Game Reviews

Games of the Decade: Grand Theft Auto V Review

17 Mins read
8.5

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Featured image credit: Rockstar Games

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Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, X360, XOne
PC Release Date: April 14, 2015
Genre: Action-adventure game

Reviewed on: AMD RX 580, Intel i7-4770, 16 GB RAM, Windows 10 x64, Build 1903
AMD Drivers: 19.9.2

Introduction

Up until early 2010s, released video games were considered to be finished products that had little or no room for further improvement before release of their next sequel or series installment. In order to provide video game content on a continuing revenue model, one of the first pioneers that introduced “games as a service” (GaaS) model to the video game industry in late 2000s was a Chinese publisher Tencent. Soon, major video game publishers such as EA, Activision and Take-Two started to follow this practice in order to monetize video games after their initial release. One of the successful examples of such business approach is Grand Theft Auto V – a now essential video game blockbuster which by the November 2019 managed to sell staggering 115 million copies worldwide across all gaming platforms.

Being a live service game, GTA V changed drastically since its release. If it was released in 2019, reviews from major gaming experts and critics would probably be much more different than the ones from 2013 when the game was officially released. Taking into account that live service model drastically transforms video games through a long period of time, the question arises whether is it desirable to review already reviewed video game titles, or is it even mandatory to do so, since the final product is not the one that was shipped on its release date, but the one that received new content update couple of weeks ago. In this review, I will try to provide an objective and detailed analysis of Grand Theft Auto V in year 2019.

A cringy social satire

Grand Theft Auto V is the latest installment in a beloved series that lets you experience a life of a criminal gangster in a fictional American city. Like its predecessors, GTA V strives to provide a compelling story that will keep you entertained for hours and give you the ability to participate in some very memorable criminal endeavors. Unlike other games, GTA V introduced a novelty in video game narration, featuring three different playable characters whose stories intertwine and whose actions impact the final ending.

At the beginning of the game, player is introduced to a group of robbers whose members are Michael Townley, Trevor Philips and Brad Snider. During the robbery in fictional city of Ludendorff things go wrong and Brad gets killed, Michael gets busted and Trevor manages to escape the cops. Nine years later, Michael is living under witness protection program with his family in Los Santos, under the alias Michael De Santa. Across town, petty criminal Franklin Clinton works for a corrupt Armenian car salesman and during a car theft meets Michael with whom he becomes friend.

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Upon finding out that his wife cheats on him with her tennis coach, Michael asks Franklin to help him out destroy coach’s house. After creating mayhem, Michael finds out that destroyed house belonged to the girlfriend of Martin Madrazo, a Mexican drug lord who demands compensation for taken damage. This forces Michael to return to his old lifestyle of a robber and thus recruits Franklin to be his accomplice. With help of disabled hacker Lester Crest, Michael and Franklin rob jewelry shop which sparks a lot of attention in media and causes Trevor to find about the existence of his lost old friend.

Trevor eventually reunites with Michael, while Michael pays off his debt to Madrazo. At this point story of GTA V starts to slightly lose its meaning, since Michael, Franklin and Trevor continue to rob rival gangs, corporations and banks without any real purpose. Eventually, Federal Investigation Bureau (FIB) hires Michael and his friends to perform a series of operations to undermine rival state agency called International Affairs Agency (IAA). Although grand, this part of the story is least coherent and has severe plot holes. At the end, Michael, Trevor and Franklin decide to rob Union Depository’s gold bullion reserve. Heist is successful but due to several disputes among story’s main character, player eventually has to determine final outcome, which in turn causes the game to end with one of the three possible endings.

City of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V
And then CJ said: “Ah sh*t, here we go again.”

It is no secret that GTA V’s producers and writers, brothers Dan and Sam Houser, were heavily inspired by American crime and cult films on which stories of Grand Theft Auto titles were based on. Unlike Vice City, which follows aesthetics of Miami Vice television drama and Brian De Palma’s Scarface, or San Andreas, which is based on the events of 1980s and 1990s crack epidemic in the United States, GTA V is set in a contemporary postmodern Los Angeles in which being a criminal is not a necessity, but more of a lifestyle. Game’s main characters have no reason to be criminals or gangsters except for “fun”. Only Franklin stands out because he is racially and economically socially deprived. Trevor is unrelatable sociopath who has no moral codex, while Michael is an old-school criminal who suffers from identity crisis.

