Five years ago today, on 17th September 2013 – following a last-minute release date delay – Rockstar Games published the long-awaited fifth main instalment to the Grand Theft Auto series. The initial edition was available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. 24 hours after the midnight launch, total profits had already reached $800, 000, 000 from players who’d only seen 20 minutes of preview footage overall. Upon release, Grand Theft Auto V was scored by Metacritic at 97, tying it as their third best reviewed game. One of the main selling points of the game was the ability to play as three characters – Michael de Santa, Franklin Clinton and Trevor Philips – by switching between them during missions and when exploring the open world. This cuts down on the time taken to travel across Southern San Andreas, the largest video game overworld ever developed. It also means that high-scale action set pieces can be experienced from three points of view. This keeps missions more interesting and less predictable. The player is given the ability to work through each level with their own preferred method. It’s more strategic than conventional shooter games. The player never misses anything by being somewhere else. The story is structured as a series of increasingly ambitious heists. Each of them is like its own blockbuster film. Every heist exists as two possible missions. The player only experiences one. They can choose to play the heists’ “loud” or “subtle” approaches.
Each approach, when chosen, unlocks its own setup missions. The setup missions must be completed in order to properly begin the heist. During heist, all of its setup mission pay off in their own ways. The decision to structure the game around these heists is what makes Grand Theft Auto V stand out from the series’ previous instalments. It’s different from them. Rockstar thus show a prioritisation of creativity over repetition. As developers, they treat the players as intelligent people. The player is allowed to decide for themselves what kind of criminal they want to be. All play styles are embraced here. The missions have been given checkpoints. Failure no longer means restarting the whole mission from the beginning. Grand Theft Auto V is still being played five years later. That’s because of the story and its characters. Michael is a retired gangster who just wants to help his family. Franklin is an up-and-coming criminal who’s looking for a shot at his big break. Trevor leads a gang war against some bikers in the desert. Each character embodies the greed, ambition and insanity of American life. How their stories intertwine and influence each other creates the different possibilities that makes playing the game so exciting. They each bring something different to the game.
Each of them are likeable for their own reasons. Michael is the part of me that can often overlook others in pursuit of my own desire. Franklin is the part of me that is full of big-dreaming idealism. Trevor in particular is my favourite character. He’s the part of me that understands the pointlessness of everything. He laughs in the face of darkness. He’s the most complex character. Surprisingly, he’s also the one who relieves Michael and Franklin’s self seriousness. A lot of the humour derives from their total exasperation with his antics. He’s so far beyond psychotic as to verge on the absurdist. Each character’s contrasting personality is the secret to what makes them so well-written. They shouldn’t work as a group but do. Their ability to compromise and tolerate each other makes them a family. On the surface, they’re like the friends you knew at school. Beneath the surface, they have the ability to understanding that comes with age. One of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced in a game is the ending of Grand Theft Auto V‘s story. It was the moment that I realised it was the last time I’d see these characters together. It’s like a great TV finale or last day of school and it truly speaks to the power of fiction and how much it can mean to us.
It’s these characters, combined with the heist structure, that makes Grand Theft Auto V a better experience than many of the films that inspired them. The best moments in the game so complex that they couldn’t possibly be achieved in cinema because there simply wouldn’t be the budget. There is absolutely no doubt that the non-linear game-play, choose-your-own adventure style narrative, multiple story perspectives, environment design and literary themes makes Grand Theft Auto V one of the best video games ever made and a milestone in culture. The photo-realistic graphics are the best I’ve ever seen. The load times are surprisingly quick compared to the size of the world. The draw distances are flawless. The weather feels real. The lighting brings it all together. Los Santos feels as big as it looks. The countryside is as open as it can be. The heat of the desert comes off the screen. Each location has a distinct personality. Southern San Andreas is the honorary fourth character, inviting you to do anything. The fictional video games, television series, films, radio stations, news programmes, politicians and products bridges the distance between playing the game and living in it. The line between fiction and reality is blurred.
The sound design is so believable that I often caught myself thinking that certain background sounds were coming from outside. The performances of motion capture actors Ned Luke, Shawn “Solo” Fontano and Steven Ogg are a watershed moment for performance art. They considered the medium legitimately. The detail in which they’re brought to life is the most minutest yet. The original soundtrack is understated but considerably enhances the sensory experience of the game. The licensed radio station tracks are well-suited for each play style. The songs couldn’t have been better chosen. Nothing better defines the experience of being young and dreaming of flying over San Andreas in a Cuban plane. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to state that it’s the best use of licensed music in any entertainment product. All of it enhances the atmosphere of breathing fresh, wild air. Maybe one day I’ll write a post, or series of posts, about some of my favourite songs in the game. Even the driving physics have significantly improved. The weight of each vehicle is more tangible. Each of them has their own identity, strengths, weaknesses and suited applications and scenarios. So too improved are the shooting physics. They’re much more refined and easier to handle.
The targeting system is more precise. Everything in Grand Theft Auto V is a developer’s encyclopedia of what can be accomplished with a video game. It’s a player’s love letter explaining why we can’t stop gaming.
It feels as though it so definitively showcases everything which makes video games great as it to be the ending to the first chapter of the medium’s history while laying the ground work for what comes next. Grand Theft Auto V. It’s a novel. It’s a TV drama. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s a fairy tale. It’s overwhelming. It’s beautiful. It’s full of possibilities. It’s life.
A complete numerical breakdown of Grand Theft Auto V performance can be viewed on my Rockstar Games Social Club profile.