But having said all that, we still haven’t gotten to the best part of GTA V: Its world. When you think you’ve really dug into the city of Los Santos and its surrounding countryside, you realize that you haven’t really dug into half of it yet. You realize why this game took half a decade and around $300 million to make. From the theatergoers that saunter along Vinewood Boulevard, to the bumpkins that swap stories outside the desert’s liquor stores, to the wild animals that roam the woods near Mount Chiliad, to the sharks that prey on swimmers in the Pacific Ocean, the city Rockstar has created is at once enormous, mysterious, and astounding.
If you’ve ever visited or lived in the LA area, you can spend hours just driving around and admiring the lengths Rockstar has gone to recreate this entire segment of the West. The amount of detail poured into each building, or street corner, or car, or trash can, or tree, or anything else just might be unprecedented. It’s the kind of game where you’ll feel most rewarded for getting out of your car and simply walking, not running, across the map.
Each character is represented by a part of the world — whether it’s Franklin’s ghetto, Michael’s Vinewood, or Trevor’s desert — so half of Rockstar’s work in GTA V is simply taking you on a tour of everything it has to offer. It manages to bring a sense of wonder to a world that’s based on actual geography, not some fantasy land. And at no point is any of it ever blocked off from you.
But even when the story is finished, there’s still the speedway to check out, golf courses to play, mini-marts to peruse, military bases to infiltrate, mountains to scale, and more. Then you can view it all from the sky above, or within the sea below. You are always, always, finding something new in Los Santos, even when you aren’t particularly taking the time to look. It’s a technical feat, for one, but it also keeps you locked into this alternate reality.
But a good world isn’t just scenery; it’s also a place where things can breathe. And for as amazing as Los Santos looks, GTA V’s greatest feat might be how many moving parts it has enabled within its world at once.
Of course, there’s a treasure trove of mini-games and extra content. Like in GTA IV, you can call up other characters and go get drunk, catch a movie, or eat at a restaurant. Unlike in GTA IV, you’ll won’t be hounded to do these things every 20 minutes. If you want to learn more about each character’s worldview and backstory, you’re free to do so. If not, no worries. That’s the way it should be.
You can play a round of golf. You can run, swim and bike in a triathlon. You can toss darts at the bar. You can hunt for many of the classic treasures from GTAs past, like speeding off all the stunt jumps, collecting the many hidden packages (both above and under the water), and parachuting from the skies. You can race on the streets. You can race on the sea. You can race on ATVs off-road. You can hunt animals in the wilderness. You can hunt humans in a bounty hunter mode.
There’s a tennis mode that’s like a mini Virtua Tennis, complete with different spins you can put on the ball and online leaderboards. There’s real estate that you can buy up across the region ala Vice City, which can return weekly profits and open up even more mini-missions. If you want to be nefarious all the time, you can hijack and loot passing security trucks. Or you can rob convenience stores. Or you steal from ATMs. Or you can go on some classic Rampage missions and murder everything.
Admittedly, some of the mini-games don’t have the same bite as the more elaborate core missions. They’re played straight — tennis in GTA is just regular old tennis — and thus they might not have much of a shelf life to some people. And collecting stuff is always just going to be collecting stuff. But taken together, they’re competent enough to make Los Santos a more convincing alternate reality, which makes you more likely to feel engrossed within it. There’s enough room in this city to accommodate people who want a story, and people who want to spend six months playing one game.
Then there’s the less interactive stuff. There are more radio stations now, and they change based on which part of the region you’re in. The licensed soundtrack is truly top notch — working in everyone from Britney Spears to Bootsy Collins — and the parodic talk shows are as chuckle-worthy as ever. The fake TV shows and fake internet from GTA IV are back, and the latter now includes fake Twitter (“Bleeter”) and Facebook (“LifeInvader”) pages where you can see what other in-game characters are saying about their lives. There are even online and offline stock markets to abuse based on the happenings of the game — if one mission has you assassinate the CEO of one company, for example, you can load up with stock in its chief competitor and cash out for a nice payday.
The more dedicated side missions in GTA V are neither as prominent nor as memorable as they have been in past games, since much more attention has been devoted to sketching the three leads. There’s a handful of amusing ones involving an advocate for marijuana legalization and a skydiving enthusiast, but the sheer amount of other content here makes most of them feel less vital. You’ll more than likely come back to them only after you’ve beaten the main story.
As with the special abilities and story missions, some of this side content is specific to certain characters. Trevor is the only one psycho enough to go on rampages, so those are his. Franklin is the expert driver, so he gets the Need for Speed style street races. And so on. Again, this is a character-driven game, so it’s fitting for each character to only do what’s right for him.
