Grand Theft Auto V - A Gripping Three Man Drama

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Originally posted at Manic Expression



Rockstar Games made a massive impact in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the first 3D title in the open-world franchise. Building on the foundation set by earlier free-roaming 3D games like Hunter andShenmue, GTA III surpassed its predecessors by making its world less restrictive. You weren’t bound by time limits except for certain missions, you were encouraged to actively explore to find secrets, meet strange people, or cause as much mayhem as you wanted. GTA III didn’t force you to ignore or speed through optional quests to get back to the central storyline, and it didn’t make those side-missions feel like dull wastes of time. You really felt like you had the freedom to do whatever you wanted in Liberty City. Coupled with polished gameplay and humor that ranged from subtle satire to appealing juvenile jokes, the game was a critical and commercial success. It inspired many imitators trying to capitalize on the genre in their own way, such as Saints Row, Infamous, and True Crime. Rockstar was also inspired to further improve upon their formula, not only through successive Grand Theft Auto games, but also with new IPs Bully and Red Dead Redemption. In September 2013 they released the latest entry in their core series, Grand Theft Auto V, developed by the Rockstar North studio. It would be easy to expect a franchise to suffer from repetition and stagnation with so many sequels, but Rockstar managed to avoid those traps. Instead, they delivered what is quite possibly the best open world game not only in their library, but possibly of the entire seventh console generation.

Nine years ago, Trevor Philips, Brad Snider, and Michael Townley attempted to rob a bank in North Yankton. The job went poorly as the Federal Investigation Bureau knew of their heist in advance. The trio of thieves attempted to shoot their way to freedom, but it did not end well: Snider was arrested, Townley was killed, and Philips escaped, eventually falling off the grid… at least that’s how the official story goes. In reality, Michael survived, he and his family moving to Los Santos and adopting the new identity of the de Santas under the witness protection program. In that time, the retired robber has suffered a severe mid-life crisis: his relationships with his wife and children have deteriorated, he spends most of his time drinking, watching TV, or venting to an uncaring psychiatrist. He feels trapped, a shell of the man he once was. A second chance to regain his lust for life arrives when he meets Franklin Clinton, a gang banger who works as a repo man. Franklin is also going through turbulent times, desperate to get out of the street thug life, yet constantly pulled back by manipulative friends and difficulty finding a lack of purpose. Seeing a kindred spirit, Michael offers to take Franklin under his wing, showing him how to be a more successful criminal who can take charge of his own life. Their initial exploits prove successful, showing Franklin a glimpse of the life he’s wanted for a while, and giving Michael a renewed vigor. There’s only one obstacle that could derail their new enterprise – Trevor made his way to San Andreas some time ago, running a meth lab in the desert several north of Los Santos. After seeing a report on a recent robbery, he notices a similarity in the jobs he pulled with his gang, and realizes that Michael is still alive. The unstable Trevor, outraged over being deceived into mourning his friend for nearly a decade, decides to visit Michael. His return is the catalyst that triggers a chaotic storm for all three cons, setting into motion a series of events that could make them all wildly rich or leave them as bloody, bullet-riddled corpses.

GTA V exceeds the scope and scale of its predecessors in almost every way, with one of the greatest narrative changes being a focus on multiple characters. Previous entries would only follow one central protagonist and their exploits in a specific illegal enterprise such as organized crime, gang activity, or low level street crime like drug dealing and armed robbery. With three core characters, we see a strong contrast between the lives they’ve chosen: Michael’s affluent lifestyle is a flimsy façade for a stressful, volatile world reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas, Franklin’s internal struggles about his life as a gangsta highlight the issues young black men in gangs face when trying to get out of the hood, or at least improve their standing in it, as seen in Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society, and Trevor’s unrestrained violence, evoking Natural Born Killers and Sons of Anarchy; fits perfectly in the gritty, lawless, violent outskirts of civilization he’s chosen to make his home. Despite the difference in tones, we see several elements that each of these paths share. The greatest similarity is how each character is drawn into incredibly brutal actions, sometimes of their own free will as happens frequently with Trevor, but in other cases they’re forced by others to do truly savage acts, the most disturbing moment happening when government agents force you to torture someone for information by waterboarding, beatings, and electrocution. It’s one of several scenes that makes you feel very uncomfortable playing through it, but that serves its purpose; it’s not merely meant to shock you, but to demonstrate how a life of crime can make people act like monsters without hesitation.

