- Editor's Rating
- Impressively detailed world
- Three character setup freshens up gameplay
- Massive amount of enjoyable side content
- Ultimately rooted in traditional GTA structure
- Some satirical elements fall flat
- Combat still feels dated
Grand Theft Auto V is a technical achievement that successfully refreshes much, but not all, of the usual GTA formula. Unless you've become completely jaded with the series, it's worth playing.
Grand Theft Auto V wants it all. It’s a game that gives players one of the most sprawling open-world sandboxes ever made, and also punctuates it with a layered, personal narrative. It’s a game that serves the highbrow with jokes about the debt ceiling, clever metacommentary, and scathing caricatures of the federal government, and also serves the lowbrow with penis jokes, poop jokes, and more penis jokes. And most of all, it’s a game that’s ultimately beholden to its heritage, but is just different enough to feel necessary again.
Not Too Far from Home
But make no mistake: There’s a V at the end of that title for a reason. Rockstar Games struck gold and popularized a genre with 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, and it’s stuck to the same core formula for each of its successors. GTA V doesn’t change that, and so you’ll still find yourself controlling morally reprehensible antiheroes in a warped satirization of modern society. You’ll still kill lots of people, steal lots of cars, meet lots of gangsters, narcissists and psychopaths, and perform a string of gleefully evil deeds.
If you’re not down with a game that tells you to go to the yellow dot on your mini-map, and then tells you to kill all the red dots on that map, and then tells you to do that a couple dozen times for the next 40 hours, turn back now. That’s what GTA has been for twelve years now, and there was no reason to expect that wouldn’t be the case again. The good news is that GTA has always been the best at making that formula the foundation for a really fun game. That doesn’t change here either.
But let’s talk about the story first. That’s one area where past GTA games have typically fluctuated. GTA V’s narrative lies somewhere in between the goofiness of Vice City and the melodrama of GTA IV, coming away as a black comedy that often skewers the series’ past.
Thankfully it’s more lighthearted this time around, keying in on the idea that GTA protagonists are monstrous by nature, and their personal lives should be trainwrecks because of that. On its own, the tale is competently written, but it’s largely par for the GTA course — the daily dreams and doings of gangsters have been explored many times before — and its momentum starts to run in place toward the end.
Much more interesting are those lead characters themselves, who drive almost every aspect of the game. The big change is that there’s three of them this time around, and together, they represent a Freudian microcosm of everything that has ever resided in GTA’s mother brain.
You’ll first meet Franklin Clinton, a ghetto-bound gangbanger who dreams of bigger and more lucrative things. He wants a way out of a fruitless cycle of petty crimes and gang beefs, an out to advance his criminal talents and move beyond the hood. His tale is most reminiscent of San Andreas’ CJ, except he realizes that unconditional loyalty to the gang lifestyle is foolish and self-defeating. He has the blandest personal conflict of the leading trio, but he’s the most measured and relatable of the group. (Well, relatively speaking.) Ultimately, he exhibits the most personal growth too.
The man who gives Franklin the opportunity he desires is Michael de Santa, who is Tommy Vercetti meets midlife crisis. He’s a retired bank robber in his mid-forties who successfully got out of the game years ago, but is now miserable as a result. He lives in a posh house above Franklin’s ghetto in the Vinewood (read: Hollywood) Hills, surrounded by possessions that don’t make him happy, a new generation he doesn’t comprehend, and a family that is beyond dysfunctional. His son is a lazy and utterly self-obsessed troll, his daughter would consider “fame whore” a compliment, and his wife sleeps with anyone with whom she comes into contact.
Not that Michael’s any better — years of being a criminal have made him a selfish yet self-loathing hothead who’s hooked on the gangster lifestyle deep down. In other words, a good part of him wants to act like a GTA character again, even if he knows that it’s scrambling him emotionally. He’s what happens when a GTA III era gangster grows old and gets bored. In Franklin, he finds a capable kid to whom he can teach the things he’s learned, and an outlet through which he can get some thrills once more. They eventually find more than they bargained for.
Things ratchet up a notch or five when you meet Trevor Philips, one of Michael’s old partners-in-crime and the unhinged id to Franklin’s ego and Michael’s superego. You know how politicians and the media often lament the fact that GTA lets you have sex with a prostitute, beat her with a baseball bat when you’re done, and then take her money? Trevor is the personification of everything in this series that’s like that. He’s also the most fascinating character in the game.
