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Grand Theft Auto V: Innovative Mechanics. Bad Writing.

October 3, 2013

So, I’ve finally finished Grand Theft Auto V.

Before I even begin to descend into talking about my experiences with this game, I want to talk for a moment about the vitriol that has surrounded any non-perfect review of it. For those of you who are unaware, even reviews that have given this game a 9 out of 10 or what have you have stirred up a giant pot of nerd-rage that I can barely understand. I mean, I love the GTA series but it has always had its flaws and those flaws are inevitably related to subjective opinion. Maybe you don’t like its satirical tastes or in the last game maybe you were angry about the lack of whackiness. Perhaps it’s not a question of story for you but something involving the mechanics. I remember being annoyed playing GTAIV because it felt like every other mission was a terrible car chase or cover based shoot out when San Andreas had a massive plethora of mission types.

Subjective problems are ok, but I will point out that if you can recognize a game has subjective problems than it is not objectively perfect. Also, GTA V is clearly not perfect from an objective perspective and any of the fanboys whining that it is should go and look up the definitions of objective and subjective.

I also want to talk about my personal relationship with Grand Theft Auto, namely that it is probably my favorite series of games. Like every gamer of my generation, I played these games at a young age even though I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. There was something thrilling in the ability to go careening down the street in a car or opening fire with a gun because even at a young age you know that these are things you’ll never be able to do.

The older I got, the more the games themselves developed. Story lines became more apparent and crucial, while characters gained more depth. The satire became biting and witty. The gameplay itself drastically improved. All of this culminated, in my opinion, with San Andreas a game that I still occasionally play today. San Andreas tells the fantastic story of Carl Johnson as he returns home for his mother’s funeral only to discover that his neighborhood and city have been turned upside down by hard drugs and gang violence. CJ struggles not only to save his neighborhood, but for his own legitimacy in society going from a street hood to the manager of a successful rapper and business owner. On top of all that it was able to preserve a distinct world where you could be flying a jetpack one minute for a hippy conspiracy theorist and doing covert operations for James Woods the next. Plus, oh man the gameplay is fantastic.

Basically San Andreas is everything I’ve ever and will want from a sandbox crime game. It is in my opinion the gold standard.

Grand Theft Auto IV fell short because it removed some elements I really liked, narrowed the scope, and lost a lot of the series’ whacky charm. However, it certainly had its moments. The DLC was interesting; The Lost&The Damned was great because I was watching a lot of Sons of Anarchy at the time and The Ballad of Gay Tony brings back touches of humor to the game. Overall though, it was GTAIV‘s dark story that was one of its best aspects. Niko Bellic is a very grim but complex man, and his journey through Liberty City’s underworld is as much a part of the Lost American Dream mythos as Don Draper’s or Walter White’s.

Needless to say, I had no problem waiting in an exceedingly long line to get my copy of Grand Theft Auto V on launch day. I was very excited for it, and everything I had learned about the game only served to further my interest. The idea of using three protagonists is simply innovative and in my opinion offered an interesting narrative perspective that might create a more ensemble cast feel. On top of that, the game was returning to San Andreas, or at least a part of it, by making use of the city of Los Santos, the game’s stand in for Los Angeles along with some outlying areas.

Mechanically the game really does deliver on its promises.

The world is open and huge from the get go and more importantly it feels like it is. Since the game map is broken up into two or three distinct areas (the city, the desert, and the more wooded/green parts of the state), you will start to dismiss it as being small. Until you have to start a joint mission that’s on the other side of the map and you’re jumping between characters to try and figure out who’s closest. In addition to being huge, the place is beautiful. It captures the California we all dream about in a really perfect way, and I feel that the redux of Mount Chiliad from San Andreas is particularly awesome and far more realistic.

When the game really makes use of the fact that it has three protagonists, it is awesome. One particular shoot out towards the end stands out in my mind, where you get to choose various approaches to the fight for two of the characters while a third provides cover with a sniper rifle. The heist missions as well are very awesome, but really any chance you get to change perspective mid mission is perfect. This is where the game shines and it elevates the whole thing.

The problem is that when the game isn’t hitting that high note, it can get annoying.

Most of the game itself is not particularly challenging, especially the more experience you have with the series, and where it does become challenging it’s not because of difficult game play. Normally it’s because the game has hampered you in some way (taking away most of your weapons or forcing you to take a certain path), or you didn’t devote the time to learning how to fly helicopters better. Even with Trevor, who has the highest initial flying skill, the chopper will still wobble back and forth and be very difficult to use precisely, something the game requires more than once.

