[Review] Grand Theft Auto 5

ESRB:M
ONLINE:Yes [Online Available October 1st]
INSTALL:Yes [Mandatory - 8GB]
RELEASE DATE:September 17, 2013
PLATFORM:Playstation 3, Xbox 360
PUBLISHER:Rockstar Games
DEVELOPER:Rockstar North
ONLINE PASS:No

I’d like to preface this by first saying thank you to Rockstar for providing me with a copy of the game.

One other note: This review is based on the Playstation 3, North American version of the game.

Story

Grand The Auto 5‘s story follows 3 new protagonists: Michael De Santa – a middle-aged, retired bank robber who wants to lead a “normal” life, but is forced back into the life when things go south for him. Franklin Clinton – a gangbanger who doesn’t really want to be a gangbanger, and would rather try and make something of himself who’s currently working as a repo man for a somewhat shady car salesman, with his friend Lamar. Finally, there’s Trevor Phillips – Michael’s former partner, who’s now an angry, meth-dealing, cranked out psychopath.

It starts out 9 years earlier, during the year of 2004, in the small town of Ludendorff, in the fictional state of North Yankton. Trevor, Michael and another accomplice named Brad are robbing a local bank. Things turn a bit south during the getaway, and it leaves Brad and Michael wounded, with Trevor being forced to fight his way away from the police, leaving his friends for dead.

Skip ahead a little while – a few weeks at least – and a funeral service is being held for Michael. However..Michael is also in attendance, unbeknownst to everyone else.

There’s definitely something up. What that is, you don’t find out until later in the game.

The main game picks up 9 years later, in 2013 – Michael is clearly still alive, and he seems to be living the “good life” – at least, as good as a somewhat sociopathic, retired bank robber can have. He’s living in a big house, with his family [Who, frankly, sucks], and he’s miserable – he’s in therapy for crying out loud.

We come in on Michael during one of his therapy sessions, where we’re given a little insight on his current life. Later, Michael is walking along the beach and takes a seat on a bench as two guys pass by – Franklin Clinton, and his friend Lamar Davis. On their way to repossess a couple of cars, Lamar stops to ask Michael where the house the cars are at is located.

It’s here that the game kicks in full swing, and you take control of Franklin as you choose one of the cars, and race Lamar through the streets of the re-imagined city of Los Santos.

The story itself is very well done. A return to form for Rockstar in the truest sense of the phrase. No longer an overly melodramatic, depressing story – Grand Theft Auto 5 has gone back to what made people fall in love with the original 3D trilogy.

It doesn’t take itself seriously at every turn – the characters have drug trips that have them fighting aliens and clowns. You destroy real estate signs for a rival realtor. Assassinate people to drive the stock market. You can even join a whacked out cult religion!

It’s well written – and plays out like the heist/crime dramas of the late 80’s/90’s. All of the characters are likeable – even the one’s you’re meant to hate. Even psychotic Trevor, in his own…special way.

There are also multiple outcomes to different missions, depending on how you approached them – as well as multiple endings that are actually very different.

It’s a massive improvement over GTA4. Rockstar have brought back the “fun” into the series – and I don’t think they could have done a better job.

Presentation

Top notch.

The game looks amazing. I don’t know what Rockstar did to the RAGE engine between GTA4 and Max Payne 3 – but I absolutely love it.

The amount of detail in the city of Los Santos and the surrounding countryside is phenomenal. Unlike San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto 5‘s rendition of this area is full of life. Deer, Elk, Cougars, Sharks, Coyotes, people – even Bigfoot – populate the world. Pedestrians all seem to have their own lives – you’ll see them taking Vinewood Star Tours, stopping to take photos of car accidents or scenic views with their cameras/phones – you’ll even see random cop chases from time to time.

There are a few issues that I encountered – some pop-in here and there, a little bit of slowdown at times, and a freeze or two [Most notable was a freeze that occurred when trying to start a mission with Trevor – after a line of dialogue from Josh [The mission giver], both characters just froze in place. The world kept moving, but they were stuck. It forced a reset, and everything worked fine after that.] – but none of it really detracted from the overall experience.

