With astronomical hype and a £170m budget, Rockstar North has aimed high with Grand Theft Auto V, and it's brilliant. With aspirations of re-establishing the brand as one the most important in not only video games, but the whole of popular culture, stepping into Los Santos presents the colossal feat of creative artistry and technical engineering that's been achieved.
Rockstar have taken the template laid in place by this extremely successful AAA series in the past, and expands upon it in every way. This sprawling, twisted parody of modern day Los Angeles welcomes you into a struggling world where socioeconomic uncertainty, criminality and deceit seeps out of every pore. It's truly amazing to see how the series has developed over the 12 years since GTA 3; but has also stubbornly stuck to their guns to maintain the essence, for better and for worse.
So is this a fitting addition to the series? Of course it is. But is it an emphatic full stop to the end of this console generation?
Welcome back to San Andreas
Make no mistake about it, this ridiculously large and intricately detailed setting surpasses anything you have seen before. This tongue-in-cheek recreation of the west coast sprawls across the suburbs, desert and miles of underwater ocean, contradicting the claustrophobic New York re-imagination found in GTA 4.
The huge scope of geography and demographics makes this a vast location with plenty to do, eliminating the 'one trick pony' criticisms of Rockstar's past game worlds. Visit your psychiatrist, do some yoga, play tennis, mod your car, race off-road, upgrade your weapon, waterboard people; the checklist of things you can do is endless. It all leads to a brilliantly light hearted, cynical commentary about 'The American Dream,' a lampoon of all walks of life.
And even with such a gigantic backdrop to your adventure, this is a beautiful game. Watching the sun rise as you're driving a mock-up Volkswagen camper van on the pavement, killing multiple pedestrians and listening to Chicago's If you leave me now has never looked (and sounded) so good. It's these amazing moments of spontaneity that make Grand Theft Auto a juggernaut of entertainment, and the presentation now matches up to the high quality of freedom you're given.
Grand Theft Auto V is truly a technical and creative masterpiece, that needs to be savoured.
The 'buddy film' of Grand Theft Auto games
An expansion from one playable character to three has allowed Rockstar to implement a much stronger storyline, which was all to often lost in the noise of side missions in the past. And it also allows for a far greater breadth of individual connection, as each of these three anti-heroes portray their unique personalities with precision.
You play as either Michael, a 40-something criminal millionaire, who recently retired and is going through a midlife crisis. Franklin, a low-level criminal who started in the hood with his fellow gang members, but has disenfranchised himself in the search for more. And Trevor, a sociopath who never faced growing up, loving to kill people and destroy 'the powers that be.'
The story takes you all the way through the criminal underbelly of San Andreas, with a healthy dose of twists and turns throughout. With strong, clear inspirations from many modern crime dramas (I won't list them, to avoid potentially revealing any plot points, but they're clear as day), this is the strongest piece of storytelling in a GTA game.
Missions are matched to the characters' own personalities, making for easily identifiable separate story arcs, which are then bought together by the heists, a true first for the series. Ever since the 2D iterations of the 1990s, no Grand Theft Auto has been explicitly about actual theft, until now.
These heists are increasingly tricky, death-defying feats, which are planned by you. While the missions are incredible, I wouldn't necessarily say you have much control in the planning phase, merely an 'A or B' choice between how to hit the target and which people to take. But this small gripe is dwarfed by the sheer fun of pulling off a bank robbery or clearing out a jewellers with expert precision.
With such a stronger diversity of story and side missions comes a significant upgrade to the controls. Everything in respects to gameplay has been dramatically improved since the previous iteration. All of the clunky systems to choose your weapon, radio stations, etc have been replaced with a rather intuitive selection wheel. The shooting mechanics & covering system are much more forgiving, and the driving is a godsend compared to GTA 4.
The ability to switch between characters during the missions definitely helps make the best of every scenario, utilising Franklin's driving specialty for a quick getaway, or relying on Trevor to kill every enemy in sight in a blind rage.
So what is clear is that everything is in place. The presentation, the story, the gameplay; the framework has been filled. However, it's this very framework that leads to my problem with GTA V.
Misogyny, thy name is Rockstar!
It's clear to see that a dark tone is what's thrived upon throughout the entire GTA series, but there's moments when the tongue-in-cheek nature is overshadowed by some extremely grim imagery, which can make some gamers uncomfortable. In one scenario, the comic tone of the game is shattered as you're slowly, methodically torturing a Middle-Eastern man, whilst racially profiling another to be assassinated.
Throughout the entire central story, there are only six semi-important female characters. The majority are simple one-dimensional characters who shriek at you at any given moment. One leads to a rather hilarious tale of Stockholm Syndrome, and two are murdered in the most brutal ways possible. Another story takes you through Trevor's slow, systematic cruelty and harassment of a female character, which doesn't add to the plot in anyway shape or form.
And these moments are supposed to be taken jokily, as the script plays them out with jokes, punchlines and the lot.
While I understand writer Dan Houser's choice explanation for a lack of female protagonists, some of these moments take Grand Theft Auto in some rather disturbing, unsettling directions. The issue is clearly not a conscious decision made, but rather a problem with sticking to an archaic standard set by previous games in the series. The game has evolved in so many areas, but has stuck to this relic of female and racial mistreatment, which makes it all the more jarring from the experience.
But what sticks true is the fact that this is, for better and for worse, the perfect closing statement to this console generation.
Rockstar North has created a masterpiece, expanding and improving on practically every area, and making something that will have its cultural mark for years to come. The maturity of cynicism is apparent, but marred by poorly drawn women, excessive cruelty and the humorous writing of said situations.
But these moments are overshadowed by an incredible game: a creative and technical masterpiece that you need to play.