GTAV

rappelling

I don’t spend much time playing hardcore games these days, but there’s a special place in my heart for the Grand Theft Auto franchise (even though I never finished any of the PS2 versions — there was always some mission where I simply couldn’t finish owing to my incompetence or the horrible controls, depending on how you look at it).

Here, in a nutshell, is what I love about GTA games:

  • driving a halfway decent car (or motorbike) simulator around a halfway decent virtual city at insane speeds is just fun
  • always breathtaking (by the standards of the time) rendition of the real world
  • cheap but often hilarious cynicism and dark humor pervading the world
  • more-or-less free-roaming world with at least somewhat interesting stuff to do
  • quasi-emergent behavior in the form of the way other drivers work, people on the street, and so on
  • constant pushing-of-the-envelope in terms of game mechanics
  • totally organic and usually not annoying cut scenes

GTAIV added to this mix:

  • the best implementation of cover mechanics I’ve seen in computer game

Indeed, missions involving a lot of gunplay went from being horrific (in Vice City) to usually a lot of fun (in San Andreas, which had improved aiming but no cover mechanics) to perhaps the most fun part of the game (in GTAIV). The designers of GTAV clearly consider the gun fight mechanics to be a sufficiently positive feature to make huge set piece running gun battles a central piece of every major mission in GTAV.

Incremental Improvements

Los Santos View

GTAV represents perhaps the least significant improvement in the game engine and scope over a predecessor in the series. Although many have commented on the less realistic (and thus better or worse depending on your point of view) car controls (and I assume that they’re right, which may be generous, but I haven’t gone back and played GTAIV to check), I didn’t notice a change. I could drive around Liberty City at insane speeds in GTAIV, and I can drive around Los Santos at insane speeds in GTAV. That said, was able to pretty effortlessly drive a stolen car out of a multilevel carpark (if you’ve finished the game you probably know exactly which car I’m talking about) in GTAV — an impossibility in San Andreas, but I can’t remember how tough it would have been in GTAIV.

You can switch between characters, which is interesting (and I guess lets you decide for yourself who the main character is — but if you don’t think it’s Franklin you’re wrong).

There’s underwater stuff (including a submarine and SCUBA sequences), more minigames, skydiving (is that new? can’t remember) and — my favorite — interactive hallucinations. The setting is bigger, but not overwhelmingly (not like say San Andreas vs. Vice City). I think (but haven’t checked) they’ve made the missions finer-grained with respect to recovering from failures (so you generally don’t lose much progress when you screw up). But, nothing much else.

As with previous installments — it’s very well written, great voice acting, good motion capture (including facial expressions and eyes in some cut scenes). One thing I did find was that the radio stations weren’t as funny as I remember (especially compared with the PS2 games — I was just replaying San Andreas on my Mac and the original GTA3 on my iPad).

Characters

helicopter approaching FIB

The main characters are two middle-aged former bank robbers and their young protege, a former gang-banger who is trying to better himself — legitimately or otherwise. Twenty years ago, the two older guys would have been Vietnam vets, ten years ago they’d have been Iraq vets, but today they’re just sociopaths. What does that say?

Of the three characters, the most entertaining is the disgusting and reprehensible Trevor, a slouching, crazy, drug-fueled, murderous, Meth-distributing, gun-running, unwashed thug. Trevor’s endearing qualities come down to his yelling frequently hilarious epithets and taunts during combat, and — reminiscent of Vyvyan in The Young Ones (for those few of you who might remember that BBC sitcom) — his bouts of ethical lucidity. The problem is that he is just as likely to enthusiastically torture someone as to help them escape execution at the hands of their torturers.

More interesting to me is that this is a series of games that tends to deal with older characters (CJ, in San Andreas, is the youngest protagonist I can recall, and he is returning to the ‘hood after spending time in Liberty City) — GTAV has a younger character in Franklin (the ex gang-banger) but he is something of a blank slate. The dominant personalities are Michael — an ex bank-robber, now living the high life under corrupt government agency protection, with teenage kids and a wife who pretty much hates him (a bit like Tony Soprano) — and Trevor — an ex bank-robber turned meth-dealer and wannabe arms dealer with major mommy issues (think Walter from Breaking Bad, with a bit of Tony Soprano mixed in, played by Jack Nicholson).