Everything about Trevor is a mess. He’s a meth dealer and an arms peddler living in a trailer park out in the middle of the desert. His house is strewn with dirty clothes, beer bottles and grime. He screams and curses every other sentence. He kills and steals and screws (in all senses of the word) on impulse. He has the words “cut here” tattooed across his neck. He’s a weird, unpredictable, wholly reprehensible psychopath. He’s the player that buys GTA just to run people over.
And yet, he’s still tinged with humanity. He has a strange sense of nobility, and his past — a large part of which involves Michael — has left him deeply unsatisfied when he’s not murdering out of bloodlust. Like Michael and Franklin, he wants fulfillment, and he finds himself completing a set of increasingly daring crimes in the hopes of attaining it.
GTA has often found a way to make its protagonists likable despite their inherent awfulness, and GTA V is no exception. Mind, this isn’t Pulitzer-level stuff, but you’ll constantly discover new things about each lead every time you see them. The fact that they’re all voiced exceptionally well certainly doesn’t hurt either.
You’ll come to anticipate how Michael, Franklin and Trevor would act toward a given situation, and you’ll feel compelled to use them in ways that are consistent with their character. You won’t listen to country music with Franklin, you’ll save the rampages for Trevor, and you won’t dress Michael with a hoodie and backwards cap. When they’re together, it feels like different worlds colliding. Like most of GTA V, they’re never completely “realistic,” but they’re grounded in enough reality to make them cogent within the context of this world. Plus, it takes a certain high level of writing ability to intertwine their personal narratives the way Rockstar has here.
Michael, Franklin and Trevor have their own tragic struggles to overcome, but the game never lets you forget that they’re horrible people doing horrible things in a horrible world. The three of them have brought most of their problems onto themselves because of that. They’ll never change either, because they’re the protagonists in this GTA game. You’re going to use them to do bad things. And you’re probably going to enjoy doing so at their expense.
That’s both clever and impossibly dark, but those tragic aspects are never overbearing in the way they were in GTA IV. The narrative’s tone is lighter, the gags are more frequent, and the situations these goons get into (and always make it out of) are too amusing for this game not to make you smile most of the time.
Using the Trio
Naturally, the three character setup has a somewhat deep effect on how you actually play GTA V. It never stops feeling like a GTA game, but the lens through which you interact with it noticeably differs depending on who you want to control. It’ll take a few hours to get there, but eventually you’ll gain the ability to switch to Franklin, Michael or Trevor at will. When you do, the game zooms all the way above the city in a Google Maps-style view, moves over to the location of your chosen character, and warps you down into his shoes at any given moment in his day.
So when you switch to Michael, he may be just wrapping up a tennis game with his wife on their private court. When you move to Franklin, he might be cruising down the freeway with the radio on blast. And when you assume control of Trevor, he may be passed out drunk on the train tracks, wearing nothing but his underpants. These switches never take more than around 20 seconds to load. They’re too obviously staged to make you feel like each character has really been going about their lives while you were away, but they help flesh out what kind of people these three are, while also giving you a handy way to fast travel around and explore the world.
Michael, Franklin and Trevor have their own specialties during gameplay too. Rockstar’s fitted each one with a special ability that’s bound to a small meter next to your health and armor, and can be accessed by clicking in both joysticks. Franklin is an experienced repo man, so he can slow down time and make super precise turns while driving. Michael is a professional criminal, so he can slow time in gunfights and fire super precise shots. And Trevor is nuts, so he can enter into a rampage mode that lets him unleash and absorb more damage for a limited period of time.
These abilities tend to recharge on their own during gameplay, so they’re easy to use, but they never feel forced on the player. Franklin’s precision driving is especially useful when you’re trying to evade the cops, but all three skills come in handy from time to time.
Rockstar’s also implemented an RPG style stat system similar to the one from San Andreas, which lets you upgrade each character’s shooting, driving, swimming, flying, stealth and other such skills while you play. Again, each character has their own specialities, which correlate to what kind of character they are. Franklin is your best driver, Michael is your best gunman, and Trevor, a former Air Force pilot, is best in the skies. It’s gameplay working in sync with narrative. It doesn’t have to stay that way, though, as simply playing the game will upgrade each of their skill sets.
