Anthony's Film Review
Grand Theft Auto V
(Video Game, 2013)
Grand Theft Auto V is pretty much the most immersive video game experience EVER...
It's been a while since I wrote a video game review for my website, Anthony's Film Review. After all, my primary focus is movies, as the name implies. Any other medium that is visual and movie-like is on my radar less frequently and is therefore something I write about less often. Still, when I do come across something that is not a movie but similar in a way and is worth talking about for whatever reason, I will take the time to pour out my thoughts on it, the same way I would with the movies I watch. I say this because the video game I am about to review is not just one of the best ever, but also one that virtually erases the line between movies and video games (and, for that matter, the line between fiction and reality).
Grand Theft Auto V continues the fun, excitement, and mayhem of the highly controversial yet immensely popular street crime action game series from Rockstar Games. Released 16 years after the first game in 1997, GTA V has come an incredibly long way from its roots. It retains the core gameplay formula of carrying out various crime missions (vehicle chases, shootouts, transporting people and items, etc.) at your own pace, sometimes in whatever order you choose, and, in between missions, wandering around in an open free world to stir up your own violent trouble with civilians and law enforcement officers moving about. It also continues the tradition of engaging in fun side activities, like collecting certain items scattered throughout the game world, performing vehicular stunt jumps at designated spots, participating in illegal street racing, visiting shooting ranges, and playing other mini-games. GTA V does all of these things very well, while still introducing some unique never-before-seen features.
Let's start with the neat way the game begins. In previous GTA games like GTA III, the game starts with the opening credits, followed by the story's introductory cutscene, before the player assume control of the game's main character. GTA IV went further by having the opening credits display within the introductory cutscene. GTA V involves a prologue before the intro scene with credits, BUT... the prologue is not a cutscene. It's the first playable mission of the game. It's a really great way to launch you immediately into the gameplay and the story. Then, after the intro cutscene, you are transitioned smoothly into the game's second mission.
Now let's talk about the most creative new game feature in GTA V: character switching. For the first time in the series, the player assumes the role of not one character, but three characters, controlling them one at a time. On several missions in GTA V, two or three of those characters are involved. In some cases, each character is responsible for a specific segment of the mission. In other cases, however, you the player can switch from one to the other in the middle of the same action sequence. For example, you can switch from the character who is driving a vehicle to the character who is a passenger shooting guns while riding the same vehicle. Or, each character is in the same gunfight, and you switch characters according to which would give the whole team an advantage. Whatever you choose, the computer assumes control of the characters you are not controlling. The freedom to choose how you complete a mission now extends to who you choose to help complete the mission. And it's cool to watch the virtual camera move quickly and seamlessly across a short distance from one character to the other.
But that's not all. Even between missions, you can switch characters. It's really amazing to see how the camera for your character will zoom all the way out to show a birds-eye view of the current game world location, then quickly shift all the way over to the other character's location before slowly zooming in on that other character. And it's amusing to see what the character is doing right before you assume control of him. Depending on the specific character, the guy could be leaving a strip club, watching TV at home, sleeping in a dumpster, cleaning his car, leaning on his car in an outdoor setting, or even (please excuse me for the explicit detail) masturbating in a bathroom, among plenty of other things. With character switching between missions, you can participate in free-for-all exploration and mayhem as any of the three characters, as well as the side activities that are available to all three or just to one or two specific characters.
So who are these three characters? Well, I can definitely say that they are incredibly interesting and likable guys despite any major flaws. Michael De Santa is a family man and retired bank robber who suddenly finds himself having to go back to the criminal life in order to settle a debt and protect himself. Trevor Philips, a former bank-robbing companion of Michael, now spends his life in a desert trailer park while making money from selling meth and weapons. Franklin Clinton is an African-American man who is trying to make it in this world in legit fashion, by repossessing cars for an Armenian car dealer. These three distinct characters with separate lives all come together in unexpected circumstances. Franklin loses his job and turns to Michael for employment, after having attempted to repossess a vehicle from the De Santa household. Meanwhile, Trevor hears about a jewelry store heist and concludes that Michael is actually alive, after believing him to be dead all these years.
