A few years ago, I was invited to spend a few days in Orlando at Universal Studios’ parks. Every moment I was there, I was overwhelmed by the attention to detail. From the hotel rooms and signage to the parks and customs, everything was seemingly hand-crafted for a purpose, an artist’s hand behind each and every aspect. Nothing was stock or cloned. I’d been to amusement parks before, but this was so much different. It was incredible how much was attempting to grab my attention at any time. Playing Grand Theft Auto V, I felt the same thing: I was visually overwhelmed, but also distracted by any number of side quests and other kitschy activities that didn’t really exist in previous games. Thankfully, that’s what you get when you make the most expensive video game in history. While Rockstar still hasn’t learned all the lessons of its competition, it’s made a sandbox game for the ages.
3 Gangsters, 1 Game
By now, you already know the score on the game’s narrative, so I won’t bore you with details. Rather than playing with one protagonist, Grand Theft Auto V presents a trio of interlocking characters and the ability to switch between them in the world of San Andreas at any time. Michael’s yarn is the key pillar here; he plays a retired bank robber that earns the beef of psychopathic hillbilly Trevor after their shared bank heist prologue goes south. On the other hand, Franklin is the new kid, tired of risking his life in the hood for miniscule payoffs. While they each have their own issues to handle – Michael, his dysfunctional family; Trevor, his bizarre business dealings; Franklin, his aunt – they spend a sizable chunk of time arranging and pulling off heists, which are the crown jewel of GTAV‘s story.
Partnering with your long-time logistics man Lester, you set up heists of escalating scale. You’ll make some broad decisions in how you want to pull them off, which sets up subsequent planning missions to arrange for transportation, case your location, etc. You’ll also pick out your crew, some of whom are available to start, but can also be found randomly in San Andreas. The more a crew member brings to the table, the bigger their take will be, so you’ll need to balance how much you’ll want to pocket versus how well you’re able to pull off the heist at all. A bad driver carrying a third of your take may crash out in your escape and that’s gone forever because you cut corners. On the flip side, those who work with you successfully improve and it’s impressive to see Michael reflect positively on bringing old crew back into the fold for a new task. You’re not going to get into any Rainbow Six-level depth as far as any decisions here, but you’ll notice it wouldn’t quite fit in with the rest of the game. The real problem with the heists is that there’s also not nearly enough of them. I suppose Grand Theft Auto Online will pick up a lot of that slack in the short-term. (There’s always DLC, single-players!)
Actually, there’s another problem with the heists: much of the non-heisting narrative is pretty lumpy – in a Michael Bay-esque just-throw-everything-in-there fashion. Grand Theft Auto is known for its satire, but a particular mission involving torture feels tacked on as cheap commentary. In fact, while the game has you pulling off a variety of selfish, violent deeds, the characters preach, sometimes without context, about outsourcing, the military-industrial complex, the War on Terror and other topical issues. Whether it’s ironic or not, it’s tacky. Sixteen years after the series’ debut, the game’s radio stations have also become anachronistic as commentary. Hey, Lazlow still loves hookers and cocaine. Surprise! Commentary aside, the story loses steam at points as it goes on various tangents and just as you get excited about one thread, you run out of missions and need to switch characters. On the plus side, advancement isn’t based on getting pulled down a series of pedantic missions like in the drab Grand Theft Auto IV. In fact, there’s plenty to do…