Yet, it’s also a game built on small, personal moments. Every player’s experience will be different, and every player will have their own stories to tell.
With this in mind we have decided to take a slightly different approach with our review. Daniel New and Callum Rymer will discuss their opinions and experiences of the game. In this first part we discuss our initial thoughts on the game’s opening hours.
This article contains spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Daniel: My immediate response in starting the game was surprise at the cheeky opening. For a game that dangles the carrot of freedom, scope and variety, I thought the low-key beginning was an interesting move. The player is obviously chomping at the bit to explore Los Santos, so the restraint displayed by RockStar in throwing you into a small town getaway was commendable. I appreciated that the opening scene provided some narrative context and a way to master the mechanics in a controlled environment. It was essentially a tutorial, but it didn’t feel overbearing. I was reminded of Fargo, and its bleak ending ensured that my eventual arrival in Los Santos had impact.
Callum: I must second the great restraint from Rockstar with this opening, as well as the cinematic silhouettes of what must have inspired it. However – and it pains me to say it – in terms of execution I felt the vault-robbing affair was itself robbed of some impact due to having no clue as to who these criminals were and why I should care if they escaped. That sterility when combined with the empty and senseless massacre of an entire police force resonated less a gleeful adrenalin rush and more a feeling of being underwhelmed.
Compared to other openings this year that have left us aghast and clamouring to deep throat the narrative carrot (Tomb Raider and Ni No Kuni in particular) Grand Theft Auto V‘s rather barren and low-key prelude failed to excite me as its predecessors had done. Hence it set alarm bells ringing and dare I say it doubt over whether the title could possibly live up to the hype.
In any case I was wholeheartedly, absolutely, totally, completely, unequivocally and without a shadow of a doubt wrong to have even let the thought enter my head. After a brief introduction to Michael, the first taste of Los Santos as Franklin and Lamar race back to repo-renegade Simeon was a salute to the player that flawlessly contrasted with the subdued colour palette of the prior twenty minutes. A contrast that glimmered with the endless possibilities that were about to ensue. That excitement had resurfaced and I just couldn’t wait…to get my hair cut.
Daniel: It’s interesting that you mention the lack of identity and motivation in the opening scene as I feel that extends to the characters as a whole. Certainly in the opening few hours I was given little reason as to why Franklin and Michael are criminals. Rather than being motivated by circumstance or ambition in the way Niko Belic was in Grand Theft Auto IV, their impetus to wreak havoc seems a somewhat brittle, almost hokey. It doesn’t feel as though crime is a last resort for these characters, it’s just a way of earning a few bucks as you might with a paper round.
Of course, Rockstar’s efforts in creating a interesting characters pales in comparison to their ability to create a character in the city of Los Santos. Once control is handed back to the player there is an almost overwhelming sense of freedom. While you were getting a haircut, my first instinct was to make a mad dash for the hills to get a view of the city. From a technical point of view it certainly feels like a step up from its predecessor. The level of detail, particularly over distance, is very impressive, and the colour and vibrancy of the world is a welcome contrast to the usual swathe of grey and brown in modern video games. Also, you can tangibly feel the influence of other games in Rockstar’s portfolio in the tighter controls, both behind the wheel, and on foot.
Callum: Before release my initial plan was to go on an epic orienteering exercise to get to grips with a detailed environment, the scale of which we have never seen. Interestingly enough I was so entranced by the characters of Michael and Franklin that I never left down town Los Santos in those first hours. Rockstar presented me with cake, and I chose not to eat it. Despite the banality of the early missions (similar to Grand Theft Auto IV’s bowling hook up) my contentment in helping out crack head Tonya by towing vehicles for her equally cranked boyfriend was unprecedented, after I had obtained that sharp new haircut and designer stubble.
As you mention, the game-play mechanics have been honed and tightened to match Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3. Vehicle handling is more reminiscent of Midnight Club than IV’s boat-like proceedings. What I love about these changes is that Rockstar has the utmost respect for its players. Shooting controls can be altered in the menu from the free aim of Red Dead to the traditional auto aiming of GTA’s PS2 era. Initially I was critical of Grand Theft Auto V’s combat system. In some missions enemies appear in huge waves, and their intelligence along with enforced wall cover reminded me of the insta-deaths I frequently incurred playing Uncharted (not fond memories at all). By giving the player such a wide range of control in how they interact with their characters, Rockstar manages to attract casual gamers and hardened TPS players alike whilst simultaneously managing to balance the difficulty level, which is no easy feat.
The fact that missions can often be approached in multiple ways and finally have a checkpoint system in place furthers the game’s appeal and fluidity, because we are no longer punished for deviating from precision driving and ridiculously timed pursuits that instantly ended in failure if you so much as grazed the indestructible foliage.
Daniel: I can see we are going have differing opinions on this game. I wasn’t entranced at all by the characters, but I certainly did enjoy the missions, and again, appreciate the restraint with which they were issued. Towing vehicles doesn’t sound like fun, but these missions subtly teach you the lay of the land and core mechanics before the real fun begins.
These slower paced introductory missions allow you to savour the details in the world,whether it’s hearing the buzz of flies as you walk past bins in an alley or witnessing the interactions of passers-by. If you stand still for 5 minutes and just watch the world unfold around you, it’s startling.
On the subject of mechanical improvements, I agree that the check-pointing system is most welcome, as is the character swapping feature. It streamlined the experience by allowing you to do something and then just swap characters and get on with doing something else. And whatever my concerns about the narrative, these improvements in pacing the game really shine, trimming the usual fat of the series.
I have also been impressed with the audio design. The aural landscape is as wonderful as usual, with amazing ambient sounds effects and dialogue, but I was most impressed with the score, it’s a first for the series and has been seamlessly integrated, drifting in and out and changing according to the on screen action.
Callum: Grand Theft Auto V is easily the best paced of the series, and whilst the mood fluctuates more than I would like in relation to the hypocritical actions of the characters, the dialogue remains fresh, vivid and memorable in its delivery. My first impressions of Trevor were not positive. To me his persona appears to have been ripped entirely from Jack Nicholson a la The Shining, but there is depth there that cultivates more than just being a caricature or simulacrum of hodge-podge stereotypes. At this point of play I now adore Trevor’s highly sexual and violently laced utterances.
Rockstar may not have elevated their writing to Breaking Bad, The Wire or The Sopranos levels of wit and ingenuity, but emulating such character designs reaps its own rewards in terms satirizing what critics praise as the pinnacles of entertainment. Most welcome with these multiple-faceted characters are the transition animations that occur between switching. Immersion is certainly heightened when Trevor is throwing motorcycle gang members off bridges, or Michael is musing life in an isolated park in your absence.
As you’ve identified, the technicalities of the game design more than make up for its shortcomings. The visuals are striking from the litter strewn ghetto’s to the immaculate Vinewood Hill mansions. In terms of depth Grand Theft Auto V is a natural evolution of San Andreas. I found that whether its managing personal properties, befriending strippers, losing ridiculous amounts of money on the stock-market or simply playing tennis presented an amount of options that contribute to a world more living and vibrant than anything we’ve previously seen.
However I must disagree with critics who have stated that several of these elements would make stand alone games. Whilst Tennis and Golf are nice contrasts to the hyper-violent petrol station raids and the thieving of submersibles, they just fall short of a level of game-play depth that would make repeated visits worthwhile. By presenting such a large amount of possibilities, the level of execution was always going to fall short of expectations from gamers, and I feel Rockstar has ever so slightly spread itself too thin. In any case the inclusion of these elements will induce a hype for future instalments that will surpass anything we’re currently witnessing.