This is a good time to talk about another unique feature of GTA V: the characters' special abilities, which can be activated as long as the special ability time meter is not empty. Michael's special ability is to slow down time for everything except himself, giving himself a deadly offensive and defensive advantage in combat (similar to the Max Payne video games). Franklin has a similar ability, but it's used only while driving vehicles, such that he can momentarily steer and drive faster than everyone else. Trevor's special power is to essentially go into a drug-induced rage that renders himself invincible while he inflicts damage with whatever weapon he wields. These special abilities do come in handy for completing certain missions when used with the character-switching feature.
Speaking of missions, there are close to 70 story missions in GTA V. That might not sound like a lot when you consider that past games in the series like GTA: San Andreas and GTA IV seem to have closer to 90 missions or so. But don't forget that those 90 missions include a few that are not really vital to the main story. What GTA V provides is almost 70 story missions, a few of which are big heist missions (and many heists have two methods to choose from), plus nearly 60 missions not related to the main story. Those non-story missions are in a category called Strangers and Freaks, because the supporting characters providing those missions are mostly strangers who are often quite weird, including an ex-realtor, a thrill seeker, a cult leader, a pair of racist xenophobes, and a marijuana advocate, just to name a few. Basically, you have about a whopping 125 missions to enjoy and complete.
And if that's not enough, GTA V includes a little more than 56 Random Events. Based on a similar feature in GTA IV, these are quick little missions that, while you're exploring the world in between the major missions, pop up at specific locations at certain times. The situations can involve, for example, people getting mugged, hitchhikers needing a ride, security vans transporting money, motor vehicle theft (grand theft auto!), shop robbery, and police standoffs. When you come across them, you can choose to move on or intervene in the situation. The thing to do in response and thereby complete the mini-mission is usually pretty obvious.
With three kinds of missions and lots of side activities, what you really have is a package of games rather than a single game. Think of GTA V as a shooting game, driving game, flying game, underwater exploration game (with the options of scuba diving and a submarine), racing game, golf game, tennis game, hunting game, yoga game (no kidding!), item-searching game, vehicle stunt game, dart game, and parachuting game all rolled into a realistic environment that you are free to explore. Besides that, you can receive a lap dance at a strip club or have a sexual encounter with a prostitute, both of which are more explicit than in past GTA games. If you're hanging out with a friend or two, you can go to a bar, come out drunk, and drive a car while in that intoxicated state. If alone, surf the fictional Internet or watch fictional TV shows, like the animated series Republican Space Rangers (featuring Southern white men as space heroes) and Princess Robot Bubblegum (anime that borders on hentai) or the talent competition show Fame or Shame (which perfectly describes the real-life show American Idol). You can also go to a movie theater to watch one of three movies: an animated film about robots, a surreal foreign Italian film, or a really crappy movie about stock investors in Liberty City (which becomes available after a particular story mission). There is even a fictional stock market for you to buy and sell stocks (you'll certainly get a kick out of the name of the stock exchange that is a crude parody of NASDAQ) and the opportunity for you to buy business properties like bars and theaters, which in turn may provide a few quick missions for extra fun. And as Franklin, you have the option of having fun with a dog, a Rottweiler named Chop, doing things like taking him for a walk and playing fetch.
