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REVIEW: GRAND THEFT AUTO V

Lets all move to Los Santos

Few could argue that GTA V has been possibly the most hotly anticipated title of the year.  Rockstar had initially hoped to release in Q2, but made a statement back in January stated that they wanted more time to polish the game.

And polish it they have.  GTA V could be the most complete game of all time, read on to find out more.

Background an Premise

The original Grand Theft Auto was a top-down sandbox game where the nameless player worked his way up from street hustler to Mafia kingpin by any means necessary.  Players could control the protagonist on foot or in vehicles as he shot, cheated, lied and stole his way to the top.  At the time of its release Rockstar were heavily criticised for the violence and crime levels in the game, which ultimately helped sell more units as the game was featured on pretty much every major news network.

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Fast forward to 2001 and Rockstar released GTA III, the first release in the franchise to feature a fully 3D Sandbox environment.  The premise of the game was more or less the same as the first two titles, but it was made all the more real for being rendered in 3D.  The fictional city of Liberty City borrowed heavily from New York in terms of architecture and culture.  Once again there was a huge public outcry and sales of the game on the PlayStation 2 went through the roof.  The game also spawned two PS2 sequels, Vice City and San Andreas.  VC took place in a 1980′s Miami inspired environment, while SA was set in a spin of early 90′s Los Angeles.

Then in 2008, Rockstar released GTA IV, which was once again set in Liberty City, only this time the city was absolutely huge.  Seriously, I still get lost on occasion when playing it.  IV was a massive commercial success and broke the boundaries when it came to realism.  At the time it was believed that Rockstar were really pushing the boundaries of the PS3 and XBOX360 hardware, in fact there were many publicised cases of GTA IV causing the “Red Ring of Death” on older XBOX consoles.

Then it all went a bit quiet.  Rockstar worked on other titles including Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 and L.A. Noire, all of which were heavily praised for their realism and intricate story lines.  Now, though, we have another GTA.  The fifth instalment is set in Los Santos, which featured originally in San Andreas and borrows heavily from the architecture and culture of LA.  Like previous instalments, GTA V focusses on progressing through the tiers of organised crime in order to amass money and fame, and its absolutely bloody gorgeous.

Story

As with previous GTA titles, the main focus of the game is to progress the protagonist through the world of organised crime, while at the same time settling personal vendettas and amassing a large fortune.  Unlike any prior game, though, the player takes on the role of three separate characters, each with their own back story and goals.

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The main part of the game focusses around Michael, Franklin and Trevor, who each have their own troubles and interests going on outside of the main story arc that brings them together.  It’s difficult to go too much into detail without giving away aspects of the plot, but suffice to say that the main story arc of the game involves a series of robberies that the player undertakes using these three characters.

When not undertaking these robberies, the player can guide each of the characters through their own personal story arcs, each with their own highly polished series of characters and missions.

For fans of the series, there are several faces from previous games that are either mentioned in conversation or show up in person.  Early in the game, an associate of Michael’s proclaims that there “was this Eastern European guy up in Liberty City, but he went quiet”, referring to Niko Bellic, the main protagonist from GTA IV.  Other references are more obvious, including the odd cameo from previous games.  There’s also a bit of discussion online as to whether Franklin could be the son of CJ, the main character from GTA: San Andreas.  Franklin appears to be in his mid 20′s, and San Andreas was set in 1992, so it is a possibility, though thus far in my playing experience it hasn’t come to light.

Graphics

In 2008 there were many people who said that GTA IV had maximised the potential of the PS3 and XBOX360.  Those people must be about ready to eat their hats at this point because GTA V blows its predecessor out of the water when it comes to looks.

Characters are modelled and animated so much better than in any GTA game previously, actually, better than almost any game that’s ever been made.  Rockstar look to have borrowed heavily from the L.A. Noire engine in order to get the characters looking and acting right.  They’re still obviously CGI, but they’re definitely more human than we’ve seen in any game of this type before.  The main protagonists are each beautifully detailed, and even NPC’s that you pass in the street contain a high level of finish.

Then there’s the world itself.  What can I say: I want to move to Los Santos.  Rockstar have created the most complete sandbox world of any game up to this point.  Every last inch of the world is beautifully rendered and the attention to detail is flawless.  For the first couple of hours I spent playing the game I found myself constantly crashing in to things as I took in my surroundings.  I’ve also found myself just stopping to take a look around at various points in order to take it all in.  Clearly, a lot of time and effort has gone in to making this world as real as it possibly could be, almost to the point of distraction.

