Grand Theft Auto V PS3 Review

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Let’s be honest here, an entry in the Grand Theft Auto series needs no introduction. In fact, Rockstar could very well get away with simply announcing a new title and leaving the marketing down to its fans passing word of mouth. It’s a series that has worked hard to staple itself into the history of video games to become so gigantic that each new entry activates a switch within millions of fans, turning them into frenzied beings as they grasp air for the tiniest bit of news about the game before it launches.

Everyone who plays Grand Theft Auto (GTA) has their favourite. To give you an idea about my background on GTA, I am a fan who thinks that San Andreas took the series in the right direction. I still enjoyed Vice City, which is often another popular pick, but San Andreas was the evolution of GTA III.  It went with a bold move to remove the reigns from the player, allowing them to explore a vaster space that felt like it was hiding content in every corner.  It was a huge and ambitions game, a game that was purely about having fun in its huge world. You can imagine my disappointed when Rockstar announced Grand Theft Auto IV and the series went with a more serious atmosphere, removing most of the features that were included in San Andreas and shrinking the game back down to its island format.  Apart from the graphics, it felt like a step back, and I wasn’t a happy chap about that. Grand Theft Auto V remedies this, while also fixing issues the series had with its fourth major instalment.

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The narrative follows three characters with intersecting storylines that builds towards bringing the characters together to form a crew. This is a first for a series that has normally focused on one character, but evidence of Rockstar experiment with character roles could be seen with their standalone expansion packs, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony  – along with some other mechanics that I’ll mention later – which starred new characters, but was set in the same Liberty City as GTA IV.

Introduced first is Michael, a retired crook, who has left the world of bank robbing to live a new life in Rockford Hills, Los Santos, with his dysfunctional family. His old friend, Trevor, is seen here too, but it’s not till around five or six hours into the game that you are able to control him. Trevor is a nutcase fuelled by speed that causes him to become an uncontrollable, psychopathic maniac. He’s also home to the queasiest moment in the game. Sure, he’s twisted, but for me, this makes him the most exciting guy out of the three. Being in the mind of a person who would be regarded as unpleasant and “evil” in video games is rather an unknown territory, and I enjoyed that perspective.  His unpredictability is a cause for many of the game’s amusing moments, as he knows no bounds with his recklessness. Lastly, there is Franklin, a younger dude, whose only experience with criminal life is gang wars and weed selling. Franklin’s current job is as a repo-man for a luxury car dealer, but that changes when Franklin is introduced to the bigger world of crime when he meets up with Michael and Trevor.

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Once the team is together, character switching can be done at any time, unless a story or mission blocks access to it. Holding down the D-pad and selecting a character with the right stick will zoom out the camera, wait a few seconds (for loading), and then the camera will zoom back in to a new location where the selected character is going about their daily business. These events seem to be random, with Franklin usually hanging in shops or driving around, while Trevor is frequently drunk as a skunk, waking up in some random place, such as a barn or on top of a mountain. Michael is the most “normal” of the three, as he continuously seems to be in his house, either with the family or watching TV.

Each character comes with a special ability. Franklin can slow down time while driving vehicles to give him more mobility (think original Need for Speed: Most Wanted), Michael has bullet time, but without the awesome diving, and Trevor has resistance to bullets and increased damage with weapons.  The most useful was certainly Franklin’s, as it helps with shaking off the police during car chases by activating the power at the last second to turn a corner, while the police are left to react late and miss the turn off. Police are easier to escape this time. Once you’re out of their search zone, each police car on the map is displayed with a visual zone, similar to the soliton radar in Metal Gear Solid. Stay out of their sight for a couple of minutes and you’ll be back to being incognito.

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Character switching allows Rockstar to do so much more with the story and gameplay. It’s not a feature that’s just in to add diversity to the playable cast, but allows Rockstar to give players a bigger scope to the overall story, along with allowing individualism to every character. If one person was doing all the events that happen in GTA V, then their characterisation would be destroyed. When the protagonists are doing their own thing, it’s dealing with their own problems, leaving the rest of the members out of the equation, unless help is required within the mission, then they are like brothers, coming in to back up their “homie” from whatever dangers they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s a fantastic way to change the flow of the game’s story, adding change to the plot, so that players aren’t clamped to following one storyline. I see this as a revision of the gang leader stories that you found in other GTA games. It allows Rockstar to build separate stories within an overall arcing plot.  I always found it weird that one guy would work with all the other gang members in town, even though they all had distaste for each other. This never happens in GTA V.

