Rockstar Games may have nurtured one of the largest entertainment franchises on the planet over the past 15 or so years, but such desirable territory comes with unrivalled pressures. While the company will no doubt be readying a press release regarding Grand Theft Auto V’s record breaking sales as we type, such high anticipation comes with elevated expectations. And with the thrill of the early reviews and midnight launches now a fading memory, does the game have the Chops [pun absolutely intended – Ed] to maintain pace with its escalating hype?
Grand Theft Auto IV, the previous entry in the series, befell a cruel fate following its release in 2008. Despite securing unanimous critical acclaim, Niko Bellic’s semi-serious romp through Liberty City went on to divide fans due to its dark narrative and failure to evolve. The game, alongside its slightly more agreeable Episodes from Liberty City expansions, still sold over 25 million copies, but dare to venture into any hardcore gaming community, and you’ll find just as many disgruntled consumers as you will earnest admirers.
In fairness to those that were disappointed with Scottish developer Rockstar North’s first proper foray into high-definition development, it’s tough to go back and play the aforementioned Eastern European protagonist’s pursuit for the American dream. The controls, for starters, feel like relics from a bygone era, with the emphasis on the impressive but overpowering Euphoria engine giving the impression that you’re running – or, indeed, driving – through treacle a lot of the time. Pair this with the nonexistent checkpointing and desperately slow build up, and it hasn't aged well.
Fortunately, the sequel starts with a bit more of a bang. It eases you into the gameplay, much as any release should, but rather than driving your potty-mouthed cousin through a seedy neighbourhood, it instead drops you right into the centre of a crime spree, shooting out cops, and racing through snowy scenery. An undeniable improvement, then, but even in the opening hours we can’t help but feel that some things haven’t changed.
The controls, for example, while much more responsive, still feel a bit sticky. Gunfights rely on the auto aim mechanics of old, though can be tweaked in the options if you prefer. True to Rockstar Games tradition, the mapping is all over the place, forcing you to set aside the rules that numerous other titles have taught you, and remind yourself that the circle button is used for, er, reload. Yeah, we’re still scratching our head, too.
At least the vehicles feel a little smoother, boasting some arcade sensibilities without entirely shedding the simulation handling that proved so divisive in its predecessor. Playing as Franklin Clinton – one of the three protagonists in the game – you’re actually able to slow time while you approach tight hairpin corners, a mechanic which is introduced while you stay close to your “homie” Lamar Davis during a repossession job for shady Armenian car salesman Simeon Yetarian. One of the franchise’s strongest assets has always been its ability to develop characters while you’re on the road, and that very much remains the case here.
Even in the opening hours, the attention to detail is exquisite. Characters are carefully constructed through simple, often meaningless, conversations, while the developer’s tongue is still firmly placed in cheek throughout. A quick hop onto the in-game web browser – which is accessed from your iFruit smartphone – allows you to peruse your Life Invader profile, as well as watch trailers for the latest games. One such title includes Righteous Slaughter 7, a brand new entry in the popular totally-not-Call-of-Duty-inspired fictional first-person shooter series that includes tons of new content – despite the fact that the previous instalment only deployed three months earlier. That brand of sharp wit permeates every single object, image, and item in Rockstar North’s latest release, and it’s no doubt part of the reason that the title has taken so long to reach store shelves.
Despite the appeal of the content, though, it’s not exactly a pretty game. Make no mistake, the scale of Los Santos – even with only a miniscule portion of the map unlocked – is pretty much unrivalled, but the age of the PlayStation 3 hardware is starting to show. Textures pop into view as you approach them, while the scenery is tarnished by aliasing problems. There are some decent lighting effects, and the city sparkles at night time, but don’t expect to be blown away by the graphics.
Still, the release is undoubtedly doing some impressive things from a purely technological perspective. The ability to switch between protagonists on the fly is extremely well handled, and not only brings some variety to the sandbox – accentuated by the fact that each character has different skills – but is also cleverly implemented. A Google Maps-esque sequence covers the loading as you transition, while you’ll often join your characters as they’re in the middle of a telephone conversation or similar activity, creating the illusion that they’re going about their lives when you’re not in control.
Of course, the feature also opens up some interesting gameplay possibilities, allowing you to put a literal bullet in a potential standoff when you’re held captive during the bank robbery at the start of the campaign. It’s always been clear that Rockstar Games is a fan of interwoven narratives – who could forget The Ballad of Gay Tony’s protagonist’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo during Grand Theft Auto IV’s famous Three Leaf Clover mission – but the setup here takes things to the next level, and promises plenty for the full campaign.
Perhaps most noteworthy are the smaller structural improvements, though. Main missions can now – like in more recent Rockstar Games releases – be revisited, and boast mini-objectives that not only enhance replay value but also force you to explore different styles of play. Elsewhere, the checkpointing is vastly superior, while everything from your character’s crew cut to car tyres can be customised. Even the dynamic missions from Red Dead Redemption make a welcome return, bringing a little more spice to the world.
Short of a few niggles with the controls and visuals, then, the game’s certainly living up to our expectations. This series is defined by its ability to utterly consume those that touch it, and we already feel like we’ve caught Grand Theft Auto V’s bug. Having allowed Franklin, Michael, and Trevor to seep into our consciousness, we can feel our productivity slipping away – and, honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way. The big question is: are you enjoying the game as much as we are?
Do you like what you've seen of Grand Theft Auto V thus far? Without sharing spoilers, how deep are you into the release approximately a day after its release? Is there anything about the game that's disappointed you? Conversely, what have you found to be a pleasant surprise? As always, let us know in the comments section and poll below.
Is Grand Theft Auto V living up to your expectations? (44 votes)
Yes, I absolutely adore what I've played so far
I have a few niggles, but I'm definitely enjoying the game
I'm not sure, because I haven't actually played the title yet
No, I'm pretty disappointed with the release
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