I have an awful lot to say about Grand Theft Auto V, and these first impressions are really just the tip of the iceberg of my thoughts on a game from a franchise which I’m closer to than perhaps any other in gaming history.
Rockstar had a very specific and unified set of criticisms of Grand Theft Auto IV. The harassment from friends to go out and do things was at odds with what many people craved from their experience – that being anarchic chaotic fun. The lead character, while a more nuanced and better realised protagonist than any game out there when the game released in 2008, was too morose and bleak for some, while the character designed to offset him with bombastic volume, Roman, served more to annoy some players than elate them.
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As the episodes of Grand Theft Auto IV rolled out, one was tighter and more action-packed, while the other was larger-than-life and sought to bring a vibrancy and colour to the GTA universe which had been deemed lacking in the core game by a vocal minority.
With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar set out to hone the experience and not be afraid to take large gamble.
For the first time in the series’ history (or indeed in Rockstar’s history), the game kicks off with a cold open – a heist set some nine years before the events of modern day Los Santos. No musical crescendo accompanies the logo’s first appearance, and the game world opens its soul to you from the moment you step into it.
Progression in previous games has been tied to the narrative in such a way that the story tended to make sure you started at the bottom and worked your way up. Only a portion of the map was open from the get-go, your first vehicles were always crummy station wagons, bicycles or heavy-ass taxi cabs, and your first weapon was always a pistol or some kind of melee implement.
This time around, you’re in a massive chase sequence, killing dozens of cops with assault rifles before the opening credits have even begun. When you’re first dropped in the open world, you’re straight into some of the fastest cars in the game.
As you play through missions, extra-diegetic music gently starts flowing in, adding a deliberate sense of tension where it’s needed.
The palpable adherence to Niko’s point of view being the only way to experience Liberty City is also a thing of the past.
The game is no longer afraid of breaking the fourth wall through jumping around the world, or of reminding the player that they’re playing a videogame. This is a move from Rockstar which could be perceived as a concession. Many, myself included, adored the new darker tone and direction of Niko’s GTA, and didn’t want to see the series bow too much to pressure to become the larger-than-life comical menagerie the previous generation of GTA games embodied.
But, as always, Rockstar have handled such changes with a deft touch.
The use of three protagonists is central. The chaotic insanity players crave can easily be accommodated within the confines of a psychopath like Trevor, the ‘living the high life’ fantasy fulfilment is represented by Michael, and the ambitious newfound highlife and all the pomp and show that entails is firmly entrenched in Franklin’s story.
For those who are keen to enjoy the game without breaking character too much, there’s someone to suit any occasion.
Meanwhile, Rockstar continues to learn from each game and bring successful elements into future projects. The satellite zoom out and zoom in loads from Midnight Club have clearly served as an inspiration for the character switching, the ad hoc interactive events in the game world and hunting from Red Dead Redemption have been implemented and expanded upon throughout Los Santos, and the seamless transitions from cut-scene to gameplay and back again from Max Payne 3 are used to startlingly good effect here. Even Table Tennis seems to have a look-in, as the tennis mini-game borrows from its elements of spin and counterspin.
The bottom line so far is that this is a game which represents the pinnacle of Rockstar’s accomplishments this generation – blending everything which has been successful in previous games and tying them into a unified and beautifully detailed world.
The stakes, however, have never been higher. The budget, the sales, the reviews, consumer feedback – all are as explosive as ever.
Regardless of where you stand in games, GTA V simply must be played to understand where gaming as a whole is right now.