By Kinton Cheung
From its inception in 1997 as the first open-world crime game to the Hot Coffee explicit mod in GTA San Andreas that caused the game to be taken off store shelves, Grand Theft Auto has always pushed the boundaries of taste. No stranger to controversy, the series has earned a somewhat deserved reputation of corrupting morals and depicting the worst of culture. GTA V, the first true continuation of the series since GTA IV 2008, doesn’t disappoint in this aspect at all; Rockstar, daring as ever, has included a torture scene filled with unspeakable acts and now allows players to smoke marijuana.
But to most gamers, GTA V’s true “boundary pushing” will come from Rockstar’s bold reimagining of the “open-world freedom, storytelling, mission-based gameplay and online multiplayer. The result? An absolutely stunning and hugely successful attempt at creating a living, breathing world that is unparalleled in detail and unmatched in scope. Usually, I find that frame-rate issues to be ample reason to dislike a game; the fact that I continue to embrace GTA V despite the intermittent texture loading lag is the biggest testament to how epic this game this is.
Set in Los Santos, a spoof of modern-day Los Angeles, the game world is larger than the worlds of GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3 combined; now incorporating a full undersea world that is open to scuba-diving, a countryside with Bigfoot and dinosaurs, and the gritty city. The developers have clearly listened to the criticisms of GTA IV for “being boring”; the world is absolutely brimming with mini-games ranging from a flight school, a stock-trading platform, base-jumping and random, organic encounters as mundane as helping a friend tow a few cars to spontaneous gunfights. You could, in theory, just play the missions and engage in a few mini-games and be done, but that would be doing the game a gross injustice; it would be a shame not to explore every nook and cranny, every facet that lies beneath the glitz and glamor of Los Santos. Every detail has its own allure, trying to seduce you in: park a car in your safehouse and you will hear the engine pop a few times as it cools down. Lay back in Michael’s rich Vinewood mansion and you will hear the Weasel News (tagline: “Confirming your prejudices!”) on TV reporting that new immigrants were to blame for the rise in crime. Walk down Innocence Boulevard and you will see billboards plastered with “Ammu-Nation: protecting your gun rights” signs. Drive out to the countryside and the radio will flick to Blaine County Radio, featuring southern-accented pundits who proclaim “human’s dominion over animals” and the government is leading a conspiracy to “indoctrinate all the smart people so that they will convert the dumb people.” GTA V’s credits roll for a full 36 minutes, thus reflecting the obsessive-compulsive level of detail.
The three-main-protagonists system in GTA V is unlike anything before it. Through the forces that be, Michael, a former bank robber living under witness protection; Franklin, a young, ambitious twenty-something who wants to move up the gang ladder; and Trevor, a psychopath, come together to commit crimes. The sound acting is impeccable: Lucien Jones, a GTA V writer, told a reporter that one of their sound actors playing a gangster “had literally gotten out of prison the day before.” Switching between characters is facilitated by a smooth, Google Maps-like animation that zooms out of the first character. Before zooming in and taking control of the second character, though, you catch a few second glimpse of, say, Franklin riding his convertible down the interstate or Michael yelling at a security guard. It creates an effective illusion that these characters are actually “living” and going about their daily lives even when you’re not playing them and enriches each character’s development and believability. This new ability actually adds a whole new dimension to the missions, enabling you to assume multiple roles: in one jewelry store heist, for example (spoiler alert!), Franklin climbs to the top of the building to release sleeping gas, Michael was on the ground stealing the goods, and Lamar was driving the getaway car. Remarkably, heists, the ten-or-so “mini-climaxes” amongst the 70+ main missions, now allow you to customize your experience, allowing you to pick between more experienced and less experienced hackers and drivers (who will take a varying share of the haul). GTA V, as a result, feels dynamic, providing unbounded, unprecedented freedom; you never feel forced to do things a certain linear way.
Laughing at the radios and exploring LifeInvader’s offices (a spoof of Apple and Facebook), where workers whine of their lactose intolerance and treat their CEO like some deity, I was immediately reminded that GTA V, more than anything, is a highly effective political commentary. Should you play this game? Even if you find the content to be repugnant, the answer is a resounding yes. To point at the game’s amorality and depiction of dirty acts would be to miss the forest for the trees: the story, the details, the characters all come together to form the most grotesque and forceful satire of American culture circa 2013, pointing a mirror and exposing us to things we would rather keep under the rug. GTA V is a love letter to gaming, providing non-stop fun in a mammoth yet intricately detailed environment. Just a few months ago, we might have heralded The Last of Us as a Game of the Year candidate for its impressive engineering triumphs. Grand Theft Auto V almost jokingly brushes it aside, coming closer and closer to a realm that no other game has ever achieved: perfection.