Monday, 21 October 2013

Grand Theft Auto V - Why it's great, but why it could be more...

Grand Theft Auto V
Rockstar Games
PS3 & XBOX 360

Right. Firstly a quick word from me to say that there’s been many a reason why for the last month I’ve not been posting. Firstly there was this thing that kinda took up all of my time and writing was put out of my mind completely and secondly I’ve been religiously playing GTA:V since the 17th September 2013.

But here’s the thing right, GTA:V is amazing, there’s no getting round this. Visually it’s spectacular, the gameplay is sublime and it’s quintessentially British in a lot of ways. The open world gameplay hasn’t changed, the characters are all unique and the story is one that is bursting with flavour. Online, despite its initial problems is just fun, really fun. I mean the kind of fun that just doesn’t go away. Uber fun.

But there’s something that’s niggling at me. I’ll get to that in a while though.

One of the first things that struck me about GTA:V, is that it’s pretty much a slap in the face of Microsoft and Sony. Yes, GTA:V might be pushing the limits of what the current gen of consoles can achieve, but it’s there in the market, showing that this gen of consoles still has a lot to offer. And it has confirmed to me, that there is no reason to rush into the world of XB1 or PS4 just yet.

Visually, the game is stunning, it’s appearance is a real mix of San Andreas and GTA:IV with added decals and advanced lighting effects which make the game that much more realistic – especially when Los Santos is bathed in that dusky orange light of the low Sun in the sky. The way everything looks from the sidewalks to the clouds and everything in between has been rendered with such loving detail, it’s hard to play sometimes for the appearance of everything around you. Have you ever walked into a lamppost because you were looking at that really fit bird on the other side of the road? Well that’s a bit like GTA:V, I crashed a few times because I was looking at the pretty things dotted around me.

There are lots of random things that happen in the game as well, some that are structured randomness (stumbling across a woman just outside Paleto Bay who was about to be buried alive for one) and some unscripted randomness, like on one side mission, in which Michael (one of the leads – I’ll get to them soon) is helping his son, after completing this mission, I was driving back to the road – for I was off road – and in front of me I must’ve spooked a deer, easy enough to do, they’re skitty fuckers. In any case, I spooked this deer, and it started bouncing away. Well I’m not completely heartless, I wasn’t about to run over this deer, I don’t know why, but I have no qualms about hitting people in the street, but with the animals I’m more hesitant to go for them…unless they’re like some of the wild dogs around Sandy Shores or a wildcat out for blood. Anyway, Bambi was bouncing off away from my noisy, heavily dented car, straight toward what looked like an empty, quiet road. What LOOKED LIKE, an empty quiet road. Bambi ran straight out in front of a truck and was propelled down the road in a dead and floppy state.

And that’s just one example.

The characters of GTA:V are all uniquely bizarre, with the most normal people being…erm…

I’ll start with the 3 lead characters, and the fact that there isn’t just 1 lead character, but as previously mentioned just now – 3. It’s a great premise, a great idea and where the 3 characters stories interlock – it’s a great way for the GTA franchise to evolve. My only issue however, is that you don’t get the connection with your characters in the same way as you did with characters like Tommy Vercetti or Niko Bellic. They’re all great characters (2 more than 1) and they all have their funny moments, deep moments and memorable moments, but I found that you just didn’t feel the same level of intimacy as you did with Rockstars previous leads.

Niko Bellic and John Marston are 2 of the most beloved characters that I’ve played with in computer games in my life (I can’t really count Commander Shepard, since they are different all the time for me), and it’s because we were able to put in so many hours into being that person. We got to experience the highs and lows of their lives, we got to find out what made them the men they are, and we got to realise their story from start to finish.

I completed the story of GTA:V a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t playing particularly rushed, I did some of the extra-plot activities, and with each character I only played about 12-13 hours with each. In a game like GTA:V, you need more time with those characters.

Anyway, I’ll start with the first lead character you encounter (after the prologue), he is also the least appealing of the 3, because his character seems a little…meh. It’s Franklin, he’s an ex-gang member trying to make a better life for himself by not restricting himself to “tha hood”. He’s made a more appealing character by working with his homie Lamar, who is so annoying, I just wanted to shoot him after the first 5 minutes of being with him. His over use of the “N” word and general cockiness despite being a twat, and his demeanour serve I’m sure to only make Franklin seem like a better character. But I’ll be honest: Franklin is dull. He has his moment’s now, don’t get me wrong, but he’s generally a bit boring. Of the 3 leads, he’s obviously the understudy and the newbie learning the ropes from the more experienced heads around him. He’s the character least likely to get angry and do something he regrets, and is the most likely of the 3 to do something morally just, like return a ladie’s stolen purse. All in all though, the game would have been just as good if they had made Franklin an NPC but who was still a main character, putting those 12-13 hours into the other leads.

Speaking of other leads, Michael is the ex-bank robber turned retired family man (ish), who is just trying to relax and enjoy retirement by the pool with a glass of whiskey. He’s a much more solid character, torn apart by his own demons and longing for some kind of real closure on his past life. I won’t go too far into the ins and outs of his back story, but know that he has secrets that aren’t for anyone else to know. He’s an utter hardman, cut from the same cloth as Tommy Vercetti to a point, you could quite easily see how TV would have fitted into this role, and with a bit of story tweaking, it would have been immense.

