The Grand Theft Auto franchise might be the most lauded, yet also the most divisive of all time. GTA V is no exception to the precedent. Any game where you play as a criminal and earn points by breaking the law is going to come under scrutiny. Yet Rockstar has, so far, balanced the aggressive (and sometimes psychopathic) aspects of its anti-hero protagonists with enough back story and supporting cast that players feel at ease. Even when mowing down pedestrians or murdering people on the flimsiest of pretenses.
This time around we have three characters, and the ability to jump between them. Each brings something different to the overall story while maintaining secondary storylines of their own. One question for me to answer, then, was "could Rockstar pull this off or would it be a mess?"
GTA V has been hyped to the point of breaking in the lead up to release. The heavy NDA from Rockstar I had to sign before reviewing it only added the excitement for me. [Note that part of the NDA required that my PS3 was not connected to any online aspects of the game].
This is a lengthy review so if you want a tl;dr.... this game is good.
The gang’s all here
The main crew is made up of three very different characters: Franklin, the gangbanger from Grove Street who dreams of doing more than just hustling; Michael, the former criminal who is living a comfortable life he’s not comfortable with; and Trevor, the meth cooking, gun-running psychopath and all round dangerous person.
The writers have done a masterful job of blending these three character’s stories together. In a spoiler free version: Franklin comes to Michael for “career” advice, after the two meet during one of Franklin’s repo jobs, while Michael and Trevor are old acquaintances from Michael’s criminal days.
For the most part, each character is played separately. You roam around the city doing character-specific missions (denoted by colour, eg. Franklin missions are green) or just general shooting, driving, and the usual GTA gameplay. To switch between characters, you hold down on the d-pad and then use the right stick to chose a character when the character wheel pops up. On the wheel you’ll see the character’s portraits and a number telling you how many missions they have available (more on the missions later.)
When you switch, the camera changes to a top down view of your current character, which then zooms out, Google Map-style, before moving to where your new character is and then zooming in again. The character you change to may not be where you left them. They may have also changed their clothes and might sometimes be in the middle of a conversation or altercation, but there will always be a very short animation or dialogue to lead you in. This means that, every time you change characters, it feels like the story is progressing and that the others haven’t just been frozen in time waiting for you to return to them.
Holding down on the d-pad also shows you each character’s ability levels. There are a number of abilities like driving, flying, stamina, lung capacity, etc, and all of them can be increased by performing tasks in those areas. For example, hitting top speed in a car, making narrow misses, and pulling off stunts will increase your driving skill, while headshots and taking on the Ammunation shooting range will increase your shooting skill.
Each character starts with different strengths. Franklin, for example, is the driver, while Trevor is a pilot and Michael is a shooter. Their strengths are somewhat reflected in each character’s special ability. Clicking both thumbsticks activates their special ability. For Franklin, time slows while he’s driving and suddenly his car is incredibly agile, allowing you to dance it through even the trickiest situations. Michael can slow down time in a gunfight, giving him Max Payne-esque gun control. Trevor also has a gunfight ability (no, not a flying one); when activated, he deals double damage and takes only half.
These special abilities aren’t unlimited, naturally. In the bottom right, below the minimap and next to the green health and blue armour bars, is the yellow ability bar. It drains the longer you use your ability. You fill it back up in the same way you gain experience in your regular abilities. It’s a good idea to remember you have these abilities - often I found myself about to die before remembering “oh wait, I can slow down time and waste these guys.”
It’s important to upgrade the regular abilities when you can too. Early on I managed to steal a police helicopter by climbing Franklin onto the the roof of the police station. Franklin’s flying ability was terrible, though, and I had to land the helicopter after a few minutes because I was getting seasick watching the screen constantly bobbing erratically as the ‘copter ducked and dived around.
As with previous games the, characters’ looks are customisable. After Franklin’s intro mission his friend Lamar tells him to go get a haircut, so I did. Franklin walked in looking fresh-faced and came out looking like Ice Cube. Gangsta.
Your options for customisation are fairly limited. There’s a few different clothing stores and tattoo parlours, but they don’t offer too much variation. The chance to wear suits is pretty cool though, so you can feel like an upmarket criminal. Gangster.
The supporting cast in all of the GTA games are as important as the leads.
To start with there’s Michael’s family: his wife who hates him, his daughter who is obsessed with fame, and his whiny privileged son who is the embodiment of every asshole you meet in online gaming. Michael’s relationship with his family forms the basis for much of his story but also it weaves into the other character’s narratives as well. Trevor, for example, knew Michael before Los Santos and seems to want Michael's family for his own. Michael’s Soprano-esque trips to his psychologist (who looks remarkably like the late Alan Arbus from M*A*S*H) give us more depth to Michael as he vents his inner demons and lets us know his motivations for what he’s doing. In a nice move these visits to the shrink don’t turn into missions (caveat: after a weekend of playing I’m still not 100% through the story) but they do cost you money.
Franklin is dealing with the hood keeping him down. His attempts to improve his life, by committing higher paying crimes, are derided by his friends and relatives, who say he needs to stay true to his roots. And so from this sense of duty he helps them out. From his best friend Lamar to the meth head wife of his cousin, Franklin is the guy who runs around doing odd jobs for everyone. And while the pay is better, he’s essentially doing the same thing when he joins up with Michael.
Trevor seems to be the only character who is on top of his life. He controls his meth empire by keeping everyone in his vicinity in a state of terror. His best friends Ron, a conspiracy nut, and Wade, a brain dead Juggalo - are actually more servants, too scared to not follow Trevor’s insane plans. I will admit that it took me a long time to warm to Trevor because his redeeming features (and every anti-hero needs redeeming features) are few and very far between.
Continue reading on page 2.