Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Review: Grand Theft Auto V (360)

There are AAA games and there is Grand Theft Auto (GTA).

The newest tale of criminals and corruption Rockstar establishes GTA as the pre-eminent gaming franchise today, with 29 million units shipped to date and a ridiculously impossible-to-believe $1 billion in sales in the first 72 hours of its release. And it deserves every cent, with a magnificently huge open-world of Los Angeles stand-in Los Santos -- filled with celebrities, wannabe celebrities and those who exploit them -- being the backdrop to a superior heist-filled storyline with great dialogue, great satire. Rockstar has once again crafted another exceptional, long-lasting game that's good enough to be a Hollywood blockbuster.

The story begins nine years previous, with a horribly botched robbery in Ludendorff, North Yankton. Two men left dead, one presumed dead, and another escaped. Michael Townley, now nine years following that robbery attempt, is now known as Michael DeSanta after induction into the FIB (yes, FIB) Witness Protection program. Michael, living a family life in Los Santos, is the "presumed dead" member of the would-be robbers.

Franklin Clinton, a young African-American working as a repo man alongside his "friend" Lamar, enters Michael's life circle when he repossesses Michael's son's SUV for the unscrupulous car salesman employing the Franklin-Lamar duo.

The third member of the playable character trio is Trevor Philips, one-time partner-in-crime of Michael, who discovers his long-thought-dead accomplice is alive and well thanks to news of a jewellery store heist calling card that Trevor recognizes as Michael's.

Furious that he's been duped into believing he was dead, Trevor sets out to find Michael. Through the nearlycoup de grace to steal millions in gold from the Union Depository for "self-retirement" before the FIB agents blackmailing and manipulating the three protagonists or the Merryweather "private army" mercenaries can permanently retire them six feet under. 40 hours of single-player gameplay, the characters become sometimes-enemies and often-times accomplices in a handful of major heists.

To aid gamers in the transitional gameplay between the three, each has a roleplaying aspect, with each having eight skills: seven similar (driving and shooting accuracy, for example) while the eighth is a character-specific one: Franklin's slow-down driving, Michael's "bullet time" and Trevor's rage that doles out twice the damage to enemies while taking half the damage back.

There are plenty of minor characters that play roles in the GTA V storyline, too, fleshing out a rich and smartly written script. What's apparent is that the game's writers and developers are huge fans of the bank-robbery-goes-bad movie Heat, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. In GTA IV, it was a bank robbery that anyone who saw that movie could see similarities with. Here, it's an armored truck heist on the street that is completely reminiscent of Heat.

However, that script is given some egregious injustice by some awful and overacting voice performances, most notably Michael's annoying family, made even more annoying by the terrible voice acting: Michael's wife Amanda, his daughter, Tracey, and no-good, always-in-trouble son, Jimmy. This is definitely the family from hell, and dreadful voice-acting performances just make them even more hellish. Trevor's voice actor goes slightly over the top, but Michael's voice is well done and Franklin is the Oscar winner of the threesome (and the most likable of GTA V's anti-heroes), although while bringing a realistic dialogue aspect to the story, Franklin and other African-Americans he interacts with liberally use the N-word, which may be offensive to some gamers.

From beginning to the very end -- an appropriate story-completing finale (there are three possible endings) -- GTA V is very strong in its overall dialogue and storyline. It isn't quite as solid as GTA IV, which had more open choices for the gamer at key points in the story that would have changed some of the narrative (and can at one pinnacle moment in GTA V), but it is still a magnificently written tale.

As grand and large as the script is, the world of Los Santos is even more considerable in size. Base on Los Angeles and Hollywood, Los Santos has cityscapes, forests, beaches, mountains and deserts. Such a diverse landscape that gamers will traverse in their journey. Of course, to get from Point A to Point B and everything in between, the vehicle selections is incredibly expansive, with all kinds of modes of transportation on land, sea and air available (although flying planes and helicopters is not as fun as one may think). Riding around all the time can be a bit tedious, so for those moments, there's the usual mini-game selection awaiting, including golf, tennis and skydiving. And you can't be an anti-hero without a great collection of weaponry. Shopping at the many available ammo shops, gamers will purchase and upgrade the many guns and even bigger guns at their disposal. Armor and explosives also can be bought if the price is paid.

There are certainly times characters will need to rely on their fists to get them out of situations, and melee attacks handle that but when it comes down to a gunfight, the strategic use of the game's cover system keeps characters out of harm's way.

For those that do find themselves in the cross-fired way of harm, ducking into cover is a great way to have the health meter regenerate, a convenient method to keep in the battle and avoid costly hospital visits.

A must-have accessory is the smartphone, where gamers will not only check emails, texts and voicemail, but call and talk to other characters, as well as be able to purchase available properties (with the right amount of available funds). The only annoyance is that using the D-pad to switch characters oftentimes due to a too-sensitive "touch" can too easily call up the smartphone interface.

While visually the graphics aren't overly impressive, the sheer magnitude of the visual needs of the game is  handled with flair. Particularly while driving, gamers will notice how striking the little details are: street lights, sidewalks, storefronts, houses, desert and mountain terrain, forests; everywhere one looks, small minutiae collectively forming a complete, organic world of gameplay.

Where the visuals excel are in the cutscene cinematics. Many games, I just can't wait to skip cutscenes and get on with the gameplay. With such a well-written story, gamers will want to watch each cinematic transition between gameplay, not just to explain the next section of gameplay requirements, but because it is such a good must-watch. There are movies out there that wish they had half the quality in their scripts and scenes as seen in GTA V. Another trademark, the GTA music that plays on the Los Santos radio stations, has a good collection of eclectic and well-known tuneage, although I liked both GTA IV and Vice City's soundtracks better.

What was supposed to be the grand new entry into the GTA realm was GTA V's overhauled online gameplay via Xbox Live. The first two weeks were rife with bugs and disconnects and general aggravation, which seem to have been alleviated. However, even at its optimal performance, it still feels nothing more than average. Driving around the open world, gamers can find online missions (both competitive and cooperative), races or deathmatches to join. Up to 16 players are in each session. It takes longer than anticipated to join into fracas and gunfights, and the deathmatches aren't always in well-designed arenas for deathmatches. Eventually with enough roaming around, gamers will find something to keep them occupied online. There's potential, but it certainly isn't entirely realized or even approaching that currently, and only time will tell if the GTA Online experience reaches the lofty desires of both Rockstar and gamers alike.

It doesn't quite deliver on the online experience many were expecting, and some of the voice acting is really awful and deflects somewhat from the strong performances of the main protagonists, but a stellar single-player script with an excellent storyline that puts others to shame in both quality and quantity. Tons of gameplay hours, plenty of missions and activities with an awesome collection of vehicles of various modes of transportation and a large array of firearms put the grandeur once again into Grand Theft Auto.

- Lee Cieniawa

The Good:
- Huge, long-lasting single-player story mode with plenty of activities and missions that transition gameplay nicely between the three main protagonists

The Bad:
- Even in a massive, completely open-world environment, multiplayer isn't much more than average
- Some of the terrible overacting voice performances dilute a extremely solid script
- While bringing a realistic dialogue aspect to the story, Franklin and other African-Americans he interacts with liberally use the N-word, which may be offensive to some gamers

Score: 9.5 / 10