Monday, July 7, 2014

Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360) Review

Grand Theft Auto V was probably the most hyped game of all time. People totally lost their shit, even more so than Grand Theft Auto IV. I tend not to buy into video game hype; I get excited, but I want. Especially with Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto IV was an ugly, lifeless game. Rockstar spent all of their time building a city, and they forgot to put any character into it. This was rectified with the superb DLC releases (The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony), but it was still an empty experience compared to III, Vice City and San Andreas. Initial reaction to Grand Theft Auto IV was good, but cooled over time. Hype is something that wildly skews reactions to games. Sometimes a game will be insanely hyped and then disappoint and the reaction is vile. Case in point: Too Human. Too Human is a serviceable, enjoyable game for the most part. Catch a discussion in the comment section of a game website, and it'll be called the worst game ever by many. 

Those people never played Quest 64.

Look shitty? It is shitty. 

Grand Theft Auto V almost lives up to the earth shaking hype it generated, which means it's a damn fine game. I've mentioned before that the first game console I had was an Atari 2600. One of my earliest game memories is Kaboom!

Kaboom is a simple game, and the graphics are about as good as they can be for 2600. We've come a long way since one button joysticks where you move buckets of water left and right.

The graphics in this game are stunning. Nothing we've seen yet in a released game compares. The lighting effects are incredible, they're not just shapeless blobs of shadows that we see so often. They match every movement of what you're seeing on screen. I'm not one too gush over graphics too much, but what Rockstar has done here is absolutely stunning. When Rockstar announced the RAGE engine that the game runs on, it was impressive for its time and they even released a game whose main intention was to show off the engine. Rockstar Table Tennis actually turned out to be a very excellent game, and got ported to a few other consoles.

It started to seem like Table Tennis was just a well tuned tech demo when Grand Theft Auto IV came out. Red Dead Redemption showed that RAGE had some legs and six years later, the engine lived up to its full potential. I'm not one to gush over graphics, but this is a game that looks so good you can get caught up just driving around the countryside. You'll want to get to the tops of mountains just to look out over the horizon. It seems weird to marvel at a video game environment like this, but how often do you get the chance to go to the top of a mountain in real life? That's part of the fun of GTAV. The technology has caught up with Rockstar's ambitions, and they've successfully created a city that not only looks alive, but feels alive. All of the shortcomings of GTA IV have been rectified.

The story is also the most compelling of a GTA game yet. Switching between the three characters feels odd at first, but once you get into the groove of it the system feels natural. In my opinion, Michael is the most compelling character. Michael is a retired bank robber who worked with the in-game equivalent of the FBI (the FIB) to get out of the life. A chain of events leads Michael to meet Franklin, who feels like a poorly executed version of CJ from San Andreas. Eventually, this brings Michael's deranged former partner Trevor into the mix. Trevor is a bit too over the top. His insanity can be charming in a weird way (his over the top emotions in particular), but the schtick wears thin relatively quickly. 

The three characters let you experience Los Santos in different ways. Michael seems like a call back to Tommy Vercetti from Vice City. As I mentioned earlier, Franklin seems like he's meant to reference CJ but just doesn't work as well as a character. Trevor is just... Trevor. There hasn't quite been a character this insane as a playable character in a video game.

Michael's story is the glue that holds the plot together, and is probably the most interesting. He seems to be a character from a Michael Mann movie filtered through Quentin Tarantino. His physical presence recalls Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley from Heat, albeit a bit less stiff. His characterization is hard to put a finger on exactly, but there's elements of all of the best crime movie characters run through a satire of middle age in America. His family sucks, his kids are shitty and he hates his life. His therapist offers little to nothing, and the only time he seems to enjoy life is when he's back into the life he wanted to be out of. The psychological realism of the characters helps ground the events. Each character has some kind of issue in their past that set their lives on the course that they're currently on.

The overall plot is a bit odd to put together as a whole, but the pieces of it are excellent. It can get a bit redundant with characters disappearing to lay low for a while getting a bit old, but it's generally well paced. The fact that the whole environment is open from the start does a lot to change the flow of the game.

The biggest improvement to the game is the missions. Grand Theft Auto IV was also massively disappointing due to the nature of the missions. Instead of taking advantage of the extra horsepower that the 360 and PS3 brought to the table, the missions continued the same format of "get mission to kill someone, find person, person gets in car and runs, chase after person in car until they stop, try not to lose them." Grand Theft Auto V abandons these missions for the most part, which is the biggest breath of fresh air. The centerpieces of single player are heists, which have set-up aspects and different plans of attack. The set-up is relatively mundane for most of the heists, but helps build anticipation for the heist. Once you actually execute the plan, it's tense. The heists play out like the best... well, heist movies. It's never exactly clear what will happen, and the heists are one of those rare gaming moments where you can feel your heart beating.

It's never clear what will happen in the heists. Maybe a crew member you hired is too inexperienced. What if he loses some of the take? What if some part of the plan fails? Its the kind of excitement that a game of this type should bring. One heist ends up with a private military on your tail, while you tear through a small town with a minigun and tanks in pursuit. It's fucking insane, and it's a blast.

One major criticism of mine for GTA IV was how the cars handled. The handling has been greatly improved in GTA V, working as a cross between the classic PS2 era games and GTA IV. It's actually fun to drive again, and motorcycles have been made less sensitive. It's possible to have a minor impact without flying off of your motorcycle and dying. One thing that has changed for the worst is the police. They are incredibly sensitive to anything you do in the game, and they are aggressive. Escaping the police has improved, and you can now hide from them. It adds some intensity to the situations where you're trying to escape from the police. I guess it's understandable that going on murderous rampages in the game has been made more difficult; the realism of the game makes it a bit hard to do this and just have fun. The colorful blocky characters of the PS2 era made it easy to do and have fun with. The realism here? It feels a bit sadistic unless they're shooting at you.

I don't have much to say about GTA Online yet. It seems like it's an idea still, and not a fully fleshed out game. Rockstar has been working on GTA Online over time, but it still doesn't seem to meet its full potential. It all seems sort of...aimless. I don't really understand the point of it. Either way, it doesn't change any feelings I have toward the core game.

Grand Theft Auto V is a triumph. Its technical aspects, storytelling and gameplay all rose above any expectations I had. This is one of gaming's finest moments.

The Score: 9.5/10

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