There are only two real drawbacks in the gameplay that I can think of but the problem is they’re somewhat large. The first has to do with money, and strangely it’s that you have a lot of it from the start. From the beginning there is little to no reason to not be walking around with large amounts of ammo for the best guns available and full body armor. Only Franklin doesn’t have enough cash early on to make this a possibility but after the initial heist of the jewelry store (a couple hours into the game) it becomes possible for him as well. Since money is used to purchase expendables that directly affect your performance, the fact that you have a lot of it makes the game a lot easier. Once the assault shotgun became available I rarely had to pump more than a shot or two into most opponents.

Mentioning the heist though brings up the other mechanical point that really does bother me. When you play that first heist mission, it feels like you’re walking through a tutorial on heists, which seems to imply you’ll be able to start hitting banks and jewelry stores all over the state soon enough. I feel like the special attention paid to the fact that you can level up various crew members by doing more heists with them also seems to imply this. The thing is though, there are only six heist missions in the game, and while they’re all cool, I would have really relished the chance to do more of them. Even if they were all very simple little things. Granted, all it would have gotten me was more money which wasn’t necessary though it would have been nice to buy properties before I finished the main storyline.* It would have also been a lot nicer to just… do more heists. Though I suppose that’s the point of GTA Online, which I’ll have to take a crack at soon.

Overall though, mechanically speaking, this game really does take a bold new step forward.

It’s a shame that the storyline is a step backwards in nearly every department.

When the game starts and we’re introduced to the characters, everything seems very fluid and interesting. After a brief and intense bank robbery to introduce us to the mechanics both old and new, we launch to Michael in his therapist’s office doing a wonderful Tony Soprano impression. The focus then quickly shifts to Franklin, who is walking by on the street and asks Michael for direction. From here the game’s story begins as we learn Franklin is a repo man for a car dealership, as well as a sometimes gangster. Franklin meets Michael while attempting to repossess his son’s car, and Michael offers to help him find ‘real work.’ We meet Trevor, Michael’s old bank robbing partner, after Franklin and Michael rob a jewelry store. This is where we learn that Michael had faked his death after the opening sequence, and is now in hiding, with Trevor setting out to find him while working on his own ‘business enterprise.’

From there the game expands into more heists, some government intrigue, and figuring out exactly what happened years ago between Trevor and Michael. While all of this is interesting, in a sense of the word, it never fully engages us in a solid narrative. In fact, there’s still plenty of ‘story missions’ after the main tension between Trevor and Michael comes to a head. Sadly though, a solid resolution never really comes about. Until the last few minutes of the game, Trevor still pretty much hates Michael and with very good reason.

I’m not just talking about the actual issue between the two characters, that Michael betrayed his friends, got one of them killed, and then buried that body in his own grave so people would think he was dead. No, I’m talking about the fact that Michael De Santa/Townley is a pile of shit masquerading in a human costume. He’s an angry, abusive, lazy psychopath with no redeemable qualities. Once again, I’m reminded of Tony Soprano, if Tony Soprano was never likable and poorly written. His family has shades of an unsympathetic Soprano family as well.

It’s a massive shame that the first main character in this series to have a wife and kids offers nothing to us in respect to family related storylines. His wife is a fairly one dimensional cheating whore, though Michael is also unfaithful which makes their marriage a cycle of revenge sex against each other that sort of resolves itself. His son is like AJ Soprano but with none of the charm, making him essentially a giant lump of shit (like Father like Son). His daughter though is probably the worst offender, rather than providing an intelligent counterpoint like Meadow Soprano, she is implied to be a Porn Star and a terrible byproduct of a world more obsessed with being famous for being famous than merit.

There is nothing redeemable about Michael but worse there’s nothing interesting about him. He is a self-centered douchenozzle and I had very little interest in playing as him. Outside of his missions, I basically avoided him like the plague.

Franklin, however, was also not my preference. Franklin Clinton is just sort of boring. I don’t hate him and he’s not a terrible person. If anything, Franklin’s actions make the most sense. He wants to improve himself, and if he is going to do something illegal he wants to approach it with professionalism rather than the glory-seeking idiocy and nostalgia wankery of his gangster friend Lamar. The thing is, being the character caught between two angry psychopaths whose history frames what little story there is in the game makes him instantly the least interesting. He has some great skills, and his lacking personality makes him the easiest to project our aspirations onto but overall he’ll never touch the likes of CJ or Niko or hell even Johnny Klebitz or Luis Lopez.

Klebitz (from The Lost & The Damned) actually appears in Trevor Phillips’ introduction, where Trevor promptly kills him in a violent rage after fucking Klebitz’s girlfriend. Trevor is probably the most ludicrous of the three protagonist and somehow manages to be the closest to what pundits and politicians think a GTA player will turn into, while also being as far away from it as possible. He is certainly violent, hate-filled, and balls-to-the-wall insane but there are also many moments where Trevor reveals himself as sensitive, emotionally scarred, and very lonely.