Loyalty also factors into each character’s arc. Though Michael’s family bonds are strained, he still genuinely cares about them and wants them to live a good life sheltered from the dangers he deals with, and depending on how you play, he’ll do whatever’s necessary to help them when they’re in need. Most of Franklin’s problems stem from a need to remain faithful to his friends and family, even though they frequently exploit his kindness, because of the bonds he has with them. Trevor is the most fanatical about loyalty, demanding full compliance and respect from the other members of his drug and weapons running operation, which he ensures through intimidation, threats, and violence. We also see how fragile these alliances are when past sins are revealed, a dramatic example seenwhen Trevor learns the truth about the North Yankton sting and what happened to Brad. The final mission of the game tests the player on how much they value loyalty in the story, when Franklin is faced with the choice to kill Michael or Trevor. Will he, as an extension of the player, remain faithful to the friends who have guided him and seek an alternate route, or does he find one of these criminals so reprehensible that he won’t think twice about ending their life? It’s a fairly routine decision that’s been seen in many games before, but each possible outcome has its own impact on the game world, and on you.

Before GTA V was released, several members of the gaming press were asking why none of the three playable characters were women. Dan Houser, the game’s main writer and co-founder of Rockstar, stated that he didn’t include a female protagonist because he felt the concept of masculinity was crucial to the story. The issues each character faces reinforce this claim; Michael is trying to prove himself as a good husband and father while coping with insecurities about how he isn’t the man he once was, while Trevor and Franklin are out to prove that they’re in charge of their lives, that they won’t let others control them. However, I think these ideas play into a much greater theme that affects the game as a whole – the issue of artificiality. Frankiln is always feeling down because other people like his friend Lamar and his aunt pressure him into acting against his own interests, while Michael’s life was thrown off course when he and his family had to adopt a fake identity. The disingenuousness extends to the rest of Los Santos, as it’s shown that many of the people that inhabit it feel the need to conform to the expectations of others or pretend to be something they aren’t in order to get ahead, from talk show hosts adopting political views he doesn’t agree with in order to get ahead to a job applicant at LifeInvader (the game’s stand-in for Facebook) being pressured to sit in a beanbag chair to prove he’s relaxed and creative. Government agents hide their corruption and brutality behind manipulative press releases and layers of lies that obfuscate their true agenda (one bureau even has FIB as its acronym). At one point Franklin says “Nothing in this town is real,” and there’s plenty of proof to back him up. The only character who doesn’t hide behind a phony exterior is Trevor, which has a disturbing implication that being true to ourselves, rejecting the norms and pressures that make us conform and act against our base natures, will make us more susceptible to our darker impulses.

While there’s an abundance of gritty violence, interpersonal drama, and sobering introspection, the game isn’t devoid of joy. It retains the outlandish humor and biting satire that’s been a staple of the Grand Theft Autoseries to provide contrast. Much of the comedy comes from the radio stations with advertisements for products that exist only to make the buyers feel important, un-ironic promotion of vapid, shallow mass media, social and political discussions that devolve into arguments about sexual inadequacies, and big businesses bragging about how they’re screwing people over. Since the game is set in a parody version of Los Angeles, it also takes many opportunities to poke fun at the entertainment industry through the exploitative reality show Fame or Shame, where host Lazlow takes almost sadistic pleasure in mocking untalented contestants who make fools of themselves, and the incomprehensible, pretentious foreign art movie Capolavaro, which receives critical acclaim simply because the people watching it want to feel intelligent.

