Before I start, I’d like to point out that GTA Online had not gone live at the time of reviewing. Because of this, I am splitting my review into two parts. This part will review the single player aspect of GTA V and part two will focus on the multiplayer.
It’s been over five years since the mighty GTA IV was released to widespread acclaim – but that was 2008. Five years is a long time in the gaming world where things change so rapidly. The consoles that are now well into their twilight years had only just found their feet and, after its successes on the Playstation 2, GTA developers Rockstar Games didn’t have much to prove. In the five years since GTA IV, many fantastic games have been released, making it possible and easy for gamers to forget the series as they enjoy equally great franchises, such as Metal Gear Solid, Halo, and The Elder Scrolls.
As much as I was looking forward to GTA V, I was concerned that perhaps the times had moved on and left the franchise behind. Would Rockstar be able to deliver the seemingly next-gen experience they were promising when they were limited to hardware that was over eight years old? The answer is a great and resounding YES. Many games centre around a main character whom the player controls. This character is almost always a force for good who must fight against overwhelming odds and eventually triumph by the end of the game. GTA V subverts this trend by putting you in control of not one, but three, criminals. Make no mistake here: you are the bad guy(s).
The first protagonist, or rather antagonist, you play as is Michael. It’s safe to say that he can be considered the primary main character, since most of the plot revolves around him. He is an ex-bank robber who is currently suffering a midlife crisis. He spends his days in luxury and boredom whilst his wife conducts affairs and his “entitled” teenage kids cause nothing but trouble. Michael tries to get back into the life of crime with the help of two other main characters, Franklin and Trevor. Franklin starts the game as a small time gangbanger who dreams of a brighter future. Through a twist of fate, he comes into contact with Michael who he hopes can take him onto bigger and better things. Then there’s Trevor – Trevor is without a doubt one of the most violent, unhinged and psychopathic video game characters ever created, and yet, he’s also one of the most enjoyable. His voice-acting is superb and the writing is flawless as he reacts to different situations and interacts with other characters. He’s hilarious and horrifying combined and reminded me kind of a redneck Joker. Although there are many memorable characters in GTA V, Trevor steals the show.
Despite being the bad guys, Rockstar does a grand job in making each protagonist likable. Michael is a sad aging man who is stuck in the 80s and spends his time daydreaming about the glory days. He’s a man who lives his life on autopilot and is awakened only by the occasional rows with his spoilt children or neglected wife. Franklin is perhaps the least “bad” guy and probably the most relatable. It’s clear from the start that his motivation is to get out of the mean streets by any means necessary and, although he commits his fair share of felonies, he’s the least violent and most levelheaded of the group.
Trevor is without question the darkest and most violent character, but his redeeming feature is perhaps his honesty. Several times throughout the game, I found myself thinking of Trevor more as a wild animal than a rational human being. He’s a creature of instinct who lives on primal fury rather than cold, calculated murder. In a world where even the police and government are utterly corrupted, it’s refreshing to have a character who is at least honest about his dark side. Together, these three characters make a formidable team and, if you find yourself getting fatigued by one character, you can tap a button and enter the world of another.
It may be easy to forget that the location the game is set in – San Andreas – is also a character in itself. A twisted version of 21st century California, San Andreas is a massive map consisting of the huge, vibrant city of Los Santos and the sprawling wilderness that lies to the north. In the city, you can race cars, go on spending sprees, and visit strip clubs whilst in the country you can hunt game, go mountain biking, or even base jumping to name just a few of the optional pastimes you can indulge in. It’s one thing to create a huge open world but another thing entirely to breathe life into it.
At no point did I feel that San Andreas is just a copy and paste of the same area; the world feels vibrant and alive as pedestrians go about their business, the radio stations report on news and events (some of which you’re involved in), and wild deer graze upon the rolling hills. The graphics are simply stunning and the draw distance is incredible. You can fly at high speeds at a low altitude and not notice any lag or frame-rate issues. I will mention that I did notice a couple of very occasional pop in textures but these were few and far between. As I explored the vast map, I had to keep reminding myself I was playing this on an old Xbox 360, not a brand new PS4 or top of the range PC.
One of the few complaints of GTA IV was that the missions became repetitive. Too often missions consisted of drive here, shoot them, escape the cops. I’m happy to report that I never felt this isn’t a problem in GTA V and the missions vary so I was always eager to see what the next one would bring. Over the course of the sixty-nine main missions in GTA V, I derailed a train, flew a small plane into the hangar of a large jumbo jet, and infiltrated the FIB (GTA‘s FBI) as a janitor.
The range of missions in GTA V will have you comparing notes about them with your friends around the water cooler at work. Of course, these missions, as good as they are, are simply the framework for what GTA V is all about: heists. When you plan a heist, you don’t simply walk up to the location and rob the place. Oh no, that’s how amateurs do it and they always get caught. Michael, Franklin and Trevor are professionals – or so they’d like to think – and they put more planning in their heists.
When you pick your target, whether it’s a jewellery store, a bank, or something even bigger, you first must choose how you’re going to go about it. For most heists, you can either go in guns blazing or you can choose the stealthier option for a clean getaway. After you’ve chosen your approach, you then put together a team. You can choose to hire rookies who don’t get as much of the cut, but aren’t as effective, or you can go for the more costly veteran criminals who get a larger slice of the cake, but are skilled at their jobs.
Once your crew is assembled, you then need to go out and prepare various factors for the job. One heist required us to impersonate firemen so we could enter and exit the scene incognito. It was my job to go out and steal three firetrucks. The fact that you build up to heists adds a great sense of anticipation and, when the heist begins, you really hope your careful planning means it will play out smoothly. Depending on the choices you make, your heists can go very differently compared to other players.
The missions and numerous side missions in GTA V are all great fun and well thought out, but there’s also great fun to be had in just going off the beaten track and exploring San Andreas for yourself. I spent hours just cruising the streets of Los Santos at night listening to the radio, which includes stations that specialise in everything from country to punk. I must have spent thousands of virtual calories as chubby, middle aged Michael when I jumped on a mountain bike and cycled across country and all the way up Mount Chilliad.
The game also features many satirical swipes at modern life from billboards featuring an up and coming model named Anna Rex, the new smart phone everyone’s buying called the iFruit, or the social networking site called Lifeinvader. These jokes are cleverly worked into the game and I never felt as though I was being preached at.
Most of the time, GTA V has a tongue-in-cheek approach to things, but I think it’s worth pointing out that there were the occasional moments where things got darker and grittier than any of the previous installments. Personally, I thought Rockstar pulled these moments off by tackling them with maturity and it is a reminder that these dark themes are still a part of western society, as much as we might like to ignore them. I’m sure there are some players who might feel it’s a stretch too far and perhaps Rockstar should have given you the option to skip that part, much like the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2.
GTA V is not only the best installment in the series but it’s also one of the best games ever made. Is it perfect? Of course not, nothing is, but it’s amazing to see a game reach so high and succeed in almost every way. As I mentioned earlier, you may notice the occasional bit of pop in or a glitch here and there, but the fact is you’ll be having too much fun to care.
GTA V offers you an early glimpse at what next-gen gaming will be like and they do it all on old hardware. It gives you the chance to jump in to one of the most immersive virtual worlds ever created. Despite not having played the multiplayer, I feel I can easily give this game a perfect 10/10. Even if Rockstar had no plans to release a multiplayer mode, the single player of GTA V is worth every penny. So what are you waiting for? San Andreas awaits!