I found it strange as I progressed through the game watching Trevor sexually violate a stuffed bear and threaten to murder people at the drop of a hat, that I actually sympathized with him the most. As the story reveals more and more of his relationship with Michael prior to the start of the game, the more we realize how betrayed and alone Trevor has felt for roughly a decade. Clearly he was screwed up early on in his life but there are definite moments of surprising pathos for him in the game that are a glimmer of hope that Rockstar hasn’t forgotten how to write interesting and complex characters.

The problem is that they’re not likable and they never really accomplish anything of purpose. They’re just existing as bad people in a fucked up world, which while fun is not necessarily an interesting statement when you realize that the last game’s main storyline questioned both the validity of the American Dream and the existence of a soul. This also removes tension, and thus triumph, from the game. When I finished the story missions the word ‘dissatisfying’ was the first thing to come to my mind. There was no intense climax or anything, nor was anything really on the line. I was just tying up loose ends and that’s what it felt like.

The other thing that really bothered me about this game was the misogyny.

Now, I’m more than happy to laugh at myself and laugh at things that other people find offensive. I’ve certainly told misogynistic and racist jokes before and I really don’t give many shits about what people do or don’t find offensive. What bothered me about the misogyny in this game is that it came from a lack of strong characters rather than humor.

There are plenty of random characters that you can encounter that are basically wild pastiches of people that really exist. Mary Ann is the female character that leaps to my mind as an example of a wild pastiche that doesn’t seem out of place. She’s a fitness obsessed woman in her late 30s/early 40s who is constantly challenging men while at the same moment blatantly expressing her fears about her inability to achieve ‘traditional milestones’ (at one point she shouts about her fear of being alone between taunting the player during a race). A little hacky and certainly not progressive but we all have met someone who has shades of that. It’s satirical, the humor is hit or miss but it’s no different than the alpha male obsessed Brucie from Grand Theft Auto IV. These sorts of people exist, it’s sad but it can also be funny.

The problem is that in previous games there have been actual female characters that were interesting counterbalancing all of this. I’m reminded of Kendall, CJ’s sister in San Andreas, and more importantly Kate McCreary from GTA IV, the game’s main love interest. Kate is a complex woman who has lived a very interesting life, and the way she interacts with the people around her is intriguing. It was believable that she and Niko got close because of the type of people they were and it was painful for the player if she died because of a choice you made (or didn’t come with you to your cousin’s wedding if you made the other choice). All of that was the case because she was a complex and interesting woman. Maybe not a strong woman but a woman none the less.

There are no women like that in Grand Theft Auto V and outside of the protagonists very few men as well. The problem is that most of the women in this game are reprehensible and reinforcing ideas about women that even as a dude whose penis spews patriarchy everywhere it goes makes me uncomfortable. Nearly every woman that is close with a main character in this game is viewed as an obstacle or just portrayed as dumb or slutty (not sexually liberated but slutty); Franklin’s aunt is a woman duped by New Age nonsense and pseudo feminism who refuses to cede half of the his mother’s old house (also despite being part of the angry black woman trope she never stands up for herself), Michael’s wife is a materialistic and unfaithful woman who literally is sucking the life and money out of him, and Michael’s daughter… Jesus Christ, Michael’s daughter.

I get what they were going for with Traci. She’s supposed to represent the emotionally stunted spoiled millennial girl who is obsessed with becoming famous via reality television. Sure, that’s a thing. Once again, you can meet people with shades of that in real life. However, there’s nothing else that’s real about her, and nothing that helps explain why she is obsessed with being famous. Furthermore, any development of her character (and there is a surprising amount) just drives us to be further disappointed in both her and the writers. She is both a porn star and a girl who is naïve enough to not realize when she is being taken advantage of sexually, which is pretty hard to fathom. Worse, the only thing that she has to offer as a character is her vagina, which her father furiously protects from possible incursion so that she may one day find the right guy.

She also offers the most cringe worthy line in the game when she tells her father that he has a poor view of women. I literally was unable to process how the character who is one of the worst depictions of women I’ve seen in years was literally the one who is used to berate Michael for his chauvinism. If Rockstar was trying to give me an aneurism then bravo, gentlemen, bravo.

I really just…

It is really disappointing to me that the series took such a step backwards in terms of its writing. I’m glad that some whackiness and fun was brought back to the characters and the setting, and the radio stations are loads of fun as always (particularly Danny McBride on Blaine County Radio, my God that is brilliant) but ultimately I found the story unfocused and the characters ranging from flat to just badly written.

The gameplay is innovative and I can’t wait to see it be used for a project where they have more time to devote to the story and character side of the equation.

*: I will point out that several of the properties provide really nice money-making opportunities if you’re really going around and exploring stuff.

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From → Opinions, Video Games

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