“This guy Trevor, he’s hell on Earth. I mean I’m no angel but once you’ve met Trevor then you’ll think I’m an angel”.
Michael looks into Franklin’s eyes with genuine fear. Bruised, exhausted and shivering in only an undershirt, he knows that his retirement is finally over and he’s back in the game. Worse still, so is Trevor and that’s what really frightens him. Franklin stares back with eyes emotionless and confident. He may not be ready for what’s about to unfold but this rich white dude is his best chance at getting out of the Los Santos hood forever. He can’t quit now.
After years of painstaking anticipation, the most hotly anticipated entertainment title in years has arrived at last. Whisking us back to the glorious south eastern state of San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto V does away with series tradition to tell the story of three protagonists brought together by a complex web of history and circumstance.
To ease any temptations to jump straight to the bottom of this review, I will answer the first question that almost everyone reading this will be asking right now. Grand Theft Auto V was so worth the long wait that after 5 minutes of the game you will likely have forgotten that any wait even took place.
Back in the game
After possibly the best opening to any game in years, the story starts with Michael, a retired thief living in opulence after striking a shady witness protection deal with the Federal Investigation Bureau. Franklin is a two-bit gang banger working dodgy repossession and intimidation jobs to make ends meet.
After a series of unfortunate events involving an idiot son, a credit scam and some spousal infidelity, the two are thrown together as an unlikely duo to quickly enhance their fortune and add some much needed direction back into their lives.
Rockstar North have done a fantastic job at creating an immediate and believable bond between these two characters which remains throughout most of the phenomenal 25 hour story.
Just as genuine and believable is Franklin’s sense of plight and desperation. Dissatisfied with a life of struggling to pay the bills and reluctantly living with his aunt after losing his Mom to the crack pipe, Franklin is just looking for a way to escape the hood and a group of friends who always seem to find new ways to get him in trouble.
Whilst Franklin’s background may be reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ C.J., Michael adds an all new layer of depth as an old-time career criminal out of place in the modern high tech world. Bored with drinking whiskey in the sun all day and without the respect of his wife and kids, Michael longs for the world that he once knew before social networking websites and tennis clubs took over everyone’s lives.
Trevor is the final playable character to be introduced and within the first few moments his psychotic tendencies are quickly revealed. After moving to a trailer park up in the sticks to run a meth empire, hunt with neighbourhood yokels and deal weapons to the Mexicans, a well-timed news bulletin and some local gang warfare hastily bring Trevor back to the Los Santos streets where he can wreak his unique brand of havoc on city dwellers once again.
The true extent of Trevor’s massively unhinged mind is illustrated by occasional bouts of madness where he will go on a timed rampage against whichever local gang have managed to push him over the edge. Despite these worryingly frequent acts of violent behaviour, there are some moments when Trevor’s humanity and loyalty shine through to reveal a genuinely tortured soul.
A tragic creature with hopes and dreams but absolutely no understanding of normality or acceptable human behaviour. Trevor is the kind of man who’s only choice is a life of crime and dishonesty in a world which will never be able to really understand him.
This is legitimate business
After introductions are complete, the three characters are selectable almost at will although the game provides a perfect guide when playing through missions where the three need to work together as a team.
In addition to a level up system for various skills like driving and firearms, each character has a special unique ability that players will sometimes need to use to accomplish a specific task or escape a tight situation.
Character selection is managed via a control wheel and a masterfully crafted teleportation sequence is initiated when switching takes place across the game’s gargantuan landscape.
I don’t think it can be stressed just how vast and technically impressive this game world is in sheer scale alone. Los Santos seems to live and breath and the more rural areas of San Andreas hark back to Red Dead Redemption whilst the glorious Mount Chiliad constantly looms on the horizon.
Meanwhile all of this is beautifully animated with visuals that could easily pass for next gen by current standards and the mandatory install on both the PS3 and Xbox 360 ensures that frame rate and screen tearing problems that plagued Grand Theft Auto IV are kept to an absolute minimum.
Throughout our playthrough for review there were some extremely occasional instances of low draw distance and missing textures but these occurred so infrequently that they were barely even worth worrying about and it’s self-evident that Rockstar North have done their absolute utmost with the Rage development engine and ageing hardware available.
Also, as in Red Dead Redemption, animals feature for the first time and seem to fit so perfectly into the world that playing any previous episode in the franchise after this is likely to feel odd by comparison. Attack dogs can be called in to assist with certain missions and players brave enough to venture out into the wilderness on foot after dark may find themselves at the nasty end of a vicious coyote attack.
The world of San Andreas seems almost like a character in of itself and it’s difficult to explain how well each square mile of it seems to live with or without your presence. Whilst most games seem to be designed only to react to the actions of the player, Grand Theft Auto IV makes you feel you a certain level of insignificance that you can feel as the non–playable characters continue running their businesses, making their daily commutes and just generally go about their lives.
Radio Ga Ga
In true GTA form the soundtrack is just as impressive as the visuals with a combination of some great licensed music that blends perfectly with the surroundings and a level of voice acting and written dialogue that puts most Hollywood movies to shame.