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Water effects in particular simply blew my mind the first time I stopped off at the docks.  If I didn’t know better I would have said that I was watching a move, it was that realistic.  Unfortunately, when you dive into the water it’s a different matter entirely.  The underwater sections of the map simply don’t equal the level of detail that’s apparent above the waves.

Outside of the city, a great amount of time has gone into building the various mountain ranges and lakes that make up the north half of the map.  The world here is in stark contrast to the optical feast that is the down town areas.  Still, they feel well polished and few could argue that they don’t look beautiful.

Cars and bikes in the game are expertly modelled upon real vehicles.  Though they remain legally distinct, there’s no denying the presence of Range Rovers, the BMW Mini, VW Campers, Audi A6′s and the Toyota Prius.  Quite how Rockstar have gotten away with this I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t bet against a major car manufacturer seeking an injunction at some point.

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When it comes to effects such as explosions, fire, tire tracks and weather: these can sometimes feel a little rushed when compared to the level of detail shown in the world itself.  That’s not to say that they look bad, in fact they look fantastic, but it is one area where you just know they could have been improved upon.

I can’t speak for the PS3 version, but on XBOX360 there does seem to be a slight issue with graphical performance as a result of loading the second game DVD onto an internal hard disk.  Some websites are reporting that surfaces are taking longer to render and there’s a definite lag when playing the game.  My personal experience is that for the vast majority of the time there is no issue with either of these things, though on ocassion the game engine may take slightly longer to render a surface than we might like.

Sound

Previous games in this franchise have been praised for their music and sound effects, and this instalment does not disappoint.  Radio channels again feature A-list talent such as Britney Spears, Rhianna, Queen, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Wham, Stevie Wonder, The Pet Shop Boys, the list goes on and on.  The use of the radio to provide the player with updated news from around the city also makes a return, with Weazel News frequently interrupting our scheduled broadcast in order to provide additional information.

When not listening to the radio, you’ll be treated to an aural symphony of background noise that helps make the environment feel almost real.  Just standing by the side of the road you’ll be able to make out conversations from passing pedestrians, motorcycle exhausts echoing between the buildings, and sirens in the distance chasing down some petty thief.  Outside of the city, you’ll hear the roar of the interstate and all of the sounds that you’d associate with a rural environment.  It really does have to be listened to to be believed, it’s the strangest thing and it does an excellent job of immersing the player in the virtual world.

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Sound effects are also near perfect, with vehicle noises in particular being spot on.  Not only do you get a variety of engine tones and tyre squeals that you’d expect, you also hear how the cow is interacting with the environment itself.  For instance, you’ll have the opportunity to drive a car over the railway tracks, and when you do you’ll be able to pick up a clear distinction in sound depending on whether you’re driving over the railway sleepers, the gravel or the loose dirt and sand that’s laid by the tracks.  Rockstar also seem to have acknowledged the Doppler Effect, with sirens and car horns sounding distinctly different depending on whether you’re driving toward or away from them.

There’s also been some improvements made to voice work that occurs while driving or on a mission.  It’s not uncommon for the protagonist to talk to passengers or others during his travels, but in previous games this could always be dis-railed by clipping a passing car or slamming the breaks on hard, at which point you’d usually get shouted at for your poor driving.  In GTA V, you’ll still get shouted at, but when the shouting is over the characters will pick up the conversation from a few words back.  It works really well and makes sure that no important information is left out while on a mission or driving around with your chums.

All of this adds up to a game that sounds as good as it looks.  Sound is an area that’s often not considered when playing a game, but Rockstar have made sure that you HAVE to take notice of the sound in this game by ramming it into your ears as far as it will go.

Fans will also be happy to know that GTA radio legend Lazlow is also featured in this game, perhaps to a greater extent than he has been previously.

Gameplay

As mentioned previously, GTA V features not one, but three main playable characters.  Players can take control of any of the characters, so long as they’re not on a mission or undertaking a task.  The switch works well, with the camera panning out to a high shot of the city, and then zooming in on the selected character.  The animation gives the game enough time to load the new sections of the map and the new character.  Once the game zooms back into the map, you’ll see the character emerging from a shop or house and the camera then falls in behind them which allows you to take control of them.

