Grand Theft Auto 5 – Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Genre: Action
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 5 of 5


After three solid weeks of exploring Los Santos and Blaine County, after more than a thousand driven miles, after more than 50 hours of story-based gameplay, 20 hours of random sandboxing and goofing off, and after more than 12 hours playing online I am finally ready to offer my review for Grand Theft Auto 5. It’s pretty cool.

What? You were expecting something more…perhaps a thousand hyperbolic words on how this game is sure to win Game of the Year while simultaneously curing cancer, and taking home a Nobel Prize. Arguably, this is without a doubt one of the best console games of this generation; a true technical marvel and masterpiece that still has my brain smoking just trying to figure out the technology behind not only creating a world this complex, but also streaming it into my living room with nary a load screen as you travel from one end of the map to the other by air, land, or sea.

Ironically, GTA V is the second highest rated game of all time (on Metacritic) bested only by its predecessor, GTA IV. While I “enjoyed” parts of the fourth game in the series I never finished it on console. I recently picked it up during this year’s Summer Steam sale for PC and tried again only to lose interest at about the same place where I gave up on the console. GTA IV was a tedious chore and my second least favorite GTA game since San Andreas. GTA V marks a triumphant return of everything I love about Grand Theft Auto, making this the best sandbox experience I’ve had since Vice City.

A big part of the appeal of these games is familiarity. Vice City took place in a virtual version of Miami, FL; a place I was familiar with and was able to appreciate as I drove around the map. The same can be said for GTA V which is heavily based on Los Angeles with nods to San Francisco, Ojai, and various surrounding desert communities. Much like the car makes and models, all of the popular landmarks have been renamed so Hollywood is now Vinewood, but that won’t stop anyone who lives in or has visited LA to instantly recognize familiar staples like the Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood Bowl, The Chinese Theater, the Capitals Record building, and whatever that big skyscraper with the star pattern roof is that got blown up in Independence Day. You can visit the fancy Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive or enjoy a sunset cruise up the PCH with the top down. Explore the forests of the Northwest Territory, hunt some elk, or take a tram ride to the top of a massive mountain, then hike or bike back down.

You can quite literally LIVE inside this world, and many people I know have put nearly as much time into the game as I have without getting past the first few story-based missions of which there are 69 in total. Then you have 58 Strangers and Freaks missions, some of which are nearly as involved and entertaining as the core narrative. While these aren’t crucial to the plot they do flesh out the characters as well as provide you some added opportunity for earning more income and XP. And then you have 49 random missions or events. These will just pop-up as you are moving about the map, and you can choose to ignore or complete. These can be fast and easy like chasing down a mugger and choosing to keep the cash or return it for a much lesser reward or perhaps breaking up a domestic squabble then driving the husband to the country club, thus unlocked a potential golfing buddy. There are store robberies, stolen vehicles, drug deals gone wrong or even helping stranding motorists, one of which turns out to be the daughter of some crime lord who wires $60k into your bank after you help her.

When you do finally decide to buckle down and explore the story you will be amazed at not only the complexity of the narrative but also the way Rockstar has chosen to break it up into three unique viewpoints as told through three very unique characters. The game begins with a flashback to ten years prior, where we meet two of the three main characters in a robbery gone wrong. This quick opening level serves as a tutorial for most of the games controls and mechanics including the new ability to swap between characters in real-time. It only takes 20-30 minutes but you will come away with a new appreciation for the improved driving and shooting controls that include a surprisingly functional cover system.

Flash forward ten years and we meet up with Michael, perhaps my favorite of the three as I can relate to his lifestyle the most. Michael and his dysfunctional family have been in witness protection ever since the botched robbery and even his lame therapist can’t fix his issues. In a casual encounter with the game’s second playable character, Michael gives directions to a beach house to Franklin and Lamar who are there to repossess some high-end sports cars. We are now playing Franklin, an employee of a shady car dealership who sells overpriced cars at exorbitant interest rates with the clear intention that they will be repossessed and resold almost immediately.