Overall, character development in GTA V is rather poor. Throughout the story, all characters behave the same way from the start to the end. Only Michael De Santa somewhat transforms through plot, since his dysfunctional family eventually dissolves. His wife cheats on him, his daughter wants to be a pornstar, while his son is a lazy overweight millennial who plays video games whole day. De Santa clearly wants to be a modernist-era gangster, an authoritative head of the family that is able to run his own business and receive respect that he deserves. However, he is a failure because he is forced to find comfort in advices of his psychiatrist, while he himself is unable to find firm ground for his identity in an era of internet, social media and neoliberal capitalism.

Taking the former into consideration, Grand Theft Auto V clearly functions as a satire of postmodern Western society in which dissolution of moral principles and fragmentation of communicative channels, fueled by greed for money and fame, cause complete dissolution of all universal societal norms. Being a satire, GTA V is filled with humorous references to real-world entities, but also to other cultural creations such as movies, songs and video games. Lifeinvader company clearly alludes to Facebook, in-game Pißwasser beer resembles to Budweiser, Redwood cigarettes stand for Marlboro, while FIB is just a rearranged acronym for FBI. There are also many in-game references to TV shows such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Twin Peaks, or to video games such as Max Payne, Saints Row and Dark Souls. From parody weren’t spared even famous personalities such as Jesus or Mahatma Ghandi.

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Grand Theft Auto V is without a doubt a game of massive proportions and ambitions. Ever since its release in 2013 it has shaped video gaming experiences of millions of people.

Frank Peckett

Although enjoyable, fundamental problem with GTA V’s story and world is complete lack of any significant antagonists. Unlike Frank Tenpenny from San Andreas, or Mikhail Faustin from GTA IV, Madrazo and Steve Haines aren’t true nemeses. Chinese Mafia shows up only in few missions, while drug cartels and street gangs are almost non-existent. Also, there is no feeling of belonging to any social group. Michael is not a member of Italian Mafia, Franklin is not a true gangster like CJ was in San Andreas, and Trevor is a complete social outsider. Besides appearance of Steve Haines, government and police seem to be remote and very tolerable to the protagonists’ criminal activities.

There is also no relatable subculture or ideological conflict that would make story deeper. Constant insignificant struggles between protagonists, or between members of Michael’s family make storyline look more like a soap opera or family drama, and not like exciting action-packed thriller. Also, story seems to lose its coherence after Michael repays his debt to Madrazo and Trevor comes to Los Santos. Protagonists just keep killing and robbing without any meaningful reason, humor becomes cringy, and there are no memorable dialogues that would surpass lines from other series’ characters such as CJ, Big Smoke or Niko Bellic.

Missions are largely forgettable, except maybe highway chase, jewelry store and bank heist, and controversial mission “By the Book” in which Trevor tortures a member of another gang. It is also worth to say that game lacks any significant female characters, and unlike other installments in GTA series, in which protagonists could date their girlfriends, main characters of GTA V don’t seem to be interested in any romantic or amicable relationships.

Driving, shooting, driving

Although story of GTA V suffers from narrative identity crisis, just like its protagonist Michael who doesn’t know what he wants to be, main feature of any GTA title isn’t the story, but the actual gameplay which lets you be a free-roaming criminal gangster. GTA V in that context represents a revolutionary step in the series, since it is the first title to introduce multiplayer component which lets you play the game online with other players. In that sense, analysis of game’s gameplay aspect can be divided in two parts – one concerning singleplayer, and the other concerning multiplayer.

Although many reviewers back in 2013 explicitly separated GTA Online from GTA V, thus treating multiplayer component as a standalone game, this approach seems to be wrong since GTA Online represents essential component of GTA V experience, even if not its primary feature. Although separated, these two components share same certain aspects that are worth mentioning beforehand. Like any other installment in series, main aspects of GTA V’s gameplay are driving and shooting.

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At the present moment in November 2019, GTA V and GTA Online feature 630 separate controllable vehicles among which there are more than 300 cars. Although that is a lot of visually different cars, majority of them feel the same to drive. Controlling the cars unfortunately feels very floaty, erratic and unpredictable. Steering is mostly too sensitive, braking usually response slowly, and crashing into buildings, trees or other cars is quite common. Traffic is too slow, and there always seems to be cars that will turn into you just when you want to overtake them. Since roads in GTA V tend to be realistically uneven, your car will often bounce of the surface, especially if you drive too fast. Overall, driving tends to be quite frustrating so be prepared, because GTA V is essentially a driving game.

Driving cars in Grand Theft Auto V
After driving, there is more driving.

