Hax Monster reflects on his experience with Grand Theft Auto 5 and lunch.

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

Considering how Grand Theft Auto 5 thought it was so super special that it required umpteen releases, it’s worth noting that by ‘Grand Theft Auto 5’ this review refers to the first release on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The online part of the game (GTA online is not a separate game) is not taken into regard.

Well, here’s a nice test for my personal reviewing scoreboard! This month I’m looking into Grand Theft Auto 5, since that title is quite relevant to the gaming industry as a whole and now has enough historical distance for a proper judgement without the honeymoon-period pink glasses. GTA is probably the most popular game of this moment, but when I played it my enthusiasm never exceeded the ‘meh’ level, which raised poignant questions for me. 

Should I base my criticism on the basic simple enjoyment that everyone else seems to be getting, or should I stick to my old pretentious way of reviewing, which is digging to it’s core trying to find some factor of innovation or artistic value that separates it from the bulk of franchises that the gaming industry unceasingly vomits out? Also, should I make peanut butter sandwiches for lunch or boil some eggs? The answers will be obvious soon, if they aren’t already, but my point is that I’m not blind to the general opinion on GTA V when mere sentences from now I’m beating it’s guts until it resembles a big pile of strawberry jam, which coincidently is also a nice alternative for my lunch.
So anyway, time for all that reviewing business that I’m here for. The following paragraph is not going to be much new unless you were trapped in a Mexican prison for the last few years and didn’t play GTA just yet.

The game revolves around three thugs trying to make their way in the criminal world of pseudo-Los Angeles and pseudo-California while being bothered at every turn by federal institutions, the police, gangs, Chinese drug dealers and the local Jehovah’s witnesses. These three characters mostly have personalities as complex as that of a dead budgerigar. There’s Franklin, an ambitious low-level criminal, Trevor, a cartoonishly psychotic criminal, and Michael, a criminal and also part time family man, who is trying and failing to credibly convey the conflict between these two allegiances. 

Together, they set out on a quest across the fictional state of San Andreas with a strong determination to be continuously pushed back and forth by stronger forces than them, whine about being pushed about and then, (spoilers incoming) about fifty hours of playtime after that the solution would have started to make sense, decide that killing everyone even remotely involved in the plot would be the best way out. Gameplay-wise the game consists for roughly eighty percent of shooting and driving with no significant difference since the last instalment of the series.

Now that I’m gazing at this huge fields of pimples I can’t wait to pop so they hurt my eyes no longer, I notice that the story pimple is probably the most humongous and painful one. The fact that GTA’s story couldn’t have been much worse if it was written by the lead writer’s pet rabbit would not have been so bad if it hadn’t gotten so much praise. However, it did get all that praise, which is why I mention it first. 

It’s very first issue are the characters, who all have that very peculiar trait that they all seem to be the same person under the skin. Of course, everyone looks differently, talks differently, sounds differently and has a different profession, but what truly defines a character’s personality is their motivation, their behaviour and their goals. Whatever else they have about them is mostly just decoration. In Grand Theft Auto, every character involved with the plot in the slightest is a self-serving, morally apathetic crook that does whatever is possible to accumulate as much money, sex or body fat as they can. If any of them was put in front of a gas station with a gun and a ski mask, almost of 90 % would go through with the robbery. 

 And a 100% of online players would too.

I’m not saying that every character should be a saint that does nothing but good, but I would have liked to see more traits distributed amongst the characters; traits such as doubt, fear, incompetence, happiness and the like. Since everyone is now as greedy as the lovechild of Scrooge McDuck and Martin Shkreli I don’t think I’ll ever meet less likeable people until the day that Adolf Hitler comes up to my house and pisses through the letterbox. Apparently Rockstar couldn’t afford more than two personality traits at Personality Traits R-us because they needed it to beef up their advertising budget, but if you want to hear me harp on the financial side of all this please see the video attached.

I do think that Trevor deserves some special mention. He in particular was hyped up by the mindless hypesurfers because of that he was (now in a wrestling presenter’s voice): Craaaaaaaaaaazy! Insane characters seem to sell the games they’re in like hot cakes these days. Remember the hype that Far Cry 3 generated with it’s ‘definition of insanity’ trailer? Well, Trevor is indeed insane. Although the only thing that that really amounts to is that he acts exactly the same as any careless player would if they had full control over their character’s voice and actions, which is being a complete knob. 

Apparently no-one in the studio realized that truly crazy murderers are rarely the people who make it a pastime to slap people in the face while ignoring the shower for so long that fungi start growing in their armpits. Usually, you can never tell insanity from the surface, which is the one thing that makes truly crazy characters intriguing and unpredictable; you never know what they are up to. With Trevor that’s not the case. 

 Still better than some of the student lets I've visited

Considering this as well as the fact that Franklin is just too dull to dwell on, Michael probably is the strongest of the three characters. At the very least they tried to give him some kind of disability to struggle with, which is not being able to build a happy family life alongside his criminal pursuits. That doesn’t take away that his arc feels a bit predetermined. At some point in the story he, out of nowhere, just starts acting nicely towards his wife and kids, without any development or change of character up to that point. And they are suddenly all OK with him and forgive him all his dickishness right away.

