Review GTA V: A big beautiful destruction

“Triage” is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the process of determining the most important people from amongst a large number that require attention”. This is often used in a medical setting, where there are too many patients for too few resources. In some systems, it is those critical but not dying who get priority, not the critically wounded, because there is a higher chance the resources spent will, for example, save that life.

To emphasise: The fact you are dying is precisely why you won’t get as much attention.

This is what I thought as the game screamed at me to switch midfight to another character. I could switch, but why not use my current character to help? The game kept screaming – instead I compromised and switched to a character who had a sniper’s position. Two or three shots and the screaming stopped. What point was there switching to a dying character, a character in deep trouble?

These are the kinds of decisions you’ll be expected to make in GTA V at its best moments.


I. A big, bizarre, boring world

Grand Theft Auto V has three playable characters: Michael the retired thief, Franklin the frustrated gangster (who appears to have stepped out of GTA: San Andreas), and Trevor who is… well, Trevor.

Three people who demand your attention and time, three people who are constantly in a spot of bother.

You might use triage to decide; you might switch by virtue of absence, missing the snarls and particular mannerisms of the character. When you switch to another character, the camera drops, flies backwards toward the sky and takes on the classic GTA (the first) bird’s eye view for a few seconds. It whooshes toward the next character, making you hover like a god, then plummets with stylised bangs toward the next guy.

And yes, it’s always a guy since there are no playable female characters. Indeed, there are barely female characters at all – women are either non-existent or non-persons (except for, basically, two). Women exist to be killed, ogled, sexual targets, or whine. Considering Rockstar’s incredible creative talent, it is a shame they didn’t create deep and awful women, as they created deep and awful men.

Regardless, this weaving between three characters is the game’s best feature: It’s stylised, it’s meaningful, entire dialogues are missed or gained depending on who you’re playing at particular times – even who you decide arrive with at a mission requiring all three. The game is less boring – see GTA IV – because of it.

Each character has his own ability – read “superpower” – too. Franklin has an amazing driving feature, allowing you to adjust your movement in bullet-time; Michael’s shooting mimics the classic Max Payne bullet-time, but without Max’s infamous dodging like a falling ballerina; Trevor just becomes a stronger Trevor.

This is a Rockstar game so I don’t need to mention that the voice-acting – or rather just the acting – is top-notch. Everyone is believable, horrible, brilliant, disgusting in the right way.

The playable character Trevor is by far the most interesting and discomforting of all Rockstar’s creation. A kind of amalgamation of everything the media believes about Rockstar’s fans, poured into an ugly, scarred psychopath, with all the anger and genius of Jack Nicholson’s evil twin. I dreaded playing as Trevor: his dismissal of human life, his weird priorities (thinks nothing of torture and murder, but is vehemently anti-discrimination based on race, sex, and sexual orientation, and is a gentleman), his constant destruction of innocence.


The story is vast and interesting, but not too complex. It’s a riff on the old “criminal wants to retire but finds himself called back” theme; in this case, the character Michael recognises he has no life without some spark of enjoyment. That enjoyment is anchored by his best friend, Trevor, and his protégé Franklin. The way the characters meet, especially Franklin and Michael, makes for great writing. With them, Michael’s only joy comes from intricate heists.

These intricate heists are the high-point of the game: deciding how to act, deciding who to employ, where to leave a getaway vehicle and so forth. All these decisions then become missions themselves as you go about preparing. When the heist mission itself starts, all your decisions come crashing down – a rookie gunman who you employed, because he was cheaper, loses you an entire bag of money; a brilliant driver finds the easiest paths, meaning the police miss you. And so on. These make me want to replay the entire game – but of course, there aren’t a lot of big heists so you must treasure them as they occur.

Indeed, these heists are so good, I could’ve done an entire game of them – even if it meant a smaller map. As some might know, the scale of the map is rather ridiculous in size. Weather changes, animals, and so forth, provide a so-called “living, breathing world”. However, there is little that is truly alive, despite it being big. The setting is a canvas for your destruction; it’s there to elicit awe and wonder, due to many beautiful natural environments – setting sun, wind, rain – but does little else. You feel this when you cause destruction: sure, the police will chase you but once you escape their notice, that’s it. It’s truly a sandbox.


The vast landscape, the brilliant voice-acting, the cool abilities, the genius heist missions, smart checkpoints (huzzah!). Driving mechanics have been improved dramatically, as has cover shooting. All this however can easily distract you from how terrible other aspects of the game are.

II. Unforgivable but patchable sins

During a mission, there is no way to restart it. When you recognise your mission isn’t going to work out (you’ve crashed your car, etc.), there’s nothing you can do to try again until the mission fails you. This is annoying, when it’s, say, a race meaning you have to wait for all the cars to finish before the game decides to fail you. It’s a bizarre mechanic.

Shooting is still a mess. This gif from Kotaku demonstrates the main problem: notice where the reticule aims and then when the player hits the aim button. The reticule flies up for no reason. This makes free-aiming a useless option, resulting in choosing aim-assist - which makes shooting a glorified whack-a-mole session, as Kirk Hamilton notes.

Flying is still awful and increasingly makes me hate all flying in all games. Whether jets or helicopters, demanding precision is an exercise in futility when the controls are too sensitive or unresponsive. For example, a mission demands you fly a small plane into the open hanger of a larger one: good luck aiming precisely mid-flight.


Navigation is perhaps the worst element: Not only is it useless, it also undermines the world.

All the visual and functional creative brilliance is lost as you basically play reverse “Snake” with the yellow/purple line on the mini-map. Further, you’re lucky if it actually leads you to your intended destination as the map doesn’t distinguish between upper and lower levels. You could work your whole way to an area, only to realise it’s above or below – requiring serious back-tracking.

What’s annoying is that Rockstar, in previous games, has overcome many of these problems. Max Payne 3 has one of the best shooting mechanics in recent shooters; GTA Chinatown Wars allowed you to navigate by streets.

Other companies’ games, like Saints Row (3 and 4), lets you navigate via waypoints on the road itself. This is a smart solution to the distraction problem.

All these and other problems, however, are patchable but it seems bizarre that they exist at all.

III. Buying into it

I’m very glad I don’t have to score games – I’ve always disliked that kind of system. And, indeed, for titles like GTA V, you’ve already decided whether you’re getting it or not. However, I’m struggling with whether I’d actually recommend buying it. There’s little doubt its vast size and depth and so forth warrant its price and your attention. Certainly.

However, I don’t know whether the game is as good as it truly is or as many just want it to be.

Again, hidden behind the pretty sheen of the incredibly huge world is an emptiness and lack of repercussion; dated graphics that aren’t vastly different from GTA IV; a noticeable absence of women at a time when this discussion is visible and important, when this most powerful gaming company could’ve made a profound statement by adding just one character that was a woman; a world that attempts to be alive but mocks what that means; idiotic design flaws, like aiming and navigation, which just shouldn’t exist in a game these days, let alone one that is a pop culture phenomenon.

Brilliant characters, brilliant acting, excellent cover mechanics, driving, magnificent heists. The best parts of the game don’t require the big world and the big world creates many of the problems. (It’s the same problem I had with Arkham City).

This is a quality game and an important one, beyond simply “fun”. You must definitely experience it, but I’m hesitant about saying I fully recommend buying it.


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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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