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Oct 5 / Great Apes

Grand Theft Auto V Review Sort Of Thing

I finished Grand Theft Auto V the other night, and I think the best word to describe how I felt was underwhelmed.  The heist missions, which involve choosing an attack plan, doing a number of set-up missions (to acquire the right equipment, for example), and then pulling off the heist (swapping between the three characters, all performing different roles) were a lot of fun, but they make up a small portion of the game; I’d guess maybe 20-25% of it.  Some of the other missions are fun, particularly a couple of the FIB missions that resemble heists and have you swapping all three characters in interesting scenarios.

But an awful lot of the game just feels flat and empty.  A big part of that is because the setting is just too big.  “The game world is [X] times the size of some other game world!” has become a selling point for a lot of games over the past few years, but I think GTA V shows what happens when the world gets too big, which is that it’s impossible to learn where anything is or how to get to it.  I could navigate Vice City or the original San Andreas by landmarks, rarely needing to look at the mini-map except to determine if I was going in the right general direction.  I suspect if I turned on Vice City today I could still find most of the major locations on the map.  But even after playing for ~30 hours in GTA V I don’t know where anything is or how to get to it without using the mini-map’s GPS.

There’s plenty I could say about all sorts of aspects of the game, but instead I’m going to focus on one particular issue that really struck me.  When Grand Theft Auto III came out it was a revelation.  The idea of playing a game in a contiguous, consistent world that you could explore as you wanted to was truly impressive.  The scale was remarkable.  There was a sense of verisimilitude that few if any games had ever approached before.  Vice City expanded on the ideas of GTA III to create a more cohesive, story-driven experience.  San Andreas took those ideas to seemingly crazy lengths.  And so, because these things about the games were so impressive, we forgave them for the fact that they often weren’t very good.  “Oh yeah, the combat is awful” has always been a minor footnote in any review of the games, taking a back seat to the more technically impressive ambitions.

The problem for Grand Theft Auto now, and for me as a player of it, is that there are a lot of games now that do the things that made the Playstation 2 Grand Theft Autos so impressive, and many of those games also have excellent moment-to-moment gameplay.  One of the biggest issues for me with GTA is that driving, which is still the activity that the player spends the most time doing, is not really very fun and has definitely become less so in more recent iterations.  I used to be able to forgive the generally uninteresting driving because simply being able to travel anywhere I wanted in such a vast world was itself pretty exciting.  But it’s not any more.  Other open world games have made getting around a lot of fun, have even made them the centre of the experience.  The parkour running in Assassin’s Creed, jumping from building to building is just way more fun than driving in GTA is.  Flying around as Batman in the recent Arkham games is also a ton of fun.  Riding a horse in Red Dead Redemption through a vast Wild West country side now feels exciting in a way that Grand Theft Auto used to.  And even among open world driving games, I found the general handling of the cars in Sleeping Dogs to just be an awful lot more fun.

Beyond the locomotion there are other areas where open world games have simply passed GTA by.  The combo based melee combat in the Batman games is a ton of fun, and Sleeping Dogs wisely aped it, mixing in more interactive enrivonments to create a better sense of place.  And while the combat in the Assassin’s Creed games is still its weak point, it’s also an awful lot more fun than the combat in GTA is.  And while I haven’t played the Saints Row games, I’ve heard that they’re now doing a better job of a lot of the things that GTA is known for too.

So what, at this point, is left to recommend Grand Theft Auto over a game like Assassin’s Creed or Batman?  Well, the mission design at its best is still superior to just about any other open world game, as evidenced by the really fun heist missions.  And the sheer scale of the thing, the insane budget that’s been dumped into it, the depth of detail in the world is second to none.  But ultimately I think Grand Theft Auto has been surpassed by games that have learned its lessons and found ways to make the same kind of experience an awful lot more fun.  A new Grand Theft Auto is still a major cultural event, but it’s no longer a major game.

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