Tuesday, February 25, 2014

New Review: GTA5 fails to take the series anywhere exciting, while featuring possibly its worst story and least likable cast of characters



If you were to look at my review history, it more or less would go without saying that I’m a huge fan of Rockstar Games. From the moment I played GTA: Vice City back in the day, I had a respect for the studio that has lasted all throughout these years and into the present day. Better than anyone, Rockstar knows how to meld compelling storytelling so seamlessly with open world gaming, and their games, for all their violence and controversy, manage to stand out as high quality products and true works of art.

It’s with a heavy heart then that I report that I didn’t enjoy Grand Theft Auto V, the latest installment in their iconic series, and the first from them since Manhunt 2 that I simply didn’t get into. I seem to be one of the few, and it always surprises and confuses me when my opinion stands in such a stark contrast from that of the rest of a fanbase, especially a fanbase that I identify myself with. But by game’s end, not only did Grand Theft Auto V (hereon known as GTA5) thoroughly succeed in making me dislike every one of its characters, but it committed, as far as I’m concerned, the ultimate crime in gaming; it was forgettable.

What I will give Rockstar credit for is something that they’ve almost always managed to do well; the game has an incredible sense of place. LA has been faithfully recreated here with a world that captures its essence so well; the visuals always look amazing, from the downtown skyline and mountains that can always be seen off in the distance, to the network of freeways that alternatively make so much and yet so little sense, this game has an incredible sense of place. It’s hard not to admire the work the developer has done in squeezing seemingly every last little bit of horsepower out of the Xbox 360 and PS3 to deliver such a pretty game. There are certainly some lengthy load times, some facial expressions are less convincing than others, and there’s more pop up than I remember there being in GTA4, but there’s no disputing the fact that this game looks nearly perfect.

I just wish it all had a bit more personality. LA in real life is a very cool city once you get to know it, but it’s a strange choice for the setting to an open world game. The sprawling series of small “cities” linked by networks of freeways that make up Los Angeles is certainly a “love it or hate it” thing in reality, and Los Santos is tough to really get to know. The city itself consists of mostly small and unimpressive buildings, lacking the grandiose feel of Liberty City or the bright lights and party vibe of Vice City. Very little of GTA5 really takes advantage of its urban surroundings, with a surprising amount of the game sending you away from the city and into the deserts, skies, freeways, and forests surrounding it. It’s simply not a very interesting setting, and for all the great visuals and the epic Southern California vibe, Los Santos just feels a bit lifeless.

Similarly, the storyline in GTA5 never quite manages to get off the ground. Starring three of the series’ least likable characters, and without as much a plot as a series of heists loosely connected by some cringe-worthy cutscenes, the game never fully recovers from what turns out to be an incredibly slow start. It does get a little better, and there are moments of interest and excitement, but the decision to fragment the narrative by alternating between three different playable characters proves to be a big mistake; not just because of what it does to the pacing, but because of the characters themselves. GTA5 is one of the very few titles from Rockstar where I’d go as far as to criticize the writing for being bad, but that’s the only way I can think of to describe it. Franklin’s dialogue’s just repetitive and awful, and the game never manages to give him anything resembling a personality. Trevor meanwhile screams every single one of his lines, as if the writers were under the impression that even the weakest of jokes can be automatically made funny if they’re shouted at us through the mouth of a deranged lunatic. Michael has some funny scenes with his irritating family, but he too proves to be a one joke character whose antics are run into the ground long before the game reaches its conclusion.

GTA5 doesn’t feature much else in the way of a supporting cast: Lester, who helps the characters in setting up all of their heists, feels like the “annoying first character you’d do missions for” in every other GTA game, but who in this one sticks around for the entire time. He has his moments, but the memorable supporting characters (and main characters) that this series has often been known for are simply nowhere to be found this time around. At one point Franklin has to make a major decision, and never in my gaming history has a decision of such incredible magnitude meant so little to me.

As far as the gameplay’s concerned, GTA5’s three-character system shakes things up but never really manages to re-invent the wheel. For much of the game, you’re able to switch between any of the three main characters, each with their own sidequests and even main missions to take on. GTA5’s at its best when it uses this character switching dynamic in the missions themselves, creating some fun and intense heists that stand as some of the series’ best. Even though you’re often told when to switch to other characters, it widens the scope of the missions dramatically, and allows for some awe-inspiring moments.