Given the scale of this game’s map – this is quite impressive. It’s a huge world. I definitely believe what Rockstar said before release – that Los Santos/Blaine County are bigger than San Andreas, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption combined.

The amount of time it took me to get from one side of Los Santos to the other, just the city area, was about as long as it took me to cross from Los Santos to Las Venturas in San Andreas. I don’t know the exact size of the map – but it’s definitely big, and not just on the land side of things. The oceans are deep, and the sky is quite high.

Getting in a plane and flying above the clouds and looking down at the city is a sight to behold.

Gameplay

This is where the game truly shines. Almost everything has been refined and polished to a mirror sheen. Rockstar have essentially taken the knowledge they’ve gained from all of their various franchises, and combined it here.

The gunplay is great – it’s akin to Max Payne 3. You can pull the left trigger [L2/LT] fully for a soft lock, which you can switch targets with a flick of the right stick in the direction of the desired enemy, or you can pull it slightly for Free Aiming.

Gone is the health indicator when aiming at an enemy. Instead, enemy deaths are signified by a screen flash and the reticule changing to a small “X” for a brief time. They don’t take many bullets to kill – and neither do you.

The driving physics are quite possibly the best in the series. Cars actually feel good – even the crappy cars drive pretty well. No longer do you feel like you’re driving a car with dead worms for tires. They have grip. They have weight and heft.

This could be a Midnight Club entry.

Vehicle customization makes a return to the series as well – Engine, Transmission, Brakes, Suspension, Body, Paint, Armor, even the color of your tire smoke can all be customized. Oddly, though, there are no nitrous upgrades – which made me a little sad. Also, not all cars can take all upgrades – some don’t have any body mods, others can’t be customized at all.

All of the upgrades actually make a difference – change your brakes and your car will stop faster. Upgrade the transmission and it’ll go through the gears quicker, getting you to top speed faster. Slap on a Turbo, and the car will have more power [You’ll also notice a change in the sound of the engine – you can hear the air intake and release]. It’s pretty in-depth. Not Gran Turismo levels or anything, but pretty deep for a game of this style.

There’s also plenty to do in this rendition of Los Santos. Even out in the sticks – there’s something for you to do. Races, Yoga, Golf, Tennis, B.A.S.E. Jumping, Collectables, missions – there’s a TON of content here.

I also really like the abilities each of the characters have. Michael can enable “bullet-time”, a-la Max Payne, to slow down time and make aiming easier. Franklin is the driver – he’s able to slow down time a little and offer more control over any vehicle you’re driving. It comes in handy when trying to weave in and out of traffic, or nail a tight corner. Trevor, finally, is able to go berserk – while active, he deals double damage with any weapons, and takes half damage from enemies.

These abilities are activated by clicking in both the left and right stick. It’s represented by a new, yellow bar on the HUD, located next to your normal Health and Armor meters. It refills gradually over time, and you can refill it quicker by doing specific things for each character – like getting headshots with Michael, or driving clean with Franklin.

They’re a nice touch, and definitely come in handy.

However – for everything Grand Theft Auto 5 gets right – there are some places where the series just hasn’t evolved. These are gripes I’ve had with the series since GTA3, and they haven’t been touched much since then.

Sprinting, for example, still requires you to repeatedly tap the “Cross”/”A” button to run, and hold it for a slight jog. It just feels archaic – especially in light of other, more recent games – both inside and outside of the genre – that allow you to have a full sprint by just holding a single button.

Tapping a button doesn’t exactly make me feel more engaged in the character’s action – it just makes my thumb start to hurt after a while.

Vehicle saving is another area that slightly annoys me in this series. It always feels disjointed when they break the rules of reality everywhere else – but a car that I just dropped $200K on isn’t automatically stored somewhere for me. This is where I always preferred Saints Row – you could store your vehicles in one garage, and have access to them at any other garage [Or at the customization shop], and any car that you customized was automatically added to your inventory [Up to 64 across all garages].