Multiple characters can converse with certain side characters, for instance, which further develops how each personality views the world around him. So when Michael runs into Mary-Ann, the irrationally intense and temperamental triathlete, he’s intimidated and little frightened. When Trevor finds her in the middle of one of her fits, he almost immediately falls in love with her. Although it’s massive, GTA V shows a remarkable amount of focus in moments like these.
Perhaps most interesting are the random encounters that you’ll come across as you roam the open world. Although they’re pretty obviously triggered when you happen to bring your character by a particular location, they’re scripted well enough and tinged with just enough backstory to make Los Santos feel like a place that exists beyond your actions as the player. In other words, they make Los Santos feel not just inhabitable, but like it’s been inhabited for years.
Here’s an example: At one point towards the end of the game, we were driving Trevor to a job he had scheduled with Franklin. We were on the roads near the woodsy area outside Mount Chiliad. It was the early evening, and a thunderstorm had started to roll in. Johnny Cash’s “General Lee” was blasting on the radio.
As we rolled along, we noticed a circle of empty cars facing each other on the top of a nearby hill. We veered off course to check it out, and saw what appeared to be the remains of a shootout. The bodies of nine or so young men and women laid dead or dying on the wet grass in front of the cars, whose exteriors had largely been punctured with bullet holes.
Two of the bodies were squirming around on the ground, but they were clearly on their last legs. At that point, we noticed a set of tire tracks that led down below the hill. There, we saw another body clinging to life, grasping out for a suitcase nearby. “Don’t… pick it up,” he gasped. “You’re a dead man.”
We picked it up. It was filled with $25,000. Whatever life was left in the survivors then disappeared, and along with them went the truth about what caused this mess in the first place. It may have been drugs, it may have been something dumber, who knows. Obviously, some people really wanted this cash, so we took off quietly.
Flash to about two miles later, when we were reflecting on what could have happened. Suddenly, two men sped towards Trevor on motorbikes, opening SMG fire and demanding that he return the briefcase. “I knew this was too good to be true,” Trevor exclaimed to himself. He was thinking the same thing we were. We got out the car, pulled out an assault rifle, and took care of them. And that was that. About 10 minutes later, we started Trevor’s mission with Franklin.
At no point during any of that did the game prompt us to take the briefcase, or to interrogate one of the dying people, or to do anything else. As with the many other random encounters sprinkled throughout the world, there was just a flash on the mini-map, and a scene we could choose to investigate. There was no explanation of what happened when it was over; we were just $25,000 richer, and a great deal more intrigued about what else is happening in the woods, deserts, cities and suburbs of Los Santos. It bears repeating: This was all on the way to a proper mission.
Everything just feels more fluid this time around. When you do something monumental, you not only hear about it on the radio, you see it affect the stock market too. When you enter into an Ammu-Nation gun shop, you hear the store clerk have an actual back-and-forth conversation with your specific character, rather than spouting off canned one-liners. When you complete a favor for someone during a random encounter, that person might be able to join your crew for your next heist. When an NPC wants you to complete that side quest you forgot about, they’ll send a text asking you if you’ve made any progress on it yet. NPCs themselves will have surprisingly deep conversations with each other if you eavesdrop on them long enough.
It goes on and on and on, unifying a great deal of Los Santos’ happenings on one rotating axis. Immersion is a word that’s been beaten to death over the years, but if any game exemplifies its best qualities, it’s this one. More than any GTA game before it, GTA V is a title you should not rush through. It becomes infinitely more rewarding the further you dive into it.
Los Santos is the crowning achievement here, but GTA V comes with a range of other gameplay updates as well. Combat has been spruced up, for one, though it isn’t quite modernized. It’s based on a hard cover system straight out of 2009, and although you can technically run and gun, doing so is still a deathwish. That heavy aim assist is better left unused too; it removes too much of the challenge by default, and makes Michael, Franklin and Trevor look too much like superhumans when they really aren’t. All that being said, the gunplay here rarely demonstrates the mechanical annoyances that were in GTA IV.
There’s still a decent variety of tools to use in combat, though none of them are very imaginative. The same sentiment applies the new weapon customization options, which let you tune up your guns with laser scopes, silencers and the like. They’re nice for heavy tinkerers, but the game’s lack of difficulty combined with the add-ons’ lack of immediate usefulness makes them largely unnecessary. Ditto for the vehicle upgrades you can make as the Los Santos Customs chop shop — they’re competently done and easy to peruse, but you never get a sense of urgency to use them.
Actually driving those vehicles is greatly improved in GTA V, however. On standard surfaces, turns are tighter, cars can be gently steered in mid-air, and the sense of slipperiness that permeated GTA IV has been lifted. But depending on what make of car you use, what terrain you drive across, and what the in-game weather is like, your level of control will vary.