During missions where more than one playable character is taking part, the player can switch between players at will with only a momentary break in the action.  This feature is used to great effect in some missions where you need to make use of each characters specific skills.

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On foot, there’s only minor improvements to the game mechanics.  Rockstar have introduced a sneak mode, which replaces the crouched pose of the previous game, but can again be used to avoid detection by enemy characters and to gain greater accuracy with weapons.  The “duck and cover” manoeuvre of GTA IV has been carried over in to this title and is of great use when sneaking or during gun battles in closed quarters.  Other than that, the changes are mostly to animations and not to the game mechanics themselves.

When shooting, the player relies on an assisted aiming mode which will automatically lock onto the most important target in the players field of vision.  Once locked on you can switch to alternate targets using the D-pad.  You can also free-aim, but the default crosshairs are little more than a white pixel on the screen which can easily get lost amongst all of the graphical beauty.

In cars, the mechanics have been greatly improved upon when compared to GTA IV.  Cars drive and handle in a much more realistic manner, which can be a curse as well as a blessing.  You’ll certainly be able to feel the difference between a rear wheel drive V8 and an all wheel drive supercar.  In truth this can cause you a few problems, particularly if you turn up to a street race in a car that can’t handle the tight corners at speed, but it’s certainly a welcome improvement and adds to the realism of the game.

GTA V also opens up the world by allowing the player to drive a whole bunch of different vehicles beyond the traditional cars and bikes.  You can also take control of planes, helicopters, blimps, jet skis, pedal bikes and speedboats, and explore the map at will.  This harks back to GTA: San Andreas, which had a similar level of control, albiet with the limited graphics of the PS2 and XBOX.

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Outside of driving, shooting and running, players can also take part in a number of other activities that will enhance their abilities or change their looks.  As with previous titles, you can stop in at a variety of shops to regain health or change your appearance, but you can also undertake activities such as yoga, tennis and running in order to enhance the characters fitness and level of ability.  You can even undertake lessons in order to improve your driving or flying skills in order to assist with future missions.

The game will also prompt you to download an app for your smartphone or tablet, which can be used as a platform for upgrading cars and staying up to date with what’s going on in the game.  Thus far it’s only available for iOS devices, though Windows Phone and Android versions are reportedly in the works.  If you don’t have an iPhone though, don’t worry too much, personally I think the app itself is a waste of time and detracts from gameplay.  Still, it’s a novel idea, providing it doesn’t take too much away from the game if you choose not to integrate your phone or tablet.

Thus far, I’m finding the main story arcs to be highly enthralling, and in keeping with the franchises storied history.  There’s not many games that I can sit and play for an extended time without getting bored, but I’ve managed around 10 hours of playtime since picking up the game yesterday and I’m still finding myself wanting more.

Conclusions

Is Grand Theft Auto V the best game of all time?  It’s impossible to say.  Everyone has a different view on what constitutes being “the best”.  What I can say with certainty is that this game is one of the most complete games ever produced for this generation of consoles.  When GTA IV came out in 2008, people were amazed at the graphic detail, gameplay and sheer scale of the playable world.  GTA V takes everything that was said about its predecessor and turns it up to eleven.

Graphically, there’s nothing out there that can equal what Rockstar have achieved with this game.  Similarly, the attention to detail when it comes to sound makes this possibly the most immersive world of any video game, past or present.

As always, Rockstar’s writing team (which includes Lazlow, I’m told) have knocked it out of the park when it comes to writing the main characters and piecing together the missions.  The task must have seemed monumental with the decision to include three separate characters, each with their own distinct back story and interests, but they’ve still managed to pull it off.

It’s topped off by rock solid game play which should keep hard core gamers engrossed for at least a few weeks.  One other thing worth mentioning is the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto Online which will allow up to 20 players to work together (or against each other, I assume) via XBOX Live or PSN.  This feature was billed as being included with GTA V, but as of writing is not yet turned on as of writing.  Rockstar are suggesting that this feature will be turned on via a free downloadable update a couple of weeks after release.

Overall, this game is quite possibly the last hurrah for the current generation of consoles, it is quite simply sublime and does an excellent job of showing what our ageing gaming hardware is capable of.

If you own either an XBOX360 or a PS3, you should definitely go out and buy this game, top marks.

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Author

Matt

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