Ah, Grand Theft Auto. So much to say about such an influential and important series. For years the franchise has been known as the hard edge in gaming, the baddest kid on the block, and it’s defined the way sandbox games work on many levels. So many years along, so many entries in, can GTAV live up to what came before? The answer: probably not.
Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360, PS3)
Developed by Rockstar North – Published by Rockstar Games
GTAV hits the ground running. We open in a snowy midwest town near the Canadian border as three bank robbers are taking their score. The player is quickly introduced to switching between three characters mid-combat, and how to use their special abilities. After a short battle with the police the thieves speed away in their getaway car, losing the driver on the way. After an exciting chase sequence the three friends crash near some buildings and are ambushed by snipers. Two of them are hit, but one manages to run into a field and escape. Then we skip ahead 9 years.
This marks the beginning of the downward slope in the quality of Grand Theft Auto V. The exciting, tense intro is easily the best part of the game, and is so much better it seems like it ought to be in a completely different game. From that exciting 3-person combat we’re restricted to the role of Franklin, a character who had nothing to do with the intro and who doesn’t meet up with another main character for about an hour of gameplay, if you’re just going for the story. Playing as Franklin is perhaps the hardest part of the game. During missions he’s one of the best, as his ability is bullet time for cars, making turning and gaining speed a piece of cake. The dialogue makes it painfully obvious, however, that the writers at Rockstar North at best know nothing about African Americans and at worst are terribly racist(I lean towards the latter, and I’ll explain why later). It’s worth noting that the gang antagonizing Franklin and his friends are “The Ballas.” Because of course they call themselves that.
Eventually you finally get a reprieve from the n-word when Franklin meets Michael, one of the robbers shot in the intro. He’s into some shady stuff with the FIB(do you get it guys, it’s like the FBI but we switched two of the letters and it’s fib like lying DO YOU GET IT SATIRE SO CLEVER), his family hates him, he hates his family, and it’s really unclear why. During the tennis minigame, which is better than the actual main game, Mike’s wife says “You almost remind me of the man I married.” if you do well. So he’s changed in his old age for the worse, becoming cynical, bitter, and unapproachable. Actually no, that’s what you’d think is implied from that line, but in reality the opposite is true. He used to be a bank robber and murderer, he was infamous all over the country. The FIB agent who helped him fake his death was a hero for his actions, Michael being dead was a huge deal. Nearly a decade later he lives comfortably with his family in a big house, with nice cars and expensive things. His kids are ungrateful, his wife cheats on him, and they all seem to agree he is horrible. Why they hate a man who has left a life of crime to be with them in a safe environment is never explained, but they never stop whining about it. This becomes almost as painful to listen to as the racist caricatures you hang around with as Franklin. Every time you help one of them out of trouble they complain about it and go on about how you’re insane. This is all before you start committing crimes again.
Once you do you get introduced to the third playable character, the robber who escaped at the beginning. Trevor Phillips. Trevor is a completely unlikeable and uninteresting character, just like all the rest. He is more embracing of brutality, but essentially the same. He hangs out with a bunch of cartoon rednecks and within moments of being introduced he just starts to kill everyone. There is no pretense here, Rockstar didn’t even try to come up with a justification. The reason he is violent is because he feels like it, and no reason is ever given for why he is the way he is. He could have easily been built up as the sympathetic character, the one who really understands the life these men live and has been broken by it, reveling in it rather than suffering. None of this is done, however. There was so much potential for an interesting reflection between the characters, and even growth, but this is passed on in favor of bad homophobic and sexist jokes. There are a few endearing moments, but none of it really adds up to anything. His backstory is never expanded on, his motivations are simply “because he’s crazy,” and he adds very little to the narrative.
The relationship between Michael and Trevor is almost interesting, and probably the most well-written part of the game. The truth of what went down during that botched heist 9 years ago is exciting, and produces some great tension, but is abruptly broken when a bunch of Chinese guys show up calling you boyfriends. After the dust settles the rest of the game basically consists of Trevor talking about how he doesn’t trust Mike, Mike not really saying anything, and Franklin telling them to shut up(which they never do). Besides bickering like children you can expect overuse of the words “homie” and “cocksucker.” Even random drivers you pass will shout “cocksucker!” at you with no provocation. The main 3 guys all seem to have a habit of calling things “fruity” too. Any illusion of effort in the dialogue is quickly broken once anyone starts talking.
One of the biggest problems is that there is no antagonist, and no real motivation. At various points the characters get everything they want, and choose to make things worse for themselves for absolutely no reason. There is a large cast of characters who make you go do stuff for them, all of which are roughly the same: violent and narcissistic. They’re also completely forgettable. There is no depth to them at all, you could easily swap them out for anyone else and the experience would not change. When you finally take them all out and the game concludes, things simply feel hollow. Nobody learned anything and very little has changed besides the counter for your cash.
