Grand Theft Auto V: Three fun stories, one big world

September 24, 2013


Few series have new releases as highly anticipated as Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise. A lot has happened since the last GTA game, including newcomers to the open-world genre and former competitors that have gone off in their own directions. Grand Theft Auto V, however, is out to demonstrate how sticking to and expanding on an already proven formula can work.

The biggest change is the introduction of three main protagonists. There’s Michael, the “retired” criminal living a life of luxury; Franklin, a young man looking for something bigger in life; and Trevor, Michael’s old psychotic buddy determined to make money however he can. All three characters feel like they could be in their own distinct Grand Theft Auto game, yet they all exist inside of a single world, each with their own personality quirks and goals that inevitably brings them together. They are written incredibly well as individuals, and while you may get attached to one over the others, each brings their own personalities to the table in remarkable ways.

It’s the interactions among the three where the writing truly shines.  These sections present a sense of camaraderie that makes their specific team-ups throughout the many missions in the game hilarious and well-executed, without feeling forced. While the ways in which these three separate stories collide is exciting, it’s how their individual lives play out and intersect that makes the story feel fresh in comparison to previous games in the series.


It helps that each character has his own unique arc that makes individual stories feel authentic without interfering with the bigger narrative at play. The way in which the writers manage to weave together character-specific missions while also maintaining a larger narrative thread that connects all three together is genius, allowing for some of the best moments in the series to date. Those segments, combined with a host of memorable supporting characters, helps make Grand Theft Auto V’s story and writing stand out in terms of both the series’ legacy and other, similar open-world crime games.

Having three characters does create an interesting narrative dynamic, but mechanically it works even better than expected. Outside of missions, you can switch between the three characters at almost any time, allowing you to leap around the gigantic San Andreas map. This gives you an opportunity to play character-specific missions, or simply see what each lead has been up to while you were off on missions as someone else. Each character does lead his own life, or so we’re made to believe, so swapping shows the last thing each was doing before you take control. It’s a neat illusion that often showcases some amusing situations, and gives you a brief glimpse of their lives outside of the game’s hectic missions.

Each character has his own special abilities as well, making certain side missions easier to do with specific characters over others. Franklin can slow down time while driving, allowing you to make sharp turns and win race events more easily. Michael steals Max Payne’s bullet time, and is best used during intense gunfights. Since Trevor is a maniac, his ability allows you to become mostly invulnerable to damage while you mow down enemies.


Side missions

The three-character focus of the game offers a lot more coherence to side activities &mdash and vice versa. As each character tends to focus on an aspect of the game, Franklin will find driving missions and races, and Trevor will do more weapons related events, such as rampages. – Jeff deSolla

These abilities have limited use, but they all feel necessary to completing certain missions. Each character also has his own stats, including driving, shooting and stamina, which level up as simply by playing. Unlike San Andreas, which let you maintain stats but inevitably felt like busy work, GTA V’s stat increases happen naturally while playing, and give you even more reason to favor certain characters over others for specific tasks.

Swapping between each character allows you to do individual story missions, which sometimes are completely separate from the other characters, but other times allow for interaction between them. These missions are the core of Grand Theft Auto V’s story and, for the most part, are thrilling. They maintain a lot of the same tropes you expect from the series, while changing things up just enough to keep things interesting. Trevor’s missions, for example, tend to start out simple, and head towards the chaotic once things take a turn for the worse. These missions reflect the characters’ personalities, and also demonstrate the large variety of content the game is always willing to throw your way.

Not all of the missions are winners, however, leaving you with a select handful that are at best tedious, and at worst rage-inducing. Performing basic jobs at a shipyard while scoping out a potential heist opportunity seems like it could be interesting, but quickly becomes laborious. And, let’s be honest, the whole “needing to steal a car and make sure it isn’t too badly damaged” missions were never fun. These dull sections are few and far between, thankfully, but they do come up just often enough to remind you how far the series has come since the early days.


Random events

In an open-world game, it’s important to bring the world to life, even when you aren’t in the middle of a plot event. Random events will occur and provide this, usually through an armored car available to be robbed or an ATM robbery in progress. These are usually only a few minutes long, but offer a great distraction if you’re just driving around the city. – Jeff deSolla

The biggest things up Grand Theft Auto V’s sleeves are the heist missions, which are easily the best parts of the game. The setup for heists is simple: you pick a crew, each of which gain experience for jobs they successfully pull off, and then a plan, if given the option. While you don’t have complete freedom over the plan, the choices you are given make each individual heist feel completely different from the last. The slow build-up toward the heists are almost as exciting as the heists themselves, and give you a chance to be a little more creative in otherwise-restrictive missions.

After the plan is done, you complete a series of short assignments to gather what you need for the actual heist itself, and then the job begins. From there, you are usually given a small window to complete a task or series of tasks and escape. If the crew members you hire are more experienced, the chances of them making it out of the job without getting caught are higher, but they require more pay as a result. It’s a difficult balance, with the risk of hiring a less-skilled crew to save money only for them to screw up completely, losing you even more money in the process.

This one element adds to the tension of the heists, which take the best gameplay mechanics from the regular missions and turns them around in an engaging way. While there are only a handful of them throughout the game, they always provide the most unpredictable moments; without them, the mission structure might feel antiquated as a result.


Strangers and freaks

Strangers and freaks are side characters that offer missions when certain criteria are met. Some are only available to certain characters, and some to more than one, but with different criteria for each. Most of them offer missions that serve as an introduction to an activity or collectible. They offer more context to a lot of the side content, specifically those that involve collecting various items. – Jeff deSolla

Those segments would be nothing if the core mechanics, including the driving and shooting, were spotty, but they have been made tighter since Grand Theft Auto IV. The shooting feels great, although its reliance on auto-aim might rub some the wrong way. (Thankfully, you can disable it, if you feel it’s necessary.) The driving feels even better than ever, making the various chase and racing missions that much more enjoyable. The changes are subtle enough, but the improvements might win over those not exactly in love with these basics from the previous game.

For a game developed for aging console hardware right before the launch of two new systems, GTA V looks incredible. There is an occasional technical issue, and sometimes the frame rate has trouble keeping up with certain segments, but this is a game that pushes these consoles to the limit and does so in style. The strong visuals, combined with an incredible voice cast (both for the main cast and the various supporting roles) make for one strong presentation.

There’s no denying Grand Theft Auto V is a gigantic game, complete with a dizzying number of odd jobs, side activities and other ridiculous nonsense, yet it never feels overwhelming. While you can engage in just about anything you set your mind to, it all feels well-realized and not just thrown in for the purpose of including extra content. Simply driving around the city and exploring felt natural and the extra content gave me plenty of reason to check out every corner of San Andreas as soon as possible. The best part is, unlike every previous game, I was always ready to go back for more without feeling bombarded by content at every opportunity.

Even with everything I’ve covered here, there is still plenty worth talking about. If you ignore every optional piece of content thrown your way and focus entirely on the main story, you’re still looking at an expertly-designed game with plenty to keep you busy. It features the smartest improvements in the series thus far and enough small touches to keep the formula from feeling stale. There may still be a few niggling issues here and there, but regardless, Grand Theft Auto V is a game that defies all expectations.

Pros: Excellent writing, exciting heist missions, subtle gameplay tweaks, well-realized world
Cons: Some tedious missions and technical hiccups

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.