Besides the critique of the GTA V’s less than enlightened content, there are other things to discuss in regards to this marvel of computerized entertainment. GTA V is, without a doubt, the best of the series, just edging out GTA: San Andreas. Now, while both are set in a fictionalized version of my home state, it’s not local pride that gets me behind this game. They just have this scope the others lack, but that’s enough about the California set games as a whole.
Instead, let’s whiplash back into GTA IV. It’s also a technical marvel. It’s recreation of New York is gorgeous and sublime, but it had a few things going against it. For one, just about every mission in the game felt like a chore. Instead of the exhilarating craziness of Vice City, San Andreas, and even III, IV’s missions felt like slogs from the word go. The characters did not inspire the need to advance storylines and even if you wanted to, you’d get a phone call from Cousin Roman.
Oh, he’s not the only one. You get phone calls from your fake girlfriend Michelle, your gun supplier, the juicer freak you boost cars for … an endless array of characters constantly calling you to hang out and play darts or go bowling. Now, the bowling mechanic in the game is kind of cool, but the constant barrage of people who want to hang out AND PENALIZE YOU IF YOU DON’T made the game unpleasant. I’m already ignoring my flesh-and-blood friends to play this damned game, I don’t need fake ones obstructing me from the mayhem.
Well, not there’s a lot of mayhem in IV. The creators specifically chose to make a more “realistic” GTA with IV and the results are kind of dull. It’s unfortunate as the technology of IV is quite impressive. Of course, when the game came to PC, industrious fans fixed that with hilarious mods of the game engine.
GTA V fixed both of those flaws; gone are the tedium and phone calls. The missions are really, really fun and filled with mayhem. Also, none of the secondary characters call you to hang out. Instead, you have the option to make that call and the characters actually make exploring those options worthwhile. No one is annoying, unlike Cousin Roman.
And here’s the craziest part: the playable characters are actually interesting! Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are fun and developed. They also inspire you to really play as them. Michael, trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow (bank heists aside) never once killed a hooker in my game. Franklin did all the land-based racing as he’s interested in fast cars. And Trevor, morally flexible psychopath that he is, is who I played when I just wanted to create a little chaos. And all of this is in-between the story and side missions that are the best to ever be featured in a GTA game.
One early mission, in which Franklin and Michael save Michael’s son from a stolen yacht on a trailer hitch, felt like something out of Lethal Weapon. It was a lot of fun and even though I failed it a couple of times, it really set the tone for the rest of the game. GTA V pivots the series from racing to heists and it’s all the better for it. Oddly enough, it mirrors the pivot of the Fast and Furious series. Not sure if it was intentional, but it was definitely a smart move. While driving and shootouts continue to be key mechanics, the preparation, materials collection and eventual execution of the bank jobs really set the game apart from its predecessors and I wish there was some sort of random bank job generator for the post-story game state.
Maybe that’s slated for GTA VI.
The other major new mechanic is the character switching. When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure how that was going to work. Turns out, it works great. Each character has a different feel, special power, and home situation. Eventually, I found a preference for Franklin and Trevor as their special abilities proved more useful. Franklin can slow down perceived time as he races around city and rural streets. Trevor can take on more damage and give greater fighter when properly motivated. Also, for some odd reason, I decided Trevor would like to complete all the water-based races.
In fact, Trevor is the real winner on the character front. He’s utterly deplorable, but some how the best man for the world of GTA. When you first meet him, he’s kicking the crap out of one of the characters from the IV add-on The Lost and the Damned and it’s mighty satisfying to see him do it. Story missions see him planting bombs in a Lost compound, flying drugs over the high desert, and even torturing a suspect at the behest of a government agent.
The torture mission is harrowing, but it makes sense that Trevor would be the one to gamely do it. His poor impulse control, lack of good judgement and moral flexibility make most of the more odious things a player can do in a GTA game seem sensible — at least from the character standpoint.
And that’s the real leap this game makes from its predecessors. With the possible exception of CJ in San Andreas, Trevor is the strongest playing character the series has devised. He is equally surprising and inviting even as most of his actions are criminally deranged. He also has layers, as illustrated by his feelings for a woman he initially kidnaps as a hostage and the all-too brief appearance of his mother. This is the trend I hope subsequent games keep up, a strong playing character that is as memorable as the actions you as the player take in the hyper-reality of Grand Theft Auto.
There’s also a multiplayer component, but I think I’ll bundle that into a subsequent article about my trouble with multiplayer modes. In the meantime, GTA V offers a fine single player trip into murder, mayhem and psychopathy. Isn’t that what the best video games should offer?