Summer in the City: GTA V sizzles in the high 90s
Critical Consensus: Rockstar's latest reveals bad people in a beautiful world
It might not be the highest-grossing franchise any more, or even the first name the reactionary media reaches blindly for when looking to hang a blame on video games, but a Grand Theft Auto release is still the industry's equivalent of a new Spielberg film, JK Rowling book or HBO TV series. There will be controversy, there will be excess, there will the frantic baying of fans, but most of all, there will be expectations.
Rockstar knows this. It knows that its poster-boy IP is a system seller, a public event, a release which puts gaming on the radar of all but the least engaged potential customer. GTA is big. GTA is special. GTA is famous. It's the series that editors love, igniting weeks worth of editorial and news coverage, reaction pieces and analyses, paeans, homilies and unnecessarily grandstanding introductions like this one. It doesn't matter if you're one of the adoring masses or the vocally uninterested minority - there's always something to talk about.
We've had plenty of speculative pre-amble already, but with the global review embargo now lifted, the disassembly begins in earnest. Who'll post the inevitable outlying low score? Who'll be the first to accuse them of 'click-baiting'? How long will we spend over the next few days discussing whether a '10' means a game is perfect or not? Is anyone actually going to read any of the reviews before buying anyway?
See? Always something to talk about. But that's not why we're here. Let's take this to the meta-level and discuss what other people have been writing in their reviews, starting with Eurogamer's EIC Tom Bramwell, who opens the bidding at 9/10 in a review which expresses clear admiration at the world which Rockstar has wrought and the sharp, acerbic humour displayed in the deconstruction of its subjects, but some disappointment that the great lens of irony never turns upon itself as subject.
"GTA4 took a few swings at fear-mongering 24-hour news, right-wing neo-cons and reality TV, but GTA5 is spoiled for choice and the gag writers go for the jugular"
Tom Bramwell, Eurogamer
"Los Santos takes the basic geography of Los Angeles and files it down into something tight and entertaining to navigate," Bramwell writes. "Where every street has its own story etched in phony colonnades or chain-link fences and landmarks are lifted from real life (Grauman's Chinese, Chateau Marmont) or the silver screen (the house on stilts in Lethal Weapon 2 springs to mind), then woven together with practised ease.
"Layered on top of that is Rockstar's trademark cynicism. GTA4 took a few swings at fear-mongering 24-hour news, right-wing neo-cons and reality TV, but GTA5 is spoiled for choice and the gag writers go for the jugular, skewering TV talent contests, self-help gurus, social media, internet trolls, political hypocrites and our obsession with sex, sex, sex."
The big gambit for this instalment in the series is the introduction of multiple characters, which can be jumped between on the fly. For Bramwell, the tired, frustrated ex-con Michael and the gang-related hood-rat Franklin are the pick of the trio, with late introduction Trevor engendering next to no empathy or engagement at all.
"The problem is that Trevor is an asshole," says Bramwell, leaving little room for misinterpretation. "When you first meet him, he does something so unpleasant that you wonder how you're ever going to empathise with him, and before long you're rotating an analogue stick so he can pull a tooth out of someone's jaw with a pair of pliers. These are serious and intense moments, but Trevor is too shallow and unconvincing to justify them, and instead his antics derail the narrative."
Trevor also takes centre stage in a scene which, according to Bramwell, is unpleasant and unnecessary enough for him to address directly in a completely separate op-ed, but in the interests of spoiler reduction, I'll leave that to you to chase down.
Other than that noteworthy exception, Los Santos' many distractions are one of the highlights for Eurogamer - a definitive move in the right direction from GTA IV's enforced social interactions.
"There's so much excellent stuff to do, see and hear throughout the dozens of hours you can spend touring Los Santos that you'll easily overlook the inconsistencies in storytelling, if that stuff even bothers you in the first place. This is also the slickest, easiest GTA game Rockstar has ever made, full of fine detailing that smoothes your experience moment to moment, like proper checkpointing and gentler law enforcement.
"Most importantly, though, it's the first game in the series where you feel as though you can strike out in any direction and find something entertaining to do. You can wander onto a golf course and find yourself in a reasonable facsimile of a Tiger Woods game, enhanced after every shot by Michael swearing and banging his club on the fairway."
For all the swagger, however, Bramwell sees something of a lack of self-awareness to the major themes of the game, which ends up lauding so much of what it simultaneously lampoons.
"This is a game pretty much designed from top to bottom to equate the American Dream to some sort of elaborate pyramid scheme, but the message is that hard graft buys you a mansion in the hills, a helipad downtown and a fleet of tricked-out sports cars? This contradiction was at the heart of Vice City, too, but it made more sense in a love letter to Scarface. GTA5 captures the absurdity of modern life, but I expected it to do more than join the party."
