Via a Game Informer magazine cover story, Rockstar has finally revealed the first concrete details on Grand Theft Auto V, which will be one of the biggest (and last) blockbuster games of this entire console generation. Grand Theft Auto IV has sold over 25 million copies globally since its 2008 release, and financial expectations for GTA V are so high that its delay into fiscal 2014 (spring 2013) caused publisher Take Two to readjust its earnings goal by hundreds of millions of dollars.
While no one doubts Grand Theft Auto V will sell phenomenally well, some of today’s reveal, and especially certain comments from Rockstar Games vice president of creative Dan Houser, have us slightly concerned. After all, if 2012 has proven anything, it’s that giants can and will eventually fall.
The biggest change to the Grand Theft Auto formula is the implementation of three playable protagonists. Multiple main characters are nothing new to video games, though it is rare, given the difficulty for most developers to even build a convincing and worthwhile story for a single hero. However, Rockstar’s going one step further and allowing players to switch control between each character on the fly. You can be living large in one character’s mansion in the city of Los Santos one moment and then zoom out to a Google Earth-style overmap and come crashing down to possess another character several miles away.
This swap mechanic will also factor into story missions. It’s ballsy and risky, but if executed properly, the idea is that you’ll spend less time doing mundane (but normally necessary) activities such as ladder-climbing and more time focusing on action sequences.
Meet the ‘heroes’
Michael, the star of the first trailer, is a highly successful but retired bank robber. He currently resides in a mansion in the Los Santos equivalent of Beverly Hills, but his personal life has got him wanting back in the game. He has a hate-hate relationship with his wife, who spends most of her time burning through his money on shopping sprees, and his teenage son and daughter provide plenty of conflict as well.
Trevor (pictured above, left) is a war veteran/drug addict who lives out in the desert amid meth heads and bikers. He seems like what Lynch from Kane & Lynch would be if IO Interactive had reasonably competent writers. And Franklin (center), is a 20-something hustler working as a repoman. The chop shop missions were always some of my favorite in past games, so hopefully Rockstar can make it fresh and exciting again through Franklin’s story.
“Diversity” must mean something different to Rockstar
The word “diversity” is thrown around a lot in the GTA V cover story, but looking at the three main characters, I can’t help but feel like we’re just circling familiar territory. There three characters this time around, and not one of them is female? Or Asian? Or Hispanic?
No matter how interesting these characters end up being, the playable roster seems like a missed opportunity to really shake the GTA formula up.
Los Santos, again
Although Rockstar has tried to replicate Los Angeles many times before, including in LA Noire, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and the Los Santos region of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it felt it still needed to do a “proper” version of L.A. Rockstar claims Los Santos is larger than the worlds of Red Dead Redemption, San Andreas, and GTA IV combined and will include a wide array of environments, including city, desert, and hints of underwater excursions.
To get around, players will have access to plenty of cars and trucks, BMX bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, dirt bikes, ATVs, Jet Skis, and helicopters. Planes are also included, which you gain early access because of Trevor, who was a pilot in the military.
Rockstar is promising improved side activities, including yoga, triathalons, jet skiing, base-jumping, tennis, and a complete golf course. “What we learned on the best aspects of GTA IV and Red Dead was that it’s better to have one really good design team [?] than five half-assed one that aren’t that fun.”
Most side activities will be available to all three main characters, but Rockstar says it “wants one or two key minigame activities per character to really help the characters get separated from each other.”
In worlds as large as this, it’s important to build not only entertaining optional content but also something rewarding as well. Assassin’s Creed III had lots of “stuff” to do, but none of it ultimately mattered in relation to the rest of the game. I’m not sure any one open-world game has nailed down its optional content perfectly, including past Rockstar games, and Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of space to fill.
Customize your look, not your gut
In San Andreas, players could feed and exercise CJ to change him physically and impact his stats and abilities. In GTA V, this is no longer possible, and each of three main characters has skillsets all their own.
This omission doesn’t seem to be a decision made for a better game, but rather because implementing it was too “hard” for Rockstar. “The main thing is at a technical level,” says Houser, “to get the changing scale of the character — to get them bigger and smaller — is hard, and in San Andreas the standard definition graphics were more forgiving.”
That’s what being one of the leading developers in the industry is all about, right? Taking the easy way out and excluding popular features that previous games did years ago. In all seriousness, part of why Grand Theft Auto IV felt underwhelming to me is because its predecessor dwarfed it in terms of content. It took the franchise several steps back instead of moving it forward, and if advancing technology is going to cause developers to remove as much (or more) as they add, that’s kind of a big problem.
Building a better bank-buster
The uniting factor between all three main characters is money. More specifically, bank heists, which GTA V focuses on more than any other entry in the series. The movie Heat has influenced plenty of missions in open-world crime games, and Rockstar intends to include multiple this time around.
“People are in love with doing the bank jobs, particularly when they feel like they have prepped the bank jobs,” says Houser. “We’ve never felt we’ve done a great job with a bank job, so we decided, ‘Let’s properly invest the story and the mission design for some of the missions into making some of these built out series of heists.’”
Don’t expect pitch-perfect photorealism
One of the more interesting tidbits of the feature is Rockstar’s intentional approach to near-photorealism. “I think photorealism is a bit of a boring goal, actually. It’s not really a goal at all, more an inevitable technical achievement. Pushing Grand Theft Auto a bit toward photorealism has suited its grittier approach, but it’s vitally important to give the world and the characters in it their own personality. It’s just more fun, more interesting, and — to me at least — a lot more appealing.”
Grand Theft Auto V is being developed on Rockstar’s proprietary RAGE engine, which has been used to power games as far back as 2006’s Rockstar Table Tennis.
Oppa Molyneux style
This reveal feature has me concerned in a few places where Houser says he felt previous games didn’t quite execute on something very well. Houser describes all the improvements being made to the gameplay and reflects on the downsides of previous games, calling the cars in GTA IV “big and boatlike.” Likewise, Houser’s comments about never creating a great bank heist mission leads me to ask why they didn’t work to get it right the first time around? What aspect of GTA V will Houser be lamenting when it’s time to promote the next Red Dead game?
Too soon to tell
As I said at the opening of this article, Rockstar has given us a lot to excited about, but GTA V also some warning signs that don’t even require much reading between the lines. Despite GTA’s nearing spring 2013 release window, there seems to be an awful lot that even the developers don’t know about the game yet. This includes non-vital elements such as the melee combat, the final quality of which Houser says depends on “the resources we allocate to it.” That’s not a very firm commitment. But it also extends to the side missions and core character switching mechanic too.
Likewise, Rockstar’s fairly pristine track record has notably wavered a bit recently. Any game it releases demands a massive amount of hype on par with anything from Blizzard, and the sales certainly follow, but the actual quality of Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV certainly left some, such as myself, wanting. If something as highly anticipated as Diablo III can be a massive letdown, then certainly Grand Theft Auto V and the people who published L.A. Noire are not infallible.
All that said, I’m still looking forward to the second trailer, which Rockstar will be releasing on November 14.