GTA V seamlessly educates you on the various routines of the game during the first hour or so with Franklin as you deal with work and home issues, shop for new threads, get a haircut, and maybe do a few odd jobs for friends like filling in at a towing company. Eventually you will get called into work to repossess a car that involves a little breaking and entering; a job that will have you crossing paths with Michael and resulting in an oddly charming father and son relationship as the two embark on a lengthy crime spree that will carry you through to the end of the game.

And then we have Trevor. What can I say about Trevor other than he is perhaps the best character in the history of mainstream entertainment. Imagine if Danny Trejo and Jack Nicholson fathered a child. Trevor would be that child. Trevor fancies himself a businessman, even if that business is cooking meth and running guns. He is psychotically ruthless and totally entertaining to watch, especially in those brief moments of weakness when his emotions get the best of him; being betrayed by Michael or even falling in love with the kidnapped hostage wife of a backstabbing crime lord. For the past ten years Trevor has believed Michael died in that botched heist, but when he suspects otherwise it’s time to leave the dusty desert and head to Los Santos.

Once multiple characters are in play you are free to switch them out at will. This is a real-time switch, and the lives of the characters you aren’t controlling continue to take place without you. This became evident very early on just after Michael was unlocked as playable. I immediately switched back to Franklin who was already on his cell phone with Lamar talking about getting fired – a conversation that you will never hear if you don’t switch in time to hear it. At first the switching seems like a gimmick. Each character has a number on their portrait indicating how many available missions that person has, so when you are out of things to do for one character you switch to another, but there are some other good uses for the feature. Say you’re playing Trevor and you are a good 10-15 minute drive from the city and you don’t want to make the drive. Just switch to Franklin or Michael and play with them for a while then switch back to Trevor and chances are he will be closer to where you want to be, or at least somewhere better than he was.

Much later in the game the switching becomes much more integral to the gameplay; especially in the new heist missions that will require strategic real-time swapping to pull off elaborate plans and fight off the cops when those plans fail. You might have one character on sniper overwatch while another is driving a car or piloting a chopper, while another is just swapping bullets with the cops. There are also numerous moments of third-person perspectives, either from a special moment-specific camera angle or even watching a car chase unfold from the camera view of a news chopper.

Heists are, without a doubt, one of the best new features in GTA V. Much like what you see in your favorite movies you have to go through the planning stage, hiring a crew, securing necessary vehicles, possibly new wardrobe, special weapons, etc. and then when everything is ready you execute. You always have two choices for approaching a heist, one a more violent and direct approach, and the other something more elegant and stealthy. The stealth approach usually involves a bit more prep work, but is ultimately the most rewarding when you actually pull it off. But if you skimp on an inexperienced crew member or go off plan everything can go south in an instant.

GTA V perfects the RPG-lite stats system by simply improving your abilities in the things that you do the most. Spend time driving and your driving skills increase; complete flight school to boost your flying skill or simply run around a lot to increase your stamina. These meters slowly fill over the natural course of the game with no real reason to grind away at mundane tasks to artificially inflate them. The only thing that seemed “forced” was flight school, but those lessons were so entertaining and with the bronze, silver, and gold ranks and leaderboards I found myself replaying those missions just for fun. Each character also has a special ability that can help out in times of need; especially Franklin’s ability to slow down time while driving and Michael’s awesome slow-motion combat skills.

While I am happy to report that bowling has apparently been outlawed in Los Santos, you will find some cool pastime diversions to enhance your quality of life. There is a surprisingly competent tennis game you can play at various locations (or on Michael’s private court), and there is a 9-hole golf course that, while not terribly challenging or remotely realistic by golf game standards, is still addictively fun. There are triathlon events that will have you swimming, biking, and running, race events for cars, bikes, off-road jeeps, and jet skis, and a whole series of skydiving and base jumping challenges. There are several theaters showing a selection of surprisingly long movies, a dangerously addictive strip club with its own private dance mini-game that might just reward you with taking home a stripper then adding her to your contact list for future booty calls and sexting. And of course you can always head to certain parts of town and pick up a variety of “working women” who offer a full range of…ahem…services. You can even do yoga or visit your therapist if you really get bored.