There are other things that GTA5 does right; it finally introduces checkpoints into this series, so missions are allowed to run longer without the fear of dying and having to start them over again. Many of the character customization options and leveling up that were removed from GTA4 have made a return here, albeit in a much simpler form. And though almost all of the missions still devolve into cover shooting, there’s a variety here that just wasn’t present in the previous installment, and this one also thankfully knows not to overstay its welcome.

What bums me out so much about GTA5’s gameplay though is what hasn’t changed. The “realistic” driving controls from GTA4 make a return, and driving becomes so unpredictable that it drains much of the fun out of a game whose main appeal should be its driving. It’s almost impossible to know how your car will react to the environment; sometimes hitting an object does nothing, other times it causes your vehicle to spin out like you wouldn’t believe. You can run down streetlamps (for the most part) and pedestrians without missing a beat, but then be stopped dead in your tracks by a volleyball net: I wish I was making this up. In a game where engaging in high speed police chases through the city of Los Santos should be its defining feature, it’s instead a drag whenever you have to drive anywhere.

The one change they did make was to turn the act of escaping police pursuit into a frustrating exercise of keeping your eyes firmly on the radar (and off the game itself), which isn’t much fun either, and the new hand to hand combat system’s even worse than the last game; something I didn’t think was possible. Flying an airplane’s an amazing experience visually, but then Rockstar completely underestimates how challenging it is to actually land the thing, forcing you to do long stretches of flying missions over and over again until you get it right.

Some of these problems would have been more forgivable if Sleeping Dogs hadn’t come along a couple years back and shown us how to do open world games so well. Granted, it wasn’t perfect, but its rich combat system, along with the excellent driving controls and its city brimming with personality, set a bar for the genre that this game just fails to meet. For all its technical wizardry, GTA5 is, for the most part, just not that much fun to play.

Even the sidequests prove to be uninvolving; the optional missions that crop up as you drive through the city rarely reach beyond bringing someone from Point A to Point B, while the sidequests range from cool assassinations to ones as lame as those where you tow cars. Yeah, really. The cell phone which is supposed to serve as your gateway into this world is squeezed into the bottom corner of the screen, and even on my HDTV I had to nearly squint to read the text and emails that my characters were sent.

The soundtrack’s serviceable, with some cool tracks featuring Kendrick Lamar and other fun and atmospheric tunes, but like much of the rest of the game I forgot a lot of it the moment it ended. The voice actors do what they can with their cartoonish characters, but they fail to really elevate the proceedings.
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Verdict: GTA5 represents a rare stumble from the usually reliable Rockstar Games. I’m a big fan of their work, and I couldn’t have been more excited to jump into their latest epic open world adventure. GTA5, unfortunately, fails to do anything meaningful to shake up the formula. The three character gimmick only serves to divide the narrative, while not doing much to advance the gameplay. The characters meanwhile are all so one-note, over the top, and unlikable that it’s impossible to care about any of them. Weak driving controls continue to hold this game back in what should be a key category, and Los Santos proves to be this series’ least interesting world to explore since, well…since the world featured in GTA: San Andreas.

GTA5 isn’t totally without its fun, and some of its missions, not to mention the incredible graphics and its sense of place, help keep the game from being a total bust. But they don’t keep it from being one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

Presentation: Some long load times, weird saving glitches, and ridiculously small font leave a mark, but not enough to hide what’s an incredibly well-made game, as always from Rockstar. Shame about the bad plot and unlikable characters.

Graphics: Gorgeous is the word here. An insane bit of attention to detail coupled with amazing draw distance and a great sense of place push the current gen to its limits.

Gameplay: Essentially more of the same from the last installment, but with character switching and some very cool heists mixed in. Aside from some weak driving controls and hand to hand combat, there’s nothing too wrong here, but the gameplay fails to elevate GTA5 above its surrounding mediocrity.

Sound: A cool but forgettable soundtrack mixed with some solid voice actors. Sound effects are your typical Grand Theft Auto fare.

Replay Value: Not as long of a game as GTA4, thankfully, but still one that will keep you busy for quite some time. Multiple endings to see (none of them great) plus a whole city’s worth of sidequests and content to explore, if that’s your thing. Multiplayer too, though admittedly I haven’t done anything with it.

Overall: 6.5/10

Note; this is a review of the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale. 

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