Only one word can describe how I felt when I blasted Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” from my car as the cops chased me down a busy boulevard: magical. In that gloriously random moment, Grand Theft Auto V gave the obscure ’80s hit new meaning, evolving from a cheap pop song into a rousing anthem of survival.
GTA V (out Sept. 17 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) is full of such little details. The next entry in Rockstar Games’ blockbuster open-world crime series, reportedly costing $265 million to develop, puts you in control of three characters: Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. You’ll help them make a dishonest living in Los Santos, a satirical take on Los Angeles and the areas surrounding it. Anyone familiar with the real city will recognize the accurate but slightly skewed re-creations of places like Beverly Hills and the TCL Chinese theatre as you lie, kill, and steal.
While we’ll have to wait until Oct. 1 to see how GTA V’s multiplayer mode, Grand Theft Auto Online, turns out, the single-player content shows that Rockstar is once again the master of crafting believable open worlds. But pushing those boundaries does come with a cost.
What you’ll like
Quenching your wanderlust
After a lengthy introduction, I grabbed a car and drove as far as I could just to see what was in store for me over the next couple of days. GTA V has the largest map Rockstar has ever made in any of its open-world releases. Los Santos is a city of contrast: Beautiful areas filled with expensive clothing stores, movie studios, and superficial pedestrians are just a few seconds’ drive away from the poorer (and more industrial) sections of the neighborhood, where police helicopters regularly comb through with harsh spotlights while gangs and drug addicts roam the streets.
If you get too tired of the city, you can head north toward Blaine County to see wind turbines, valleys, forests, swamps, deserts, mountains, and small towns. Various side missions, activities, characters, and beasts fill each of these areas as well. They look and feel as if people and animals have lived in them for years. Most impressive of all was the Pacific Ocean. Below its crashing waves and the rush of whitewater is a sea floor (complete with coral reefs and sharks) that you can explore at your whim. I’m still not sure how deep it goes, but I can’t wait to get back in a submarine and see the rest of it for myself.
That enduring sense of mystery is what makes GTA V so addicting. Even though I’ve already completed the story and spent almost 50 hours living in this world through the eyes of three characters, I’m still hungry for more.
The first six to 10 hours is the typical GTA experience of driving around town and accepting missions to move the story forward. It isn’t until the swap mechanic becomes available that GTA V starts to separate itself from its siblings. Except in cases where the story forces you to play as one character over another, you can take control of a specific protagonist at any time by holding down on the D-pad and bringing up the Character Wheel.
You’re not just switching one avatar for another. Franklin, Trevor, and Michael all have special abilities that are useful for specific situations. Michael’s power slows down time in combat, giving you a chance to take better shots; Trevor’s increases the damage he deals while decreasing the damage he takes; and Franklin’s makes him the ultimate wheelman, since he can drive cars with superhuman precision. The Character Wheel invigorates the process of traveling through the 49 square-mile land mass and gives you time to learn about the types of people who live there.
Swapping especially comes in handy during the heist missions, where all three guys plan increasingly complex crimes designed to steal valuable items from high-security areas. You get to choose how you approach these: go in loud with guns and vehicles, or take a stealthier approach, sneaking in and out. You also pick additional crew members — gunmen and drivers — to aid you. I expected to see more customization options, but GTA V gives you enough agency to make you feel like you’re the mastermind behind those operations.
These missions aren’t too difficult, but knowing when to switch to the right guy at the right time is crucial if you want to make a clean getaway. Having to worry about the lives of three characters instead of one makes the outcome even more gratifying.
It brings back some of the weirdness from past games
The last time we were in Los Santos in GTA: San Andreas, things got a little weird, with Bigfoot sightings, jet packs, and the odd people you’d find while exploring. The developers scaled back from that silliness in favor of a more serious tone for GTA IV. GTA V follows suit … but only to a point. Though it doesn’t happen too often, Rockstar Games has brought back some of those “Did they really put that in there!?” moments in funny and unexpected ways, including alien sightings, surreal drug sequences, and a bearded man who says he’s Jesus.
Characters you grow to love (and hate)
Michael, Franklin, and Trevor aren’t what you’d call good guys. They’re thieves and murderers who, for the most part, are just trying to make a quick buck, and at least one of them is a sociopath. Dangerous events bring these distinctive criminals together, and the result is often entertaining and darkly comical as their personalities inevitably clash. And while Michael and Franklin are far from being sympathetic, I found enough redeeming qualities in their personal tales to make me care about them. Trevor is a bit more complicated.
Michael is a retired criminal who gets pulled back into a life of crime, but underneath his tough-guy façade is a genuine passion and love for protecting his family. Franklin is the youngest of the three and knows how hard drugs and petty crimes have negatively affected his neighborhood, and he does whatever he can to get out of there. Though he comes off as being selfish and arrogant, he never forgets the friends that have been there for him since the beginning.
