Earlier this year, The Quad started a video game column called 4-Player. Unfortunately, three of those players–Alan, Jon and Ashley–are no longer able to write the column. I’ll be around to still write about video games, but it will no longer be on a weekly basis.
It’s hard to appreciate the impact that Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto series has had on the video game industry. With the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001, Rockstar redefined what a big budget, AAA video game could be–and the series’s astounding commercial and critical success shaped the current blockbuster game landscape.
With GTA V Rockstar North has set out to raise its own bar even higher. Grand Theft Auto V feels like the culmination of what the studio started with 3. It’s a stunning success, an expert refinement that synthesizes everything Rockstar has been doing for the past 12 years into the best Grand Theft Auto I’ve ever played.
The most notable part of GTA V is its three playable characters. Instead of playing only as Tommy Vercetti or Niko Bellic, Rockstar gives us three men–Michael De Santo, Franklin Clinton and Trevor Phillips–and builds the story around them. From a gameplay perspective, this works flawlessly. You switch characters simply by holding down on the d-pad and selecting a character from a radial menu. Once you’ve selected a character, the camera zooms out to a Google Maps style view and switches over to your character. When you switch, you may find that the characters you haven’t been playing are in the middle of something–Michael may be sitting at home or stuck in traffic, Franklin might be hanging out on Grove Street, Trevor may be doing whatever it is he does–that adds a nice sense of realism to each character.
This feature really shines in the main story missions–particularly the game’s heists. During these missions, the game will prompt you to tap the d-pad to switch characters. For example, you may go from Michael rappelling down the side of a building to Franklin providing cover with a sniper rifle. This gives missions a sense of variety that simply wasn’t present in previous games in the series, and it gives Rockstar the freedom to really experiment with mission design. Each character also has its own set of individual missions, and, while not as exciting as some of the crazier heists, they’re still the best Rockstar has ever put into a GTA game. I couldn’t even make it through the main story in GTA IV because I found the mission design so tedious, but in V I actually find myself looking forward to trying them out.
Mission design isn’t the only thing Rockstar has refined. Every core part of the GTA experience–the huge, open world, the driving, the shooting, the wanton, random destruction–is more fun, or less frustrating, or simply better. In many ways, the game feels like a mix of the best parts of IV and San Andreas. Cars are much more fun to drive than they were in IV, and shooting is tighter and much more natural. Los Santos itself may be Rockstar’s most impressive achievement. Far from the drab grays of Liberty City, Los Santos is bright and vibrant, and filled to the brim with stuff to do, everything from tennis and golf to street racing and watching TV. Better yet, the game doesn’t force you to do any of it. You can play through the entirety of the game without setting foot on the greens of Los Santos Country Club, if you so please. Gone is the annoying relationship system of IV, replaced with one that still lets you hang out with your cousin, but only if you actually want to.
For the most part, Grand Theft Auto V’s writing is as wonderful as its gameplay. The story–centered around Michael, Trevor and Franklin committing a series of heists–lacks the emotional heft of its predecessor, but still manages to be engaging and interesting. The three men themselves are also very well written. Michael is entertaining as the retired career criminal with a terrible family life, and Franklin, though a little bland, is a suitable straight man. The insane, psychopathic Trevor stands high above those two, however. He is immediately engaging and is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever seen in a video game. The supporting characters are great too, particularly Trevor’s juggalo friend Wade. Rockstar’s signature humor is well in place, and while I’ve found that I have trouble laughing at things like the BAWSAQ stock market, they still manage some seriously funny moments.
However, the game does suffer from one serious flaw. You’ll probably notice that none of the characters I mentioned above are female. To put it bluntly, there isn’t a single interesting, well-written female character in this game. I counted maybe, maybe, five female characters of any major impact, and all of them were shrill, misogynistic stereotypes. I’m willing to give Rockstar the benefit of the doubt and assume that these character are meant to highlight our culture’s treatment of women, but it’s very hard to take that seriously when there aren’t any dynamic women to balance it out. It’s all the more frustrating because it appears that Rockstar didn’t even try to include a non-stereotype female character, let alone a strong or developed one. It isn’t like they tried and failed, they simply didn’t make an attempt. Regardless of parody, this is a deeply misogynistic game, and it suffers for it.
Despite these misgivings, it’s hard to fault what Rockstar has done here. Grand Theft Auto V is a game of incredible quality, one that makes other big budget titles pale in comparison. It’s huge, dynamic and, most of all, a hell of a lot of fun. Even with my problems–and, in a strange way, probably because of them–Grand Theft Auto V is a fitting end to this console generation. Let’s see what the next one brings.