Other amusing moments seen during gameplay include Michael and Trevor getting into an argument over whether the latter is a hipster, drug trips where you hallucinate being attacked by Xenomorphs and clowns, several bizarre out of context moments that you find each character in when switching between them (such as Trevor beating a man after discussing Reaganomics), meeting a stoner Jesus at the pier, a rapidly escalating Mexican standoff between the protagonists, government agents, and private military contractors, and meta-humor such as when the owner of an Ammu-Nation says that for all intents, he doesn’t exist outside the score. There are a few bits that fall flat when attempts are made to explain the joke even when it’s obvious, like when a stripper says that her stage name is Chastity, then immediately follows it up by saying she picked it to be ironic. Depending on how you play, you can also create several humorous unscripted moments. During the mission where Michael had to shoot down a plane and destroy the car that contained the weapons afterwards, I poured a trail of gas and ignited it with a bullet. After nearly two minutes, the car still hadn’t blown up, and it didn’t look like the fire had even reached it. I moved closer to the car to see if I’d messed up by lighting up the gas too far away, noticed flames around the tires, then it exploded and killed me. I was laughing for at least a minute afterwards.

When mocking social and political issues, Houser and his co-writers chose to take the South Park approach, refusing to pull punches so they could mock all sides. Conservatives are ridiculed through right-wing politicians and celebrities who express racist, sexist, homophobic, fundamentalist drivel with an undercurrent of self-awareness, a blatant FOX News counterpart known as Weazel News which promotes republican ideologies, even having a segment called “Idiotic Liberal News,” and the Republican Space Rangers return from GTA IV to savage neoconservative militarism. The left wing doesn’t get away unscathed, as most of the prominent democrats featured are unabashed egotists and hypocrites who state outright that they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to others and have the right to tell others how to live, while the liberal superhero Impotent Rage is an aggressive holier-than-thou environmentalist. It’s not the most subtle or intelligent satire, but it’s still incredibly funny. However, as with South Park, some of the jokes that are offensive for the sake of being offensive can come off as mean spirited. Every race, gender, and sexuality is poked fun at, but there are times when it goes overboard. The most noticeable example is how often African American characters toss around the N-word, and I cringed a bit when I heard Trevor insulting Chinese gangsters by speaking in a stereotypical yellowface Asian accent. Sometimes when around a gay bar, several very mannish-looking transgender women will appear and make comments that could be seen as transphobic. They’re minor issues, and each player will have their own reaction to them, but I see them as a blemish on an otherwise incredibly well-written game.

In analyzing the characters, several gaming critics including Austin Yorski and Rob Grosso have pointed out that they reflect the three components of the psyche. I agree with their assessment, and with respect to them, wish to incorporate their thoughts into my review. First let’s look at Franklin, who represents the super-ego. He clearly wants to get away from the thug life, hold down a respectable job, and no longer be treated like a doormat. But as mentioned earlier, the ties he has with family and friends continue to lead him into situations where he’s exploited. His friends Lamar, Simeon and Tanya all take advantage of him, getting him to do their dirty work and sometimes putting his life in danger. Nothing changes for him, but it’s ultimately his own fault. When Michael first encounters him, he calls Franklin a kid who follows orders without taking responsibility. Later on, Lamar tries to knock some sense into Franklin by pointing out that even though he claims to know better and is always complaining about the trouble he gets into, he never does anything to change because he always goes along with what his homies ask. Even when he’s living better because of the heists he’s pulled, he still lets himself get dragged around by others. It makes his guilt and self-pity come off as nothing more than hollow whining, and you don’t feel much sympathy for him. Despite Shawn Fonteno’s performance that highlights his plight and mostly good nature, Franklin is ultimately the weakest of the central characters.

Michael, played by Ned Luke, embodies the ego, as could be said of many men going through mid-life crises. He acknowledges the dangers he faces in his criminal activities, tries to shield his family from witnessing those horrors, and knows that the best way to achieve those is to simply accept his retirement. But as long as he feels trapped in a stagnant existence with a family that barely shows him any respect, he can’t find that pleasure. It builds up an anger that can cause serious damage when he releases it, such as when he learns his wife’s been cheating on him, tracks the guy she’s been sleeping with to what he thinks is his house, and brings down his deck. The only way he thinks he can achieve happiness is to get back into the game, to recapture the thrill from years ago. He’s not a cold-blooded killer, but as he says in therapy, he feels more alive when there’s a gun in his hand or when he’s involved in an intense robbery. The time he spends with Franklin also lifts his spirits since he’s found a kindred spirit, as well as a surrogate son who gives him the appreciation he’s been denied. Michael is the most well-rounded, dynamic character, which made me feel invested in his arc. I felt bad for the guy when his family left him, I wanted him to succeed in his grand schemes, even though there was going to be a high body count. In my opinion, Michael has earned a place alongside Rockstar’s best characters like Niko Bellic and John Marston.