Besides my growing desire to use the developer console to remove every character from the game, the other consequence of the personality of characters is that they make every event in the story utterly predictable. After all, events are driven by characters and their motivations decide how they change story events. Since everyone has the same 
motivations this never really leads to interesting or surprising results. 

That neatly takes me to the next half of this pimple, namely the story arch and general build-up. I don’t think I need to say so, but there are more spoilers coming up than you’d find in the game’s auto mod shop. I’d keep reading though, I wouldn’t be afraid of just two spoilers! But more to the point; the story generally goes as follows. Due to complete coincidence, low-level thug Franklin meets retired old fart Michael, who then adopts him as his protégé. After a completely coincidental reason forces them to make some money quickly the two of them start making a criminal career for themselves and are then reunited thanks to pure coincidence with Trevor, who once worked with Michael. Then, their crime spree brings them under the control of corrupt government officials who threaten to expose them if they don’t do their bidding and from this point on the story’s ‘pushing about’ phase begins as the three anger group after group and then spend the rest of the game’s runtime avoiding said groups until you come up to the end after a climactic final mission. 

Grand Theft Auto then gives a great example on how not to execute multiple endings. There are three endings in total. The first is a proper ending which, after the climactic final mission you just did, lets you do yet another final climactic mission where, as I mentioned, you simply murder almost every character involved with the plot. The other two let you kill either Michael or Trevor and since I never quite hated anyone like Trevor before, I slammed the ‘kill Trevor’ option like it was a stinging mosquito. Then, the mission had me drive to a location and then had me shoot Trevor in the head after a one-minute car chase. Nothing more. There is no truly difficult gameplay, not one story thread is resolved, save for a dialogue dump you get after the mission, and the story ends with a weak ‘pffffffffff’. 

The same applies to the Michael mission, which does everything the same but then at the very last moment gives you the option to reverse your choice of killing him. However, when you select this, he dies anyway, exactly the way he would have if you had chosen to kill him. So essentially the developers managed to ruin the branching endings idea a second time in the execution of one of their branching endings, which makes it a fractal failure.

I know that, for the average player, harping on GTA’s story is like criticizing a Formula 1 car for it’s lack of baggage space, so let’s get to the gameplay. Not a lot has changed here since GTA 4; it still consists almost entirely out of driving and shooting which are both executed quite competently, although Rockstar’s reliance on standard auto-aim is a bit peeving for me. I would prefer to see them remove auto aim especially now that a multiplayer is introduced because, obviously, every player will use that in multiplayer and if that becomes standard then we sacrifice even more gameplay in the age of ‘press X to pay respects’, where the ‘play’ part of gameplay is becoming more and more vestigial. 
So what has changed? Well, the only new feature that influences the majority of gameplay is the ability to switch between the three protagonists during missions. However, there are two big bugbears with this system. The first one is that, since you don’t want to do any activities three times over, you most likely will have spent all your playtime with one character, which has all the upgraded weapons. So obviously you are going to use this character for most of the missions, which makes the system a bit moot. Secondly, the system is as organic as a cement mixer. Most of the time you will be switching to another character simply because the game tells you to. In those cases I don’t see why the game doesn’t just switch me automatically, since I have no choice. Also, the system theoretically lets you jump in when you are in a firefight with the three characters and one of them gets overwhelmed. However, the AI can always save itself and doesn’t need your help, except for rigidly predetermined moments where they instantly forget how guns work. Then the game vibrates the controller, emits an atrocious sound and flashes the screen, telling you to switch to the other character. So essentially, the ability to switch is only needed or used in moments where the game forces you to do so. 

Beyond this there are not many revolutionary features. Sometimes the game will use a story mission as an opportunity to throw a different mechanic at you that is used for one occasion only, such as one pretty disgusting torture minigame. However, they often share the ‘press X to pay respects’ problem of being nothing more than a formality that you can’t fail. For instance, one mission has you abseil off a building and throws a new set of controls at you to use. However, there is no time limit, you can’t overshoot your goal or fall, no skill is required and you can’t fail the procedure. Weirdly enough, these mechanics are only used on that one moment, which lasts about eight seconds, after which they are tossed forever. It really makes me wonder why they are even there, since I am not challenged, nor am I enjoying myself. If you could organically abseil off every building in the sandbox I would have applauded that but apparently Rockstar doesn’t trust players with such toys. God forbid, they might actually find something fun to do with it!

That brings me to my next gameplay-related problem, which became the most annoying one after I had finished the story missions: There just aren’t enough activities you can do organically to make money. Taxi-driving and stock trading were a start but it pretty much ends there! No organic assassination missions, nearly no enemies to fight besides the police and nothing to set yourself as a goal. Stuff like this is the lifeblood of a good sandbox and I still hail The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as the absolute king of making endless content by providing endless missions and a load of organic activities. That game, and, on the other end of the spectrum, Mafia II, showed that a large open world is all very well, but if there is nothing to do there it only provides a barrier between story missions. 

