Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

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Title: Grand Theft Auto V
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (17.2 GB)
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Grand Theft Auto V is also available on Xbox 360.
The PlayStation 3 Disc version was used for this review.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 340 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
When Grand Theft Auto III hit the PlayStation 2 back in 2001, it caused a seismic shift in the industry and open-world, sandbox style games were born. The gameplay was refined the next year in GTA: Vice City with narrative and music stepping to the forefront. When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas hit in 2004, Rockstar’s fictional take on California became of one of the biggest games on the PlayStation 2, even before the ‘Hot Coffee’ controversy. Players were given more freedom than ever before in a Grand Theft Auto game and we loved it.

While Liberty City and Vice City have both been revisited across several games, Grand Theft Auto V marks the series’ first return to San Andreas in nine years, and what a return it is. Sadly, San Fierro and Las Venturas didn’t make the cut this time around as the world map now focuses entirely on Los Santos and the mountains to the north.

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The biggest change in game play is that you’ll not just be playing as one character, but three. Three distinct people with different stories and styles. You’ll be introduced to them slowly over the course of the game during the extended “tutorial” section which lasts a good ten to twelve hours. It’s this lethargic pace that had me focusing entirely on the negatives in my first impressions on Episode 338 of the podcast. Coming off of the over-the-top insanity of Saints Row IV, things just felt too slow. There’s wonderful parody for sure, but it felt way too grounded in reality and rather mundane, especially when compared to something like Just Cause 2 or Saints Row IV.

What sets Grand Theft Auto V apart however is the sheer size and scope of the world. You’ll never be at a loss for things to do no matter how long you play this game. Between bounty hunting, triathlons, amusement rides, off-road races, boating, skydiving, golf, tennis, investing in the stock market, buying properties, training your dog, causing mayhem and more it’s unlike any open world game you’ve ever played. While some of these diversions are a bit thin, golf in particular, the fact that you can actually play them in the game is a testament to the development team’s quest to make this a fully realized, living, breathing world.

Playing as three different characters through an interwoven narrative makes for an entirely new experience as well. Each has their own backstory and their own problems and when you get bored with one character, you can switch to another with the press of a button. When the bigger story elements bring the characters together for missions, things really start to get interesting. You’ll get a taste for it in the Prologue, but the first time you hit a mission where you jump between each of the three characters in the middle of the action, it’s a revelation and a true reinvention of the genre.

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The story, much like the rest of the game, takes a while to get going, but by the time you get to Trevor, the third in this unlikely trio, things start to open up considerably and the game really gets to be crazy fun. Getting there can be a grind though and many players may never see it. Plenty of people are content to start up the latest Grand Theft Auto and spend all their time running around causing havoc. While that’s certainly one way you could approach the game, you’d be robbing yourself of all that GTA V has to offer, especially since much of it doesn’t unlock until you’ve played through that extended (somewhat disguised) tutorial over the first ten to twelve hours of the game.

The aiming and cover system has been refined from previous titles in the series and it’s easily the best it’s ever been and it’s needed for the all the heists you’ll be pulling off. This is another area where the game truly shines. When planning heists, you’ll often need other (AI controlled) accomplices to help out and you can choose who to get based on their skills. The better their skills, the bigger the cut they’ll command and each successful job gains them experience and more skills (if they happen to survive). So you have to decide, can you pull this heist off with a mediocre computer hacker that’ll take a smaller cut or should you pay more for a better chance at a successful outcome?

While planning your jobs, you may need to wait for all the pieces to fall into place, leaving you time to roam around the city doing whatever you feel like. You’ll then get a call noting that the truck you need to hijack is on its way into the city or whatever your setup involves. Again, this helps make everything feel like a living, breathing world that goes on with or without you and it’s phenomenal.

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Fans of the series will find plenty of nods and call backs to previous installments and it’ll all feel familiar right from the start. Bits and pieces from every other game in the series make their way here and it really feels like Rockstar took the time to figure out what worked, what didn’t, what need to be tweaked and what was missing and then pulled it all together in one glorious game.

Visuals:
The best looking GTA game to date, that’s for sure. Among the best looking games on the PS3? Yes and no. The attention to detail in the landscape is staggering, from the sandy beaches and boardwalk to the top of Mount Chiliad, through the wineries, ports, research facilities, golf courses and distinct neighborhoods of Los Santos, everything looks and feels exactly as it should, right down to the graffiti.

Watching the sun come up over the mountains is quite an experience, as the sky goes from an inky black to bright blue, shadows dancing over the landscape. Vehicles all echo their real-world counterparts with precision and the lighting on them is quite a sight to behold. The entire game is a wonderful representation of Los Angeles and the surrounding area, right down to the most iconic landmarks.

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So what could be wrong? The biggest offender is the cutscenes. All that gorgeous lighting disappears when you see your characters up close. Their skin tones and clothes look jarringly bland and flat compared to the amazing detail you’ve been shown in the game itself. Shadows in general tend to have problems even (at times) during regular gameplay. They don’t quite appear where or how they should, they tend to look like charcoal sketching is happening on your screen. Cutscenes also tend to be locked in with you character suddenly sporting different clothes at times. Is it really a problem? No, and I’m probably nitpicking here, but when a game is this good overall, the tiny problems tend to stand out, for me anyway.

The water physics are particularly impressive, which is necessary considering that San Andreas is completely surrounded it. The waves seem pretty huge when you get further out into the ocean while swimming but it retains a very natural motion throughout. The entire coastline has been rendered with a believable underwater ecology. Fish, plants, rocks and wrecks all move and sway with the water currents, just watch out for sharks.

