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I have just spent a half-hour planning the perfect heist. I’m going in smart, knocking out the guards and the staff behind the delicate jewellery counters of the store with a carefully placed smoke bomb, and smashing into each cabinet with the butt of a semi-automatic rifle before making my escape on a nearby getaway bike. I’m reducing my cut so I can hire the best hacker to disable the security system, and a skilled gunman to handle crowd control. And yet, despite my best efforts, with one poorly-taken corner on my bike, it all goes wrong. I should be driving down a dank sewer tunnel, sneaking my way under the city to freedom. Instead, I’m here, mowing down wave after wave of police on the city streets, and for the first time while playing a Grand Theft Auto game, I feel immensely guilty about it.
This isn’t because of some grand moral awakening on my part, but an interesting side effect of what is the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version of GTA V’s most compelling new feature: first-person mode. Even when GTA games were top-down shooters, there was always something of a disconnect between the sometimes shockingly violent scenes on-screen, and the mentality of the player. You could imagine that, despite directly controlling a character, it was this virtual caricature of a criminal committing the crimes–you merely played witness to them. First-person mode fundamentally changes not only how you view GTA V’s world. It has the power to make you stop and think about your actions, and to deeply question a character’s motivations. And in a series that has long been criticized for glorifying a life of crime, rather than questioning it, this is no bad thing.
Yes, there are plenty of violent first-person shooters around in which issues of morality can be raised, but few are paired with the stunning Hollywood production values of GTA V. The city of Los Santos is one of the most beautiful and convincing open-world environments to have ever graced a video game, and in its new higher-resolution guise, it’s even more spectacular. Compared to the last-gen versions, the new GTA V is noticeably sharper, largely thanks to improved antialiasing. Textures resolutions have been bumped, surfaces are, well, bumpier (thanks enhanced tessellation), and there are all manner of new particle, light, and lens effects. You can cruise down Vespucci Beach and pick out little details in its trinket stores and skateboard shops that weren’t there before. You can drive around in the rain, marvelling at the beautifully rendered raindrops and puddles on the ground. And when you stop admiring the scenery to cause some anarchy, explosions from a hastily thrown grenade pop in a dazzling display of fire and light.
To admire this all in first-person is a delight. The wide, cinematic field of view is very different to that of your typical shooter, as is the slower pace with which you walk; think P.T. and you’re on the right track. Where the camera once easily tilted up above and around the city, at ground level everything looks bigger and more imposing. I found myself walking along the city streets, watching as the many weird and wonderful citizens of Los Santos went about their business. I wandered into shops, even those where I couldn’t buy anything, just to admire the astonishing level of detail at eye level, with nifty depth of field effects helping to sell the immersion. It’s all very lifelike, the gentle head bobs and animations as you leap over walls and tumble out of cars drawing you into the game in a way that third-person mode never could.
This is especially true when the action heats up, and where the grizzly reality of GTA V comes into sharp focus. With most missions revolving around some form of gunplay, the bloody splatter of a drug dealer laid to waste on the sidewalk, or the groans of an injured cop writing on the hood of his car have far more of an effect than before. Of course, not everyone will be as affected by this as I was, but there are some practical points to ponder too. Shooting and throwing explosives is easier in first-person, even with GTA’s assisted aim disabled–provided you turn down the obscene levels of controller sensitivity before you start–but the cover system isn’t quite there, and there were times when I wasn’t able to peek around a corner properly and got shot as a result.
Then there’s the driving, which, no matter how hard I tried, I found far too difficult to master in first-person. The fully working and wonderfully detailed vehicle interiors might be impressive, but the twitchy controls that work so well in third-person for pulling off outrageous driving stunts are just far too sensitive to easily keep cars on the road during a frantic police chase. There are also vehicle missions that simply weren’t designed with first-person in mind either. Trying to catch Michael’s son as he dangles off a boat on the highway, or performing a speeding drive by on the highway is very difficult. It’s arguably more realistic, but I found myself switching back to third-person in order to get them done. Thankfully, it’s not an either or situation when it comes to your viewpoint. You can drive in third-person and have the game automatically switch to first-person when on-foot if you like, or even pan out to third-person when you take cover.
But even if you choose to ignore first-person mode completely, GTA V has lost little of its lustre since release. Even now, after the years of progress in the industry and all the wonderful games that I’ve played, I’m surprised how few have managed to replicate the Hollywood feel and effortless, natural dialogue of a GTA. This is a series that has consistently been the most convincing and the most cinematic in games, and GTA V continues that tradition with aplomb. Even something as basic as credible characters are a rarity, and yet GTA V manages to create a whole city full of them, as well as three authentic leads with which to journey through it. That’s not to say these leads are likeable characters, but perhaps that’s the point. There may be a few times you sympathise with retired gangster Michael as his family life crumbles around him, or when you believe that wannabe gangster Franklin might be a nice guy just because he says he’s always trying to do the right thing.
