Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Games on the AVE: Gamespot reviews Grand Theft Auto 5

Also available on Xbox 360 and Windows PC





Where do you begin talking about Grand Theft Auto V? Do you start with the vast, varied, beautiful open world? Do you start with the innovative structure that gives you three independent protagonists you can switch between on the fly? Maybe you talk about the assortment of side activities you can engage in, or the tremendous number of ways in which you can go about making your own fun. Or perhaps you dive right into the game’s story problems, or its serious issues with women. GTA V is a complicated and fascinating game, one that fumbles here and there and has an unnecessary strain of misogynistic nastiness running through it. But it also does amazing things no other open-world game has attempted before, using multiple perspectives to put you in the thick of cinematic heist sequences and other exhilarating, multi-layered missions like no open-world game before. Those perspectives come courtesy of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Michael’s a former criminal who’s dissatisfied with his current life of privilege and relaxation. His marriage is on the rocks and he struggles to connect with his shallow daughter Tracey, who dreams of making it big in reality TV, and with his lazy, entitled son Jimmy, who spends most of his time spouting hate-filled trash talk while playing video games online. Franklin’s a talented young driver and repo man who doesn’t seem to have too many opportunities to move up in the world, until he has a chance meeting with Michael. Michael finds Franklin easier to connect with than his own children, and he promptly takes him under his wing and ushers him into a life of big-time crime.
And then there’s Trevor, a former friend and business associate of Michael’s who is now a methamphetamine entrepreneur living in a desert town north of Los Santos. Trevor’s a truly horrible, terrifying, psychotic human being--and a terrific character. He possesses a chilling combination of intelligence and insanity, and he’s so monstrously violent and frightening at times that he almost makes the other two protagonists seem well-adjusted by comparison. Exceptional voice acting and animation help make Trevor a character you will never, ever forget, even though you might want to.
When circumstances reunite the long-estranged Trevor and Michael, the tensions between them complicate the entire group dynamic; Michael, Trevor and Franklin may work together, but they don’t always get along. Their dialogue is sharp and snappy and it’s usually a joy to watch them interacting with each other, but unfortunately, the characters sometimes behave in ways that don’t feel consistent. For instance, Franklin takes the moral high ground in an argument with a paparazzo, then casts his reservations aside to help him take degrading photos of a female celebrity. And when Trevor shows up in Michael’s life after an extended absence, the speed with which the two start working together again is at odds with their deep-seated reservations about each other.
Perhaps most troubling is a mission in which you’re instructed to torture a man. Trevor states that torture doesn’t work, and the person ordering the torture is an arrogant and corrupt government official, suggesting that the scene is meant to be a critical commentary on the United States’ use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods. But the fact that Trevor (and you, if you want to progress through the story) tortures the man regardless, and that he does end up spilling more information as a result, sends a very different message. These moments of hypocrisy and inconsistency diminish the otherwise strong characters; it feels like they are leaping into situations not because it's what they would actually want to do, but because the mission design demands that they must.
Thankfully, the missions are frequently incredible, which makes it a bit easier to overlook the occasional contradictions in character behavior, if not the mixed political messages. The high points of the game are the heists, big jobs planned by Michael and the gang. These jobs usually give you a few different options for how you want to approach a situation, and your choice completely changes how the heist plays out. On one job, for instance, one option has you posing as a janitor to infiltrate a building and plant bombs, then triggering the bombs and entering the building with your crew disguised as firefighters. The other, more direct option involves parachuting onto the building and busting in, armed to the teeth.
These are elaborate, multi-stage sequences that involve prep work. You might need to acquire equipment ahead of time, find a good place to hide a getaway car, and make other arrangements before you’re ready to pull off the job. You also need to select supporting members for your crew, as some jobs may require a hacker, an additional getaway driver, or another gunman. More skilled crew members typically take a bigger cut, but if you hire cheap, inexperienced people, they may end up failing at their tasks and compromising the operation. Of course, not every step of this process is thrilling, but these early steps make you feel more invested in the job when it does go down, and they evoke the feeling of films like Heat in which the slow buildup to the crimes makes the payoff in the action-packed scenes more intense.
These missions and many others have you switching between characters. You might rappel down a building as Michael, provide sniper cover for him as Franklin, and fly a getaway helicopter as Trevor, all on one mission. In another exciting mission, you take out a plane’s engines from a great distance as Michael, then pursue the doomed, burning aircraft over land as Trevor. It’s exhilarating, swapping between these roles and these perspectives, and it’s part of what makes GTA V the current pinnacle of open-world mission design. Even putting the three-protagonist structure aside, the mission design is frequently surprising and sometimes stupendous. You don scuba gear to infiltrate a heavily guarded laboratory via the ocean, recklessly fly a small aircraft into the bay of a large cargo plane, and get thrust into all sorts of other memorable situations.

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