Grand Theft Auto V

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This is a review of the singleplayer portion. I was expecting more from GTA V. Almost every part of the game is done to the highest quality possible. But the story doesn't measure up. The quality of production is so high it made me expect more from it. But GTA V just isn’t as charming, funny or crazy as it should be.

I’ve seen many opinions about the writing quality. Some saying it’s incredible, others that it’s horrible. It isn’t either. It’s pretty good, but pulls too many punches. It points and laughs at everything and everyone in society, but pulls out before it delivers anything of real weight. Every joke feels off the cuff, like something they thought up at the spur of the moment. The kind of jokes you don’t write down because they’re too lame. It’s also trying to be a Fast & Furious style heist story, which makes the game feel like a bit of an unfocused mess. What were Rockstar trying to do with this game? It’s not lighthearted enough to pass as a wacky fun comedy, and it isn’t serious enough to pass as a hardboiled crime drama. There’s plenty of both in the game, and the end result is that your brain short circuits if you try to think too hard about what’s going on. Like at one point you do a heist similar to Fast Five, with everyone acting dead serious, while the company logos just behind them in cutscenes say “Gruppe Sechs”. It made something in my head crack. The mix of fun and serious is off. It's not cohesive.

On a more positive note the quality of animation, more specifically how characters and objects interact with each other is fantastic. Unlike other games which can have distinctively different feels for walking, driving and flying, everything in GTA V feels like they belong in the same world and act according to the same rules. GTA V makes other games feel stiff and artificial. Since GTA IV Rockstar have been using the Euphoria animation system, and I looked up why nobody else is using it. It’s because it’s incredibly expensive. It’s not just a middleware system that devs implement themselves, instead it’s a consulting package where a team of programmers work with the dev team. It seems to be what makes this feel so much better than other games. At no point do characters magically teleport between animation states. Instead it’s all organic and natural. People feel like they're physical entities part of the world, affected by it and affecting everyone in it. Nothing ever takes you out of this sensation. If you haven’t played Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 or GTA V it might be worth it just to see what the state of the art in games animation is.

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It also nails other smaller, but also very important parts, like the choice of music. Every station is packed with great selections. Nothing like Watch Dogs where the radio was so bad I couldn’t stand having it on. Having great music becomes one additional thing making sure that every second spent in the world feels worth it. Another good thing is that you can use gamepad and keyboard/mouse simultaneously. So you can drive with the controller and reach over to the mouse for precision shooting. Or hold down L2 to aim with a sniper rifle and do the aiming and shooting with your right hand on the mouse. Or move with the analogue stick while aiming/shooting with mouse. I kept changing between exclusively using gamepad with aim assists or keyboard/mouse, to using both at the same time. Button promts change instantly, and there are no issues with playing however you want. The way it should be done.

The game is at its best when missions revolve around things that truly matter to the characters. Like Michael’s passion for movies, or his family. Or when Trevor tries to build up his own smuggling business. That’s when the goals of the missions align with their interests, and their enthusiasm rubs off on you. The ultimate payoff for these missions isn’t money, it’s their pride in making something in the world that they care about deeply. Like when Michael saves a doomed movie production and gets a producer credit. He can’t wait to show his name in the credits to his family, and his excitement is infectious. But the game spends maybe 30% of its time on this. The bulk of the story is missions involving the most boring side characters Rockstar have ever created. It often doesn't feel like there's a point to them, outside of “because the game designers wanted to do a mission here”. Luckily the game designers did a great job, so it isn't a slog to get through them. But it doesn't feel like it's adding anything to the game as a whole, apart from making use of the world they've made. And when you're making a story driven game like this, having primary missions that don't seem to be connected to the story just undermines the missions entirely. The side missions don't suffer from this, because you know they aren't going to be advancing the plot. You go in to them with the correct expectations. Having meaningless sideshows in the primary missions though is not ok.

The end result is a game where the production quality is amazing, but I went away thinking “I guess that was ok”. Most parts of the story don't get proper closure. A hundred things are set in motion and fizzle out just as they’re about to hit home. This applies not only to the character arcs, but also individual missions and the humor. It all needed just a little bit more, especially in the second half of the game. That said, there’s no denying the level of quality they delivered here. It might be worth playing the game just for that. And there's the online mode I haven't even tried yet.

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