There’s something about Los Santos that has had gamers craving a return to the San Andreas city since 2004’s first-time visit. Interestingly, I think it has more to do with criticisms aimed at GTA IV, as highlighted here, than it does CJ’s explosive outing some nine years ago. Frankly, I feel gamers craved the freedoms set by GTA IV’s predecessors but eventually diluted by that game’s ambitious but trivial focus on relationship. For all of GTA IV’s storytelling achievements, it achieved so much while exploiting the expectations of the gamer, eradicating the spontaneous chaos for structured objectives. On its own it’s a brilliant game, but next to GTA V, it may yet be the one GTA game that got away.
Almost two years after its first reveal, we’ve finally arrived in Los Santos. This LA-inspired wonderland is different to the one we saw in 2004, fuelled by enthusiastic interpretations of the cliche-riddled “American dream”, and propelled by lively caricature’s of contemporary society. And still, while the game’s three anti-heroes in Franklin, Michael and Trevor each empower the player through rigid charisma and dazzling mystic, the city of Los Santos is the star of the show, the one character we’ll remember above all else when we randomly start the game up for a quick play a few years down the track.
There are certainly gameplay enhancements here that help thrust GTA V above its predecessors. The gunplay has been refined to snap fluidly and aim precisely, and yet it’s executed with a level of restraint that keeps it grounded in classic GTA gameplay. The boosted focus on cover-based combat, already taken above and beyond what we knew of the GTA series in Niko’s adventure, further helps the frequent gun fight, heist and hold-up eradicate the suspense we’ve come to love of the series’ powerful storytelling techniques.
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Driving, as with shooting, helps form the foundation of Los Santos life. Driving along the Los Santos Freeway from the north into LS at dusk provided one of the most awe inspiring gaming moments of my life, perhaps only topped by that Mexico moment in Red Dead Redemption. There’s no need to delve into the driving mechanics and differences between each vehicle: driving in GTA V is fun, in its simplest form, ditching the nuisance of ultra-realistic mechanics in GTA IV that made calling for a taxi a necessity to get around Liberty City. In GTA V, I’d rather drive cross-country then call for a cab. I think that says a lot, not just for the ways cars handle, but that the city is inviting enough to make you want to drive the long distances.
I want to touch on the game’s lively social commentary, as GTA V once again proves that no one does humour like Rockstar Games. There’s the outrageous, crude humour of series’ like Saints Row, and while GTA V certainly has plenty of that comical approach, its capacity to mock and parody itself, alongside the fallacies of contemporary society, is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the game world. GTA V is certainly driven by the “masculinity” hinted at by Dan Houser in interviews preceding the game’s release, and yet it miraculously addresses the series’ male-only character focus through delightful parodies and hilarious commentary. GTA V is not misogynistic: its characters are. Take the time to embrace every nook and cranny of the game’s unhinged nastiness and you’ll notice its citizens resent the very tone and behaviour of the characters we control. It’s in this that GTA V, like its predecessors, manages to separate city from character, offering two decisively different interpretations of society through the eyes of individuals, and also through the soul of a lively, thriving city.
The shift between each of the three main characters, and the ways in which they interact and engage with one another, is central to GTA V’s stunningly witty and believable tale. Michael, Franklin and Trevor feel like real people: Michael and Franklin are like an ode to Tommy Vercetti in Vice City and CJ in San Andreas, respectively, while Trevor is the refreshing breakaway -- albeit a chaotic one -- that appears to be representative of the anarchic intentions of the player. If Trevor is Rockstar’s interpretation of the GTA player, they nailed it.
Above all else, the best thing about GTA V is undoubtedly the freedom it presses up against the player: the big bank accounts, the heists, the randomness and depth of the game world, the detail of Los Santos, the believable accounts of the characters. All of this molds together to form an experience that perfectly defines modern society. The game invites you to hunt that American dream, only it knows reality will eventually come crashing down.
And therein lies GTA V’s brilliance. The reality of the game world is obviously in contrast with reality in the real world, and yet the dream of the game’s central characters are all so in-line with what many of us would ultimately love to achieve: prestige, wealth and respect. It offers the structured breakaway from reality that we need, thrusting us into a game world that invites you in with open doors, and then points the finger at you, laughing and mocking, as you chase the unfathomable dream.
But if none of that matters to you, Los Santos is still there for you to lean on. Care to go for a drive?