Other key gameplay aspect of this game is shooting. Currently, there are 91 separate weapons from which 26 are online-exclusive, while 50 of them were added to the base game since its release in 2013. There is a variety of melee weapons such as baseball bat and iconic knuckle dusters that were only later added to the game. From firearms, on your disposal you have pistols, automatic pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, light machine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles and heavy weapons such as grenade and rocket launchers.

Content updates also added futuristic weapons such as rail gun or Up-n-Atomizer that pushes objects into the air. Using weapons such as SMGs while driving a car provides an enjoyable experience that lets you easily dispatch your enemies. Assault rifles are, however, must-have tool when engaging enemies, but shotguns are also very useful and provide a certain degree of satisfaction when launching your enemies into the air in a Hollywood movie style manner.

Unlike console versions, which heavily rely on auto-aim mechanics, PC players use mouse in order to aim and shoot their weapons. This makes gunfighting much faster and precise, but using the crosshair will take time to master since it is very small for aiming the targets. GTA V also features a cover system that lets you hide behind objects in order to avoid flying bullets. Cover system is functional, but rudimentary. There is no option to easily switch cover like in Gears of War games, and it is easy to unintentionally exit cover which will in turn expose you to enemy fire.

One of the most notable features of GTA V’s gameplay is its ragdoll physics powered by Euphoria engine. Unlike GTA IV which had much better integration of Euphoria engine, ragdoll physics in GTA V often get into the way of experiencing fun in the game. Ragdoll physics engine in GTA V makes movement a laborious activity. Characters feel heavy and slow to move, and it takes them time to gain momentum after which is hard to stop them at a certain place. Rotating is also unnecessarily complicated since characters can’t rotate in place but need space to turn in order to rotate along their vertical axis. Walking and sprinting is thus more complicated than driving, and moving your character feels like you are driving a truck. Also, even the slightest hit by a car makes your character drop to the ground after which follows a slow animation in which you see him standing up.

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This level of realism does make game more similar to real life, however, functionally, there is no reason to have such sophisticated ragdoll physics since they make gameplay unnecessarily slow and complicated. Besides ragdoll physics, general physics in this game seem to be all over the place. Like it was said before, driving cars feels floaty, walking feels slow and heavy, while driving helicopters and planes feels erratic and unstable. When piloting a plane, there is also a lot of shaking since wind affects your flying. Magnitude of shaking, however, seems unrealistic, because in real life planes don’t shake that much as they shake in this game.

Just like in previous titles, Rockstar gave a lot of attention to producing high quality sounds for this game. Indeed, sounds in GTA V are good. Lots of cars have different exhaust sounds. Truck horns sound powerful, there is a variety of gun firing sounds, and you can even hear background nature and city sounds such as cars in the distance or seagulls on piers. Also, there is a great radio soundtrack that offers a lot of songs to listen to. Personally I find West Coast Classics and Lowdown 91.1 thematically most appealing, but there are also other radio stations that feature great songs from artists such as Kenny Loggins or Creedence Clearwater Revival to Rihanna and Gorillaz.

Mods in Grand Theft Auto V
Mods are great. You can even sail battleships.

Speaking of singleplayer experience, a lot of things have already been said. Besides main story missions, there are some activities such as playing the golf or exploring the sea depths with submarine that will extend your singleplayer time. However, after completing 30-hour long campaign, singleplayer in GTA V doesn’t offer very much to do afterwards. Unlike its predecessors, GTA V barely has any open interior locations to visit and explore. There are no fast food restaurants, supermarkets, bowling clubs, nightclubs or casinos to enter. Even though game’s map is big, it still feels rather small because areas outside Los Santos don’t offer much to do. You also can’t participate in police, ambulance or firefighter missions. There are, however, clothes shops, shooting ranges and mod shops to tune cars. You can also go deer hunting or observe cows eating grass in Blaine County.

There is also staggeringly low amount of pedestrians on streets, so Los Santos feels rather empty. There are also no rival gangs or criminals to compete with, nor side mission that would enable you to sell drugs or smuggle arms. Provoking cops and engaging them into car chases isn’t stimulating at all. Car chases aren’t so dynamic as in previous installments. SWAT squads are rudimentary, and there is no military chasing after you when hitting five star wanted level. Also, there aren’t many car workshops in which you could hide and respray your car in order to escape police.

Overall, singleplayer is very limited, and doesn’t provide much replayability. On PC platform this problem is somewhat mitigated because of a great modding support which enables you to install a variety of mods into the game. From branded cars, military vehicles and aircraft, to custom-made missions, police system overhaul, gang wars and railroad engineering – modding GTA V is fun and great, provided that you are familiar with using the right software and tools.