In Grand Theft Auto – cars are only saved for you if you purchase them, or if you store them, physically, in a garage. And even then, it’s a bit busted – cars might not stay in the garage.

I do appreciate that each character in Grand Theft Auto 5 has their own, personal garage that they can store up to 4 vehicles in, and that each character has their own unique vehicle that never disappears – I just wish the rest of the vehicles you can obtain could be stored more easily.

I also wish you could listen to the stellar selection of music outside of vehicles. After all – it’s 2013 and each of the characters has a smartphone of some kind – why can’t I tune into music stations from there? [Yes, I was a little spoiled by Saints Row IV having this feature.]

I was also a little sad that there was no custom soundtrack option [On PS3] – playing your own music or even setting up a custom playlist from in-game songs. I can forgive not being able to you my own music – the soundtrack is brilliantly selected this go around. I do wish I could create a personal mix of songs, though.

These gripes aside, the game plays amazingly. The controls are responsive, the gunplay is satisfying, the driving is fun, flying planes and helicopters is challenging [You have to deal with random bursts of wind knocking you off course a bit], and we finally have a cover system that works easily.

It’s honestly just a great, fun game to play.

Replay Value

Extremely, extremely high.

As I mentioned before – there is a ton to do in the world. All of the activities are very well made. Races take place all over the city – in cars, planes, boats/jetskis, and offroad. You can take place in Triathalons, play golf and tennis – both of which are legitimately scored – go B.A.S.E. jumping/Parachuting, search for collectable scattered throughout the world [parts of a submarine that was destroyed, fallen spaceship parts, scraps of a letter that reveals the secrets of a murder 40 years ago, among other things], you can even do Yoga – which is handled with onscreen controller prompts to move the sticks to certain positions, then hold the triggers to breathe in, and release them to breathe out.

Everything is very well made – and all of the activities feel like they could even be their own games. It’s quite a feat.

I am a little sad that arcade games made no return. There also seems to be an absence of Pool.

There are also various missions you can take part in – take fares in a taxi, take Bounties as Trevor [Replacing the Vigilante missions of past games], buy and sell stocks in a realistic stock market, watch full fledged short films in various theaters, go Hunting Elk with Trevor – and a lot more that I can’t quite remember at this moment.

This game will last. The campaign took about 30-40 hours to complete – including most of the Strangers & Freaks missions. That’s NOT including the time it’ll take to Gold most of those missions and pastimes.

For the Trophy/Achievement Hunters – this is going to be a lengthy one – just like GTA4 – although not QUITE as difficult [In the single player anyway].

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your outlook – Grand Theft Auto Online won’t be available until October 1st. I have to say I’m excited for it, and I’m not usually excited for multiplayer of any kind [Unless it’s Metal Gear.]

The Verdict

If you haven’t figured it out by now – I definitely feel this game is worth purchasing. If you were on the fence because of GTA4 – get off of it. This is a massive improvement over the last game – it’s gone back to the series roots of good humor and flat out fun gameplay.

Is the game worth all of the perfect scores? I can’t tell you that. I don’t feel it is – but then I don’t feel anything deserves a perfect score – I don’t feel scores do any justice to anything – but the game is certainly worth lightening your wallet just a bit.

Game of the Year? I can’t say – but it’s certainly a contender, even on my list.

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PROS CONS
  • Huge, open world with a lot to see and do.
  • Solid gunplay and controls.
  • Vehicles no longer feel like boats skating on Crisco.
  • Expected glitches that mar the overall experience - clipping issues, AI problems, etc.
  • Cops aren't quite as "fun" as they used to be.
  • FINAL VERDICT
    Click here or on the verdict image to the left for full disclosure of what these ratings mean!

    About James Headrick

    James is an aspiring game reviewer that plays primarily on the Playstation 3 & 4. He also works freelance as a graphic designer, doing print and branding based design.
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