But these are narcissistic, psychopathic killers who don’t blink an eyelid at killing hundreds of perfectly innocent people when it serves their own means. This is particularly true of Trevor, who remains far and away the most interesting and well-written character of the lot, a terrifyingly insane yet remarkably intelligent criminal who constantly seems on the edge of some kind of mental breakdown. Scary doesn’t even begin to describe it. These characters are not without fault, though–there are moments when a character will contradict his own motivations, seemingly just to fit the structure of a mission–but the fact that these characters can be so convincingly terrifying, and so sharp and snappy in their interactions with one another is a testament to just how fantastic the writing in GTA is.
This is a series that has consistently been the most convincing and the most cinematic in games, and GTA V continues that tradition with aplomb.
That extends to the world at large too: the sprawling, gorgeously detailed metropolis of Los Santos deftly satirizes its real-world inspiration of Los Angeles, and of America as whole. Highlights include the self-proclaimed god of social media, Lifeinvader CEO Jay Norris, And his company’s beanbag-filled offices; the constant barrage of adverts for celebrity magazines, prescription drugs, and plastic surgeries that are savaged on the radio; and the corrupt government agencies like the FiB that often act worse than the criminals they’re trying to put away. Sure, GTA V is sometimes heavy-handed with its satire, but there are few games that dare go as far as GTA does with its nihilistic commentary, and fewer still that do it with such conviction.
Running through it all are bombastic missions that play out like Hollywood blockbusters, and the finest of gangster films. Heists remain the highlight, and the whole process of planning them out, hiring members of the team, gathering equipment, and then hoping that the fuzz doesn’t interfere on the big day is utterly engrossing. Bombs are exploded, helicopters are smashed into the side of skyscrapers, and entire squads of police give chase as you make a futile attempt escape down the highway; the sheer thrill of a four or five star chase as what seems like the entire state’s quota of law enforcement descends upon you cannot be understated. And yet, GTA V remains stuck in the past in some ways. There are chase missions where losing sight of your target thanks to a poorly taken turn on the highway means making a frustrating restart, and assassination missions where, if you jump the gun and kill your target before the game expects you to, you have to start over again.
But the sheer spectacle of all drags you back in for more. GTA has never really been subtle, and the game steamrolls its way through its less exciting moments, filling them with crafty pop culture-filled conversations and breathtaking landscapes for you to ogle. There are extra missions to play too, including the random creeps of Los Santos who ask you to do things as mundane as tow trucks for them, or to smoke weed and mow down aliens in an hallucinogenic rampage through the city. There are the multiple leisure activities you can indulge in, or the real estate you can buy, and the stocks you invest in along with the markets you can manipulate. Or you can just slack it all off completely and use Los Santos as your own wonderful digital playground, setting up sticky bomb-filled booby traps in the middle of traffic, or stealing jumbo jets from the airport and trying to fly them under bridges. Indeed, it’s the adventures you create yourself that often prove to be the most fun.
And then there’s GTA Online. It’s safe to say GTA Online didn’t get off to a good start, with server issues and all manner of balance problems. With GTA V, online gets a few boosts, including an enhanced character creator, as well as support for up to 30 simultaneous players (with two additional spectators), and the inclusion of all 11 of GTA Online’s existing updates. And yes, you can play in first-person too. These are nice additions, but Online still suffers from a lack of direction. Although you can easily import your old character, I opted to create a new one, after which I was dumped onto a sidewalk in Los Santos armed only with a map full of confusing icons and little idea about what I should do next.
Once you’re over the hump and you’ve figured out the process of finding jobs to do like stealing packages from characters, or taking part in street races–and people to do them with via your trusty mobile phone–things get more interesting. Once you’ve built up a suitable pile of cash (which does take some time if you’re starting from scratch), you can buy a nice apartment to stay in, and fancy cars to put in its garage. To what end, I’m still not sure. Much has been said about how GTA online is too open, and how sessions often turn into mass deathmatches, which is even more of an issue with 30 chaotic players around–but for me that’s always been part of its draw. Trolling someone who’s taken themselves far too seriously in a street race by creating an epic roadblock, or simply roaming the streets robbing convenience stores and then performing a smooth getaway still manages to raise a smile.
That these activities raise a smile here (even when played in first-person), and yet throw up a moral dilemma in single-player is as much to do with the lack of a narrative structure online as it is to do with my own personal feelings towards most other internet users. It raises an interesting conundrum too: is it better to play in first-person and be moved by GTA V’s events in a more profound way, or should you play in the third-person, distancing yourself from the game’s more controversial moments?
The fact that I’m even thinking about this at all in a video game that’s as popular and as, well, mainstream as GTA V is a testament to its quality. Over a year later, GTA V remains one of the most consistently entertaining video games I’ve ever played. Even without the spectacular new visuals, first-person mode, the epic new rail gun, the new murder mystery missions for Michael, the new, even furrier animals, remote play support on PS4, a mountain of new songs on the radio (including my personal favourite, I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys on the pop station), and the return of vehicles like the classic Dodo seaplane, GTA V would be still be worth playing.
Aside from a few mild frame rate issues that sometimes take the edge off its more dramatic moments, this is the definitive version of GTA V, and the bar by which all other open-world games, or indeed any game that aims for a cinematic feel, should be judged. It is beautiful, and thought-provoking, and thrilling throughout. Even if you’ve played through GTA V once already, it’s worth going back just to be reminded of what an outstanding achievement it is.
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