GTA Online

Obviously the game’s main feature, GTA Online is Grand Theft Auto reinvented. Giving you the ability to participate in sessions with up to 32 online players, GTA Online offers tons of content to explore with your friends or random fellow strangers. Compared to 2013, multiplayer part of GTA slowly evolved through last six years, and it still receives regular content updates which keep feeding the playerbase with new experiences. GTA Online currently offers more than 600 different missions that can be divided into different activity categories.

First of them are Adversary Modes which are in essence PvP modes that, unlike Versus Missions, enable groups of player to go up against in different ways. Similar to them are Deathmatches, Captures and Last Team Standings modes. These are all classic PvP modes that can be seen in other multiplayer games. Survivals are PvE activities in which players play against waves of enemies, while Races and Stunt Races are competitive modes in which players participate in various vehicle races and according to their finishing position receive rewards. Races represent one of the most important facets of GTA Online experience and now resemble much more to arcadish Trackmania-style racing compared to how they looked like way back in 2013.

Next key mode in GTA Online are Contact Missions, which are essentially cooperative activities in which multiple players can participate. Contact Missions can be basically seen as side missions that never found their way into GTA V’s singleplayer experience. There is a wide variety of Contact Missions, among which many of them consist of stealing a certain vehicle, performing executions, or confronting enemy NPCs. Some of them even involve stealing planes or smuggling rare merchandise.

Like all other activities, players upon completing Contact Missions receive money, job points, and reputation points which enable them to level up and unlock new activities and weapons. Taking into account time they require for completion, Contact Missions are very badly paid jobs so most of the players don’t use them anymore since they are not profitable. That is certainly a pity since they provide a lot of content that is fun to experience with friends or benevolent strangers.

GTA Online notifications
GTA Online makes your HUD bloated with notifications.

Clearly, most popular online game modes in GTA Online are Heists. Ever since their introduction in spring 2015, Heists have consistently been the most popular game mode in this game. In essence, Heists are cooperative multi-phase missions in which players first have to gather necessary resources in order to finally initiate heist that usually involves robbing a bank or a corporation. Heists are one of the best paid jobs in GTA Online, however, they require a lot of time to be completed.

One major problem with Heists is that when a certain player leaves this mission, it also ends mission for all other players. Since some of the Heists are hard to complete, many players eventually quit and that also cancels out the mission for all other participating players. This makes Heists very frustrating and hard to complete if you don’t play the game with your friends.

Finally, Businesses make the most popular and profitable game mode in GTA Online. Once player buys himself an office, he has the ability to buy cargo and vehicle warehouses, nightclubs or bunkers which enable him to steal and export cars, produce and sell drugs or firearms. These jobs are very well paid and provide to player a variety of options – from tuning cars, performing VIP jobs, to developing guns and military vehicles. Most of the GTA Online players in 2019 are involved in some kind of CEO business.

Dying in GTA Online
Typical GTA Online experience.

GTA Online provides large amounts of unique content and has significantly evolved from its origins in 2013. However, GTA Online doesn’t provide too much enjoyable experience. First of all, ever since its introduction, main preoccupation of online mode is earning money since everything has to be bought and paid. If you want to have a car, a safe house or guns – features that are standard in singleplayer – you have to pay for them. And you have to pay a lot. Besides that, money is hard to obtain. What GTA Online provides is basically endless grinding experience in which you constantly repeat over and over same missions, races, heists and activities in order to earn enough money to buy yourself what you want. If you don’t own a high-end apartment required for Heists or CEO office, getting enough money to buy yourself a $500K car could take up to dozen of hours. This makes overall experience repetitive and boring, and not very memorable.

Secondly, most of the content is pretty much the same and has little to no variety except for Heists missions. It is always same scheme: get to location A, kill X, obtain Y, get to location B. Thirdly, there are no gang wars or police vs. players modes that would be fun to have. However, the biggest problem with GTA Online is its community. It is not an overestimation that GTA V’s online community is considered to be the most toxic online community in video games to date, especially the one on PC. Since there is no friendly fire in Free Mode, basically any of the 30 online players in a session can chase you, kill you, or constantly mess around your business grinding activities. Obviously, the richest players have the best guns and best vehicles to kill you, so showing resistance is pretty much useless.

Progen Emerus in GTA V
Want to drive this car online? It will only cost you 10 hours of grinding CEO missions.

