Grand Theft Auto V Review: A stunning triumph, one of the greatest games ever made

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is a masterpiece–a sprawling odyssey with memorable characters, enthralling gameplay, and landmark technical achievement. In many ways, it’s not unlike its 2004 predecessor (and my former favorite series entry) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But the Los Santos and Rockstar Games of today are very different beasts than they were nine years ago. The visual and mechanical realism that started with 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV has been tweaked, polished, and iterated upon through Rockstar’s current-gen efforts. Here, it’s finally perfected. Shooting is tight and customizable, movement is organic, mission structures allow for unscripted chaos, and cross-country hi-jinks can be just as rewarding as the enthralling story of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin. A series this iconic should be stumbling under the weight of its own cultural importance by now. Instead, Grand Theft Auto V lampoons modern society with a healthy dose of hypocrisy and asks tough (often, self-aware) questions of its audience. What fuels our obsessions with wealth, power, and status? How do vapid notions of social networks and virtual personalities drive an emotional wedge between friends and family?

Who’s more at fault: the sociopathic ex-criminal who robs to provide for his family, the murderous hillbilly with surprising nobility, or the ambitious hustler who wants to free himself from hood chains with skills that keep pulling him back? What does it say about me, the player, that I care so much about these lives and have so much fun wreaking havoc in their world?

There’s a little part of each of us in Grand Theft Auto V’s eclectic cast of characters. Indeed, the game as a whole reflects the diverse expectations saddled by consumers onto blockbuster games, and this franchise in particular. Yet, on every possible front, Grand Theft Auto V delivers. The gargantuan world of Los Santos and Blaine County’s countryside is realized with stunning detail, rich settings, a true sense of place, and an incomprehensible amount of things to do. The main story, side missions, and random encounters offer thrilling spectacle and meaningful monotony in equal measure. In-game currency is broadly useful and (for a great while) not easy to come by. A multitude of branching paths with radical gameplay differences–not to mention potential consequences for your cash earnings–make every decision feel like the most important one yet.The playable cast has the most well-realized characters I’ve encountered in a game, with personalities that peel back in layers of deepening resonance and complexity. For these, credit the layered voice and motion capture performances, among the best yet seen in the medium.

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There’s something overwhelmingly magnetic about Michael, Trevor, Franklin, and the ever-shifting relationships that tie them together. The ability to switch between all three, almost at will, rounds out their stories in ways that cutscenes cannot and gives player-driven context to scenes when two or all of them are united. When Michael exhibits fatherly love for Franklin during a heist, it’s made more powerful for the times when the failings of Michael’s real son caused inconveniences for me as the player. When Trevor’s thinly veiled anger erupts over Michael’s lazy lifestyle of excess, I feel the injustice–I had just spent three hours in and around a hillbilly hellhole chasing biker gangs for meager earnings.

When you’re playing as one character, the others are living their lives–lives you’ll often be thrust into when you switch between them. The perspective is interesting; it’s not unusual to find Franklin walking out of a marijuana dispensary, or to step into the shoes of a half-naked Trevor, in a drunken stupor, on a beach outside of town. Your ability to switch will be limited or tailored at times, but it’s often for the thrill of a mission. As Michael, you’re shooting a way out of police resistance when Trevor’s voice comes in over the phone. The next moment, you could be hearing the second half of his line in person as you smash a getaway car through the police blockade to give Michael a way out.

Having three playable protagonists also mitigates some of the narrative dissonance that comes from one playable character helping a random pedestrian one moment and slaying dozens of mercenaries the next. Michael’s white-collar air and family-man ethic lend themself to chasing a purse thief and returning the purse to its frightened owner. As Trevor, I might run both of them over because it fits the kind of messed-up logic I know he subscribes to. As Franklin, I can’t be bothered to take time doing either: there’s paper to chase.

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In fact, the allure of wealth is the primary motivator for all three characters throughout the game’s 30-hour story. It’s all about the score, the next big take, for these career thieves, and a series of progressively more challenging and complex heists are memorable narrative cornerstones. Each heist puts a varying degree of choice in your hands, from the mission’s fundamental plan to which extra crew members to hire and what getaway car to use. Pre-heist procurement and setup missions can be challenging, monotonous, or a casual breeze, but all build to an inevitable climax of intense spectacle–or quiet, nervous execution, if you chose a more subtle approach. And because there are so many things to spend money on, from exotic cars to property and weapon upgrades, the consequences of your pre- and mid-heist choices are felt. If you opt to hire a less-experienced gunman because he asks for a smaller cut of the take, you’ll need to try extra hard to protect him during the inevitable shootout, lest you end up with one less guy for carrying out the money. Your window of time for smashing up a jewelry store is only as good as the hacker keeping the alarms at bay. If Trevor’s Shooting skill isn’t up to snuff, you’ll spend more time making your escape with cash bags that lose money by the second.

As if Grand Theft Auto V’s scope wasn’t already astounding, some of the best heist crew members can only be hired after you’ve met them through side encounters. Meanwhile, the cash rewards from races, smuggling missions, and other activities can be a necessary supplement for weaponry and car mods that could push a heist, or any mission, to success. You’re encouraged to explore the world and make use of resources outside of main story missions. Few missions are hard enough to give you trouble beyond two or three retries, but a great performance can yield more money and better mission medals. The latter, new to the series, grade effort with bronze, silver, or gold accolades based on optional objectives that are only made known after you’ve completed a mission for the first time. Mission replays will be necessary for PS3 trophy enthusiasts.