Gameplay

skydive

Gameplay is great, but far from perfect. People tell me that the car controls are more forgiving than GTAIV (which I had no big issues with at the time) — it’s probably true. (Landing planes on Trevor’s runway is another matter entirely.) It’s very easy to do things that I’m pretty sure were hard or impossible in GTAIV, and on top of that the specialist driver has a “bullet time” ability that gives you totally superhuman abilities in a pinch. (I didn’t find Michael’s combat bullet time ability one terribly useful, but Trevor’s rampage mode could easily turn a fight around.)

The Cover Button

The biggest flaw in gameplay is the way cover works. I don’t know if it could be much better, because the cover system seems to be dynamic rather than manually set up — almost any nook or cranny in the landscape that looks like it might work as cover pretty much does, versus — say — Mass Effect where cover objects are quite clearly manually placed by level designers. The problem is that hitting the cover button can send you running across an open field to the wrong spot and gets you killed a lot. I’d say that about half of my ~30 deaths in the game came from the cover button doing something annoying. (That said, I didn’t die very often.)

On-the-job training

The second biggest flaw in the gameplay is the “just-too-late” instructions. Probably my second biggest source of mission failure after the cover button was being told how something works just as I got shot to death or failed the mission owing to lack of time. It’s funny how some critical controls are gently introduced before the fact while others are on the screen for the first time as everything goes tilted and grey (signifying a mission failure). Again, I don’t know if this could be much better. Introducing mechanics a little bit earlier every time would spoil a lot of storiees, and introducing them much earlier would probably just lead to greater consternation as they’d be forgotten before the critical moment.

Interactive Hallucinations

Spoilers!

Probably the single standout feature of GTAV is the playable hallucinations. It’s a shame these mainly occur early in the game (as far as I can tell). Mike’s drug trip (infinite psychedelic freefall) is visually amazing as is his alien invasion. Trevor’s rampages and clown attack likewise. The pro-legalization-of-weed guy giving out spiked joints is involved in a series of missions that appear to just taper out — I’m not sure if I missed something.

Rampages

Spoilers!

Speaking of hallucinations, instead of just randomly inserting rampages into the landscape, as in previous instalments, they’re now missions specific to Trevor, which makes more sense and doesn’t defile the other characters. (It’s hard to create sympathy for a person who randomly goes on killing sprees.) Perhaps my favorite example is when Trevor is set off by someone he interprets as making fun of his “slightly Canadian” accent. (Trevor being a Canadian is one of the game’s running jokes.)

Utter Lack of Resource Constraints

One fairly big difference between GTAV and any previous GTA instalment as far as I can recall is that you don’t spend very much time being poor. To begin with, each character starts with their own car that magically follows them around, and it’s a pretty damn good car. (In fact, it didn’t occur to me to buy any car mods until I was forced to by a mission, despite having plenty of money and having had the car mod shop rubbed in my face by an earlier mission.)

Similarly, Los Santos features three high end shopping malls, and top-of-the-line vehicles are there for the taking at any time. And soon two of the three characters are living in upscale neighborhoods and can literally steal a neighbor’s Ferrari or Range Rover surrogate without a thought. Incidentally, I don’t know how realistic this is, but my opinion of Range Rovers is greatly enhanced by GTAV! (I recally being quite happy to find an upscale neighborhood in GTAIV and making special trips to it to score nice cars before driving missions.)

After the first heist, you’re floating in cash with all three characters and never really have to stint on anything (you basically just walk into Ammunation and buy the works for every character after the first heist, and still have plenty of money left to play the stock market and do some insider trading). This undermines a lot of potential game play because, for example, Trevor’s rather difficult weapon drop missions (at $7000 a pop) don’t really seem worth bothering with when you can make a quick $200,000 on the stock market and have $450,000 in the bank, or, for that matter, score $5000+ from an opportunistic armored car robbery that is over in a matter of 30s. Indeed there was an early mission where Trevor makes a big score but then needs to spend most of it almost immediately that made me think resource constraint would be part of the game, but no, money is never an issue.

Heist Missions

Speaking of heists, when I read the Ars Technica review of GTAV, I assumed that you’d do a lot of heists and that setting them up might be tedious. In fact there are not very many heists and setting them up is no more tedious than any other kind of mission in other other GTA game. (Why do you do anything in GTA?). Heists seem like a great mechanic, and it would be awesome if smaller heists were generated randomly as part of the sandbox rather than simply being a fixed set of missions. Perhaps something along this line was planned but abandoned due to time constraints (since I imagine it would be technically difficult).