Problem with GTA Online is that Rockstar Games doesn’t have clear vision what it wants it to look like. In 2019, players have the ability to purchase themselves flying bikes with rocket launchers and orbital cannons in order to kill other players. These things are extremely expensive, but they are easily affordable to players who are willing to pay additional microtransactions to Rockstar Games in order to skip tedious and often endless money grinding.

The problem is, however, that a game that was striving for realism and was enabling you to experience a life of a criminal, now features sci-fi vehicles and equipment that are completely unrelated to its roots and identity. Above else, GTA Online is on PC plagued with cheaters and hackers, which in turn makes it an extremely frustrating, time-consuming and tedious experience that is not worth getting into. Ironically, Rockstar Games, company that was once known for creating amazing digital worlds, now has become another mediocre company that is not interested in its own loyal fans, but in microtransactions and endless income that is generated by purchases of impatient consumers. There are, however, alternatives on horizon. Thanks to CitizenFX Collective, there is being developed a new multiplayer framework for GTA V called FiveM which will enable its users to create GTA V dedicated servers and provide its players a true GTA experience – a roleplaying one.

Pretty world with wacky physics

Finally, it is necessary to make some remarks about GTA V’s technical performance on PC platform. Putting aside story, gameplay and online features, even in 2019, GTA V is still a visually impressive game that runs very smoothly on most systems and without any major technical issues. Graphics still look pretty, especially during the sunny weather during which colors look vibrant and lightning engine does its job really well in order to enlighten objects. Water quality is amazing and still looks better than in most contemporary games.

Game does show its age in terms of texture quality, however, this is still negligible as it is still visually very appealing. Unlike many contemporary games that are released unfinished, GTA V was since its release on PC platform very well optimized. It ran good on old quad core processors without hyperthreading and graphics cards with only 1GB of VRAM. Today, if you own mainstream graphics card such as GTX 1060 or RX 580, you should easily be able to crank all settings up to maximum and achieve stable 60+ frame rate. If you are interested into an in-depth review of Grand Theft Auto V graphics performance on PC, you should read my article about that.

In general, this game represents a very polished piece of software on PC platform. However, there are some notable drawbacks that are worth mentioning. Firstly, this game has one of the worst implementations of anti-aliasing features in late video game history. Secondly, GTA Online is exclusively based on peer-to-peer networking which causes multiplayer experience to be very slow, unstable and prone to errors. Also, loading times in multiplayer mode are eternal, so in a way this game can sometimes be called a “loading simulator”. Singleplayer, however, is very polished, but unpredictable physics engine makes game more frustrating, rather than enjoyable. Overall, game in 2019 runs very smooth and without any major bugs, but some of its core mechanics make it fundamentally unrepairable.

Final remarks

Grand Theft Auto V is without a doubt a game of massive proportions and ambitions. Ever since its release in 2013 it has shaped video gaming experiences of millions of people. It is a good game, but it is hard to describe it as a masterpiece. At best, GTA V is mediocre. It has abandon some of the key features that its predecessors had, and it has put all of its strength into its new multiplayer mode. GTA Online, however, is far from polished, and Rockstar Games obviously has no clear vision what it wants it to be. Provided you have friends to play with, it can be a great and fun game.

Even six years after its release, graphics are still stunning and soundtrack is as memorable as ever. Gameplay is very clunky, but there is plenty of content to indulge to. Besides Rockstar Games and Take-Two, modding community will most certainly keep this game alive for years to come and FiveM project might even transform its multiplayer component into an amazing roleplaying experience. To conclude this review, it is worth to say the following: Grand Theft Auto V represents a revolution in the series, but it still can’t beat that legendary awesomeness of Rockstar’s most ambitious project yet – its predecessor San Andreas – which created its own mythology and made a whole generation of youngsters start loving video games.

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Grand Theft Auto V

8.5
Grand Theft Auto V is a blockbuster must-play title that brings a lot of new features to the series. GTA Online counterpart is, however, still immature, and is thus unable to provide an enjoyable gaming experience.
7.0

Story

6.0

Gameplay

10.0

Longevity

10.0

Graphics

10.0

Sound

8.0

Functionality

Pros

  • +three playable characters
  • +beautiful graphics
  • +great soundtrack
  • +multiplayer mode is full of content
  • +great cooperative modes
  • +amazing modding support

Cons

  • -uninteresting story
  • -clunky controls
  • -too realistic ragdoll physics
  • -erratic vehicle handling
  • -dull singleplayer world
  • -police chases aren't engaging
  • -multiplayer mode is full of grinding
  • -toxic online community
  • -near-obligatory microtransactions
Buy on Steam
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