Mission medals are far from the only new feature in Grand Theft Auto V, and after 40 hours with the game, I know there’s so much more to see and discover. An in-game stock market offers investment opportunities and responds to events (say, the assassination of a tech company CEO) spurred by the player. Purchased properties offer return on investment, management missions, or a place to save the vehicles you acquire. Many of the game’s collectibles are tied to characters and stories that offer narrative context for finding, say, 50 spaceship parts, or letter scraps left behind by a serial killer. A 9-hole golf mini-game rivals the mechanical depth of full-fledged golf games. Unique special abilities, one for each playable character, can turn the tide of a shootout or car chase. You can play tennis, rob a liquor store, and convince strippers to go home with you. Submarines can be piloted to the impressively detailed ocean floor. Franklin can play fetch with a Rottweiler named Chop.

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I’m grateful for the breadth of content in this world, but I’m more excited by the story Rockstar tells. Grand Theft Auto V is a game by adults, for adults: profanity, nudity, and gore abound. Political humor and cultural satire–funnier and more poignant than ever–give way to dark commentary on torture, murder, and betrayal. By and large, relevant plot beats and depictions are handled tastefully, with the intelligence the game’s adult audience deserves. The line of comfort is thoroughly crossed in only one instance, when the player is made complicit in a heinous act that reflects post-9/11 paranoia. It’s disgusting, but it’s supposed to be, as both a scathing critique of groupthink and a sympathetic look at the otherwise good people made helpless by it.

Character depth and best-in-class writing support Michael, Trevor, and Franklin during thematically charged moments like this. Most of the game is less emotionally intense, but nuanced characterization and dialogue consistently impress. More than any series entry before it, Grand Theft Auto V is a story about the intersection of lives, the value of relationships, and the fallout of the choices we make. The plot drags just a bit during the middle hours, when clear antagonists have yet to be established, but this is still one of modern gaming’s greatest tales.

It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, thanks to refined shooting and driving controls and faster, more organic movement between and over cover. Grand Theft Auto IV’s divisive sticky targeting is now an option, not the rule. I found much greater comfort with Assisted Aiming, which apes modern first-person shooters with a blend of snap-to-target and free aim. Stealth mechanics are back from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where they were loosely applied to a few necessary instances. Here, they’re executed better. Thinning an enemy crowd with suppressed shots and stealth kills (or avoiding conflict altogether) is a viable, though less obvious, approach to many situations. Meanwhile, cars and vehicles of all shapes and sizes handle beautifully, with noticeably unique traction, braking, and acceleration. There’s just enough slip to encourage attentive driving, but bless Rockstar for bringing Grand Theft Auto closer to the days when you could get from Point A to Point B without two or three colossal wrecks on the way.

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Unfortunately, the soundtracks of old are still in a league of their own, but Grand Theft Auto V blows its predecessor’s radio offerings out of the water. The classic rock, all-time pop, hip-hop, and country stations are particular highlights. A few stations miss the mark with vague branding, but this is a respectable mix of tracks that shuns the obvious hits in favor of lesser-known gems. The game’s original score, with understated synth and elevating beats, kicks into effect during crucial missions when, more often than not, in-car radio is turned off by default. In these and other cinematic moments, the original score was always a perfect fit, and I loved every second of the dramatic backdrop it offered. Still, with Grand Theft Auto V’s increased reliance on and utilization of the cellphone popularized in IV, I’m disappointed that you can’t use an app to sort playlists of your favorite in-game songs for customized playback. Sure, we’d be missing the game’s stellar commercials and original programming, but these are fairly one-and-done delights. After first listen, most become obstacles to the songs we just want to hear again and again.

Of course, it’s hard to nitpick over custom tracks when, frankly, I’m astonished that such a complex game can look this good and even run at all. In all but the most secluded locations, texture detail is excellent. Dynamic, motivated lighting bursts from expected sources, creating detailed shadows that perfectly mirror related animations. The draw distance is staggering, yet through all this visual complexity, Grand Theft Auto V runs remarkably well. Only in combat-heavy moments with lots of explosions do I notice framerate drops with any gameplay impact; for the most part, things stay remarkably smooth, and texture pop-in has been significantly reduced from past entries. Grand Theft Auto V is a technical marvel and a stunning showcase of late-gen graphics.

Indeed, Grand Theft Auto V is a stunning triumph in just about everything it attempts. Marrying gameplay brilliance to compelling characters and a world matched only in size by the number of things you can do in it, Rockstar’s magnum opus gives this console generation the send-off it deserves. Hundreds of hours of incredible fun, thought-provoking commentary, and storytelling excellence await, but you should play Grand Theft Auto V for another reason. It is a masterpiece–one of the greatest games ever made.

 

Score

10

The Final Word

Marrying gameplay brilliance to compelling characters and a world matched only in size by the number of things you can do in it, Grand Theft Auto V is a masterpiece--one of the greatest games ever made.