Flight is back with planes, helicopters and even a blimp. Skydiving also feels more natural and realistic and while falling from a great height, the landscape below gradually and realistically becomes clearer and more detailed as you get closer to the ground.

San Andreas is alive with people and wildlife across the city and countryside and it’s better than any Grand Theft Auto game to date.

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Audio:
The decision to include licensed music in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City changed everything for the series. That soundtrack, littered with with an 80′s soundscape, did more to cement the time period of the game than anything else. That trend continued in GTA: San Andreas, locking the player into the heart of the West Coast 90′s.

It’s been tougher in recent games to recapture that. With Grand Theft Auto IV and V in a more modern setting, it isn’t as easy to capture the flavor of the times. Rockstar did an admirable job in GTA IV by adding a bigger variety of music that could represent the fictional New York that is Liberty City, including a Russian station.

In GTA V, that task is even tougher as a modern day Los Santos (standing for Los Angeles) has to represent the music of the day in an increasingly fractured musical landscape. The results are a bit of a mixed bag, with a 90′s inspired Rap station, Hispanic, Punk, Country and more. While it’s unlikely that anyone could look back on this game in ten years and say “They really nailed the time period with that soundtrack”, it does serve the game in giving a variety of listening options to the player. Not having the ability to build a custom station with music from your hard drive (something that was available on GTA games on the PSP!) is really a missed opportunity here.

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One of the more clever and immersive things Rockstar slipped in this time around is more “Breaking News” on the radio stations. Now, instead of just mentioning the bigger events in the game, they’ll break in with smaller items, unique to your experience. It speaks to the depth of immersion Rockstar was going for.

The rest of the ambient noise envelops you as you move through the greater Los Santos area. Traffic, nature, pedestrians, the depth is pretty fantastic. Walking in on a couple of people having a full on conversation is really cool and handled in a much more realistic way than in previous GTA titles.

Online/Multiplayer:
Despite it’s rocky beginnings, the multiplayer in Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most significant additions to the franchise since moving to 3D in GTA III. Ambitious doesn’t even begin to cover it as Rockstar has taken what they learned in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption and exponentially blown it up into an amazingly fantastic experience (when it’s working).

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You’ll start with a character customization that has you deciding on the look of grandparents and parents in order to arrive at your very own character. It’s a clever twist on the stale character generator and should allow for much more variety in the game.

The fourth (previously empty) pie wedge on the right-hand side of the screen is now home to your newly created character. This one simple interface decision is one of the best choices the designers made in the entire game. Going from an offline to an online game session is as simple as choosing a character. Selecting your online character in this instance pulls the camera back, high above San Andreas and moves to where that character is, just like in single player. Only now, you’re seamlessly moved between the online and offline game modes. It’s brilliant.

Remember how I said the first twelve to fourteen hours of the single player experience was essentially an extended tutorial? Well, get ready for something similar here, although a bit more abbreviated. You’ll start with your character flying into the city and being picked up at the airport. You’ll,then go through a series of missions designed to familiarize you with the basics of the online world.

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You’ll race, rob stores, and acquire and customize your first car. many of the things you’d be doing in the single player campaign in fact. The differences come in how the game handles the ephemeral nature of your existence in a persistent online world. Buying insurance for you car is the first step. That way if it gets totaled or stolen, you can just pull out your cell phone and file a claim and a replacement will be delivered just like that.

Of course, you can also buy a house which becomes your main residence in the online world. You can then store your cars in that garage as well. Your house then becomes a base of operations where you can take a break from the mayhem outside and plan new heists. Other players are barred from entering your house unless they’re invited so you’re safe once inside. Just be wary of any other players lingering outside your door, waiting to mug you the moment you emerge.

Since anyone can kill you, it’s best to deposit any money you have into the bank as soon as possible. This can be handled directly from the web browser on your phone and should be taken advantage of at all times. Nothing feels worse than pulling off a heist and eluding the cops only to be killed by another player who can then make off with all you cash on hand.

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With up to sixteen human controlled players in the world at any given time, there’s plenty of opportunity for hijinks, good and bad. Players can be muted individually or all together but really, your best bet is to form a Crew of you friends in the Rockstar Social Club before joining an online game. That way you can request to join crew members and the game will do its best to put you all together on one server.

Beyond the bonuses you get by being in a Crew, the experience just becomes instantly better not having to deal with random trolls online. If you’re interested, PS Nation even has a Crew.

Conclusion:
I had a hard time with this game when I started. Things were moving much too slow for me and everything seemed too “hum drum” real. Once things started to pick up and I got my bearings in the world, drawing that mental map in my head, everything opened up into one of the best and most amazing Grand Theft Auto experiences I’ve ever had, and continue to have.

I spent two years in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, completing it 100% and I didn’t know if Rockstar could ever grab hold of me like that again. With Grand Theft Auto V they have and more. There’s so much to do offline and on that I can’t see myself ever being finished with this game, but it’s one that I’ll always go back to for years to come.

Score:
10

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro screen capture feature.

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Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 18 consoles and 4 handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/user/Stoffinator2008?gl=CA&hl=en Stoffinator

    A 10 huh, I guess Rockstar bought off PSNation like the rest. :-p

    • http://psnation.org/ Josh

      Yup, big dumptruck full of money backed right up to my door :-)

  • ChazzH69

    My personal GOTY (with Puppeteer a close second). I still see new things even now and GTAOnline is insanely good. It all exceeded my expectations.

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