Grand Theft Auto V Review: Everything Rockstar’s Learned About Open-World Design, Refined

More like "grand theft all your free time."

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Dawdling in Franklin’s tiny bedroom, where you’ll often kick back as one of Grand Theft Auto V’s three playable protagonists, the camera drops into first-person mode, prowling left or right past baseball posters, records, magazines, a closet, and a half-read paperback copy of Bruce Wright’s Bloody Canton.

Franklin’s blinds are partly open, the wood slats conspicuously uneven, the light passing through them filtered just so. The light blooms near the top, dazzling rays lancing through, capturing dust motes and splaying horizontal jail bars on the wall. As the sun sets through the window, the light rays blaze and a rainbow corona flares before fading in the gathering dusk.

Someone at Rockstar took the time to put that finicky detail in. While it’s among the least of GTA V‘s visual feats, and though you’ve probably seen it done with greater fidelity in more focused games with budgets devoted to stuff like light rays and dust motes, I can promise you’ve never seen as many interlocking details like that all in one game.

I can also confirm that GTA V‘s estimated $270 million outlay – right up there in crazy Avatar and John Carter territory — seems to have found its way into every scrupulous facet of its mammoth mock-Californian playground, with world-building flourishes we’ll be stumbling on for months (years, more likely), and that other developers wouldn’t dream of attempting.

The game’s geographic sweep boggles the mind: 49 square miles of epic surf and turf, mountains and canyons, deserts and forests, dams and reservoirs, rivers and creeks, bluffs and valleys, bays and capes and shipwreck-laden reefs.

You can explore — bear with me here — a state park, oil fields, a penitentiary, an ocean highway, a mountain observatory, a power station, a lumber yard, a national office of security enforcement, a lighthouse, a carnival boardwalk, a fort, a scrapyard, parks, cable cars, trails, tunnels, vineyards, golf clubs, bowling alleys, truck stops, islands, off-road racetracks, strip clubs, wind turbines, scenic drives and views, and the sprawling city of Los Santos itself, occupying a fraction of the map. I’ve played GTA V for dozens upon dozens of hours and I’m dabbling. Dabbling. You’ve never seen a game world as thoroughly realized. Not in Skyrim. Nowhere.

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Thank goodness it’s as irresistible to play as it is to admire, a super-sized version of the already super-sized Grand Theft Auto IV with the best parts intact and all the impurities leeched out. In fact I’d call it the most refined game Rockstar’s ever published. The vehicle physics are immaculate and the driving controls are superb; the interface is stripped and clean; the gunplay and tactical cover system are perfected; the expertly paced missions are honed to a fine, felonious edge.

Credit Red Dead Redemption, whose welcome influence shows most, from GTA V‘s flexible shoulder-tapping mission system to its awesome Cormac McCarthyian rustic sprawl — if Red Dead Redemption‘s apocalyptic old West setting channeled Blood Meridian, GTA V‘s neo-Western Blaine County takes more than a few pages from No Country for Old Men.

The satirical, bullet-riddled, lawbreaking DNA of a Grand Theft Auto game remains, of course, only with three playable protagonists to plumb instead of one. That’s the other most visible shift, those three intertwining tales and the game’s commensurately embiggened story. You see, Rockstar’s made it possible to hop from one character to another in real time, which initially feels like a narrative novelty as you bounce from one story beat to the next. But once the protagonists start joining hands, you’ll find yourself in command of a fireteam, finessing hostile encounters according to each character’s talents — this one the better driver, that one the better shooter, another capable of soaking up damage and so forth.

Those tactical permutations snowball as you ply GTA V‘s new do-it-yourself, quasi-roleplaying angle. Want to improve Michael’s strength? Get into fist fights. Franklin’s shooting? Drop by the nearest Ammu-Nation for a little target practice. Need to increase Trevor’s lung capacity so he can stay underwater longer? Take him scuba-driving. Or consider each character’s unique ability: Should you fight as Michael, who can shift into bullet-time and pop off more shots? Or as Trevor, who can summon a kind of berserk mode that lets him deal more (and take less) damage during a fight?

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Make no mistake, whoever you’re playing as, you’ll spend most of your time in a vehicle, driving — or flying, pedaling, motorbiking, parachuting, submarining, caddying and jet skiing — from one point to another, arrowing around GTA V‘s thoroughfares with impunity, muscling like a minor god through red lights or oncoming traffic as passerby scramble out of the way and vehicles brake or swerve.

What’s different is that GTA V‘s vehicles are now modifiable instead of immutable performance archetypes. Do you want sport brakes? An engine with better acceleration? Something that’ll give you better traction? A way to boost your top speed? Why not make your tires bulletproof? Maybe you just want to pimp your ride with tinted windows, a custom front splitter, lowrider hubcaps and different colored tire smoke? If GTA V‘s driving game has a watchword, it’s customization.

A few minor logistical flaws remain. Shooting while driving, which requires you clutch multiple triggers while wiggling both thumbsticks to simultaneously aim and drive, still feels clumsy. (I suppose firing a real gun at a moving vehicle with any accuracy while driving your own would, too, but that’s no reason to hamstring players here.) And the mission clock still seems to run through the narrative exposition, entailing a second scene-skipping attempt if you want to beat whatever time goal.

Fortunately you can fumble through most of that. Objectives like “shoot X people while driving” or “do such and such in X minutes” are optional, a mechanic Rockstar wisely introduced with Red Dead Redemption. If you want the highest possible mission rating, probably on the way to unlocking some grueling achievement, you can replay each mission at leisure, but if you’d rather just see the game through, the road to completion is forgivingly bronze- and silver-lined.

What else? Did I mention the dual stock exchanges you can invest in, one set to pipe in global player data after the game launches? The multi-mission heists with elaborate setups and customizable teams and the clever way you can draw up a custom plan, choosing to go in silent or guns blazing? The option to snatch up real estate that delivers player bonuses and extra income? The list of sideshow activities, including base jumping, hunting and arms trafficking? The dynamic event engine that’ll lob security vans, hitchhikers, stolen wallets and other illicit tasks in your general direction? (I’d add something about GTA Online here, but it won’t be unlocked until the game goes live.)

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Let’s talk about one last, debatably uncomfortable thing: the game’s portrayal of women. Forget the partial nudity and softcore sex you’ve maybe heard about, both well within the bounds of other art forms and beneath mention here. I mean the way the game often portrays women, from the perspective of adolescent or misogynistic men, as sexual objects. Is Rockstar satirizing the objectification of women, or just objectifying?

I’m reminded of a quote by French novelist André Malraux: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” The criminal, murderous, casually cold-blooded protagonists of GTA V are anything but paragons of virtue, but then neither are fictional creations like Anton Chigurh or Tyler Durden or Tony Soprano — characters that speak to the basest aspects of human experience, but aspects nonetheless, even as they repel us.

I’m not claiming there’s something as conceptually high-minded going on here, but satire comes in many guises, among them farce. Is Rockstar’s depiction of women merely exploitative or calculated burlesque? When Franklin sits in a strip club ogling half-naked dancers while chatting by phone with his estranged girlfriend, or Trevor has sex with someone else’s girlfriend in a casual way that makes her out to be little more than a sex doll, is Rockstar going for mere titillation? Or is it making a subtler point, that we aren’t what we think we are?

Version reviewed: PS3

Score: 5 out of 5