The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Gamer's Corner column [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa]
(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 29--"Grand Theft Auto V" available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $59.99. Rated "M" for Mature.
All good game franchises evolve with the times. But "Grand Theft Auto" is one of the few series that continually pushes that evolution forward.
The newest entry in the franchise, "Grand Theft Auto V," is no different. After practically inventing the open-world genre with "Grand Theft Auto III" back in 2001, Rockstar Games has continued to tinker with tiny details most game developers never think of. The intricate open-world foundation that supports "Grand Theft Auto V" was refined through previous Game of the Year titles such as "Grand Theft Auto IV" and "Red Dead Redemption," resulting in a perfect representation of this console generation.
Based on the game's unheard of 97 out of 100 score on Metacritic.com, I wish I could be that one critic who blasts the game out of the water, just for the sake of controversy. But when a game is this good, there isn't much arguing to be heard.
I won't deny it. Like everyone else, I'm in love with "Grand Theft Auto V."
From the moment you step into the massive city of Los Santos (a fictional representation of Los Angeles), the game's purported $266 million budget is evident. It's not just the incredible graphics, which seem to push the now ancient Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to the limit. It's the attention to detail in every city block. Though the city and surrounding countryside are obviously scaled down, simply walking a block down the sidewalk takes much longer than you would expect. Even the hordes of pedestrians (which are ignored in most games of this ilk) have interesting and funny things to say.
But I'm putting the details before the big picture, and that picture may turn off newer gamers who aren't familiar with the franchise. Despite the myriad ways "Grand Theft Auto V" successfully emulates real life through extracurricular activities like golfing, tennis, triathlons, yoga, and taxicab missions, this is a hardcore crime game with absolutely no heroes.
That doesn't mean you won't fall in love with the three criminal delinquents who serve as main characters. Much like a good cable TV crime drama, the writers behind "Grand Theft Auto V" manage to lull the player into sympathizing with these all-too-human characters, while continually shocking you with their immoral behavior. It kind of makes you feel grimy -- but in a good way.
Unlike previous games in the series, "Grand Theft Auto V" puts you in control of three criminals, who can be switched to on the fly at almost any point in the game. The exceptions are the multi-staged heist missions, where you are prompted to switch between the characters as they perform different tasks, such as sniping or flying a helicopter.
You'll start out playing as 45-year-old Michael De Santa, who went into witness protection nine years before the start of the game. He spends most of his time drinking whiskey by the swimming pool and arguing with his wife and two children. Michael's son, Jimmy, is a pothead and video-game addict who stays inside his room all day, while his teenage daughter is so obsessed with becoming famous that she constantly sheds her modesty.
Though Michael starts out bored, depressed and in therapy, he soon finds a new lease on life when he runs into young gangbanger Franklin Clinton. Franklin is another of the playable characters, and soon moves his way out of the hood under Michael's tutelage. The chain of events that leads Michael back into a life of crime is far too hilarious to spoil here.
The final playable character to be introduced is Trevor Phillips, who represents the cynical, anarchistic nature of the entire "Grand Theft Auto" series. Best described as a redneck psychopath with Harvard-level intelligence, Trevor serves as the greatest source of dark comedy, and is often inclined to go into a meth-fueled rage when you least expect it.
Though the urge to plunge headfirst into the story is awfully tempting thanks to the superb writing, the world is so full of random events that it's easy to get sidetracked for dozens of hours. While most open-world games pack the map with too many activities, "Grand Theft Auto V" slowly doles out the side missions as you progress, throwing in a handful of happenstance events to shake things up.
It's a template that originated with the 2010 western "Red Dead Redemption," but the world feels even more dynamic thanks to the randomly generated fights between pedestrians and police chases that have nothing to do with you.
There is no typical day in Los Santos. While playing as Trevor, I gave Michael's son, Jimmy, a call to hang out for a while, which generates new dialogue that would normally go unheard in the game. On the way to meet him, I noticed a tiny blue dot on my mini-map, which indicated an area of interest. I ran over there just in time to see two guards climbing into the front seat of an armored car, and quickly tossed a grenade under the truck just as it was pulling forward. After the truck blew sky high, I grabbed what was left of the money, and spent the next five minutes climbing condo fences and hiding in well manicured backyards to avoid the cops. Jimmy cancelled our appointment because it took too long to pick him up, then texted about how he ate a whole box of donuts waiting on me.
It's just one of a hundred such instances that continually chain together, turning a planned two-hour play session into an all night marathon. I'm usually a stickler for knowing how many hours I've poured into a game, but I have no idea how far long along I am in "Grand Theft Auto V." I'm afraid to find out.
Once you get past all the little details, the heist missions open up, and each one requires careful planning. You just can't rob a jewelry store out of the blue. You have to lay out a plan of attack that either calls for stealth or brute force, then hire a crew who can handle issues such as security hacking and getaway vehicles. More experienced crew members will do a better job, but they'll also demand a bigger cut of the take.
It's a first for the series, and crime movie connoisseurs will be able to point out a bevy of influences on the heist missions, the most notable being Michael Mann's "Heat." These long, complex missions are a true sight to behold, involving daring getaways and intense stick-ups that go well beyond anything seen in an open-world crime game. Though the path to wealth is frustratingly steep, you can even make a little extra dough by investing in the stock market and influencing those stocks through assassination missions.
It's the most brutal form of insider trading I've seen in a game.
I could write another 30 inches full of spoilers and praise, but you get the picture. "Grand Theft Auto V" stands proudly next to other Game of the Year contenders such as "BioShock Infinite," "The Last of Us," and "Home," and should be considered an automatic purchase.
The fun isn't over yet. The consistent online world that accompanies the single-player game will launch this Tuesday, and I have two friends who plan on jumping into the fray with me. Rockstar Games is promising consistent updates and missions over the coming months, making "Grand Theft Auto V" the best dollar value in gaming since "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."
Four out of Four Stars
(c)2013 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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