The three lead characters in particular are superbly voiced and the overall quality of the non-playable characters is remarkably high to a point where it never gets dull or repetitive and you want to relish each cutscene and conversation.
On a few occasions I actually found myself parking up at a destination and then sitting in the car to listen to the end of Gin ‘n’ Juice or the latest Weasel news bulletin on the radio. Radio stations, like the weapons and character switching, are controlled using a scroll wheel which is a massive improvement on the previous games and also allows for the current artist and song title on each station to be displayed at that given time.
When not playing through the main missions, shopping or visiting Michael’s therapist, players are free to explore the world and the epic number of side quests that are available. It is through these smaller missions and chance meetings that we can really get a glimpse into the lives and personalities of Micheal, Franklin and Trevor as each one has their own unique set usually rooted in a pre-existing relationship from their past life.
As I got to know each character I also found myself interacting with them in different ways. When controlling Trevor especially, I was guided into committing some acts that made me feel genuinely sick to the stomach. However, even presented with an open choice of direction, I made some really despicable choices as Trevor that I wouldn’t have even contemplated whilst playing as Franklin.
My job, my score
Choice plays a huge part in how some of the bigger missions are played out. Strategic planning and recruitment of crew members of paramount for each heist if you want to get the job done right. Going in guns blazing or choosing a less experienced team may save time or money but also risks the whole thing falling apart with everyone either dead or arrested.
The stealth controls work brilliantly for pacifists or those who just generally opt for the more quiet and skilful route. If a player is struggling on a mission then there is an option to skip straight on to the next one although I personally avoided this to create as complete an experience as possible.
Overall, the game controls impeccably with a massively improved driving system compared with Grand Theft Auto IV’s notorious wheel-spinning shenanigans and the weapon play feels tight when either in free roaming or cover. The sheer number of vehicles and weapons available as well as customisation options are huge and it probably won’t take long for most players to find their personal weapon of choice.
The underwater and flight sections are particularly astonishing and planes and boats can be used strategically to give your crew the edge in some of the larger heists. The swimming and diving sections have to be seen to be believed as I doubt that anybody could have predicted these kinds of water effects on the Xbox 360 or PS3.
If you get bored of running errands for your friends or breaking the law then there are numerous recreational pursuits available right from the start including cycling, golf and tennis or practicing shooting at the Ammu-nation firing range.
Playing sports will increase character attributes such as driving ability and stamina although the RPG elements are not as intrusive as in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and players will not lose anything by skipping most of these sections. To dodge all of them would be a shame though as these simulations are actually manage to accomplish what they do better than many modern dedicated sports titles.
For those into the more darker pursuits there are also strip clubs and prostitutes eager to entertain and relieve for a fee. This was probably the game’s biggest issue for me as the hooker mini-game in particular, if it even qualifies as a mini-game, doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination.
Sexual acts are also depicted in much stronger detail during parts of the main story so it is not really possible to avoid this content completely.
Aside from the completely topless lap dancers, the strip club mini game is fairly tame by comparison and is focused mostly on the usual ‘look but don’t touch’ rule of those types of establishments. Impress the lady well enough and a happy ending might just follow.
Whilst I’m certainly not arguing that sex has no place in game like this that is admittedly only meant for an adult audience, I have a feeling that these parts of the game may cause some controversy in the coming weeks. Detailed scenes of drug use also feature although these are mostly optional and are not heavily glamourised in any real way.
On the whole this is a game which has obviously been crafted with care and intricate attention to detail. Day progresses into night naturally and the magnificent level of detail and characterisation create a world unlike anything I have ever experienced before.
As the most expensive video game project in history, a certain degree of polish is to be expected but this is a game where those behind it seem to have thought of everything and barring a couple of sections where a path seemed non-obvious, at no point during my playthrough did I find myself bored, lost or frustrated.
Rockstar North have listened to fan criticisms of the last game and fixed all of the technical and pacing problems to create an interactive experience like no other. The writing is exceptional with some plot twists and an ending that could only be rivalled by the likes of Silent Hill 2 and Bioshock.
This is an utterly mind-blowing piece of work with such awesome production values that I can’t see how any other game is going to be able to surpass it for the foreseeable future and that includes those on the next generation of consoles.
The decision to give any game the top score is never taken lightly but to give this game anything less would be making light of it’s monumental brilliance and truly unprecedented level of achievement. In years from now, Grand Theft Auto V will undoubtedly be remembered as not only the single greatest video game of this generation but also as one of the most well constructed video games of all time.
As the current era of consoles comes to a close, nobody could have asked for a greater swan song. A true pinnacle in the history of the interactive entertainment which everyone will owe it to themselves to experience.
Grand Theft Auto V will be available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in Europe and North America on 17th September 2013.
Please note that this review covers the single player mode of the game only as the multiplayer mode and social networking features will not be available until 1st October 2013. We will publish a second review for the multiplayer mode after that date.