Rockstar hasn’t implemented a Gran Turismo level of realism here, thankfully, but you’ll be in for a rude awakening if you try to take a faux Ferrari off-road at 100 MPH during a high-speed cop chase. Details like that lend a sense of continuity to a world like Los Santos, which the game often presents as a place where accidents happen.
Speaking of cop chases, those have been slightly overhauled too. The famous wanted level bar consists of five stars now rather than six, but more importantly, the in-game police have become a little more intelligent, vigilant and practical in their search process. Once you’re in their crosshairs, evading them is similar to how it was in GTA IV — at first. You drive fast enough and far enough away from the fuzz, and eventually the heat will die down. That always worked, so it’s fine here.
But now, the cops don’t just give up and let you walk right then and there. Instead, they enter into a heightened alert mode, searching the areas where you may be headed. If they get you in their line of sight, the chase is back on at full speed. To lose them for good, your best bet is to head off the main roads, drive slowly, and maybe even get out of your vehicle and take cover in an alleyway or nearby building.
This occasionally makes losing the heat a little more prolonged than it should be, and it still suffers from an unnatural reliance on your mini-map. But it does make good use of GTA V’s newly refined stealth mechanics, turning what were once occasionally annoying sequences into occasionally tense ones in the process. It’s hard to complain too deeply about it.
Besides all that, there’s a number of additional tweaks that help make GTA V more friendly to players of all kinds. There’s a weapon wheel for a choosing guns now. If you fail a mission repeatedly, you have the option to skip it and advance the story. If two characters are having a conversation in a car and they crash, they’ll briefly pause before picking up where they left off. You can save your game, call for a cab, and access the internet directly from your phone. Each character gets a signature car that will always be parked at their safehouse. Planes, helicopters and boats are all smoother to commandeer. Guns and cars sound fuller and more realistic. You can still replay any mission you’d like and get a higher score with the medal system from The Ballad of Gay Tony.
And while the game doesn’t look as stunning as its screenshots may suggest, it certainly is an improvement over GTA IV, and it more than holds up against its competition today. On PlayStation 3, far off objects suffered from the signature “pop-in” problem that’s been plaguing the series for a decade, and we were subject to a handful of three-second stutters in gameplay. The mandatory install time isn’t exactly quick either. But those are minor issues. Given how huge it is, GTA V rarely gets in its own way from a technical standpoint.
But sometimes, it does get in its own way from a satire standpoint. Much has been made about the lack of good female representation in GTA V already, and there’s good reason for that. Even if you’re of the (perfectly valid) mindset that everyone is and should be presented as terrible people in a GTA world, that doesn’t change the fact that there just aren’t many women in this particular world to begin with.
It’s one thing to represent women poorly (or satirically, pick your poison), but it’s arguably a much worse thing to cover your ears, stomp your feet, and pretend that they don’t exist. Rockstar’s defense is that masculinity is a crucial aspect to GTA V’s narrative, and that’s very much true, but that doesn’t have to prevent almost every female character in the game from exhibiting any sort of agency.
In general, GTA V’s default mindset is one of the white dude. Beyond the women concerns, there are just about zero black characters in the game that don’t act like they’re straight out of a John SIngleton knock-off. You could argue that Rockstar is trying to make Los Santos a mirror to the misheld perceptions white America has about different races and segments of society, and that’d make some sense. But even if Franklin is meant to be a strong character, he’s still tethered to out-of-date stereotypes. The gag, if there is one, still puts that white American view in a favored position.
Gender and race aside, a fair amount of GTA V’s other satire is past its expiration date too. Rockstar is an equal opportunity offender, but some of the purportedly stinging points it tries to make are recycled from the GTA IV era. This is a game that’ll tell you that liberals are impotent, conservatives are bigots, Millenials are lazy, and Baby Boomers are arrogant — as if those aren’t sweeping sentiments that have been passed around again and again for the past decade.
Maybe it’s foolish to expect any sort of nuance from all of Rockstar’s jokes at this point, but for a game that often does make some genuinely biting social commentary (hello, Epsilon cult), sometimes it doesn\’t subvert anything at all. Sometimes it inadvertently reinforces society’s status quo, and sometimes feels increasingly out-of-touch with American culture today. It’s like Michael, in that way.
But it’s perfectly fine to still like a game while recognizing some of its faults. And ultimately, Grand Theft Auto V is an achievement that shouldn\’t be missed. If nothing else, you can sense the hundreds and hundreds of man hours that went into crafting this monolith while you’re playing it. It feels like a game that broke peoples’ backs. Hopefully everyone who helped shoulder this beast can get some rest now. They deserve it — at least until GTA Online comes out next month.