And then we have Trevor. He’s the type of guy who’d kill you if you just looked at him in the wrong way. He’s also loud, obnoxious, and creepy. Watching his temper explode is sometimes funny, but it evokes more of a nervous laughter, the kind you feel guilty about after realizing what you were laughing at. Every time I played one of his story missions, I felt dirty and switched to the others as soon as I could. If anything, a morbid curiosity drove me to finish his tale rather than pure enjoyment.
It’s easy to become emotionally invested in these guys because Rockstar’s tech has advanced so much since the last time we saw a GTA game. Just for fun, I popped in Grand Theft Auto IV (released in 2008) to see how it compares, and the differences between them surprised me. GTA IV looks oppressively dim and ugly next to the crisp colors and clarity of Los Santos. The main characters look and act more like real people — you no longer see the hard, jagged lines and vertices of their polygons.
It’s amazing to see the weariness in Michael’s eyes, the earnestness in Franklin’s facial expressions, and the boiling rage spewing from Trevor’s body language.
What you won’t like
Uncomfortable brush with reality
I’ve always considered GTA games like cartoons. They’re super violent, but they’re also foul-mouthed and silly looking enough to not take them too seriously (like South Park). But now that it looks and sounds better than it ever has, I’ve reached a point where I’m uncomfortable doing certain things. Take the prostitutes you can have sex with in your car. In past games, I picked them up, watched them do the deed, and then killed them to take my money back. It didn’t faze me at all.
When I tried that in GTA V, it just felt wrong. I stabbed one of the women with a knife after she walked out of the car and stared at her body on the ground for a few seconds. I couldn’t dismiss it as just a comical death anymore. I immediately thought, “Wow, I’m a horrible person in this game.” Another moment that gave me pause was during a scene where Trevor had to torture a guy by using a set of squirm-inducing tools: pliers, a gas can filled with water, jumper cables, and a sledgehammer. After my initial disbelief passed, a feeling of dread set in. It didn’t feel good at all to hurt him. That could be what the game designers were going for, since the scene does fit with Trevor’s personality, but that doesn’t make it any less gross to see.
Everything else I did in GTA V — shooting, blowing up mercenaries, running over pedestrians — didn’t bother me. It was the intimacy of those encounters, putting me face to face with my victims, that forced me to take a step back and think about what I was really doing. Your reaction might differ, as a lot of this comes from my own changing views over the years. Violence for violence’s sake just doesn’t appeal to me anymore.
To be clear, I’m not calling for censorship or anything like that. I know some of these acts are optional. And for whatever reason, other brutal games (like The Last of Us) haven’t affected me in the same way. I just think we’ve hit a crossroads of sorts with the Grand Theft Auto series. As the graphics get better — and the blood becomes more viscous and the injuries become painful to watch — the violence looks more real and gut-wrenching. The fact that all this takes place inside of a world that satirizes our own only seems to enhance, and not diminish, what we see and do onscreen.
As big as GTA V is, I can’t help but feel like Rockstar underutilized some of the locations. A lot of the missions happen either in Los Santos or a desert area called Sandy Shores, with a few encounters sprinkled around both counties. But because of this, a few of the smaller places go by unnoticed, barely serving any purpose for the story. Places like Little Seoul (a Koreatown), Vespucci Beach, Del Perro Pier (boardwalk with carnival rides), and the mountainous regions are pretty to look at and may have one or two objectives, but that’s about it. You can hardly interact with anything in those areas.
Not enough heist missions
As fun as I had with planning a heist, you don’t get too many opportunities to do it. I don’t remember the exact number, but you only do around five or six of them. You can double that by replaying them to see what happens if you made the other choices, but I wish GTA V had a larger pool to pick from.
Dying between long checkpoints
Another consequence of GTA V’s huge map is how much you have to travel during some of the missions. If you happen to die — while accidentally crashing your vehicle, suffering bullet wounds, or getting stuck in the occasional glitch — you have to make the long trek all over again. It’s annoying the first or second time it happens, but each successive death increases the frustration.
Time just melted away as I lived a second, third, and fourth life in GTA V. The experience consists of more than just crimes. I played tennis, enrolled in a flight school, captured fugitives, watched movies, and towed cars. A lot of that doesn’t sound fun on paper, but they bring some semblance of real life to a world that otherwise runs on its own bizarre rules.
Michael, Franklin, and Trevor embody the best and worst of what Los Santos and Blaine County have to offer. They’re not heroes, but despite my conflicted feelings, the engrossing narrative pulls you into their personal lives and the violent conquests they embark on. You’re both a witness and accomplice in their crimes. Depending on your personal tastes, that can come off as being repulsive, funny, or somewhere in between. You can also just ignore the story completely and spend hours looking for Bigfoot again in the mountains.
Exercising that freedom of choice is what helped launch Grand Theft Auto to popularity in the first place. Rockstar doesn’t always hit its ambitious goals, but it comes pretty damn close, and that’s enough to make Grand Theft Auto V its finest GTA game to date.
Grand Theft Auto V is out Sept. 17 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The publisher provided GamesBeat with the PS3 version for the purpose of this review.