Xbox 360 review: Grand Theft Auto V

(While I’ve dabbled in a little bit of the gameplay of previous Grand Theft Auto titles, GTA V is the first title I have experienced in proper. As I am no longer subscribed to an Xbox Live Gold account, this review only accounts for the single-player mode, as I have not personally experienced the multiplayer angle.)

The game world of Los Santos is absolutely massive – one of, if not the single largest, video game worlds I’ve ever explored. According to Rockstar, Los Santos and the surrounding beach and wilderness environments add up to being bigger than the sum of the maps from Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV, and San Andreas combined – an impressive feat, especially considering the variable nature of an open-world game such as GTA V. And that is one of GTA V’s greatest strengths – the story is kept ever-interesting, due to its unpredictable nature and cleverly-scripted plot points. Each time you think you’ve picked up on the trail of where the narrative is headed, the game throws you a curveball, insisting you focus your efforts elsewhere for a while, or requiring you to change protagonists in order to progress. But this is never done with too much of an emphasis on furthering the story – each of the three lead characters has plenty of side missions to indulge in at any given time, including jet ski races, parachute jumps, assassination gigs, purchasing properties to earn more revenue, robbing gas stations on a whim, or aiding any of the randomly-generated citizen robberies. And that doesn’t even account for the freedom to trick out your car, get a tattoo, buy new duds, sit on your couch and watch a television program, engage in a tennis match, visit the strip club, or any of the many other ‘do-whatever-your-heart-so-desires’ activities available at practically any given point in the game.

GTA V’s gameplay mechanics are notably more impressive as a sum than as individual elements. Gunplay on foot works well enough, with one trigger used to raise the firearm, and the other used to shoot. There is a wide variety of guns to choose from as well, including more practical shotguns, pistols, and automatic rifles, as well as heavy-duty grenade launchers and the ever-amusing minigun. Grenades, sticky detonation bombs, and gas canisters round out your arsenal options, while donning body armor and bulletproofing your vehicle may prove quite valuable for your getaway methods at the conclusion of a heist. Driving any of Los Santos’ motorcycles, sports cars, buses, airplanes, blimps, helicopters, speedboats, ATVs, golf carts, etc. controls smooth as butter, though firing from these rides takes some getting used to. Effectively, the moment you hold down a trigger, you begin spraying bullets at whatever target is nearby. The reticule is a little small for my liking, and even after you’ve spent a few hours familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of GTA V, the driving and shooting segments never feel as well rounded out as most anything else in the game.

Key to the main single-player story are the heists that Michael, Trevor, and Franklin will take part in. There are only a handful of these to accomplish, but each involves a multi-step plan to bring it all together. The trio will be required to gather up the necessary equipment and getaway vehicle prior to the gig, as well as select their approach. Each heist has two possible approaches, which can result in vastly different challenges for players – not so much in the overall difficulty factor, but in the number of foes Michael, Trevor, and Franklin will be pitted against, the distance they have to outrun cops, and the time spent rounding up the necessary goods. The heists are where the stats earned by each of three playable characters prove most important. If one character is better at driving, it makes the most sense to put them on getaway duty. Similarly, the character most capable with firearms should take on the role of providing cover fire.

These heists also require a few extra hands that vary depending on the task at hand. Need to block a police pursuit from a distance? Hire a hacker to switch up the traffic lights. Need a bit more muscle to push through a blockade? Hire a guy who knows how to handle firearms. The catch with each of these roles is that, depending on the approach you choose, certain extra crew members may only see minimal inclusion on the job. It’s often best to pick your battles intelligently – a guy who is good with firearms probably won’t be of much use in a ‘fast and silent’ heist, but a solid getaway driver is key if the approach anticipates a quick reaction from local police. There are always multiple crew members to choose from for a heist, and their own skills will improve with repeated use. That said, the better at their job a hacker or getaway driver is, the more he/she will generally require in a pay cut.

The game may not be the most absolute gorgeous title to be released so late in this console generation, but GTA V looks damn impressive for its scope, nonetheless. As everything in the game is installed prior to your picking up the controller and having your run of this digital city-turned-playground, there is never any need to worry about the draw distance of objects within the environment, the load or save times, or overloading the reactions of the game’s A.I. by forcing too many explosions on the freeway at any given time. That said, Rockstar seems to have amped up the fervor with which cops will pursue you, and more reckless decisions like an attempt to storm the Fort Zancudo military base will likely result in a number of trial-and-error runs, as the patrols therein will attempt to stop you with extreme prejudice. Rockstar has done a phenomenal job in recreating iconic Los Angeles locations with their own signature spins – the attention to detail throughout the game world is utterly superb.

Further solidifying the parody of Los Angeles are the radio stations and denizens of Los Santos. The various stations offer up a wide variety of genres and songs to listen to at your leisure, while the DJs will occasionally interrupt for a brief moment or two to deliver some quip about the sorry state of washed up actors and plastic-injected celebrities in town, or deliver an advertisement for the Los Santos equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. The dialogue between the locals as well as appearances by obvious parodies of Mark Zuckerberg, Ryan Seacrest, and more, make for as entertaining a story as they do as poignant exploration of which icons American pop culture has gravitated towards (for better or worse) during the past five years. The soundtrack is incredibly diverse, with stations catering toward 80s and 90s rap, more recent alternative and electronic tunes, classic rock, country squalls, pop across the decades, and many more. Meanwhile, the original soundtrack composed for this game is a sort of melting pot of funk, R&B, and rock, all in instrumental format that varies between dark and mellow tunes perfect for your time spent cruising the streets of Los Santos, and upbeat and intense tracks more well-suited to gunfights or heists.

Such emphasis on what all comprises the image of the American west coast is a large part of what makes the three distinctly different protagonists interact so successfully with one another. Trevor is quick to point out that Michael’s lifestyle is a pathetic shadow of his former glory days, while Michael retorts that Trevor’s ‘live free and die hard’ lifestyle signifies that he is living too much of his time in the past, and that sooner or later, he’s going to prove too much for Michael or anyone else to handle. Franklin, meanwhile, being the youngest member of the trio, has some of his own experiences from his days hustling the street for his former employer Simeon to bring to the table, but largely draws his inspirations and strategies from Michael. Together, they make a lively cast of very flawed, very human characters, and though each player is likely to have his or her favorite from these three amigos, there is rarely a dull moment, regardless of who you are playing as.

And really, when it all boils down, this is a very character-driven story. The plot is solid in and of itself, focusing on contemporary concerns of reality in a fictional setting. The whole premise of Michael finding himself wrapped up in the affairs of the F.I.B. (a fictional version of the F.B.I.) takes center stage. Trevor’s anarchist/opportunist lifestyle and Franklin’s hopes of moving up and out of the small-town gang lifestyle always tether back to Michael’s story, even after you’ve spent hours performing cartel runs in the desert or dealing with rival gang members in the rougher neighborhoods of Los Santos. It’s curious to see a game that builds so much upon what we as gamers have come to expect of an open-world experience arrive so late in a console generation. With new systems arriving from Sony and Microsoft, and Nintendo’s Wii U already on the market for a year, it would have been easy for other developers to create a sequel off existing framework without changing much beyond the story and setting. But Rockstar has opted to pull all their best punches here, culminating in a game that is the purest form of entertainment and is a modern masterpiece for its genre.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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