Finally we come to Trevor, who is pure unrestrained id. Trevor is a monster, an antisocial anarchist who rejects the convention and morals of society and lives according to his own twisted standards. He’s a truly frightening character who gets sick pleasure out of killing, demonstrated in missions where he massacres dozens of people without hesitation. Though he can present himself with a calm demeanor, it takes very little to set him off, usually if he’s offended (the most common triggers being if someone calls him a motherfucker, as it’s implied he actually did rape his mother, or if his slight Canadian accent is mocked); the man is basically a walking time bomb. His unpredictable explosive nature is delivered perfectly by Stephen Ogg, who conveys the transition from placid to a savage beast in a natural, frightening way. Trevor is the one who tortures the government’s detainee, and afterwards, he admits that he didn’t do it because federal made him, or that he even believes torture helps gather useful information – he did it because he enjoys hurting people. It’s even suggested that he cannibalizes some of his victims. Trevor is closer to being a psychopath than a full-blown sociopath; he has genuine emotions besides homicidal rage. When he kidnaps a crime lord’s wife as retribution for not getting paid for a job, he develops a strong bond with her. He admits that he’s never had anyone who truly cared for him, since everyone else he had a close connection to like Michael ended up abandoning him. He’s genuinely sad when he has to return the woman to her husband. In spite of this, you still never forget he’s a horrible person. Trevor also has a strange concept of loyalty in that he takes great offense when other people lie to him or betray him, yet he has no qualms about using others to his own advantage. Many players have said Trevor is their favorite character, and while I had some fun with his rampages, I still consider him to be a truly reprehensible individual.

Los Santos is populated by a massive cast of supporting characters, each with their own unique quirks and eccentricities. It would be too lengthy to list all of the people you encounter, so I’ll simply discuss the ones I found the most interesting. The primary antagonists are Steve Haines, a corrupt FIB agent who pressures the central trio into sabotaging a competing government agency in order to obtain more funding to further his own career, and his friend Devin Weston, a ruthless businessman who regularly resorts to violence in order to get what he wants. In a world filled with unlikeable people, this pair is absolute scum, and it’s very satisfying when they get their comeuppance if that’s the route you take. Michael’s psychiatrist Dr. Isiah Friedlander is another individual who can charitably be considered a dick, as he shows no genuine concern for his patients, spouts clichéd, trite psychobabble instead of offering real help, and is always looking for new ways to bill Michael for more money. Again, if you choose to make him pay for his behavior, it’s quite enjoyable. Lester Crest, Michael’s contact who helps plan most of the heists, is a deceptive person, his out of shape, crippled body masking a devious mind. He recruits Franklin to carry out several assassinations of corporate bigwigs under a guise of social activism, but it’s really a way to boost the stock he owns in rival companies. Abrasive washed-up celebrity Lazlow Jones returns and, keeping with the series’ trend, he’s become even more of a jerk who’s begging for a beatdown. Trevor’s associate Ron Jakowski is a paranoid conspiracy theorist whose funniest moments are when his public access radio show is playing, where like Alex Jones he discusses insane conspiracies with troubled callers. It’s been argued that no one in GTA V is a sympathetic character, but I have found a few that aren’t complete assholes. Patricia Madrazo, the wife of crime lord Martin Madrazo, is a genuinely sweet woman who tries to make the best of whatever her plight is, whether it’s living with an abusive husband or being kidnapped by Trevor. Her gentle, maternal demeanor is the only thing that allows Trevor to show some genuine humanity. I also felt bad for Tonya Wiggins; even though she uses Franklin to do favors for her, it’s obvious that she suffers greatly from crack addiction and a troubled relationship, and no matter how hard she tries to break free, the craving keeps dragging her back down. Wade Herbert is also someone to pity, a good-hearted but mentally deficient man (either through prolonged meth use or a genetic defect) who suffers some of the worst of Trevor’s abuse and manipulation.

