevor must complete that [comments] is little more than a veild criticism on the US policy of waterboarding. Even for a game as intentionally lewd and morally reprehensible as GTA V, this mission is deeply troubling and the one time that Rockstar breaks the illusion of "this is just a video game" and actually feeling dirty about yourself as a human being, even though you are playing as Trevor. Sometimes Frankenstien's seams show through, breaking the illusion of reality. Kill an NPC before the mission requires you too and you fail. Even though you are in stealth mode, if a mission requires an enemy sees you, then your stealth is for naught.
ENDING COMMENTS: The GTA games have become a massive cultural phenomena the likes of which few games can attest too, attracting both controversy and fanatical players. With the release of GTA III in 2001, Rockstar introduced a fantastically realised, open sandbox world which was deeply satirical in nature and have only built on the foundations laid by that groundbreaking game.
But twelve years in the electronic entertainment industry and pop culture in general can be an eternity. With the prevelanace of increasingly violent and sexual content regularly displayed throughout our culture, games like GTA V aren't quite as shocking as they were in 2001, let alone 1994 with Mortal Kombat's spine-ripping fatalities went all the way to the United States Congress. Even Christine Hefner, Hugh Hefner's daughter, has stated pornography has become such mainstream that it can hardly qualify as edgy anymore. By this point, the major groundbreaking gameplay elements introduced in GTA III has become a matter of course for big-budget titles. To Rockstar's credit, they have prefected and honed the GTA gameplay to such fine precision that GTA V stands proudly as among the best games ever made in the admittedly very young medium of video gaming [history].
Overall, despite the jaded, cynical culture we now live in, GTA V pushes the boundaries of sex, drugs, and violence to a new level. Like Insane Clown Possy's Dark Carnival mythology , I believe Rockstar is more moral than their detractors allow for. They hold up a twisted, exaggerated picture of life in America today, twisted by crime and sleaze which is enacted by deeply pathological, flawed people. You won't find anything or anyone even remotely redeeming in San Andreas. Essentially, GTA V is a video game equivalent of the sleaze of Guns N Roses's "Appetite For Destruction", and, more specifically, "Welcome to the Jungle".
And what a twisted, warped, manically unhinged jungle that truly is.
*Both Steven Speilberg and George Lucas said Hollywood's reliance on huge blockbusters would cause the implosion of Hollywood's business model when several pictures costing over one hundred million would fail to recoup their investment, shaking the studios to their very core, Modern video games can also represent a significant investment of capital. Disney's video game division estimates the new Disney Infinity game, with its focus on NFC enabled action figures, has a development price tag of one hundred million dollars. Disney's video game division has lost 3.4 billion between 2010-2013.).