This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Grand Theft Auto 5.
Couldn't keep away from this game forever, could we? Certainly fucking can't in the city I live in! The entire place is practically gift-wrapped in adverts and posters for the thing; they almost outnumber the blokes in singlets and flip-flops calling each other "cant." I had to go down to Melbourne for a bit, and I was faintly relieved at not seeing any there until one of the trams rolled by absolutely plastered with the logos, like it had gone at full speed through the last EB games convention.
You know what I noticed, though? A lot of the posters I've seen consist only of the head and shoulders of one of the characters, with no attempt to sell the game or make any reference to its content; just the title underneath 'cause they figure that's all they need. "Here it is", they announced, grandly throwing the sheet off the swill trough and jumping back as the pigs all thundered madly towards it. Yeah, I see what you were getting at now, Amnesia!
So, GTAV, then. The fifth Grand Theft Auto, after 1, 2, III, Vice City, San Andreas, IV, Chinatown Wars, and all the other ones; adding up not being one of Rockstar's strong points. GTAIV was, of course, the game that taught the world that gritty realism and tragic character drama have their places, and that place is not the same place as the place where you can pile up all your dead prostitutes on the side of the road and then ramp off them into a big fire. I know you aspire to write stories with some complexity, Rockstar, and that players insisting on selfishly trying to have fun in your game must be very frustrating, but you kind of brought this on yourself when you decided that "Tw@" would be a funny name for an internet café.
GTAV tries to cunningly hedge its bets by constantly swapping between three different protagonists in the hope you'll like at least one of them. But that smacks of gambler's fallacy to me; it's entirely possible to toss three coins and have them all come up tails, or, indeed, for two to come up tails and the third to shoot up your dog's arse and give your dog bowel cancer. Franklin is probably closest to being the protagonist-protagonist, 'cause he does the standard GTA straight man thing, where he rolls his eyes exasperatedly at every random weirdo who thinks that flagging down passing pedestrians is the best way to put out a contract hit, but meekly follows their instructions anyway like a passive-aggressive husband. Michael, by comparison, is a very active-aggressive husband who retired from bank robbin' to spend more time screaming at his family and breaking things. And then there's Trevor, who seems to be an attempt to represent the standard mode of behaviour of a GTA player in that he's a filthy, amoral psychotic with the innate likeability of an incontinent honey badger in a whorehouse kitchen an hour before the health department inspection.
But my major beef is that none of these characters are likeable, and it's not because they, you know, kill people and shit; lord knows I can't throw stones in that department, at least not 'til I've cleared the basement out. They're just poorly-written and inconsistent, which may reflect the fact that their dialogue was being written by enough people to choke a sarlacc. Franklin just comes across as whiny, and Michael, having realized that all his ill-gotten wealth has done nothing to bring him happiness, seems to think that the logical solution would be more ill-gotten wealth!
To that end, we have the heist missions, which is the big new feature after taking fat dudes on dinner dates didn't exactly ignite our pubes last time around. And it's not a bad concept; you plan a robbery mission and do some recon and vehicle-stashing tasks before the caper itself. Well, I say "plan"; you "plan" them in the same sense that you "plan" a Sunday drive down a one-way street, because like all the missions, they bear the increasingly omnipresent Sandbox Paradox: total freedom when outside missions and, when inside, total instruction-following simulator, that fails you out of fucking nowhere because you got in the wrong car or went two feet the wrong way, and the game just felt like things were getting weird. The extent of your input is picking which of two pre-determined package tours to use, and what crew members to bring. Their stats increase as you use them, but since each one is only available for, like, two heists apiece in the whole game, it doesn't mean a whole lot.
The protagonists also have RPG-style stats incrementing away in utter pointlessness; levelling up your flight skill can mean the difference between planes handling like both your wings are stuck up a sumo wrestler's arse, and handling like the sumo wrestlers put on slightly aerodynamic hats. I suspect that this is all preparation for the mechanics of GTA Online, and how cunning of you, Rockstar, to hold off unlocking that until after I've submitted this review and stopped giving a two-dollar blumpkin about the game. Well, the joke's on you! I just moved house and my internet wasn't hooked-up anyway! Bet you feel stupid now!
But digressing back towards planes for a moment, why did I have to go through a plane-flying tutorial after a story mission in which I had to fly and land a plane? Had the sumo wrestlers expressed some dissatisfaction with my performance, or is it just that this game is a mess? And not the "potato salad molestation charges" mess that was Saints Row; but an engorged mess of unrelated and clunkily-tutorialized features. Lots of story threads, but no strong overarching one. Mostly "Character A pisses off Organization Y somehow, and fends them off for a while until Character A slaps himself in the forehead and goes 'I just remembered, I'm a murderer! Let's just murder whoever's got a nark-on and then have a bath in his wife!'".
Well, just to appease those champions of emotional stability who have been burning crosses in the front gardens of unimpressed games reviewers, I won't say there's no fun to be had. It's got some colour back into its cheeks, and generally feels less like a fat old sheepdog has fallen asleep on the physics engine. I cringed a bit when it brought in buyable properties, but they unlock more missions and gameplay so there's a point to it other than just soaking up unnecessary money as is the case in other sandbox games. There's not much that particularly made me go "Christ, who thought that was a good idea?", like that dinner dating business last time. But then again, there's also nothing that made me go "Christ, who thought that was a good idea? Because they were totally right to think that and I want to kiss their big, soppy face!"
There's nothing that excites me, that I can point to and call "the defining moment"; it's just a whole load of people doing stuff, which I admit is a fairly weak argument; World War II was just "a whole load of people doing stuff", but at least getting your leg blown off gives you something for the next letter home: "Dear Mum, remember when my dance instructor said I had two left feet? Well, I've managed to redress the balance somewhat. P.S.: FUCKING HELL, AAAAARRRGH!!!"
- All things exist so that I can get pissed: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- See, I was under the impression that most commercial airlines include sumo wrestlers in the ticket price
- Off to Escapist Expo, back in two weeks.