Minigames

The depth and breadth of minigames in GTAV is something I’ve yet to fully explore. The tennis simulation is impressive, and I assume golf is too. Darts was OK in GTAIV, no reason to assume it wouldn’t be at least as good in V. Sky diving is awesome, mountain biking is kind of horrible, and the triathlon is likely to cause repetition strain injury. Unlike earlier GTA instalments street racing is pretty much sidelined (I won one race early on with Franklin, who has super powers when it comes to racing, and then simply saw icons on the map if I wanted to do more races, which I didn’t).

Story

Warning: slight spoilers.

The basic arc of the story is that a gang-banger-turned-repo-man who is trying to either go straight or at least be a smarter criminal hooks up with an aging former bank-robber with major impulse-control issues and a serious mid-life crisis. As a result of losing it one-too-many-times, the robber suddenly needs to raise a ton of money, and gets back together with a former colleague to plan a major heist. This leads to uncontrollable and violent former friend figuring out that he’s still alive and tracking him down.

You play the three characters — aging ex-bank robber, aging meth-fueled maniacal ex-bank robber, and talented newb as they proceed to engage in higher and higher stakes heists each intended to solve problems created by earlier heists and/or the older characters’ tendency to piss people off with little or no provocation.

The fact that any single one of the crimes the characters commit (and quite a few random incidents) would lead to an unrelenting international manhunt and quite possibly the formation of new federal agencies is par for the course for GTA.

Sandbox

Organic Encounters

There’s an interesting mechanic that sets up interesting encounters on-the-fly (I think there are similar things in earlier games, but it’s not as explicit). Your sat nav flashes and a blue or blue/red flashing dot indicates something you can intervene in. Armored Cars are one of my favorites, since you can let off a little steam by killing a couple of guys, blowing up an armored car, and then fleeing the police for a couple of minutes. The most elaborate one I saw (and the game tells me I’ve seen them all) is the No Country for Old Men scene where you find the aftermath of drug deal gone bad, with a bunch of money sitting in the middle. Pick it up (of course!) and chaos ensues.

Most of the encounters are simply annoying. E.g. man or woman is robbied, you pursue the thief (who usually turns out to be heavily armed — the first time I chased on I got killed), run over them repeatedly (or shoot them once you master shooting while driving, but that tends to attract a lot of police attention, and I feel a little bad shooting innocent bystanders while returning a wallet to someone — $100,000 in property damage is fine, of course). More annoying still are the people pleading for help who’re trying to ambush you. It would have been nice for at least some of the organic missions to not be totally stupid (if only to make you more likely to not simply ignore them or shoot the person).

E.g. after being ambushed a couple of times, I’d simply pull out a pistol when asked for help, and when their reaction revealed they’d actually planned to kill me I’d shoot them dead and walk away.

Not quite in the organic encounter moment, but the owners of gun stores say pretty sarcastic things to your characters when you pop in for a purchase. I had a serious laugh-out-loud moment when I visited a store with Trevor after his first big score (the filthy, meth-addled, often semi-naked psychopath) and as I left (carrying a huge supply of weapons, explosives, and kevlar) the store owner said “And I bet you’ll be using that stuff right away” as I walked out. Sadly, it turns out the store owners turn out to be equally likely to say the same thing to the other characters, who look perfectly reputable.

Dating & Guys’ Nights Out

Unlike GTAIV, there’s not only no pressure to go play darts with your pals or date women, it seems to be quite difficult to do. (I didn’t go on a single date or mandate — towards the end (as Franklin) I tried the “Hang Out” menu option on Trevor (since I had just been told I had to kill him) and he replied “And you call me a creepy stalker!” and hung up.

Similarly, the constantly enraged Mike accidentally ended up jogging with an equally enraged and age-appropriate woman, who I thought would be a perfect fuck buddy for him, but while she appeared in his contact list afterwards, I could never get through to her, despite entering and winning a triathlon. I’m not quite sure what went wrong there.

Social Commentary

Midlife Crisis

Midlife crises are a bit passé today, but they’re fairly unusual in computer games. Michael’s family situation at the beginning of the game seems reminiscent of Tony Soprano’s at the outset of The Sopranos. His midlife crisis drives some fairly important plot elements, but it’s one of the weakest elements of the game, and isn’t funny. His wife and children are so repellant, that his desire to keep his family together stretches credulity, and the whole Hollywood movie producer subplot is neither funny nor biting.