"You might catch Trevor waking up in the middle of the desert, wearing a dress. Or you might catch Michael waking up screaming. It's a good little trick that gives the illusion that these characters are off living their lives"
Jeff Gerstmann, Giant Bomb
For Jeff Gerstmann at Giant Bomb, GTA V heralds a return to the free and easy pastiche of the series' earlier titles, taking a step back from the gritty seriousness of GTA IV to re-engage with the comedy element which Saints Row is doing an increasingly good job of emulating, whilst still retaining a message underneath it all.
"With Grand Theft Auto V, the franchise attempts to get it both ways," Gerstmann writes, "with another cluster of serious narrative that's told in an exciting way, but also in an occasionally more lighthearted one, as well. Sprinkle in a little bit of genuine weirdness and you've got a recipe for disaster that works in spite of itself, a well-told tale of criminals in mid-life crisis that doesn't always mesh properly with the trappings of your typical open-world crime simulator, but the individual parts are usually so good that it barely matters."
Gerstmann seems relatively untroubled by Trevor's unsavoury character, although he does describe some scenes as "uncomfortable", and enjoys the interplay between the three main men.
"This makes for a series of uneasy relationships, not only between the three core protagonists but also the people in their lives, be they feds of questionable integrity, methed-out desert dwellers, or Franklin's crazy aunt.
"Each character has his own missions and switching between them moves you to wherever that character is as you join his life, which is already in progress. This means you might catch Trevor waking up in the middle of the desert, wearing a dress. Or you might catch Michael waking up screaming. It's a good little trick that gives the illusion that these characters are off living their lives, even when you aren't directly controlling them."
However, despite the differences in background and story for each character and the RPG-lite statistics which govern their effectiveness, Gerstmann doesn't see much to choose between them outside of their special context-sensitive abilities.
"At the outset, Trevor is a better shooter than Franklin," he observes. "This only makes a big difference when you're free-aiming a sniper rifle, since the game's lock-on targeting system trivializes the game's combat to the point where you're just blazing helicopter pilots through the windows of their choppers without giving it a second thought, regardless of the shooting statistic.
"The meaningful difference comes from a character-specific ability. Franklin uses his while driving, getting a slow-motion moment or two while significantly increasing a car's steering, which keeps you from getting too turned around during races and other pursuit-like activities. Michael has a standard on-foot bullet time that makes the shooting even easier than it already is. And Trevor goes into a rampage-like state where he takes less damage."
For Gerstmann, the big highlights of the game aren't in the "typical" mission structure, as improved as it is from predecessors by the addition of better checkpointing, but in the sporadic 'heists', big jobs for the crew which must be planned and executed according to your preference - from approach to equipment to crew members.
"One may require more setup but it might also have a lot less risk than, say, walking in the front of a jewelry store and gunning down everyone in sight. Once you've decided how you'll take the score, you'll have to choose a crew. In addition to the other protagonists (who are usually all together on every job) you may have to choose a getaway driver or find someone that's handy with an assault rifle."
As well as the nuts and bolts planning, more finessed preparations can be made, like parking escape vehicles nearby, or buying costumes.
"Having these more-freeform tasks appear right before the heist is an exciting change from how Grand Theft Auto typically unfolds, and my only complaint is that I wish there was a lot more of it. Once you've completed all the setup, you can head out and take down some scores."
In the end, says Giant Bomb, this is exactly what you were expecting and pretty much what the hype-machine was selling you: GTA taken up yet another notch, exhilarating and beautiful, but sometimes the victim of its own market dominance.
"Grand Theft Auto 5 is the culmination of the series, Rockstar's catalogue and arguably the entirety of AAA video games"
Chris Plante, Polygon
"Overall, this game is less surprising than you might like, because so much of it is precisely what you'd expect from a GTA game. At times, it feels like it was made in a vacuum, away from the influence of other games. But while you could certainly pick out a handful of individual systems or design choices that feel like they've been handled more intelligently elsewhere, none of those other games bring together so many interesting and disparate systems with the same level of aplomb on display here. That, combined with the game's unique multi-character approach to storytelling, makes Grand Theft Auto V an exciting successor in the long-running franchise."
Continuing the theme of general adoration, albeit in a somewhat more hyperbolic manner, is Polygon's Chris Plante, who settles on a 9.5 after a decidedly glowing introduction. "Grand Theft Auto 5 is the culmination of the series, Rockstar's catalogue and arguably the entirety of AAA video games," Plante opines, going on to lavish praise on the game's incredibly consistent reality, a world which pulls you in and makes you a part of it. Still, says Plante, the series has become bogged down with the student politics of apathetic criticism, rejecting the American Dream but offering no viable alternative - GTA V goes someway towards addressing that, but some vestiges remain.
"The hodgepodge of locales also has allowed Rockstar to lampoon a larger swath of Americans than the cosmopolitans who typically live at the center of the Grand Theft Auto stories. The franchise is still relentlessly cynical about the American experience - the college freshman worldview has plagued the series since 2001 - but Grand Theft Auto 5 is mercifully more lighthearted than its predecessors, and even occasionally vulnerable, thanks in large part to its broader stable of characters."
