Sex, and drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; all of these are vital pieces of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The latest instalment that has been 5 years in the making doesn’t disappoint in any of these areas, but it has done a lot of growing up since our last jaunt with Niko Bellic, and it’s really benefited from its time away from us.
In a slight change from previous titles in the series, GTA5 sees you taking control of not just one, but three characters. This in itself is a complex dynamic, but one that Rockstar have managed to achieve not only well, but with a certain degree of elegance.
The three characters that you take control of all have their own backgrounds, and people who make their stories original and interesting. Franklin is a young man looking for a way out of the criminal life his friends seem to thrive in. In trying to escape his old way of life and find a more legal route of funding his lifestyle, he inadvertently ends up doing the opposite and going deeper and deeper into the world of crime, bank robberies and government torture.
Michael is a retired gangster, lapping up his time off by the pool and drowning himself in alcohol, all while trying his best to maintain his relationship with his family, but the allure of his old life just keeps pulling him back in. A complete cliché, Michael is trying so hard to enjoy his retirement, that he simply can’t, and like Franklin, he accidentally walks straight back into his old life of crime.
Then you’ve got Trevor, the self-confessed lunatic of the game. Living in hillbilly land, Trevor is certainly a man to be reckoned with, and his missions are among some of the craziest in the game. With a sharp tongue and a penchant for violence, you certainly need to have a strong stomach and a sturdy backbone to roll with Trevor.
When it comes to switching between characters, it really couldn’t get much more fluid if it tried. It takes merely a few seconds to load a different character, but you’re never confronted with a loading screen. Instead, the camera zooms out of your current location, and moves over to where your chosen character is. They could be chilling out at their safe house, they could be out getting drunk with some pals, or they could even be driving at great speed down the freeway trying to escape the police. This brilliant transition means that you’re never going to find your character in the same place twice, and they’re always doing something, they never remain static. You don’t just leave them to sit down for hours while you run around with someone else. They continue to thrive and operate within the world, without any direct control from you.
This really shines when it comes to group missions though. During a heist, you may need to be in several places at once, and with the split character mechanic, this is not only possible, but super fun. Franklin may be waiting in the getaway vehicle, while Michael sneaks quietly into a building, leaving Trevor as backup to rain down bullets if they’re detected. The switch between characters during missions like this is even more fluid, taking but a split second to change. Of course, the characters will continue to do their pre programmed job, until you take control and step in to up the ante.
That leads us onto another new aspect in GTA5; the skill system. Each character has their own speciality to start off with. Franklin is the best driver, Trevor is the best pilot, and Michael is the best at stealth. Naturally, each character has their uses in different situations, but each can be trained in the areas they’re perhaps not so good at. Certain missions will require you to take a character to flight school, to ensure they can drive the getaway vehicle without crashing. Other characters may need to go and spend some time down at the shooting range to improve their firearms abilities. Now, it’s important to note that it’s not as complex as an RPG. You simply do lots of the same thing, and your skill will increase. There’s no song and dance about it, a small icon just pops up in the corner every time your skill improves.
It’s worth noting here that vehicles are much easier to drive this time around as well, but there is a better distinction between cars and bikes than ever before. Mopeds are ridiculously slow, as well as garbage trucks and buses. On the flip side, if you’re thinking of picking up a fancy new sports car, then you’d better hope you’ve got a good driving skill level, because you don’t want to bash that beauty up too much.
One of the most interesting game play additions in GTA5 is the use of the mobile phone. It sounds like something so simple and mundane, but each characters’ mobile phone holds an opportunity to delve further into their background story, really getting a feel for their relationships. You can reply to text messages, call friends and family up to hang out, and you receive live email updates from Ammu-Nation and the local garages to tell you when new stock arrives. It makes it feel like a living, breathing environment, and really sucks you in the more you play.
It’s not all missions and stat boosting though; there are so many other things to do in Los Santos, that it’s quite easy to lose a lot of time to it. Hobbies become available as you progress through the game, and you meet strangers who can take part in these hobbies with you. A certain mission will find you driving a stranger to the golf course to escape from his crazy wife. This turns into an offer to play golf with him some time. His number is added to your phone, and presuming he’s not busy, you can give him a call and shoot a few holes with him if you fancy some down time after your latest heist.
It wouldn’t be a GTA game without the recreation of strippers and prostitutes, and while this may grind the gears of some, it simply wouldn’t be the same without them. Instead of just picking up prostitutes on the street, you can enter strip clubs for a private dance, or simply ‘make it rain’ dollars in the main room with all the other lecherous observers. There’s even the opportunity to flirt with the girls and take them home for a little one on one time. Some may argue this is unnecessary, and degrading to women, but ask yourself this; would it be the same without it? It’s a device that’s always been there in GTA, and it’s not one that is going to be going away any time soon, so leave your reservations at the door, and enjoy it for what it is. A few pixelated breasts never hurt anyone, so experience everything Los Santos has to offer.
Something that so many other reviews appear to have ignored is the iFruit app, and this is where the game enters potentially troubled waters. The iFruit app is a companion for the game, allowing you to stay immersed in the world at all times. Complete with small mini games, the game is always reminding you that in order to enhance your experience, you should really get this app. That’s all very well, if you’re an iPhone user. If you’re an Android user? Well, the app isn’t out yet, and that really is a frustrating factor to the game. Knowing that the iPhone posse are enjoying what you can’t have is frustrating, and it’s made even worse by Rockstar telling us it’s ‘coming soon’. After 5 years in the making, it seems bizarre that Rockstar would forget such a potentially large portion of their market. As an Android user, it makes you not want to play the game until the app comes out, in case you miss something incredible in terms of gameplay.
Thankfully, this little niggle doesn’t detract too much from your enjoyment of the game, and the undeniable beauty of the scenery soon makes you forget. Thanks to the length of time it took to make this game, the graphics have been considerably improved, with much more fluid character movement and improved character models. It still retains some of that vibrant, cartoony charm to it, but this is overall a much more realistic experience than we have seen previously.
And what would a Grand Theft Auto game be without its staple radio stations? There’s a station for everyone, and each character also has their favourite that their own vehicles will be tuned into. You can change the station to whatever you want once you’re in control, but it adds yet another element of realism to the game, and reminds you that these characters, although they may not be real, have their own ways of living when you’re not around to point them in the direction you want. Another bonus of listening to the radio, is that whatever you do that is crime related, will soon crop up on the news. So you may find yourself casually driving down the freeway, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden your most recent bank job is mentioned. It’s just one last thing that makes the city of Los Santos feel alive, and proves that Rockstar have created something unmissable.
Overall, GTA5 is a fantastic game, but a game that has suffered just a little bit because of the hype. It’s such a vast improvement on previous titles in the series, that the issues it does have, are almost completely ignored. Fans of the series will lap up every single hour, every single modification and every single plot thread, but if open world gaming isn’t exactly your favourite genre, then you may still be on the fence with this one.