I’m so thrilled that the super awesome TLYW Year of Console Gaming is back on track, after careening off the road and barely adhering to the earth’s surface for several months, like a Los Santos gangster in a stolen sports car or monster truck. We’ve reached the end of February and that was Month 11 in our special 14-month series. Game of the month was Grand Theft Auto V. It was a riot. Here’s my review.
Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games (2013), Xbox 360. An open-world, first-person or third-person action-adventure game. I played single player.
Plot and setting: You will play as three frenemies whose stories are interwoven, as all sorts of gangsta events and bad man tings unfold around the Los Santos area, modelled on present-day Los Angeles. You will drive, run, fly and occasionally sail around miles of beautiful coastline, huge mountains, a glittering city, industrial hinterlands and some desert settlements that are sordid and frightful and reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You will commit a lot of crime for no real reason except that crime is fun.
General remarks: Grand Theft Auto has always pushed at the boundaries of what’s acceptable in video games. When GTA first appeared back in 1997, moral anxiety about the game centred on activities that now seem unremarkable in a GTA context, such as running over pedestrians in your car, robbing convenience stores and shooting at the police. This fifth episode of the GTA story caused concern among some who noticed a torture scene in which the player is required to torture a NPC using various grim instruments in order to fulfil a quest. While the gritty realism of this sequence certainly had its disturbing and uncomfortable aspects, it seems to me that it can only be properly understood when we see how the experience it offers the player is replicated throughout nearly every layer of the game. Grand Theft Auto is a fantasy. It is explicitly escapist. It is a playground – firmly contained within your Xbox or Playstation, with clear borders – in which the normal rules of civilised behaviour are suspended and you can feel thrilled with your own bravery and instinct for anarchy as you try out dozens of what-if scenarios. What if I gave up my job and turned to organised crime to support myself? What if I didn’t bother to obey the laws of driving, ran red lights and drove all over the road at 100 mph? What if I stopped respecting the idea of property and took whatever I wanted? What if I had a grenade launcher and aimed at a helicopter? Would it fall out of the sky? It’s a heady experience.
In between all of this, when you are not torturing people, shooting at them or flying light aircraft into the side of mountains, you will enjoy a surprisingly huge variety of leisure activities around Los Santos, including golf, tennis, yoga, hiking, darts, triathlons, motor sports, water sports, going to strip clubs and going to therapy. My character Michael was particularly fond of relaxing in between killing sprees by playing tennis with his wife, during which she would mock and insult him as he lumbered heavily around the court.
Thumbs up: It’s a beautifully-engineered game. Its architecture and mechanics are sophisticated and thoughtful. The city is intricate and the outdoor landscapes are beautifully rendered. Stories have depth. Characters have actual personalities and relationships. You can switch between characters as you pursue their interlinked stories, which is really enjoyable and gives you a sense that they are living people who know each other. Every little detail seems to have been thought of, right down to each character’s smartphone, on which he can receive emails and texts, make calls, browse the internet, take photos, check the financial markets and read local news. Being a Rockstar game, there’s a lot of driving which you will do at insane speeds while listening to Los Santos’s 19 radio stations, which broadcast crime news, chat shows and 240 licensed songs. There’s an immense range of things to do, missions are challenging without being impossible and things like dramatic speedboat chases are guaranteed to be screamingly exciting.
Thumbs down: This is such a proud feat of engineering and game design that I wanted to fall totally in love with it and yet I didn’t quite manage it. The thing is, perhaps as a function of GTA’s aforementioned moral playground, all three of your playable characters are horrible people. First you will meet Franklin, a young black guy who’s kind of objectionable in the sense that he’s rude, lacking in moral fibre and is easily roused to violence. Franklin will suddenly start to seem a lot nicer when you are introduced to the second playable character, Michael, a sleazy, enraged, tight-lipped white man in his forties who is rich and could have retired from crime but went back out on the streets because he likes hurting people and because he’s not happy unless he’s complaining about something. Finally, even Michael will appear to be a relatively sympathetic character when you meet Trevor, another angry old white man who has a pathological need for dominance and does poos in public. In short, they are hard to like. GTA V had this in common with The Witcher 3 which I played back in April last year, in month 4 of our series. Geralt used to enter people’s houses to rob them and step over the bodies of dying children and their parents to get to a few coins, then leave without acknowledging them or saying a word. It made it hard to care whether or not he got killed when he was next in a fight with a griffin. Also in common with The Witcher, while parts of the gaming environment are bright, fancy and pretty to look at, other areas are frankly depressing and there are times when you will find yourself standing outside deserted shacks in the mud and rain.
Return to? Yes, I think so. You can have an immense amount of fun with these characters if you don’t pause to reflect on their values. The music is great and everyone likes driving fast, shiny cars. Also, Michael was gradually starting to get better at tennis and golf.
We have video of actual gameplay!
In this film, we’re playing as Michael, who is having a disagreement with the police.
In this one, you can see all three of the playable characters working as a team on a single mission, one of my favourite aspects of the game. Trevor is flying the helicopter, Franklin’s doing range damage with a sniper rifle and Michael is rescuing a guy from some other guys for some reason. Lots of helicoptering, grappling, shooting action.
The camera in each character’s phone allows them to take photos of the scenery, wherever they happen to be, but also to take selfies, which certainly captures their personalities and has a lot of comedy value. In the photo set below, photos that were all taken by my three guys on their own phones.
A selection of favourite GTA V wallpapers, just to capture the flavour of scenes around Los Santos.
Tomorrow I’ll announce the game of the month for March. Game 12 of 14. I cannot wait.