Let's not forget the radio stations you can listen to while commandeering vehicles in GTA V. Because GTA V takes place in Los Santos, the fictionalized version of Los Angeles introduced in GTA: San Andreas, the hip-hop station Radio Los Santos that played 80s and 90s West Coast hip-hop in GTA: San Andreas is back in GTA V playing more recent rap hits. If you still want the classic hip-hop, though, you can tune in to West Coast Classics, hosted by DJ Pooh (the real-life rap producer often associated with Ice Cube). In the mood for some classic soul music? Check out The Lowdown hosted by Pam Grier (yes, the same one who starred in Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Jackie Brown). If you like rock music, Kenny Loggins hosts one of the rock stations, and he even has two of his own songs on the playlist: "Danger Zone" and "I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man)." There are plenty of other great music stations to check out, including a funk station with Bootsy Collins as the DJ, a pop station hosted by an upbeat British gal voiced by Cara Delevingne, and a music station featuring two guys who like hip-hop as well as science, though their knowledge and understanding of the latter tend to be inaccurate.
Speaking of music, the soundtrack of GTA V isn't based almost entirely on licensed music, as with some past GTA games. There is also a musical score that accompanies the action and story in the game. Plus, there are original songs that are produced specifically for GTA V (and are played on the in-game radio). Since they fill up one audio CD, I'll only mention one of my favorite original songs in GTA V as an example: "Nine Is God" by Wavves. It's an interesting rock song that, to me, is about death and setting oneself free, whose mood and lyrics fit well with the game's story, particularly its finale. What's really cool is that, back in 2013, Wavves performed the song as musical guests on the television show Conan.
I also want to comment on some of the talk radio programs in GTA V. Perhaps my favorite one is Chakra Attack, hosted by a crazy health guru who rambles endlessly and a nurse who unfortunately has to put up with his abuse. It's one of those things that sounds weird at first, but ultimately becomes funny when you let it sink in. There's also The Fernando Show, featuring the same Fernando with the deep Latin voice who had been DJ for one music station in GTA: Vice City. And then you have Chattersphere, with Lazlow as one of the hosts. Yes, the same Lazlow who hosted Chatterbox in GTA III and appeared in other radio stations in the GTA series. He's pretty much the amusing guy as you remember him from before. But there's a nice bonus in GTA V: this is the first GTA game in which Lazlow has a visual appearance within the game (previously, you might notice Lazlow only in concept illustrations or in photos of the real-life Lazlow voicing the character).
Basically, GTA V is more than a game. It's a whole virtual world, a giant playground for living your wildest dreams. It's like a movie where you are both the actor and the director, creating your own story of adventure and fun. The way I see it, there are two types of video game players: those who play according to how the game is intended to be played, and those who just want to screw around within the confines of the game's design. GTA V, like the rest of the series, is perfectly suited for gamers who want to just do whatever the hell they want.
Of course, traditional gamers who want to complete the objectives of the core game to the end can do just that with GTA V's story component. It's certainly a thrilling plot to follow. After the initial events briefly mentioned above, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor perform a series of risky heists that would score the big money they want, while handling other situations that come up. What's interesting is that many of their jobs are not given to them by underworld crime bosses, like Mafia dons, but rather corrupt government officials who obtain funds illegally by using street crooks to do dirty work. The trio soon gets caught up in a web of conflict involving three organizations: the Federal Investigation Bureau, the International Affairs Agency, and the private security firm Merryweather. Just imagine how crazy it would be for the real-life FBI, CIA, and Blackwater to get into a heated boiling mess with each other. Then you have other allies and enemies making things interesting for our three anti-heroes, including a powerful billionaire, a Chinese Triad gang, a movie producer, a handicapped hacker, and members of a countryside meth cartel.
All of the characters in this game, from the main three to all minor characters, are absolutely great to see and hear. They look and feel like real people thanks to the incredibly detailed graphics and top-notch voice acting. I also love how the three main characters are very likable despite their flaws. Franklin (played by Shawn Fonteno) is just a guy who wants to be successful in life, even if crime is his only option at the moment. Michael (played by Ned Luke) has a wife and two adult children to come home to, but fails as a family man even if he wants to be good in that role. (There are even a few story missions for Michael that involve only family situations, like playing the yoga mini-game with his wife, with no serious criminal action at all.) As for Trevor (played by Steven Ogg), he delivers quite humorous sarcasm in the things he says, even if he is deeply messed up in his head.
