Grand Theft Auto may have created the open world genre, though it’s clearly not the only game in town anymore. Since the release of GTA IV, the genre has been taken to new heights by the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Batman’s Arkham games, Saint’s Row, Infamous and many more. Despite my ambivalence towards Red Dead Redemption, I respect the fact that it progressed the open world formula in a number of meaningful ways.
With so many new components to draw from, what influence would they have on Grand Theft Auto V? Based on the final product, not much. The latest installment in the series feels like Rockstar ignored the work of others and continued down their own path to make things bigger and better. Can’t necessarily blame them for it, as this is another fine effort from the pioneers of the open world genre.
The city of Los Santos is huge and full of life. Besides the sheer square footage of the landscape, every aspect of this world is rendered with a surprising level of detail. Building exteriors and interiors appear as though each was individually hand-crafted. Ambient sounds and audio cues add another layer of immersion to the action. Even when you go swimming in the ocean, you can deep dive and see all sorts of aquatic life, coral and who knows what else. I know nothing about making games, but I’m guessing that this level of scope and detail is made possible by the gigantic 7 gigabyte install that happens when you first try to play the game. Booting up the game after that first time does take a minute or so, but you never really see a loading screen after that, which I think is a fair trade.
Unlike past efforts, Grand Theft Auto V features three main protagonists: Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Michael is a retired criminal that finds himself slipping back into his old ways. Franklin is a repo man with gang ties who is looking to take his game to the next level. And Trevor…well, he’s the most outward sociopath the series has ever seen. Between the three of them, they live out an interweaving tale about how these three seemingly unrelated bad guys come together to wreak havoc on their city. Once you get past the first few missions, you can switch between the three of them fairly freely.
I really like the three-character dynamic for a number of reasons. All three of them are strongly written and bring their own unique flavour to the experience. They also do a great job of providing enough context to these characters to help players Whenever you feel like you’ve had your fill with one, simply switch to another guy and carry on with whatever they’re up to. To my surprise, the frequent changing of perspectives goes a long way towards keeping the action fresh.
There are other times when all three of them are working together in the same mission. At this point, the character switching is oftentimes highly-recommended by the game and even forced in some spots. Through this, you can control Michael at one moment as he tries to extract a hostage from a messy situation, then immediately switch to Franklin who is providing sniper support from a distant building. The game is usually guiding you towards doing the coolest stuff at all times, which I greatly appreciate.
It’s not just the character-switching mechanic alone that makes things interesting. As a whole, I think the game is written and paced much better than its predecessor. Things start off on a high note and only get better as the game progresses. In particular, the heists stand out as a great innovation for the genre. Spanning multiple missions, your team prepares for an epic job before ultimately pulling it off. The build up and eventual climax to each are definitely worth the effort. There are also a few elements that require your input, as you sometimes have the opportunity to select additional crew members, determine your approach to a particular heist, or whether to pass on one heist for another. This level of organization and scale make heists feel like the best parts of Oceans 11 or The Italian Job.
There’s a dip in quality when you start venturing into the side quests, though they’re optional and still good. Heck, even the side quests now have their own separate story arcs, which can still be entertaining if you enjoy the action at hand. Besides those, there are plenty of activities to engage in. Golf is my favourite, though I also enjoyed cycling, watching movies and just randomly exploring the vast environment. Just like Red Dead Redemption, there are also a number of random events that you’ll stumble upon that range from drunk people home to dealing with someone robbing the barber shop you’re in when you just wanted to get a haircut.
Grand Theft Auto V largely ignores the innovations of others, though I’m kind of glad that they did. From improved driving and shooting, to a better written story, to a larger open world with more things to do, Rockstar took what they had with IV and made many meaningful improvements throughout. Whether I was powering my way through the story, taking part in a side activity, or simply messing around in the world of Los Santos, the experience was fun every time. For a game that is as gargantuan as this, it’s amazing that they were able to make this game as polished as it is. Not only is this a landmark release for the open world genre, but one of the overall best games of 2013.