It’s similar to Skyrim in a way. The more you shoot with a given character, the better his Shooting stat will get. The more you click in the right stick to go into GTA V’s basic stealth movement mode, the sneakier you’ll be going forward. There are certain activities you can do around town to make your stats upgrade faster — there’s a shooting range at Ammu-Nation, there are street races around town, etc. — but again, those are never forced onto you.
You’ll still be able to get through the game just fine if you never worry about these things. GTA V isn’t particularly difficult, and the stat differences don’t matter much in gunfights since there’s a pretty heavy aim assist by default (though that can be turned off). But they’re there if you’re the kind of player who likes filling XP bars, they do reward players who put in the time to upgrade, and they further exposit each lead’s nature in their own way. Rockstar wants this game to have something for everybody, remember.
The alternating character structure has a noticeable effect on the 75 or so story missions you’ll undertake as well. A good chunk of them will only be available to specific characters, and those are often entertaining but standard fare. By having these three ghosts of GTAs past as protagonists, though, Rockstar is able to assign these quests to their most appropriate characters.
So Franklin will be the one who gets into most of the street races and gang shootouts. Michael will be the one who takes the quirky excursions for faux Silicon Valley tech companies, reality TV competitions and effeminate yoga instructors. And Trevor will be the one who drives dirt bikes across moving trains, blows up trailer parks, and hijacks cargo planes in mid-air.
Leveraging the three leads like this is a slick way for Rockstar to make its past mission ideas feel fresher, while lending further continuity to its characters’ identities. You get to play it all, but each character only does what’s fitting for them. The disjointedness that would arise if all these tasks were heaped onto one person is alleviated, which further keeps each character grounded in a relative sense of reality. And it’s not like most of these missions ever stopped being fun.
The real magic, though, comes when some combination of the three leads are brought together. That allows Rockstar to turn what would normally be everyday GTA missions into much more expansive and elaborate sequences that take place from multiple points of view.
Whereas past games would have you, say, send one guy into a shootout or kidnapping mission alone, GTA V gives you control of that character, plus his getaway driver, plus the partner who is covering him with sniper fire from afar. Most of the multicharacter missions are highly structured, so you’ll often be prompted on when to use one character and when to switch to another. Other times, you’ll be in a gunfight with free reign to move between positions.
One particularly thrilling job, for instance, has Michael rappelling down a skyscraper to intercept a target for the FBI (or “FIB” in the game’s world) before busting through a window, grabbing his man, and jumping back outside. When things get hairy, you jump to Franklin across the street and snipe those who are going after your partner. Then you can jump back to Michael to take out more enemies while you dangle from the air. When the coast is clear, you jump up to Trevor, who airlifted Michael in, and fly out to safety. But when enemy agents arrive in choppers, you can use Franklin to snipe their pilots, Michael to lay fire on them from inside the chopper, Trevor to evade them in his helicopter, or some combination of the three.
That sounds like a lot for one mission, but it never feels like too much. Rockstar’s clearly put a great deal of effort into crafting these quests and ensuring they’re paced just right. It usually breaks big missions like those into a series of smaller bits, making it so you have a continuous string of new things to do in quick succession. That keeps the missions’ momentum up, which helps keep you in the thrill of your characters’ criminal exploits. And that’s not even to mention how amusing it is to simply stop and stare at the same conflict from three different viewpoints, or the technical marvel of switching between the three so fluidly.
The best of these moments come during the various heists that our three antiheroes are tasked with completing over the course of the game. There’s only a handful of them, but they punctuate each of GTA V’s acts from both a narrative and gameplay perspective. They also represent something genuinely new for this decades old franchise.
In practice, the heists are like a mix of classic GTA, Payday 2, and the NPC recruitment aspects of something like Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Each one differs slightly from the next, but in general the formula goes like this: Someone spurs Michael, Franklin and/or Trevor into raiding something from some high security place. One time you rob a jewelry store, another time you raid a government building, another time you take over a freighter, and other times you do bigger things that we won’t spoil.
Before you can complete the heist, you have to plan it. Michael’s buddy Lester is the whiz who helps with that. Then the variables start to kick in. First, you have to scope out the place, looking for areas of weakness and how well it’s secured. Then, you pick an approach. This can vary, but normally it means picking the dumb way — which means shooting everything in your path — or the sneaky way — which means stringing together an elaborate plan with disguises, getaway cars, and traps in order to get in and get out with minimal bloodshed.