In fact, the story in GTA V comes across differently than other entries in the franchise. They are no major gangs, since your main adversaries are the police, FIB (Federal Investigation Bureau) or rich folk with the power to manipulate. GTA V emphasizes heists, building multiple missions around robbing banks or breaking into buildings to retrieve a target. It’s nice to see a storyline in GTA that doesn’t revolve around gang battles and drugs. Sure, those feature at points in the game, but this story is one that feels more upper-class for the series, no doubt inspired by crime movies.

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Speaking of heists, these missions are the showcase for the new and improved mechanics in GTA V. Each break-in is split into three sections. The first is the planning, which offers the player two choices – another new mechanic that modifies future mission structures based on what is selected – to tackle a heist, usually based on either a quiet or a loud approach. Most heists require the employment of additional men, which can be nominated from a small group, each with individual stats and costs that are taken from your overall heist total. After planning, you need to acquire the goods. One heist was to steal an item from a government building. This offered the choice of sneaking in as the emergency services or simply blasting your way in like mad men. I went with the quieter approach, which required the gang to steal a fire engine, find a getaway car and park it in a self-designated destination, and steal clothes from a janitor.

Once the key items are gathered, you’re ready to go. Keeping on the topic of the same heist, it begins with Michael entering the building as a janitor and making his way up the floor he is supposed to clean. Michael has to look the role of a janitor; a little floor scrubbing is required, while at the same time the player is planting bombs in key locations around the building. Michael leaves after and waits outside. The player then switches to Franklin, who is the middle of driving towards the building in the stolen fire truck. Franklin picks up Michael and then drives off. The bombs go off, so the gang return as the impersonating fire crew and make their way up the building to steal the item. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as the shit hits the fan, thanks to the building collapsing and the FIB attacking, causing the crew are split up. Character switching is used to see the action from various perspectives as this is happening.

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You can guess the outcome; it leads to escaping in the getaway vehicle and avoiding the police. They are better examples for the character swapping, but those are key to the plot; I am avoiding spoilers as much as possible, but this should give you the idea that Rockstar is using the potential of multiple characters to tell a story with alternative viewpoints. At the same time, it also allows for varied gameplay. In one mission, you’re switching control between driving a submarine, flying a helicopter and sniping people, all within the same instance.

Change is important to keeping anything interesting, and for me this is what was wrong with GTA IV. The game played it safe – it featured the same mission concepts, the same unlock system, etc. In other words, it was becoming stale, and Rockstar obviously recognized this enough to change things up. One major change is the world map. From the get go, you’re free to go around Los Santos and its surrounding desert and mountains as you see fit. This is the biggest map in the history of the series, and no bridge will block you and no police will attempt to kill you for exploring its vast lands. It’s a pleasure to be able to finish a mission by going for a drive and discovering the secrets hidden away. There are lots of random events scattered around, such as the hitch-hiker that I offered to give a lift home. She seemed nice at first, but it turns out she’s a woman with an issue with commitment, as she explains the story of murdering everyone she’s come into contact with.

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With 69 main story missions, GTA V is not short game, taking me around 35 hours to finish it with around 65% of the total game completed. You can easily spend time getting side tracked with the many activates. Want to play some golf or tennis? Then drive to your nearest one and indulge it some rather fun and robust sport mini-games. Into extreme sports? Go parachuting. Are you a fitness fanatic? Then take part in the triathlon and buff your stamina metre. There are side missions aplenty, with one quest group called “Strangers & Freaks” that include tasks as helping a journalist record a famous actress having sex, showing your friendliness by helping an old couple raid the bins of famous celebrities or taking on the challenge to be an extreme sportsman by jumping out of a plane and then racing down the biggest mountain on a mountain bike. The world of Los Santos is bizarre  and full of content that you should never be bored with the choices on offer.

