As incumbent chief satirist of America, Grand Theft Auto's job has never been easier.
Rockstar’s marquee franchise built its reputation on holding up a coke-dusted, blood-caked mirror to American culture, and American culture has never been so hysterical, so vain and insipid, so schizophrenic, and so indentured. In the wake of the financial crisis, a new generation is struggling to find career work, and a labour force is being made redundant as jobs go offshore. Ninety-nine percent of us are in the gutter, and some of us may be looking at the stars, but only a few of us are bold enough to cock AK’s and boost cars to get there.
It’s said that alcohol, drugs and prostitution will always be recession-proof businesses, and that’s a boon to Grand Theft Auto, a comedy noir series that indulgently peddles a fantasy as old as America itself. From Bonnie and Clyde to Bodhi and the ex-Presidents, the outlaw has near-mythical status in the Western psyche as the ultimate expression of personal freedom and self determinism. Today we add Trevor, Franklin, and Michael to our rogues gallery of antiheroes and sympathetic sociopaths.
In Los Santos and Blaine County, a superbly detailed and condensed facsimile of Los Angeles and pockets of southern California, these three criminal protagonists fall in with one another, and become entangled in a tale of deceit, coercion, and criminal fraternity fuelled by their peculiar talent for heists.
While there is a substantial body of reference material in film and literature, the portrayal of Michael breaks new ground in videogames. He is older, retired, unhappily married, and a father desperate to connect to two children who are deeply entrenched in their adolescences long after their expiry. Michael is in an existential rut, a drinker with a temper and without purpose, and with no marketable skills, he will inevitably revert to old patterns.
Trevor is a former Navy pilot who lives on the arid shores of the Alamo Sea, Grand Theft Auto V’s interpretation of the Salton Sea. His character is barely contained within his balding, sunken and wiry frame. More psychopath than sociopath, and with few redeeming traits, it’s easy to imagine the portrayal of Trevor erring into cliché at other studios. And yet Trevor’s inflated sense of loyalty and friendship makes him in many ways the most admirable. It’s a remarkable feat of characterisation.
Franklin is the foil to Michael and Trevor. Of the three protagonists, his story of street hustler comes up as the least dynamic. A few more missions that explored and exploited the tension between Franklin’s new life and his old would’ve been well received.
The player can switch between these three characters at any time when they’re not on a mission. When they do so, the camera pulls out to a satellite view and drops in on the selected character in medias res. Trevor might be throwing a hapless biker from an overpass, Michael might be self-medicating in his bathroom, or Franklin might be training his dog, for example. It’s one of Grand Theft Auto V’s most striking features, and it perfectly sells the conceit that these characters lead independent lives outside of the times we see them.
Lessons from Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3 have been applied prudently here. The act of firing weapons is vastly superior compared to previous Grand Theft Auto games, moving in and out of cover is mostly painless, and characters are able to turn on a dime. Most blessedly, mid-mission checkpoints are a concession to current-generation practices that no doubt bypass substantial amounts of frustration. When using snap-on or assisted aiming, the game sometimes makes curious choices as to which target is most important or desirable, but it’s a minor gripe next to the substantial improvements on display.
Off-mission, the random world events that gave such character to exploration in Red Dead Redemption also appear here. Our protagonists might come across a wallet-snatcher, or a celebrity in need of a ride past the paparazzi. Many of these missions come with financial reward — or they can be unscrupulously taken advantage of — but they can also unlock surprising benefits such as new and talented crewmembers to take on the missions that compose the main narrative architecture of Grand Theft Auto V: the heist.
Heists are missions with multiple components that include reconnaissance, preparation, and execution. The three will be able to choose from subtle or aggressive ways to pull off each job, and will be able to choose which non-player criminals assist them. The more talented the criminal, the bigger their cut of the final profits.
The world of Grand Theft Auto V is by far its most brilliant aspect, and a truly remarkable achievement in itself. Los Santos and Blaine County are personalities in themselves, characters to spend time with. As a compact duplicate of Los Angeles, Los Santos is extraordinary. Famous and not-so-famous landmarks are diligently replicated and wryly rebranded as nods to the source material. Blaine County is especially fascinating. Based closely on the Salton Sea in southern California, it’s home to degenerates, conspiracy theorists, and addicts, a kind of Elysium for the people society forgot or ignored.
It’s a busy world as well, bombarding the player with off-mission activities and bit characters to lure the unsuspecting into hours of inessential but hugely engaging emergent gameplay. The characters can go golfing, racing, or sky diving. They can perform yoga, go hunting, or in the special case of Trevor, go on shooting sprees.
The game is also much less dour than the last instalment. It drips with dry satire and even provides some genuine belly laughs, but Grand Theft Auto keeps itself proportioned and never strays far into the territory of absurdity now firmly held by contender series Saints Row.
The radio stations provide much of that satirical background noise — a steady string of one-liners masquerading as newscasts taking jabs at the American psyche. The music selection will be a matter of personal taste, but there is excellent variety ranging from indie rock such as Shark? and The Black Angels, through curated stations such as classic West Coast Hip-Hop by DJ Pooh, and electro by Soulwax, through to country, classic rock, punk, pop, talk-back radio, and more. It provides another shot of colour to an already heady offer.
All these constituent pieces come together, apart, and together again in different ways, and in beautiful harmony. Grand Theft Auto V is the last word on this generation of gaming. It is a triumph, one that demonstrates years of learning finally coming together in this single, near-perfect gaming experience.
The sun sets as an emotionally strung-out Michael drives down this game’s rendition of Sunset Boulevard. He flicks the station and the sax riff of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street — an impossibly appropriate tune for this character at this time — blares through the speakers. His troubles melt away. Now he’s ignoring the wiles of Los Santos, turning right onto the Pacific Coast highway, into fifth gear, and up into Blaine County. Nirvana.