Most of the time, you’ll end up shooting people either way, but Rockstar’s decision to cater to the loud and the quiet is a welcome one. It also compels you to go back and see how things would’ve gone the other way, which you can do at any time from your in-game phone.
Once you have a plan of action, you pick a crew to go with the three leads. Lester puts up a list of wanted criminals from around Los Santos, and from them you choose some mix of drivers to help you lose the inevitable heat, gunmen to help you take down resistance, and hackers to help you shut down security systems. Each one of these helpers have their own particular stats, but the better they are, the more of the cut they’re going to demand.
You can pick people with lesser skills to save cash, but the side effect there is that they may put your score in jeopardy. If you pick a weak hacker, for instance, he may only be able to take an alarm system down for a short period time, meaning the cops will be onto you faster. If you pick a poor gunman, he may get killed in the line of fire and leave his wad of cash behind. Those that do make it out of a heist with you will see their stats boosted, making them more reliable next time around.
It’s a good idea that genuinely changes some of your heists’ finer details, but because there’s a relatively low amount of heists to begin with, these crew-based RPG elements tend to fall flat. Rockstar deserves credit for giving these helpers some semblance of personality — they talk and interact with your characters during each job, and the ones who are used multiple times will reference their history with you — but they’re nothing more than absent NPCs outside of these specific missions. It feels like Rockstar only half-committed to this part of the concept.
Once you have a plan and crew in place, you have to get the materials necessary to put your plan in motion. For instance, the sneaky route for one early heist requires that you disguise yourself as pest control workers. To do that, you head over to the local pest control company’s warehouse and take one of their vans, either by force or by sneaking through the rear entryway.
Another time you need a fire truck, so you can head on over to the fire station and blast through Los Santos’ finest, or you can call up 911 on your phone and jack them once they come to you. Other times you’ll need to find a fast getaway car that can’t be traced back to Michael, Franklin or Trevor, and then pick a hiding spot around town where you can safely torch said car and come away clean.
What exactly your setup requires depends on the heist at hand, but whatever the case, these mini-missions are always marked on your map. They can be completed at any time alongside your non-heist missions, so if you happen to drive Michael by that pest control warehouse on the way to his next job for the FIB, he can swing by, grab it, and get it out of the way. Again, very rarely is there ever one set way that you have to do things, which is appreciated and fitting for a game this large in scope.
These heists have layers on top layers on top of layers, so it’s especially satisfying to see all of your preparation come together during the job itself. Each one plays out like a sort of criminal choose your own adventure book — the basic framework is set once you choose your approach, and then the finer details are filled in based on who goes with you and how you go about your attack.
They turn out to be the most memorable moments in the game, largely because they evoke a feeling that GTA proper has actively trained its players not to feel for so many years: Fear. These are the rare times when you actually feel the thrill of being this brand of criminal, not because of the violence and mayhem you cause, but because you know you only have a few minutes until the law is breathing down your neck. Especially if you choose the more quiet approaches, you know that if one part of your elaborate plan goes awry, you’re going to have a big fight to deal with. And you know something’s going to go wrong eventually. You always feel like you’re walking on that high risk, high reward tightrope, even if you know that you’d be able to take out resistance fairly easily.
The last heist in particular is incredibly tense, as you use a hostage to grab your score for you, keeping him calm enough to not seem suspicious while secretly praying he doesn’t spill the beans. And as we said before, using three characters and performing their assigned roles during the heists is not only enjoyable, but it also intensifies the large sense of scale these missions are designed to evoke. Rockstar hasn’t forgotten how to create water cooler fodder, for sure.
The problem, again, is that there’s not many of them. We used the term “GTA proper” in the above paragraph for a reason: These heist missions have their own dedicated systems, setups and mechanics, but they feel a tad foreign next to the comparatively ordinary quests that make up the majority of the game. They’re enthralling, no doubt, but part of us got the feeling that Rockstar is using them as a sort of test run for something more dedicated in the future.
At the same time, the fact that there aren’t many heists overall — and the fact that each one escalates in scale until the end of the game — keeps them from ever feeling stale. They also give a good excuse for putting all three characters together in one mission, whereas some standard missions feel like they’re forcing the trio together unnaturally.
Page 2 of our review covers GTA V‘s world, satire and refined gameplay mechanics.