 Well we have three options.. all involve shooting people.
The most prominent story missions that the game has to offer are the heist missions, which consist of your characters and a few NPC’s preparing and then executing a score. These heists got a lot of attention prior to the game’s launch, which is why I want to go into this separately. In short, the entire concept let me down. The first problem is the fact that, like many more story missions, the manner in which you complete the heist is very strictly determined. You can’t even drive to the location in a car of your choice since the mission simply restarts if you try to do so. Also, the rewards you get for the heists have no link with how difficult or large they are, which is a consequence of the story. Some heists are initiated by the characters on their own accord, but sometimes they are forced into doing so for someone else and as a consequence that other party will take the money. 

On one occasion an entire heist, consisting of one large mission and multiple ancillary ones, was done simply to raise enough money to buy a helicopter to transport the take of a later heist for the negligible distance of less than a kilometre. The heist that was executed to be able to afford the helicopter was more difficult and intense than the heist that it was in service of and the most absurd thing of all was that an earlier mission had you steal a helicopter exactly like that yourself, which took next to no effort. So essentially, that entire heist is just wasted effort that doesn’t serve the story or your wallet. 

What is also wasted effort is the fact that heist crew members gain experience for each heist they do but even if you stick to the same ones all the time their experience barely increases since there are so very little heists in total. Also, not every member is available for every heist. 
The game’s intention is to make you choose between a short-term advantage by taking an expensive but experienced crew member or the long-term advantage by taking a cheap rookie that stays cheap but will get good after a while, but since there’s no experience gain that falls flat. And if you pick an unexperienced crew member the game will make sure you know it. Your chosen partners will make extremely stupid decisions and the three protagonists won’t stop banging on about it. 

But what for me ultimately condemns the heists is that there’s no way to initiate them on your own. I would have loved it if you could pick a target, store a getaway car somewhere, get some guns and masks and just go but you can’t. Heists are little more than a formality most of the time. 
Then there are a few more issues. For instance, the game world could have been a bit larger. The world is a medium-sized island which has possibly the smallest desert in existence and which tries to cramp way too many mountains and towns in a small space. As a consequence, there is no distance between locations and consequently the map doesn’t quite feel like the US state it tries to impersonate. A location like a mountain range or desert needs to be a bit more stretched out and needs to have less props per square kilometre to feel genuine. 

Weirdly enough there were a few parts of the map that were almost empty, but that is not the good kind of empty, where the developer consciously decided to make a certain area less full, but the bad kind of empty, where entire hillsides seem to have been forgotten by the level designer and don’t have the forests or rocks that would logically suit them. All the attention they’ve had was a quick visit from the grass brush tool. Besides that the game still occasionally doesn’t manage to load new chunks of the game world when you drive through the city quickly, the health bar is so tiny that it is almost impossible to see when you are about to die, nearly all voice actors chosen for the job have fairly generic voices which makes their characters less memorable and the stupid random insults of passers-by can get very annoying.

 Finally onto the good stuff.

As much as I’ve been violently chopping the game to bits in the previous paragraphs, never let it be said that I think Grand Theft Auto V is a bad game. The point of a review for me is to list all the things that are wrong with the game since they are the things that need to be improved and provide more interesting topics to write about. Also, they require attention as a counterpoint to the universal acclaim of games like GTA. But that acclaim is not entirely wrong. As I mentioned, the driving and shooting are both executed competently. The driving physics might feel a bit modified to make driving really easy, but you do get a feel for the road you’re on and at the very least get the sensation that you are in a car, rather than on a noisy magic carpet. 

Graphically, GTA is very beautiful. The colour palette makes the world look real and effects like fog, which is there to hide the inevitable limit of the draw distance, look great. Unlike what you’d expect, the game is very well optimized and doesn’t suffer from framerate drops when things get busy. Bugs are very rare, compared to most triple-A releases. Unlike the aforementioned hillsides that Rockstar seemingly forgot about, the more civilized areas of the map are very detailed. Every backyard looks different and seems to have had special attention. And one thing the story at least did well is nicely escalate itself. We start off from small beginnings, stealing cars for next to no money, after which the story builds up until near the end, when you find yourself robbing banks and performing assassinations. 
So in conclusion, GTA V is ok. It’s not the most monumental achievement of mankind since the invention of strawberry jam like some would have you believe but it’s certainly better than the infinite wave of dumb zombie- or android games that the industry endlessly generates from every orifice. From a consumer’s point of view it is a very reliable choice if you just want another timewaster in your Steam library, but if you ask me, there are already enough ‘reliable’ choices around and considering that you could easily flog flesh-eating spiders as long as they bear the Grand Theft Auto logo, I think we can ask a bit more risk-taking from the franchise. 

Risk-taking that goes further than just having one or two measly heist missions or having three boring protagonists instead of just one boring protagonist. Change the setting to somewhere else than a generic city in the US, try exploring new means of delivering the story than just alternating cutscenes with gameplay, explore new art styles, anything that’s worth a double take. Taking risks is what gets you beautiful things you couldn’t imagine beforehand and shows one’s intention to actually make something with artistic merit rather than to simply milk a familiar name. Now, with ‘life lessons from Haxmonster’ over, I’m off to lunch.


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