The Grand Theft Auto series is showing its age, and I couldn't be happier. With Grand Theft Auto V fixing almost all of the problems of its predecessors, its moved the series from "guilty pleasure" to "must play" in my eyes.
The first hour or so had me fooled. Robbery goes wrong. Cut to nine years later. "Michael," who survived the robbery, is talking about how rotten his life is since going straight. Camera pan to the poor side of town, and I'm given control of a young man in the 'hood named Frankie trying to make legitimate money as a repo man. Two repo jobs later and I'm just about ready to start smashing up the city.
The I was thrown a curveball: The next repo job had me going to a posh house. When I used a decent stealth system (welcome addition) to get the vehicle from inside the house, Michael's in back! Turns out his good-for-nothing son bought the car at a horrible price, and Michael wants revenge on the guy who sold it to him... Frankie's boss.
From this point, GTAV is anything but typical. Michael is a complex, brooding man who, through a horrible decision during a revenge mission, is 2.5 million dollars in debt. He likes Frankie, and decides to help mentor him into someone who can make some real money.
You get to play as Frankie or Michael at any time. Some missions are unique to each: some can be done by either. Main missions, however, generally use both. At one point, I was driving as Michael, with Frankie jumping onto a truck carrying Michael's yacht on it. I could switch perspectives at any time, giving me a sense of control new to the series.
There is a third character you get to play as, who shows up about a quarter of the way into the main missions. Trevor, who used to work with Michael, is a former Pilot-in-training who was too psycho to be given clearance to fly for the military. By the time we meet him, he's a raging psychopathic meth head who wants in on whatever Michael has going on.
Having the ability to play as three different character types, switching between them at any time, put a whole new perspective on how I played this GTA compared to earlier installments. As Frankie, I never felt an urge to go around mindlessly smashing, and his missions reflect a naivety and reluctance to go too far. Michael, who is by far the most interesting to play as, is constantly dealing with his crumbling family. The interactions with his overweight, pot-smoking, video-game-playing gangsta wannabe son, Jimmy, are some of the funniest I've played in a while. Jonah Hill was perfectly cast in this role, and his on-screen likeness is uncanny. Trevor's missions are grizzly and gruesome.
Everything about the gameplay has been tightened up. Running from the cops, which lost its novelty to me in 2003, is now an activity you only participate in during missions unless you really go looking for them. No more will you have a trail of cops on your tail for bumping the rear-end of a car sitting at a green light.
Rockstar cleverly flipped their own script for this numbered entry in the series. In the old games, missions were obnoxious, repetitve chores with no in-mission checkpoints or solid enemy tracking, especially in high-speed pursuits. I'd usually get stuck on a really long, boring mission, then spend hours cracking myself up by causing mayhem. With part five, I can't wait to get to the next mission. There's a natural progression to them. The game isn't linear, but side quests are easy to find, mostly unique, and always fun. I never felt the urge to go off script and shoot up a building because I was bored with the main game.
Driving, swimming, and flying have all been greatly improved. The cars have more weight now, and they don't blow up as easily. The most welcome change is in the simplicity of Los Santos' (and neighboring cities) layouts. I never felt lost or stuck; My intuition on when to go off road or stay on the main path were almost always right because of the intuitive map design and interaction. The first time I flew an airplane, I completed a mission and landed it all in one try, and it was very fun.
The best missions in the game are called "heists," where you have to scope out an area first, put together a group of experts, and carry out the job using a number of options presented to you after you've gathered all the assests needed for the gig. It's so much more gratifying to steal a massive harbor boat when it's all planned out instead of just running in with guns blazing.
My favorite missions were the ones marked by question marks on the map, called "Strangers and Freaks" missions. As the moniker implies, you never know what to expect from these missions. Without spoiling anything, I recommend you find the guy sitting at a table with a small banner saying "make weed legal." You won't be disappointed at the surprising details of this mission.
There's a leveling system of sorts, which is new to the series. The more you shoot/drive/swim/etc., the better you get at those skills. It's a simple series of meters showing progression, but it's still better than no Experience Point system at all.
The few minor gripes I have with GTA V stem from the things that haven't changed. Rockstar's never ending multimedia denouncing of the hypocrisy of our capitalist system is played out. If they've ever written any subtlety into these bits, the editors went back and had it taken out. Also, the writers can't seem to let go of their Tarantino complex when writing for black characters. The constant n-bombs and MF'ers are funny for a little while, but I wouldn't mind seeing a little more evolution in their dialogue in future releases.
GTAV is not the reboot that some were calling for, but I'm okay with that. If you still get off on going around killing strippers while listening to "Gin and Juice," have at it. But Rockstar has moved the series into a more mature direction that's appealing to gamers like me who are looking for more.
-Review by Tom McDaniel
-Review by Tom McDaniel