That broader stable obviously pivots heavily on the three protagonists, and Plante joins other reviewers in welcoming this new diversity, alongside the variety of missions, surroundings and companions which it affords.
"The characters only do missions you'd expect of them, so it's easier to buy them as people working within their own problems and limitations. They aren't driving taxis, going bowling and assassinating a gang leader the same hour. But it's the ability to swap between the three characters on the fly throughout most of the game that elevates Grand Theft Auto 5's trifecta of anti-heroes above gimmickry."
That diversity carries to the main character of all GTA games, the city itself, where Plante says "no square mile feels alike." Nonetheless, says Plante, there is a remarkably obvious gap when it comes to both player characters and NPCs alike: interesting females.
"I counted roughly (and generously) six semi-important female characters in the game, maybe a couple more if I include the occasional quest giver or victim of theft. None are playable. All but one are shrill buzzkills; the latter has Stockholm syndrome. And the two grisliest murders in the game happen to women. One side story involves the persistent and unsettling harassment of an absent female character, the purpose of which is to show the cruelty of Trevor, but which goes upsettingly far beyond what feels necessary to the story...The script plays it for laughs. I felt nauseated. "
Nonetheless, Plante's summary is unequivocal.
"It's fitting that the game arrives at the cusp of the next generation of consoles. Grand Theft Auto 5 is the closure of this generation, and the benchmark for the next. Here is a game caught occasionally for the worst, but overwhelmingly for the better, between the present and the future."
For that outlying 'low' score', we turn this time to The Escapist where Greg Tito sets out an adamant stall en route to assigning GTA V 3.5/5, taking particular exception to the lack of empathy which the game's characters instil with their cold, calculated criminality.
"What's missing in GTA V's story is a sense that the characters have been painted into a corner by various machinations beyond their control, like Niko Bellic of GTA IV, or must commit their crimes to mete out justice, as Tommy Vercetti does in Vice City. The three main characters of GTAV do terrible things merely to get paid, and deserve no sympathy. There's no drive in them even to be the best at what they do, the last American value we afford criminals, but rather they commit these crimes with no lifeline thrown to the audience to pull us along in supporting them...The three men you take control of throughout the game aren't even anti-heroes. They're just scumbags."
For Tito, it's not just the main characters' motivations which are a little hollow. For him, even GTA's trademark satirical cynicism is wide of the mark.
"Advertisements and billboards for products like Pisswasser beer and LifeInvader, a parody of Facebook, are supposed to be funny, I suppose, but the radio jingles and faux talk radio spots come off as childish instead. Pedestrians take calls on their cell phones, and overhearing what they say to their lovers, their mothers and their agents creates an aural kaleidoscope of a culture obsessed with self-image and fame, none of it especially pleasant. Satire excels at pointing out our foibles, our faults, but that doesn't mean it makes for great escapism."
"What's missing in GTA V's story is a sense that the characters have been painted into a corner by various machinations beyond their control"
Greg Tito, The Escapist
Tito also has short shrift for the limitations which are imposed on the three characters, asking why you're forced to use Michael to drive for some missions when Franklin is the expert wheelman and bemoaning the lack of true freedom in switching between the three.
What Tito does applaud is GTA V's technological achievements, a swan-song for the ageing hardware of the 360 and PS3. Installing the game to hard disk might take a hefty 8Gb, he notes, but it greatly reduces loading times and keeps mission briefings to a smoothly integrated piece of information rather than jarring with a still screen placard.
"The area you can explore is ginormous, and it encompasses so many different terrain types and landmarks that it's almost silly. Nothing hammers the scope of GTAV more then when you play in your first aerial mission. Flying a plane across the state of San Andreas, seeing the sun set behind the mountains and knowing there's missions to complete, characters to meet and cars to steal across each inch of the landscape beneath you, is breathtaking."
Tito is clearly not quite on the same train as the other reviews here, but the initially coruscating responses to many AAA blockbusters are often tempered by later reflection. For The Escapist, there's clearly an excellent game hiding here, but Tito is very clear about what he sees as the disastrous fly in the ointment: the script and the characters who bring it to life.
"If only the morally reprehensible script written by Dan Houser lived up to the achievements in game-making that Grand Theft Auto V otherwise embodies, it would be not just the game of the year but of the decade," Tito bursts.
"Unfortunately, you can only hear a character say '&^%@ you, Mother&*^%er' so many times before it starts to grate on you. You can only embody a vicious psychopath a short time before it becomes boring, at best, and soul-crushing, at worst. Forcing players to murder people, not in a gamey 'I killed you to complete a goal' way that defines this medium, but in a terrorizing and demeaning way, is not what will make video games great. Rockstar had a chance to elevate, and they wasted it on portraying characters you don't want to spend five minutes with, let alone the hours it would take to play through the game's story."
Something tells me that millions of players worldwide will be just fine with that.