With the speed and severity of a zombie outbreak, Grand Theft Auto 5 was unleashed upon a horde of casual and hardcore gamers. Three days later, sitting atop a pile of smashed records and a billion dollars in sales, it earned the crown title of “fastest selling entertainment product-EVER”.
And I’d like to focus on that for a few seconds before moving on to what will basically be a love letter to one of the greatest game franchises of all time: One Billion Dollars. Seventy-Two hours. Keeping in mind that software prices have remained static since the latest consoles were released, it bears mentioning that GTA is the vanquisher of such storied titles like Halo, Call of Duty, and Madden. But that’s not to say that it’s lonely at the top. Rockstar games has tripled-down on their flagship title, giving you three main anti-heroes to steer towards whatever passes for salvation in this warped version of the American dream.
When Grand theft Auto 3 was released in 2001, it ushered in the next step in video game evolution. The ‘sandbox’ genre was born, and millions of PS2 users would never be the same. The challenge Rockstar faces a dozen years later is simple to identify, yet exceedingly tricky to execute. How to re-invent the genre without changing the core gameplay that made it so successful? Had they learned from the missteps of GTAIV, which was at once an incredibly immersive experience, but unfortunately a little bit of a bore to play?
Enter Trevor, Michael, and Franklin.
The dynamic that three playable main characters add to the depth of this franchise is titanic in scale. Gone are the lonely trips from wasteland to civilization after you lose your vehicle during a romp in the desert. Missions that you aren’t feeling get placed on the back-burner in favor of more interesting opportunities elsewhere in the sprawling, convulsing city of Los Santos. More than once I found myself wandering aimlessly throughout one part of town or another, musing whether I should switch the Xbox off and head to bed. That’s when the magic happens. With a quick button combination, I’m ejected into the clouds, only to land squarely in control of another felon, with different appetites and problems to solve. Beware: this is where true addiction lives. I find myself constantly switching between these maligned musketeers, if only to check emails, available missions, or the current status of their stock portfolio (more on that last one later).
Everything GTA5 endeavors to do leads you to one conclusion: These aren’t characters; they’re REAL PEOPLE, who have their own comings and goings when your attention is elsewhere, even when the console is turned off. Every time I warm up the TV they’re wearing different clothes, engaging in activities tailored to their personalities and predilections. This works to a variety of effects, from humorous (Seeing Gonzo gangster Trevor wearing a sleeveless tee and tighty whities at the beach, or frequently running from the police) to reflective (nouveau-riche Franklin casually smoking a bong in his not-yet moved in mansion) and depressing (watching Michael wake up from a nightmare, gun in hand, and sadly realizing the absence of his estranged family). This gives the game texture and emotion never seen before in a game of this scale. But what really makes it work is how effortless it all seems. At no point do they try to dwell on this aspect, tossing off the mechanic in favor of a tightly wound convergence of storylines and missions that marry all three personalities together, for better or worse.
The game requires a hefty download to start, something my prehistoric 20-gig hard drive had to do some housecleaning to accommodate (RIP to my collection of ‘rock band’ downloads) but man, is it worth it. Loading screens are the death of fun, something I was all too familiar with when I explored the desert of Fallout: New Vegas, but the experience of Los Santos is seamless and near-perfect in its execution. No more stoppage when you enter a building, start a mission, or change outfits (There’s a small lag when accessing the map, which is one of my only gripes). Your smartphone gives you access to email, text messages and the internet, and is a breeze to use even when driving, (just like real life!) adding more depth to an already intricate experience.
As discussed by Patrick in his earlier article (you can read it here), the soundtracks of GTA have been legendary in their own right. However, I feel what Rockstar has offered up this time around is the least inspired attempt since GTA: San Andreas. Not to say that it’s bad, just forgettable. As always, the hip-hop selections are the standouts, but the ‘West coast classics’ station seems more like a playlist of threadbare ‘classics’ worn out years ago, and less like the rare gems you’d expect from the studio that brought you DJ Premiere’s ‘The Classics 104.1’ station in GTAIV. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that the music has yet to grow on me, as it often does.
Side activities abound in all GTA entries, and 5 is no exception. But the mindless, consequence free options take on a bit more gravity this time around. Michael can go to his psychiatrist, something that requires no button pushes, it just delivers a deeper glimpse into his twisted, conflicted mind. Trevor has rampage missions, a throwback to the skull-shaped icons from GTA3. But so far what has captured my attention is the LCN and BAWSAQ, the two fully-functional stock markets accessible from your phone or any PC in game. BAWSAQ stocks reflect purchases and sales of shares from any player connected to Rockstar’s ‘social club’ meaning that fortunes can be won or lost, and the GTA forums are rife with insider trading, resulting in players already reaching the 2.1 BILLION dollar cap less than a month into release (There are already several reddit posts dedicated to this very practice). When all missions are tackled, and the city conquered, this is where the game will take on new life, perhaps even after Rockstar launches GTA5: Online (which should be up by the time you read this). And if this single-player magnum opus of gaming isn’t enough to get your proverbial engine running, just wait until you can machine gun your friends to death from the cockpit of an F-15.
Sick, twisted, and the most monstrous fun you can have sitting still, I give GTA5 a well-deserved 5 out of 5 nerdskulls.
If you haven’t played it yet, check out some official gameplay below.
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