GTA V has its own internet complete with online shipping, a match.com-style service for cheaters, news, entertainment, Lifeinvader (Facebook) and access to your bank accounts and stock market where you can invest in various companies earning the big bucks if you do it right. Your phone will constantly be buzzing with emails and texts from family, friends, and business associates and even the occasional spam alerting you to new items for sale at the car shop or gun store. GTA V does a wonderful job of mimicking how much our daily lives are affected by technology, even down to the distinct style of phones for each of the characters. And yes, you can use your camera phone to snap pictures (even “selfies”) and share them on Facebook (the “real” Facebook), along with other milestone status updates.

Speaking of Facebook, or in this case, Lifeinvader; if you really want to see the extreme level of detail Rockstar puts into their games just go to Michael’s profile page and start reading the various updates from his wife, son, and daughter. Not only do these updates exist long before the game starts, you get a real-time sequence of events of what is happening in the game from the perspectives of those around him. Fame or Shame is another fun online destination that pokes fun at reality shows like X-Factor and America’s Got Talent and their celebrity judges.

For completionists, there are 50 bridges to fly under in a plane or chopper, 50 hidden note pieces, 50 alien spaceship parts, and 30 pieces of a broken submarine you’ll need to scuba drive to get. Watch out for sharks. These secrets are extremely well hidden within the game and after nearly 70 hours of gameplay I had only found two note pieces and two spaceship parts. I did get all 30 submarine parts, but those show up on the map and you get a ping range finder. Bottom line – expect 100 hours or more to fully complete GTA V, even using the maps that come in the 430-page strategy guide.

For those with an iPhone or iPad, you will want to download the iFruit app that will sync to your game using your Rockstar Social Club account. This will give you slick access to upgrading the primary cars for your main characters (first upgrade is free) as well as play an amusing pet simulator game where you can spend time with Chop the dog. Supposedly, if you keep him happy in the app he performs better in the game, but I can only remember him taking part in two missions and one of those I had to pull the humping, horny mutt off another dog. There is even a GTA version of Facebook called Lifeinvader where you can check status updates and stalk other people. Those are just three of the nine available destinations on iFruit, and it’s a nice way to interact with your game even when you aren’t playing.

GTA Online launched a couple weeks after the main game and this opens up a whole new world of exciting gameplay options. Grand Theft Auto has tried online play before but it never felt natural…until now. GTA Online is much more than just an online mode; it is a complete MMO experience that starts with creating your character using the unique premise of choosing your grandparents, which in turn creates your parents and then you. When the game starts you are treated to an original opening credit sequence and introductory cutscene featuring Lamar who greets you as you get off the plane. From there, it’s up to you on how you stake your claim to fame and fortune in the big city. You get a ride that you must insure and trace via a GPS locator. You can join a crew to pull off jobs or just terrorize the local citizens. I have to admit that the online deathmatch battles are just as engaging as anything I have done in a Call of Duty game, and the fact they are seamless set right into areas of the city map are brilliant. There is even a fully functional economy in place with its own stock market that you are free to manipulate and possibly exploit – something that can also be done in the story mode to a lesser degree.

When it comes to presentation Rockstar has broken new ground with graphics that are dangerously close to PC quality…until you jump into a car. Then the framerate, texture quality, and a few pop-up and aliasing issues come into play, but considering the complexity and density of this fully believable world, I can easily overlook and continue to dream how gorgeously perfect this game will be on the PC someday. The world is seamless allowing you to go into a store or drive into a garage and exit your car and walk into a fully modeled two-story home with nary a load or hiccup thanks to the mandatory 8GB install that streams the game from your hard drive and game disc simultaneously. You can ride the interactive rides at the pier, actually ride the tram to the top of a mountain, or just enjoy the majestically detailed scenery from a crop duster, stunt plane, twin-prop smuggler’s plane, or even a jumbo jet. A variety of choppers and military aircraft are also waiting for anyone daring enough to breach a very paranoid military base.