The last lead I’ll touch on is Trevor, the out and out fan favourite. The anti-hero you just love to egg on. He’s an unstable, sociopathic, psychopathic, insane, angry, uber-hard guy who takes no shit, and can create chaos and mayhem wherever he goes. He has some of the best one-liners in all of GTA history, and is one of the most shocking characters that I’ve ever experienced in any game. He is without a doubt the most fun character to play with for me, because I feel you can do anything to anyone and not feel like it would be out of character of him. You could just wander up to a random guy in the street and punch him, and as Trevor, it would seem like something he’d do. Maybe he looked at him funny or took this piss out of him for being Canadian. Trevor is amazing, and you could potentially have made GTA:V with Trevor being the only lead character and it would be just as great as it is with the 3.

Now because you’re not able to really sink your teeth into the 3 leads in the same way as in previous titles, it does take a little of the shine off of the game. Now the premise of having 3 leads is fantastic, and the way missions play out with the 3 characters is pure brilliance – but I think a lot of people have been so in awe of this, that they’ve overlooked the flaw that the game isn’t long enough, and in that, GTA:V has an enormous amount of unspent potential, however there are areas and avenues to explore with regards to DLC.

Leading on from that, the story of the game is utter genius. There are plot twists, betrayal, reconciliation, heartbreak, love, hate, comedy, shock, drama and action in GTA:V, and it’s all done so fantastically…but I was left feeling a little bit empty when the story was finished if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is superb, it’s a great and fitting way to end the game, it’s just that it feels like it’s a bit rushed.

Thinking back to school, you learn that plays have 3 acts, in the first act you’re introduced to the story, the characters, the theme and a general feeling of how the story is going to play out. In the second act, you have turmoil, the hard place, the low points, the “woe is me” moments for the characters and the feeling that everything is going wrong. The 3rd act, you get the resolution, the fight back, the victory or defeat, the hope and the reconciliation. GTA:V… GTA:V… GTA:V has 3 acts. Just.

It has a great 1st act, its introduction to the game itself is brilliant and it really makes you feel that you’re going to experience something epic. The second act really does plunge you into the lows, the betrayals, the hardships…it’s just fantastic. The 3rd act…isn’t very long. It’s as though near the end of the second act, just as you’re getting going to start the 3rd act, they rush through and decide the game should be finished. As a comparison, in GTA:IV there are 94 story missions, in GTA:V there are 69. There are 25 less story missions, and 3x as many characters to play with, and ridiculous amount more space and places to explore and actually have the game in. The game feels like the finished article, but the story feels as though it’s missing a few chapters towards the end.

I am fully prepared to go out on a whim and say that the game is a masterpiece, it’s a fucking masterpiece. It is to gaming, what Citizen Kane or The Shawshank Redemption is to movies, and what the works of Dickens or Tolkien was to literature. Dickens wasn’t perfect and The Shawshank Redemption had its fair share of plot holes and glaring errors – but maybe that lack of polish is what actually helps make them wonderful. Like a reflection on life though, nothing is perfect… except for my arse. It’s wonderful.

The many gameplay aspects of GTA:V are extraordinarily well polished. The driving in game has been given a brilliant makeover, and it’s made more noticeable if you go back and play GTA:IV after playing V. Once playing GTA:V, the driving in IV seems very heavy and a little bit poor. GTA:V really makes you feel like you’re driving a certain type of car, be it a sports car handling beautifully and being very light to driving an off-road truck feeling heavier, but easy to control…well off road I suppose!!

Despite driving, flying, sailing, cycling, running, parachuting being just super in this game, there is something that did eat at me.

Once completing GTA:V, I found that in SP…I was bored. It’s all well and good having all that stuff to do, and it’s great to chip in and do it when you’re playing the story missions, but once you’ve completed it…it’s a little flat. Which is where GTA:Online comes into play.

That is…if it came into play. Give me a few minutes, just waiting to see if the servers are up.

Right ok, they look to be on, but my progress from the night before is gone…and that new garage I bought is gone. And the mods on my car. And my level up.

Fuck sake.

Right, GTA:Online, is brilliant. It’s properly brilliant, some of the missions like Top Fun are genius, but it’s still being ironed out a good 3 weeks or so since going “live”. Be it on 360 or PS3, there is not much but problems with playing GTA:Online. Sometimes, it works exactly like it’s supposed to, but a lot of the time it either doesn’t work at all, or if you think it’s working, it probably hasn’t saved what you achieved.

Right, when it works, and works properly, it’s brilliant, you get a real sense of accomplishment when finishing missions or winning races, and being able to really customise your online avatar is a fantastic upgrade from GTA:IV’s MP. And as an apology to the fans trying to get by online, Rockstar are crediting everyone’s online accounts with $500,000 – which for guys like me who only get to play online every other night, is a massive bonus, but for guys who’ve played religiously and earned sometimes treble that for it to be lost, it’s scant consolation.

Give it time, and it will work just dandy-o! You’ll be able to randomly start screwing with people, placing bounties on other gamers and chasing down arseholes who steal your car.

Overall the game is fantastic, but I can’t help but view it with an air of incompleteness. There must be future DLC for this game to enable it to realise its full potential, and GTA:Online will come good in the end. However despite the awesome characters, the 36-40 hour SP play through time is a step backwards, especially when there are 3 story arc’s to follow through with.

In-spite of the swathes of 9+/10 scores, because there is so much that could have been in the game, and for the serious fuck up of their online cloud servers, this game just grabs an 8/10 for me, and I think I’m being  a little generous in giving it. Maybe things will improve once Online is fixed and they can add to the game with some high class “Lost and the Damned” / “Ballad of Gay Tony” / “Undead Nightmare” style DLC but for now. Now that I’ve completed the game, Online is what it’s all about for me… I’ve just got to wait for the Cloud Servers to come back online.