For the most part, gameplay is unchanged from previous Grand Theft Auto games, with most missions consisting of intense shootouts, stealing cars, pulling off robberies and high speed chases, but the controls have greatly improved. I’ve never been good at driving in games like this, so I was thankful that the vehicles handle better with smoother turns. Bikes and smaller cars worked best for me, but I still had problems whenever I had to drive something large like a van or industrial truck. It’s difficult to build up speed and make sharp turns, which is very problematic when you’re trying to shake the police. I was glad to see that if your car gets flipped, you can roll it over and resume the drive rather than having to get out and run. You can also pilot planes and helicopters like in The Ballad of Gay Tony, and unfortunately they still control as poorly as they did then. The planes are the worst with stiff turning controls and finicky landing where you don’t know how slow you have to be to land without damaging the plane. Helicopters are slow to move and don’t turn well either, but it’s much easier to ascend and land. Submarines are introduced in this game for occasional underwater jobs, and while they control fairly well, they move incredibly slow, making the sections where you have to pilot one tedious. Shooting mechanics have also improved with a more responsive automatic lock-on that makes it easier to switch between targets. When you have to switch weapons though, the action won’t stop, it will just slow down, so you can’t be lax when swapping guns in a firefight. Shooting while driving is a bit difficult to get used to since you have to hold the fire button and move the right analog stick to aim while moving at high speeds. You can also take down unaware enemies with stealth attacks, a radar display showing how much sound you’re making. The only control I found odd was that to sprint, you have to keep tapping the X button (on the Playstation 3) instead of simply holding it down.

The biggest change is the ability to switch between the three central characters, both in the overworld and during missions (though some missions restrict you to playing only as one character while the others are AI controlled). It’s very useful for heavy firefights with enemies coming from multiple directions. For example, you can switch from Franklin dealing with foes on the ground to Trevor, positioned at higher ground with a sniper rifle, to pick off helicopters unleashing a rain of bullets. Or you can move all three to better vantage points where they’re not in as much danger. When you swap the one you’re controlling though, you still need to make sure that you keep the other characters safe since you’ll fail the mission if any of the main three die. Stat building returns, first introduced in San Andreas, which allows you to improve eight traits like stamina, strength, driving, and shooting by performing them, which will make them much more proficient in missions when not directly controlled. Each starts with their own proficiency: driving for Franklin, shooting for Michael, and flying for Trevor, though the last doesn’t do much since, again, planes handle very poorly. The trio also have their own special skills which, like Dead Eye mode in Red Dead Redemption, all involve slowing down time but also play to their respective abilities: Franklin can catch up to other cars and handle the roads better when everything is slower, Michael enters bullet time while shooting, and Trevor deals more damage in combat while taking less. A charge meter determines how long you can use the ability before it depletes, but it can be restored by actions like scoring headshots on enemies or pulling off stunts in traffic.

GTA V offers the best kind of sandbox experience with numerous side missions, entertaining distractions, Easter eggs, and buildings you can enter to get a better idea of the world of Los Santos. The game world is massive, larger than any map in the previous entries (though still not as vast as Just Cause 2). The programmers clearly put a lot of effort into making the world feel organic: NPCs will make comments as you approach them as well as carry on their own conversations, a well implemented internal clock means discussions can vary based on the time of day and weather, drivers will give you the finger if you cut them off, heisting a police car and blaring the sirens will cause traffic to clear out, partners will berate you or get aggressive if you take too long to perform a certain action or wander off track, and news broadcasts will comment on missions after you’ve completed them. If you have to replay a mission, different lines of dialogue will sometimes play, keeping a section you might have to do several times from feeling too repetitive. You’ll also get differing conversations depending on which character meets someone in a random encounter.

