The profusion of new-gen remasters and ports has changed the gaming conversation. ‘What did they add?’ ‘What’s different in this one?’ I’ve fielded these and similar questions about Grand Theft Auto V on PS4 in the last couple weeks, and I’ve always found my answer to be insufficient. That’s because first-person mode, the most obvious change to one of PS3’s greatest games, changes the game in ways that words inadequately describe. I’ll do my best in this review, but suffice it to say Grand Theft Auto V is the best PS4 game yet and deserves the highest recommendation for San Andreas veterans and newcomers alike.
That Grand Theft Auto V begins in first-person mode, as if its iconic opening heist was always designed for that perspective, is a testament to its implementation. The first-person perspective is smoothly implemented at every operational level of the game. Textures and animations support close-ups on NPCs and small environmental details, most or all of which have seen visual upgrades to accommodate the perspective. The weightiness we’ve come to expect from modern Grand Theft Auto games translates perfectly; Michael, Franklin, and Trevor can’t pivot on a dime, but there’s enough acrobatic mobility to make each character effective, not cumbersome, in a frantic firefight. The small details immersed me completely. As my perspective bobbed, rolled, and soared with my character, an intense involvement produced all kinds of feelings unique to the franchise. I felt anxious as I sprinted into an alley to evade the cops—it was only a three-star pursuit, but without a pulled-out camera, I had to look up, down, and around to find an exit or a wall low enough to climb. Climbing those walls and hopping down from raised heights, my view inverted with Michael’s shock-absorbing roll, disorienting me and ratcheting the intensity of the chase.
When you can’t move and act with omnipotent knowledge and grace, every action is more meaningful. The results are less predictable. Your awareness, critical thinking, and reflexes are tested with greater vigor. The city, and your presence in it, feel more alive and dangerous.
The perspective also made my actions more affecting. I cringed reflexively at my first gas station robbery—I was role-playing the hardened criminal, killing the cashier who might report my face to the police. For several seconds, I couldn’t shoot. It took genuine willpower to remind myself this was only a game—that my shooting doesn’t say I endorse or am capable of the same behavior in the real world. Finally I shot (perhaps to confirm my defense), and it was only the sound of police sirens that snapped me out of my reflection.
Another moment stands out to me as a perfect example of how emotionally involved the first-person experience can be. While racing through Los Santos, I collided head-on with another vehicle. Experienced Grand Theft Auto players will know what tends to happen next: Michael was flung through the car’s windshield and flew across an intersection before colliding, face-first, with pavement and tumbling to a stop. The whole experience, seen through Michael’s eyes and exactly matching his body’s ragdoll physics, closely resembled the time I broke my wrist snowboarding. A horizontal flight where all you can see is ground approaching, the helpless eternity you spend watching ground that doesn’t seem to get any closer until it suddenly breaks you, the confused frenzy of images you can’t begin to make sense of until the tumbling stops… I have flown through the air, and Grand Theft Auto V took me back to that moment.
What it gets right about first-person immersion shines a light on a physical element missing in just about every first-person shooter on the market. Few dare to follow a head’s natural movement exactly. To be fair, neither does Grand Theft Auto V, but it dares to go closer than every game before it. Rockstar recognized the kinds of minute head and eye movements that would absolutely induce sickness or discomfort and steered well clear. There’s plenty that remains, and the result is gameplay that feels experimental and successful, but never uncomfortable in the way head-tracking could.
For those who do find discomfort in any aspect of the experience, customization options abound and are seriously impressive against the industry’s typically half-hearted settings menus. You can switch between first- and third-person views at any time or set permanent options for gameplay on-foot and in vehicles. You can change the amount of head bob, the width of your field of view, whether the camera automatically settles to center, and so much more. Rockstar clearly believes in its vision for the franchise—you don’t craft thousands of animations, upgrade your visuals, and start the game in first-person unless you’re proud of its effects. But pride doesn’t overrule preference. The player’s control over perspective is seriously impressive and allows the correction of deficiencies where the player sees them. For me, the increased difficulty of driving in first-person wasn’t worth the immersion, so I opted to set that part of gameplay to third-person mode by default. Other quirks, like the truly erratic first-person view on motorcycles and some car interiors being better modeled than others, cemented my decision. But after just a few hours adjusting to the new intensity and engagement of first-person on foot, I couldn’t go back. Third-person gunplay felt soft, diluted, and unwieldy. In first-person, I could command the character’s momentum, not follow it.
There are trade-offs inherent to the perspective change; one simply can’t possess the same 360-degree awareness with the same amount of work in first-person as in third-person. For this reason, it’s not an overstatement to say first-person mode changes the game. Grand Theft Auto V in first-person feels like a different game entirely, tapping different skillsets and evoking emotions the series has only tangentially touched in the past. We’re going to see Grand Theft Auto, as a video game series and cultural touchstone, grow in exciting ways from the revelations this camera’s debut offers. The biggest revelation? It works extremely well, heightening realism and amplifying fun for a series that has always strived (but not always succeeded) at finding the perfect balance between the two.
I’ve avoided talking about other elements of Grand Theft Auto V’s move to PS4 because first-person mode is far and away the most important. That’s not to say other improvements don’t make obvious marks. The visual upgrade, most noticeable in nighttime reflections, character faces, and supremely dense foliage, doesn’t put Grand Theft Auto V on par with this generation’s best-looking titles, but it’s easily the greatest technical achievement. It’s nothing short of epic that a world so large and full of life can look this good at 1080p and run with an ever-smooth framerate. Loading times for missions and cutscenes have shortened to become almost unnoticeable, and it takes far less time to switch between characters. Moving in and out of online sessions can still bear frustrating delays, but things have improved over PS3’s GTA Online, while boasting a higher player count of 30 and better-looking world to boot.
GTA Online’s launch state on PS4 is a more impressive showing than 2013’s release. With an overhauled creation menu, it’s easier than ever to navigate around Rockstar’s still-perplexing ancestry system and make the character you want to make. All the content released in the last year, including weapons, jobs, and vehicles, is on the disk and ready to use. New player-created jobs, verified by Rockstar, are populating the world alongside a few official jobs catering to 30 players. My online experience has been free of the stability issues Rockstar is currently addressing; unfortunately, calling Grand Theft Auto V’s PS4 release a relative success reflects poorly on 2014’s other blockbuster offerings.
As for the game proper, there’s little need to elaborate on the points I made in my original PS3 review. Grand Theft Auto V’s story, world, and characters are the best the series has yet seen, delivering on-point satire and riveting character drama in equal measure. Driving is polished and tight, a massive improvement over Grand Theft Auto IV’s boats on slippery wheels, but physics has enough impact for spectacularly fun wrecks on occasion. The soundtrack’s contemporary songs are just a bit dated a year out from first release, but new tunes keep things interesting for veteran players. That said, Grand Theft Auto V’s license soundtrack is still its weakest element in comparison to other series entries. The overwhelming abundance of rap and hip-hop tracks is a thematic fit but offers little variety for other musical tastes. The original score, kicking in with pulsing rhythms and dark synth at exactly the right times, is still excellent.
Small content additions like peyote-fueled out-of-body experiences and a smattering of new weapons and vehicles don’t notably impact the core experience. But whether you’ve played Grand Theft Auto V before or have yet to experience Rockstar’s masterpiece contribution to video game history, the San Andreas saga on PS4 is a must-play. Dive as deep as you like into first-person mode, incorporating its immersive surprises in ways that work for your comfort and preference. More than likely, you’ll love how it intensifies action at every level of play. If not, you’ll have one of the greatest games ever made to fall back on.