I loved the way the scenery slowly transitions, not just in traveling from the slums to the wealthier parts of Los Santos, but the winding roads through the Vinewood hills, the sandy beaches and cliff-side highways or the way the mountain terrain slowly morphs into the desert of Sandy Shores, the swamplands surrounding the military base, the raging whitewater rapids and waterfalls of the mountain rivers, or the misty woods surrounding a drug base masquerading as a lumberyard. And that’s just the stuff you can see above sea level. Toss on some scuba gear or purchase a submarine and start to explore endless miles of undersea terrain with all sorts of fish and coral that hide shipwrecks and other buried secrets. In addition to the night and day cycle with all the beautiful sunrises and sunsets in-between, you also have random weather including fog and rain, and even some snow during the prologue and one Midwest mission later in the game.

Music selection is a huge part of GTA, and in the past Rockstar was content with delivering its music via a variety of radio stations. Well, that great selection of stations is back including talk radio and all those fantastic original commercials that are almost better than the music itself. You now have a wide range of music including rap, hip-hop, rock, grunge, Latin, country, techno, and just about any other genre you can imagine. I was shocked to see that when you leave Los Santos and enter Blaine County you get a whole new set of radio stations. As always, when you jack a car the radio is already playing a stereotypical station based on the race of the driver you just jacked, but even more amusing is that your three main characters all have their own preferred musical taste. I couldn’t help but laugh when Trevor stole a car and hardcore rap started playing and he said, “What is this shit?” and immediately flipped to Bob Seger…all on his own. Perhaps even more inspired than the ample selection of tracks available on the radio is the original score composed by one of my all-time favorite groups, Tangerine Dream. I found myself doing those parachute missions over and over just to hear the music during free-fall. Their music also greatly enhances other key story moments adding suspense to heists or adrenaline to car chases.

The voice acting is amazing and the IMDB cast scrolls for days with the talent recruited for this game, While a few voices will certainly stand out like Jonah Hill as Michael’s son, even the lesser known talent all commit to their roles with total dedication. If you would have asked me who Steven Ogg was four weeks ago I would have shrugged, but from henceforth he will always be known as Trevor Phillips, the craziest bastard in entertainment history. If you are easily offended by the N-word then don’t even consider being in the same room when somebody is playing as Franklin. Averaging about 4-6 instances per minute of dialogue there was one sentence that tossed the word out 8 times. The dangerous thing is that you hear the word so much it desensitizes you, and it almost seems acceptable to say it, but you probably better not. At least the N-word takes the heat off the two to three thousand F-bombs that get dropped on the West Coast during this game.

While every Grand Theft Auto game has made its own significant contribution to gaming culture and history over the years, personally, for me, GTA V is my favorite in the series. With three unique characters it is like having three games in one and I can’t help but wonder what content I missed while not playing someone, especially with some of the totally random reentry sequences during a switch like a drunken Trevor waking up in his tighty whities on a beach surround by four dead bikers. Maybe I don’t want to know.

Most of all, Grand Theft Auto 5 gives you the freedom of choice, to do what you want to do when you want to do it. You can easily spend 20-30 hours in this world without ever addressing the core story, and even after you start the story it is dangerously easy to get distracted by the smallest thing. The game encourages future and numerous replays with new challenge-based objectives that funnel into silver and gold ranks, but the trick is you don’t know the challenges until you complete the mission at least once. Replaying a mission creates a unique checkpoint, so you can return to your story where you left off after trying to better your score, but there is no way to restart a mission short of suicide. This is super-annoying during something like a street race where you know you can’t win and your only option is to get out of the car and drop a grenade at your feet. On the other hand, I did appreciate the inclusion of numerous checkpoints in the lengthier missions, so if you do manage to screw up you won’t have to replay the whole thing over…unless you really want to.

And then you have all the endless potential of GTA Online, and judging from all of the areas on the map that weren’t fully utilized in the solo game, I can only imagine what content Rockstar has in store for us in their online world. I really want to break into that big penitentiary and see what’s up.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is easily the game of choice if you want to show off the ultimate power of your current-gen hardware. From a technical perspective it’s doing things I never thought possible on the Xbox 360, and from a story and gameplay perspective, Rockstar is at the top of their game with what is arguably the best GTA game of all-time and a strong contender for Game of the Year.