Wednesday, 9 October 2013

It’s Criminal

Yes I know, this came out three weeks ago. I know I’ve not mentioned it even slightly before and I know it’s completely different to all the other games I’ve written about so far. But I finally got my grubby, paupers hands on this last week and while I’m nowhere near even halfway through yet I think I’ve managed to get a basic handle on how I feel about it. Oh and there will be small mission SPOILERS for anyone who is concerned about that.

To understand what makes GTA V work, you have to look at the flaws in GTA IV.

Rockstar’s Liberty City based tale of an Eastern European immigrant with a past looking for a new start was grim. It was a dark, depressing tale about the pursuit of the fabled American dream. Niko Bellic, was a man with a violent past who found himself getting pulled deeper into the organised crime and chaos of a digital New York when all he wanted was to live in peace and quite.

Not a bad story, but one that robbed the game of a lot of the humour that was present in its predecessors. Gone were the larger than life weirdoes and nutcases, with only one or two people left to fill that role.

The gameplay itself didn’t fit with the character of Niko, who always lamented the violence in his past, but had absolutely no problem amassing a huge body-count throughout the course of the game. In part that was down to the sandbox nature of the game, allowing players to do whatever they wanted within it, but it made the character seem hollow and hypocritical.

Liberty City itself was dirty, grimy and thoroughly depressing to inhabit as well. Grey, brown, rust and washed out colours made up every corner of this landscape. While no doubt a deliberate design decision it was perhaps too realistic in it’s portrayal of urban-decay. It was an astounding technical achievement and still looks phenomenal today, especially on PC with mods, but it just wasn’t a fun place to be a part of.

Beyond that there really wasn’t that much to do beyond the main missions either. Online modes aside, small mini-games littered the map and players could interact with other characters through their cell phone but it was a far cry from the diversions littering it’s immediate predecessor San Andreas.

GTA V capably addresses all of those concerns.

For the first time in the history of the franchise there is more than one playable character. The triumvirate of Michael, Franklin and Trevor take the franchise forward in a new way, allowing you to play missions from the perspective of whatever one you like and swap between them instantly. Each has a wildly different personality as well. Michael is a retired ex-thief who finds himself drawn back to his old life while his spoiled family falls apart around him. Franklin is the young up and comer, looking to make some money and get out of the gang culture he grew up with. Then there’s Trevor. Wonderful, crazy Trevor. He’s a psychopath pure and simple, but with unresolved history between himself and Michael.

Each character brings something to the table. Michael and Franklin are the straight men, designed to push on with the serious part of the storyline and taking on fairly serious (in tone) missions. Trevor however, is tailor made for all the crazy stuff players tend to get up to on their own. Within a few missions with Trevor you’ll have undergone an arson attack on a rival meth-gang, shot satellite dishes off trailer-park roofs with a Sniper Rifle and stuffed a drunk Chinese business-man into an Ice Box. Suffice to say there is no hypocrisy with him and going on a murderous rampage is entirely within character.

Then there is the city itself. Returning to the state of San Andreas you are treated to a sumptuous homage to modern-day Los Angeles. Los Santos is everything Liberty City was not. It’s bright, colourful and extends far off into the distance beyond it’s city limits.

While not as expansive as the original San Andreas game (There’s no cities of San Fierro or Las Venturas), there are still countless miles of wilderness to the North of the city. Beyond the main storyline there are many diversions including several sports games, hunting, stock market trading as well as the traditional Taxi and Ambulance side missions. Property purchasing makes a welcome return as well, allowing you a constant source of income and often opening up new missions relevant to what you’ve bought.

The traditional structure of getting jobs from characters hasn’t changed. What has been introduced are prep missions. In previous titles a heist would generally take place over one mission, from start to finish. Now you can select a crew and a strategy before doing your prep. Prep may involve stealing some vans that will get you into a target unnoticed, or casing the building with some light recon. These take place over two or three missions before finally carrying out the job. It adds a bit more depth to the game and follows on the style of what was quite easily the best mission from GTA IV

It also takes a couple of cues from Rockstar’s last sandbox epic, Red Dead Redemption. The inclusion of “Strangers and Freaks” side-missions, which involve small contained stories, and random events such as muggings and stick ups which you can intervene in however you see fit, have both made their way to Los Santos. One highly memorable S&F mission saw Michael fighting off drug-induced hallucinations of aliens with a mini-gun.

As always GTA V is as much a love letter to America as it is a scathing indictment of modern society. The parodies fly constantly, including LifeInvader (Facebook), Righteous Slaughter 7 (Call Of Duty) and the return of Republican Space Rangers (My personal favourite). Lazlow, radio shock-jock from each game since GTA III, is finally seen as the host of exploitative talent show Fame or Shame, as well as appearing on the talk radio station. There’s also a TV throwback to the Exploder movies mentioned in radio adverts in Vice City.

The game also comes with GTA Online, which went live a few days ago. At this point I’ve not really done more than dip my toe in it, but I’ll have some opinion up on that within the next week

Overall it’s yet another fantastic title from the team at Rockstar North. To release a title so late in this console cycle that can still impress as much as this does is no mean feat. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see just how much more impressive the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions will be when they finally get released.


GTA V is available now on PS3 and Xbox 360 at retailers or digital download.

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