Grand Theft Auto V is a big deal; that’s really all there is to it. Few franchises have the selling power or influence of Rockstar Games’ premiere franchise. It’s broken sales records, popularized a genre, and become the go-to scapegoat for influenced violence. But after the general disappointment of IV, Grand Theft Auto V is back with a vengeance…of pure fun.
Grand Theft Auto V is the first in the series to sport multiple protagonists. Franklin, the rising gangster, is reminiscent of San Andreas‘ CJ. Michael is the older, retired criminal who mentors him, and Trevor is an unapologetic psycho who used to run with Michael. Together, these three add variety to both narrative and gameplay. Franklin deals with plenty of small-timers like himself, Michael must contend with his (horrible) wife and (even worse) kids. Trevor could be called a hick, and it’s through him that the game’s rural locations are introduced.
Gameplay changes between the three characters too. Franklin’s missions are based in driving, his special talent. Michael tends to deal with higher-end affairs, and Trevor’s missions can be considered purely psychotic. All three can enjoy the activities the game has to offer, with individualized stats between them, but switching between the three protagonist is really what sets Grand Theft Auto V apart from other series entries. When the camera pulls into a satellite view, then back down to the chosen protagonist (or, sometimes, other character), you encounter that character living his own life. Sometimes you pull into Michael on the phone with his therapist; often, you pull into Franklin finishing up a coffee.
Many, many story missions beef up Grand Theft Auto V‘s narrative, introducing these three and taking them through the roller coaster ride of crime. Jumping between them there is a great mechanic. At one point, I was speeding away on a motorcycle with Franklin, and cops approached. I then switched to Michael, driving an armored van at the time, and ran the cops off the road to ensure Franklin’s escape. This is a simple example, but the implications are huge here. Switching between casing, infiltration, sniper support, getaway driving – theses are just a few of the roles you’ll take with these three during the game’s missions, especially heists.
Those heists are another glowing point of Grand Theft Auto V. These meaty missions involve planning, setting up, and enacting heists, and always with options. During the game’s early heists, I chose a stealthy approach to a jewelry store smash-and-grab job. I could have gone in with guns blazing, but I instead chose to drop knock-out gas into the ventilation system, allowing me peaceful time to bust glass cases and bag jewels. My crew was also key during the heist. I chose crew members who took smaller takes of the overall jackpot, but who weren’t as skilled. This ended with one of them crashing and burning during the escape.
With this much to see and do, Grand Theft Auto V needs a lot of space, and space it has. The map is astoundingly huge, without sacrificing detail. Across Los Santos and Blaine counties lie a massive city, deserts, hick towns, beaches, forests, mountains, vacation spots, and wetlands. In them lies more detail: landmarks, easter eggs, and collectibles dot the landscape. And among these regions you can find side missions (individualized for the three protagonists) and activities. Franklin’s street races, Michael’s therapy visits, and Trevor’s rampages are a miniscule few of the narrative missions this game offers. Pick-up activities like playing tennis, seeing a movie, visiting strip clubs, or going biking are found on every corner.
Of course, all this thieving and adventuring would be no good without a strong design. Fortunately, Rockstar has improved upon all mechanics in Grand Theft Auto V. Gunplay is a simple snap-to-target system, so keeping covered and firing off well-timed shots is all combat requires. Free aiming is an option, but the game allows for not just aim assist, but aim locking. Driving has been made smoother, though it was never a strong suit of the series. Vehicles drive differently from each other – as they should – but stability overall has been improved.
Also refined is the series’ legendary pop culture lampooning, the humorous package in which the whole game is wrapped. From the Facebook parody LifeInvader to the billboards for “Rehab Island” (done in the style of Deep Silver’s Dead Island), Grand Theft Auto V pulls no punches. Speaking of which, there is totally a Donkey Punch Family Farm to visit. Yes, humor is back in full swing after the melodrama of GTA IV. Missions include an fun, over-the-top feeling, striking a perfect balance between adrenaline and entertainment.
I found myself laughing at this while still being constantly astounded at what Grand Theft Auto V threw at me. Any one of the game’s three protagonists could hold their own, but giving me all three and allowing free switching between them is a step further. Side missions and activities would be great on their own, but again, the variety among them when approached with the three lead characters takes it a step further. Indeed, the whole game goes a step further than most. It’s all enjoyable and served up on a huge map with almost too much to see and do. Grand Theft Auto V is on another level of gaming – one it helped create.
[Editor's Note: This review makes no mention of Grand Theft Auto Online, as those features have not been released yet. When they do, we will update this review or possibly review the online component separately.]