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Monday, September 30, 2013

GTA V Review: City of Anger.

What was the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the credits roll on the most lucrative intellectual property in history? "That was special." I did not think it lightly. Even after all the hype, all the money, and all the controversy, I still walked away with my jaw trailing on the ground behind me. Just a few hours in, I could see myself calling it one of the greatest games of all time. If you had told me someone had switched out a ps4 with my ps3 I would have believed you. It's the same feeling I had with Resident Evil 4 on my ol' ps2 back in the day, the feeling that this old console should not be able to pull off something so smooth and so gorgeous.

Technically it's the most impressive game I've ever played. The framerate is solid and even when it dips, it's never unplayable. The shadows are stark as well as refined and the draw distance is massive. As far as I'm concerned, 2K has a voodoo priest in residence. I mean, for a game that's actually bigger than most major cities, I don't think I ever noticed a single re-used asset. It seems like every street corner in Los Santos is unique and lovingly crafted. I got scared after a while. Because I thought to myself, "What if this is it? What if this never happens again? What if this is the tipping point!?" I was so impressed by GTA V I feared I'd never be that impressed again. In case you're wondering, that is the most positive compliment I have ever paid a video game and one I have seldom given to other art forms (HINT: I'm writing this hours away from the Breaking Bad finale).

But who or what is it all about? That's a good question, and after finishing the whole 35 hour affair, I'd say it's personally become an even better question. The game is centered around three playable career bank robbers from different sides of the track. Michael (who is the de facto lead because he gets the most screen time and development by far), pulled the "one last job" 9 years ago and is stewing miserably in his shmacy Beverly Hills mansion with his vacuous and resentful family. Franklin is sick of working in a two-bit car insurance repo scam and wants to get out of the Los Santos hood in every sense of the word. Trevor... Trevor is something else. The raging id of the GTA player made flesh, I don't want to ruin any more than that. He does not disappoint.

"These shoes... match right?"

The lead performances are phenomenal. From the monologue grandstanding to the ambient driving conversations. Just listening to Mike thanking a taxi service over the phone is somehow impressive. I believed he was really talking to someone. Mike, Frank, and Trevor will go down as three of the greatest characters in video game history. That's a guarantee at this point, but what is it you spend time with them doing?

I could type 3000 words solely explaining what you can do in this game. From bar hopping, to letter scrap collecting, to big foot hunting, to contract assassinations, to playing the stock market with the fallout of aforementioned assassinations... It's too much. It's literally too much. The side stuff is at least just as meaty as the 30 hour story. Bravo Rockstar, you pat yourself on the back, now.

"I can see the curvature of the earth form here!"  

Seriously, you can see the curvature of the earth in this game.

So the characters are great, the world is convincing, the bonus features are the size of most games, what's the story all about? If I had to pick the major themes, I'd say pride and masculinity. I'd like to go deeper than that, but on the whole there's not much in the character arc department. Not that it's a huge problem, it's just something you notice after putting the thing down for a few days. Moment to moment the story is interesting at worst, and riveting at best. The gossamer web of hubris and profanity that leads you through mass amounts of murder, theft, and terrorism is something you'll have a hard time looking away from.

This is, by a wide margin, the most entertaining GTA since we last left Los Santos in 2004. The mission variety and the four act breaking heists are evidence of a triple A dev at the top of their game. At first you think, "hmm, a yacht chase on the freeway... they'll totally run out of steam in 10 missions, you watch." And I did watch. For 50 more missions, they still had plenty of gas in the tank.

But the one thing you shouldn't do is pick at the story too much. Character motivation is often sacrificed at the alter of gameplay, and personally I'd rather have it that way. For (spoiler free) instance: there's a late game mission involving a car chase with a buttoned down accountant and a stolen macgufin. I'm not going to try to explain why said accountant is suddenly imbued with the skills of a career stunt driver; (this is friggn' GTA) but as soon as you're finished, the mission giver calls up and says "Sike! I had a copy of the macguffin the whole time!" Mike is fine with it. Even after all the grand heists and random Trevor-esque goofiness, I called bullsh*t out loud. So know that going in. Spectacular high water mark of open world gameplay this is, air tight crime fiction it ain't.

You need this for a heist. That's worth 60 bones right there, as far as I'm concerned.

It's worth mentioning I also had a bit of a drinking game going on during the cut scenes, every time someone starts yelling for no reason, crack a beer. I stopped at six beers and finished the game with a total score of almost 40. There is a metric ton of yelling in GTA V. I'm not sure what it means exactly, but know it's cup run'eth over with expletives and outdoor voices. For the sake of your health, do not take a shot every time you hear the N word. You will die halfway through the damn thing.

So anyway, the game is a steal at $100, but it's not all chocolate and rainbows. I had heard about how it was "appallingly sexist" going in, so I steeled myself for that. Even prepared, GTA V felt like a huge step backwards from IV. What happened to women like Michele or Torres? Hell, even Carl's sister from San Andreas! We know GTA is capable of better than the likes of Mike's wife, Franklin's aunt, or *shutter* Mary-Ann. It's troubling to think that when given all the time and money in the world, the writers barely came up with any women who acted like people. Except for Trevor's romance with an older woman... that was pretty great.

But seriously, my biggest problem isn't simply that Mike's daughter is a vapid nympho or that is his wife is a cuckolding shrew. Well, it's not just that. There are ways of making characters like Stacy Suxx entertaining and compelling, like this:


See? That was funny and it wasn't irritating at all. Stacy made my skin crawl every time she spoke. But with just a little more effort into her character, she could have been a highlight. It's when I see more forethought put into a shopping plaza that the player may never see, than into any of the single digit speaking female roles do I pull out the "S" word. The sexism word. The writing isn't malicious, this isn't Postal or anything, it's benign. It just doesn't care. They made compelling woman before, why do they need to do it again? It really, really, bothered me through the whole game.

Ahem. Sorry I got all ranty, but that had been bubbling up for a while. GTA V is a masterpiece, the likes of which we may never see again (for at least 4 years). This is a long, strange, trip everyone who plays video games needs to take at least once. This is now required reading, something that will be studied decades from now by anthropologists. A satirical snapshot of our zeitgeist frozen for future generations. They may not like everything they see, but they are going to have a fu**ing amazing time.

"...and you, chop, I'll miss you most of all."

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