On My Shelves: Grand Theft Auto 5 (a partial review)


I was given this game for Christmas (2016) and I suspect that was partially intended as a joke. Nonetheless, I did install and play the game to an extent.

This will be a "partial" review because it's extremely unlikely I'll ever play the whole game through, mainly because its basic premise doesn't appeal. Of the two characters I've unlocked and played a bit of so far, one is a basically decent, but apparently kinda weak-willed, young man named Franklin – he seems to know that a lot of the things his friends/acquaintances get up to are Just Plain Bad Ideas, but the game gives you no options to decide "you know, no, I'm not doing this next thing that's gonna get us shot at".

The second main character is an older man – probably around my own age – named Michael. He's an ex-criminal (to the point I've played it isn't QUITE clear what his "line" was, but it was both lucrative and one that involved considerable violence and skill, because when we meet him he's retired with a very expensive house, a yacht, and a family he's got a rather shaky relationship with, and he's demonstrated considerable physical capability and willingness to do violence. (He is, it turns out, one of the bank robbers you play as for the initial start of the game, but I don't know how much of his money came from that kind of thing).

Despite being in a fairly good position in life, Michael's an arrogant prick and hotheaded, used to getting his own way… and this gets him in one hell of a lot of trouble early on. He ends up owing a lot of money to a powerful local mobster, which he'd better pay up fast or else… and, well, there's only one thing he really knows how to do that makes millions fast.

I'm a Paladin type at heart, so playing the RPG-section of this game simply doesn't work for me. As Franklin, I want to "go straight". As Michael, I honestly want to see him KICKED straight. But that's not really an option.

That said, the game does what it sets out to do brilliantly. The characters are individuals, clearly delineated with personalities, well-acted voices, differing goals, and forced into connections that make reasonable sense in context.

The visuals are pretty much perfect. Walking through "Los Santos" visually looks and feels like walking through a large Southern California city area; even rain and puddles look fairly realistic, and there's a wide variety of visual jokes and references that can amuse you while you're appreciating the scenery. The only really weak imagery I came across is storefronts that you're not expected to enter; they reveal their "I'm a flat 2-D picture" nature if you get too close.

This is of course primarily an action game, focused around driving various vehicles while performing an assortment of actions – most of them, obviously, illegal. The action sequences are well thought out, well choreographed, and have a wide range of difficulty involved ranging from trivial to "are you kidding me???"

In this context, the most brilliant aspect of GTA5 is a mechanic that I've wanted in, well, dozens of games through the years: if you fail at a given challenge three times, the game gives you the option to SKIP THE CHALLENGE and move on with the story. This means that even with my old-man reflexes I'm not barred from completing the game. Sure, I'm not going to get the best ratings or manage 100% completion or get all the trophies, but the overall game isn't barred from me because I can't manage to pull off (to take one actual example) driving at high speed and avoiding traffic while trying to shoot someone who's beating up on my friend.

If that mechanic had existed in the Tomb Raider franchise, I'd probably have finished some of those games.

As a mindless amusement game – especially in a party/group of friends context – there is a lot to be said for GTA5 for some amusing video-game sociopathy. Barring moments when you're actually in the middle of some plot-determined sequence of events, you can always just decide to trot out and start being a Bad Person, stealing cars, trucks, boats, ski-doos, and even planes, exceeding speed limits, running over pedestrians, and evading the cops (who seem to be more than happy to not only gun you down, but take out any bystanders that happen to be nearby). Despite their hardcase approach to most crime, they're amazingly tolerant of anything that doesn't involve pretty much up-and-up manslaughter or worse; go ahead, run all the red lights you want, steal a truck and kick the driver out and start ramming everyone off the road, the cops don't care. Start running over people, now, then they care.

Oh, and don't steal a cop's car or bike. They'll end you.

It is amusing to try to drive around the city at high speed in a variety of vehicles – dumping one and stealing another as the first becomes too damaged to move – and even more fun with other people watching and playing.

Overall, this game looks to me like it is an excellent game for those who like this kind of game, and it's not entirely a waste of time for me, either. Good work, Rockstar Games!


Your comments or questions welcomed!