I mentioned that Rockstar were testing mechanics in the standalone GTA IV stories. The scoring system from The Ballad of Gay Tony returns in GTA V. Every mission has challenges to meet that will result in either a bronze, silver or gold reward upon completing. Any mission can be replayed whenever you’re not taking part in an activity, giving unlimited time to master them and grab that shiny gold award. One feature that I am sure is to please is the inclusion of checkpoints in missions. This was introduced in The Lost and Damned, and it makes a very welcomed addition in GTA V. Some of these missions can be long, and I can’t even imagine the frustration that would happen if you had to restart from the very beginning. On a final note, you can now save anywhere, thanks to the use of the mobile phone, which plays an even more important role in GTA V, offering access to emails, texts and the internet, with plenty of spoof websites, such as “Lifeinvader” the game’s version of Facebook, accessible with the click of a button.

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The open world is packed with vehicles. Cars look like rip-offs of real life counter parts, with logos that spoof the manufacturer’s design, while boats, motorbikes, bicycles, and planes open up the choices in how you can explore Los Santos. As soon as you set foot in Los Santos, expensive and speedy cars are available to you that you hardly ever feel you have an incapable car. While this fits with the expensive and luxury setting of Los Santos, it also helps to keep dealing players with cars that are good enough – long gone is the feeling that “this car is crap.” The desire to hunt for the speed demons is no longer present.  Modifications are present too, so you can turn one into a race machine if you believe it doesn’t look the part and park it into your garage collection. Land vehicle handling is much more improved. It feels lighter than before, more arcade-like, offering sharper control over your car that it’s possible to enjoy driving around the streets of Los Santos or participating in the many race events without having to fight against the game’s physics.

A concern of mine was gunplay. GTA IV’s shooting was stiff, felt unnatural and very unfulfilling. Rockstar have fixed this, clearly using the experience they’ve had with crafting Max Payne 3, to deliver solid shooting mechanics. The strong auto-targeting of the 3D GTA games remains present, but, if you don’t appreciate its hand holding, you can switch it to a smaller auto-aiming system or a completely aimless system where it’s all down how good you can aim. People who have played Max Payne 3 will feel the similarities between that game and GTA V.

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There’s only one area where GTA V doesn’t feel improved – melee combat still feels archaic. Thankfully, you’re only ever forced to use it once, so melee is one thing you can completely forget about. It’s a shame that Rockstar haven’t learnt from Sleeping Dogs, because having good melee could make for some fantastic scenarios. Maybe that will be an area fixed in GTA VI, as that is the only thing to spoil the otherwise much mechanically improved gameplay in GTA V.

On a technical level, I am surprised at how well the game looks. Rockstar mentioned that they were inexperienced with the hardware in the Xbox 360 and PS3 when developing GTA IV. It clearly shows when playing GTA V, because this game looks amazing. Open worlds often have to suffer with detail to make way for such a huge world, but somehow Rockstar has managed some technical wizardry to make GTA V look good on the eyes, while still keeping the game at a solid frame rate for most of the time. Loading times are kept to minimum – employing a huge load time when the game is booted that allows for the game to seamlessly transfer from gameplay to cutscene and back again in an uninterrupted instance. The only time you’ll have loading is when you’re restarting a mission or transitioning between characters, and even then it’s not that long, and as mentioned, you’re treated to a lovely bird’s eye view of the city while that’s in progress.

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Grand Theft Auto Online is an area of GTA V that is inaccessible at this current time. It’s due for a release on October 1st, which makes reviewing GTA V as a whole package impossible at this current time.  It’s a shame, because the concept behind Online sounds fabulous. It might end up being an amazing addition to the game, or on the other hand it might be mediocre. Whatever the case is for Online, this review is only based on the single player portion.

Grand Theft Auto V marks a refinement entry for the franchise. Not only does the game go back to the thrill and scope of San Andreas, but on a technical level, having the visual quality and solid frame-rate that is on display here is an accomplishment on such old hardware. On top of that, you have Rockstar improving nearly all the mechanics of the game to such a level that everything now feels solid enough to be able to stand on its own. The story is engaging, the world is full of wonder and the three protagonists add diversity to storytelling and gameplay. Perfect is such a strong word to define something, and while no game is ever perfect, there is no denying that Rockstar aimed in the right direction to perfect the formula that Grand Theft Auto original started with in 1997.

Grand Theft Auto V is the best the series has ever been, and that’s a compliment that speaks volumes.

10/10

by

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Version tested: PS3

Also available on: Xbox 360

Developer: Rockstar North

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Genre: Action-Adventure