Believe it or not, this is true even in what is a notably ultraviolent feature in the game: Rampages. If you've played GTA III or GTA: Vice City, you may recall the Rampage mini-games where you are given a time limit to kill as many members of a gang as possible using a specific weapon. In GTA V, five of the Strangers and Freaks missions specifically for Trevor are Rampage mini-games. However, unlike the Rampages in the older GTA games where the targets usually don't do much, the Rampages in GTA V feature the targets trying to attack Trevor from all directions, while the screen appears slightly blurry with a reddish tinge, a rock soundtrack plays loudly in the background, and Trevor utters amusing one-liners during his massacre. This undeniably badass revival of an old GTA feature just goes to show how GTA V is a great improvement over its predecessors.
With intense action games like this, it's not enough to complete your mission. It's also worthy to see your own performance in doing so. Thankfully, GTA V provides you feedback in the form of a percent score with mission completion, a feature that was first introduced in GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony. In many cases, completing the mission is 50%, while the remaining 50% requires fulfilling checklist items, such as finishing within a certain amount of time, achieving a sufficient gunfire accuracy, and performing specific tasks. You won't know what the checklist items are until you finish the mission the first time. At least you can replay the mission at any time to check off unfulfilled items and boost your percent score on that mission to 100%, which comes with a gold medal as opposed to a silver or bronze medal for lower percent scores.
Because this is a GTA game, it's always possible to get arrested or killed, though you can always keep playing after paying the bail money to leave the police station or the medical bill to leave the hospital. The way GTA V announces that you've gotten busted or wasted is really cool. (Note: I played the enhanced version of the game for the PC.) The moment either of those things happen, the screen suddenly goes into a slow-motion black-and-white visual before the message of "busted" in blue letters or "wasted" in red letters pops up in the center. Mission failures are announced the same way, with the reason for the failure displayed along with the red "mission failed" text.
Having a wanted level in this game is rather fun. In GTA V, the intensity of law enforcement's response to your criminal actions can range from one to five stars. Whereas GTA IV displays the police response on the radar and map as a shaded circle surrounding you and the cops, GTA V's radar and map shows the individual officers and their vehicles, each with their own line of sight. Instead of escaping a search radius and not getting caught again like in GTA IV, you can lose your wanted level by outmaneuvering, outsmarting, and outrunning every nearby cop at once, then remaining undetected for quite some time. But good luck doing that if there are police helicopters looking for you. At least you have the auto spray shops. Actually, in GTA V, the auto shops provide repair and respray services plus a list of car modification options, such that, instead of getting automatic repair and respray done like in other GTA games, you have to manually select the repair and respray options in order to leave the shop with no wanted level. It's still more interesting, though, than respray shops and car mod shops as separate kinds of shops, like in GTA: San Andreas.
Everything I've described about the game thus far takes place in a digital world that is just so life-like that you might as well be watching a live-action movie or video footage. GTA IV marked a major advancement in the series by using realistic graphics, and GTA V continues that new trend with a gorgeous rendition of Los Santos, making the same city in GTA: San Andreas look pale in comparison. If you're familiar with Southern California like I am, you will appreciate the similarities between that part of America and the world of GTA V. For example, the pier with carnival rides and the airport in Los Santos correspond geographically to the real-life Santa Monica Pier and the Los Angeles International Airport, respectively. The neighborhoods and their demographics in LS and LA also mirror each other: rich homes and movie culture in the north, black ghettos in the south, and Latino barrios to the east. The Maze Bank skyscraper in Los Santos looks a lot like U.S. Bank Tower (formerly Library Tower), and the movie studio in LS is a reminder of the Paramount Pictures studio lot (both have a parking lot that can be filled with water for filming purposes). Sometime back, I drove by the industrial docks in San Pedro and Long Beach, also in Los Angeles County, and couldn't help but be reminded of the same docks in GTA V. And don't forget the beaches and beachfront properties in the game, reminiscent of actual places like Huntington Beach and Malibu.