Psychotherapy

Like Tony Soprano, Michael is in therapy, but his therapist is a guy (played by some fairly well-known actor whose voice I recognized — I think maybe the guy who played Monk’s psychiatrist). I think this is also supposed to be funny, but pretty much falls flat, with the main joke being how greedy the psychiatrist is. (I did amuse myself though — playing Michael, I left my second visit to him in his Porsche-analog.)

Sexism — definitely an issue

It’s easy to complain about sexism in the GTA series. Of course, there’s scarcely single positive female character in the story (There is in fact one good female character in the story.) — but then there’s no positive male characters either. At best Franklin, say, is not a murderous sociopath and stands up for his friends. But the portrayal of women is both shallow and often mean — Michael’s wife seems like a flat-out bitch, and his daughter is even more shallow and useless than his son, who is at least self-aware and ambitious enough to have a stab at starting up his own pot-dealing business. (Spoiler Alert: wait until you see Trevor’s mom!)

On the one hand, the other pop culture sources on which GTAV feeds (and which in turn feed on it) are just as bad — where are the positive female characters in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad? But the fact is that GTA could easily have strong and complex female characters (indeed, the best computer hacker among your heist crew options is a woman who all but doesn’t appear on screen or say a word). Yes, GTAV is ultra-macho, but I think they could pull it off and still have a strong female character or two. Even the incidental female characters, such as the loser who sends Franklin on towing missions to fill in for her drug addict boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend are simply pathetic and loathsome.

Perhaps Rock Star is to be praised for not inserting positive female characters just to check off an item that critics complain about, but I think it’s just lazy. Oddly enough, there’s a tough female cop arresting someone in the loading graphics, but as far as I can tell, she never appears in the story. I seem to recall that Rockstar foreshadowed the Liberty City Stories expansion content in the credits of GTAIV; perhaps there’s an expansion with a tough female cop character in the wings.

Racism — not an issue

You can’t really accuse GTAV of being racist. (Plenty of the characters in the story are racist, of course.) It’s definitely not color-blind, but the portrayal of race in the game seems completely organic and reflective of society. The black-on-black dialog seems, to my ear, to be completely authentic (but what would I know?)

Homophobia — not an issue

There’s a great line where Michael’s son is telling his father off and says he’d call something “gay” but he has gay friends and it’s uncool now so he’ll settle for lame. Homosexuality doesn’t really come up aside from this comment (and Trevor’s tendency to snuggle up with men he shares beds with and — spoiler a nasty comment made by his mother).

Drugs

The treatment of drugs in the game is so casual as to probably cause great alarm to anti-drug moralists. The fact that drugs are illegal or that meth labs are prone to explode is simply treated as being a logistical issue. There is no portrayal of drugs as being a moral hazard or even having real health impacts, but merely that trading in drugs and using drugs presents practical problems. I think this is correct, but I suggest it should be very alarming to anyone who would like prohibition to continue. It seems clear that as a cultural artifact showing gen-X/Y/Z talking amongst itself, the whole drug debate is over.

Torture

There’s a torture scene in GTAV (in which you, as Trevor, actively participate). It seems somewhat poorly integrated into the overall story, and then ham-fistedly used to insert actual social commentary (from Trevor, no less) into what is generally an apolitical and amoral story. I’m not sure what the writers were trying to achieve, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t achieve it.

The War on Terror

Aside from one of the major villain groups being Merry Weather, an obvious Black Water surrogate, frequent references are made to the government starting unnecessary wars, and the War on Terror merely being a pretext for federal agencies to pad their budgets. (Indeed, this is a major component of the arc plot, and at one point seems to be the arc plot.)

Obamacare

If I recall correctly, Trevor makes a comment (in one of his lucid tirades) in favor of socialized medicine, and then someone says he sounds like a Canadian. Then again, Trevor wryly suggests that hunting liberals might be a fun pastime for his “friend” Cletus.

Summing Up

GTAV is a fantastic game. It’s extraordinarily ambitious and manages to do everything it sets out to with aplomb. If I have any criticisms they would be some weak plot elements (e.g. Michael’s family life, midlife crisis, and Hollywood storyline), and lack of interesting dynamic content (gratuitous missions removed, and nothing much has replaced them — I was hoping for a random heist engine).