As is usual in this kind of game there is a ton of non-essential stuff for you to do. Tennis is fun, but golf is, well, golf. If you don’t really like golf games you won’t be turned by GTA. There’s a therapist Michael can go to, but after the mandatory cutscenes with him you’ve experienced all there is to experience about that character. He says nothing, nods, takes a lot of money, and cuts you short when you start to figure something out. He’s greedy and unhelpful, and that’s the joke. There’s seriously nothing else to that part of the game, yet you have the option of going in for more. The strip clubs have already become infamous for their promotion of groping strippers, suggesting that doing so will get them to sleep with you. Later on you get to do a border patrol side game where you hunt down immigrants who, in at least one case, are stated to have come to the country completely legally. You taze them repeatedly and round them up for some redneck and his foreign friend(who I think is speaking Russian?) and that’s kind of it. Trevor will remark that they’re crazy, but he goes along with it anyways.
Women are an absolute joke in the game. There’s the aforementioned strip club stuff, where strippers are depicted as enjoying strangers invasive grabbing them to the point of having sex with them, of course. One of the random radio interviews is with a congresswoman who states that she found her new calling in public office after “I divorced my husband and took all of his money.” Both callers and the announcer are condescending and make her out to be a villain. Franklin’s aunt and her friends are supposedly feminists, marching down the street chanting “we are women, we are proud, we are women, hear our shout” in very silly, over-the-top voices, and practicing some sort of strange uterus yoga that basically involves them moaning in pleasure on the floor. Men and women alike in the game call them “crazy,” and there’s no voice stating otherwise. A woman Trevor kidnaps falls in love with him almost immediately, calling him even after being let go, wishing they could be together. It’s almost like Rockstar is saying women are happy to be manhandled and forced into submission(hint: it’s not almost, that’s just what they’re saying). Finally, during a group therapy session, Micheal shoves his crotch in his wife’s face and shouts “Why don’t you suck my dick!?”
Aside from all this troubling content, the game is just downright boring. Most missions feel like they’re stalling, padding out the length of the game while nothing narratively significant happens. A few of the heists are fun, but most of them are quite unremarkable. Most don’t involve all 3 characters, don’t let you switch between all 3 for more than a minute, only let you choose from 2 preset plans, and are over in minutes. Most of a heist is going around collecting getaway vehicles and supplies you’ll need, then trying to outrun the cops. Speaking of which, the new police evasion system is basically like terrible Metal Gear. Once you get really far away from the cops they lose sight of you, but keep searching for a while. At this point you have to hide from cars, helicopters, and guys on the ground as their vision cones sweep the area. If you kill anyone, even with a silenced weapon, they know where you are. If one sees you, you’ll have to speed off to the other side of that area of the city to try evading them again. If you’re in a helicopter escape is pretty much impossible, as the police helicopters will spawn too close for you to escape, and you’ll find yourself exploding very quickly. Not that you’d want to fly a helicopter, the controls are even worse than before, precision being a feat of biblical proportions.
There is definitely good to be had, though. The driving and shooting controls are vastly improved. As Franklin especially, it’s not nearly as hard to have a high speed chase. It’s not as easy as it could be, but the level of challenge involved is just right, making things a little more exciting. The lock-on system doesn’t really make any sense anymore, but most of the gunfights are fast and fun. There are several weapon types, most with a few attachments and 3 color options. They all feel different and fit well into different situations. Most glitches are minor, with only one major bug impeding my progress until I reloaded my save. One glitch was particularly amusing, as Mike’s son would spawn inside him every time he got in or out of a vehicle. Despite being on 360, the game can be downright gorgeous. If you get too close to anything it looks like garbage, but when looking out on any part of the game, things really are beautiful.
The bottom line is that GTAV fails to be satire. It parodies, it imitates, but it never criticizes. It points out the hypocrisy of Americans, the sexism and homophobia of so many men, the brutality of torture, and then goes nowhere. Nothing is ever condemned or called out. These prejudices and behaviors are presented at face value with absolutely no commentary about reality, simply glorifying and making a joke out of it. Wheras past Rockstar titles have succeeded in creating a conflicted, regretful, hesitant antihero, GTAV throws 3 whining, depraved, homicidal maniacs at you and hopes you mistake something as clever. I’ll be honest, there’s nothing clever about it. The open-world crime game genre has gone in two directions. Saints Row has the silliness covered perfectly, and GTA was supposed to be the serious counterpart, a companion experience that tells a deeply human story. Instead Rockstar has pumped out a product as fake, plastic, and shallow as the celebrities it claims to criticize.