That's not all. GTA V also includes natural landscapes outside Los Santos with incredible detail. The deserts, mountains, forests, beaches, cliffs, and even the ocean floor have never looked so stunning in a video game. And the weather... wow, it's looks like a weather system was programmed into the game! You can notice sunlight glare or shadows depending on the angle of light from the sun that moves across the sky throughout the day, and at night, the moon could shine some of its dim light as well. And when it rains, dirt or sand surfaces become wet and harder to move across, and your character's clothes will appear drenched. In fact, it's possible to be partly submerged in water and come out with only the submerged portion of clothing appearing wet. The game is THAT detailed.
The last thing I will describe is the way GTA V also provides a form of social commentary and satire. America, as you may already know, is a great country that is also exceedingly violent at times (maybe too often). I don't really need to discuss the violence of GTA V in detail since I already made similar comments in some reviews of past GTA games (although this game does have a mission involving player-controlled torture, which can be hard to stomach). But I do want to comment that this game is like holding up a mirror to society in order to show us our biggest flaws, or like holding up a distorted mirror to laugh about our biggest flaws. This is true whether you're talking about the violence in GTA V or the game's portrayal of celebrity obsession, drug culture, consumerism, government corruption, movie production, excess wealth, and the madness of smartphones and social media. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the GTA games have matured, going from a purely criminal fantasy to a fully realized world that includes the criminal fantasy as just one element.
I have played the major titles of the GTA series, almost in order, and as I did so, I often found myself liking the next game in the series more than the previous one, which parallels the way Rockstar worked to make each new GTA better than the previous one. With GTA V, I was in nirvana from the start. Playing the missions was like watching and being in a movie at the same time, and it truly felt like a escape from the real world. I constantly admired all of the little details in the game that I never saw in past GTA games. I was equally thrilled with the side activities, or just joyfully exploring and living an alternate life, as I took a break from doing the story missions. While driving around, I enjoyed a variety of songs, like "I Ain't Living Long Like This" by Waylon Jennings, "Still D.R.E." by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, "Bad Girls" by M.I.A., and hits by Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. For laughs, I enjoyed hearing the funny remarks from music station hosts and the satirical radio commercials, plus watching the fictional TV commercials. And even if I completed the story, there was still much more for me to discover afterwards. Ultimately, I played GTA V the first time for over 300 hours across 10 months, and even after that, I went ahead and spent more than 85 hours playing the whole game over again, in order to replay all of the missions and achieve gold medals across the board, play through the heist missions with the method I did not pick the first time, and relive all of the side activities and experiences. To top it off, I purchased The Music of Grand Theft Auto V, the game's three-CD soundtrack, because it's a wonderful part of this incredibly engrossing game.
With that, here is how I sum up what I think of GTA V. In the online Rockstar Social Club, which tracks each player's stats and progress for GTA V and other Rockstar titles, there is a list of accomplishment badges for GTA V, one of which is awarded for earning 70 gold medals from passing missions with a 100% score. The name of that badge is "Solid Gold, Baby!" That, to me, is the best way to describe GTA V. If video games were a form of art (and I strongly believe they should be considered as such), GTA V would no doubt be a near-perfect masterpiece. It is not just the best GTA game, hands down, but also perhaps one of the greatest video games ever made, if not the greatest. Certainly, it is the most entertaining video game I have ever played in my life up until this point. I would like to truly thank Rockstar Games for creating a product that has provided hundreds of hours of amusement for me and so many other gamers out there. Everyone involved in the making of the game each deserves a gold medal, maybe five.
Grand Theft Auto V truly is solid gold, baby!
For more information about Grand Theft Auto V, visit the Internet Movie Database and Moby Games.