A wide range of missions are available, from the more mundane like yoga, tennis, golf, and going to movies, to action-packed jobs like robbing stores, assassinations, taking pictures of celebrities in compromising positions, hitting up strip clubs or prostitutes, and street races. You can buy property like in Vice City, which will pay you returns every in-game week, though to keep them profitable you’ll need to do missions like running deliveries or getting rid of troublemakers trying to damage your businesses. Some of the more interesting quests were “Strangers and Freaks”, where you encounter and do favors for many odd characters like adrenaline junkie Don, the high-strung exercise fanatic Mary-Ann, celebrity obsessed British tourists Nigel and Mrs. Thornhill, and Barry the legal marijuana advocate, whose frequent use of his favorite recreational drug keeps him from making any serious progress in his campaigning. Most of the side missions are marked on your GPS, but several things like random encounters depending on the time of day, bounty hunts, hidden locations, UFO fragments, and evidence in a murder case are scattered randomly about, encouraging thorough exploration.

The Heist missions were my favorite new feature. Throughout the game you’re tasked with hitting major targets like banks, jewelry stores, and even government offices. Aside from a few exceptions, you can choose between two paths; a subtle, covert method of entry, usually relying on disguise, misdirection and distractions, or a more direct, aggressive approach that involves a lot of destruction. After you make your choice you’ll have to prepare for the job by casing the target, gathering the necessary disguises, weaponry, vehicles, and any specialized equipment. You’ll also have to assemble a team to carry out specific duties like a hacker, getaway driver, and gunman. Each will have their own level of specialization, though the more skilled crew members will get a bigger cut of the take. If you assist a criminal you meet in a random encounter you can often recruit them for the heist, one of them being Patrick McReary from GTA IV. Once you have everything you need, you get to pull off the jobs. I tended to go for the less-violent approaches like knocking out everyone in a jewelry store with knockout gas so I could rob it unhindered, and planting firebombs in an office complex, then sending the crew in disguised as firemen so they could steal a hard drive with classified information. The spectacle and audacity provide as much fun as the elaborate capers in movies like Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, and other games like the Sly Cooper series. It’s just a shame there aren’t that many, because I would buy a game entirely built around this system, one with more options for how to pull off the job and a wider range of criminal contacts you can bring into your team.

Visuals are stellar, boasting some of the best graphics of this console generation. The character models are all well designed and distinct, even the many NPCs show little reuse of skins. It’s not the most realistic though, and some faces, most notably on the elderly, have an exaggerated, artificial, almost dead expression. The main characters will show injuries based on how they’re hurt in a mission, with scars, bruises, cuts, and torn clothes appearing in the proper areas. Bloodstains from gunshots, however, look fake and superimposed. Vehicles will also show damage, from simple scratches and fender benders to broken glass and losing parts of the body. The detail put into the world was incredible, with the natural scenery looking the most impressive. I’ve only seen more realistic landscapes in Quantic Dream games, but some lower-resolution objects like trees stand out as unnatural compared to the background. The massive soundtrack matches the huge scale of the game, with more than 240 songs from 15 genres available on the in-game radio stations, including hardcore punk, classic rock and pop, electronic, soul, and garage rock. There are also several original songs, some of my favorites being the new-wave inspired Change of Coast, the moody, electronic Colours which reminds me of Depeche Mode’s early work, the hardcore punk What’s Next, and Life of a Mack, which is pure West Coast hip-hop. Finally, most of the missions and open-world gameplay have dynamic scores that change in tone and intensity based on your actions.

Though I’ve enjoyed previous entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, I’ve never been a huge fan of the franchise. That’s all changed with Grand Theft Auto V. It absolutely blew me away with all it had to offer. The game has already broken records as the fastest selling entertainment in history, earning more than $1 billion in the first three days of sales, and it deserves the commercial and critical acclaim it’s received. I know that some people may be put off by the excessive violence and juvenile humor, but if you can look past that, there’s a good chance you’ll like what you see. GTA V is simply incredible, a perfect capstone for the seventh console generation. I look forward to seeing how Rockstar expands on the formula, as they’ve introduced several features that I’d love to see used in following games. But I will admit, it’s going to be hard to top an accomplishment like this.

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