Like most people, I was anticipating September 17th with moderate (read uncontrolled) levels of salivation. The glimpses of gameplay released showed a beautiful landscape, painted with complex, diverse, and interesting characters. Add into the mix the cutting satire we are now accustomed to, all new mission types, a plethora of drivable/flyable/pilotable vehicles, and we have the makings of something very, very special.
Initially, I wasn’t disappointed. The introduction and prologue provided an excellent starting point, setting the tone of the game, whilst intelligently and rationally explaining the new control features. Granted, following the prologue, there was the obligatory forced driving mission to start off the game proper; this time though, it was a dash through some of the more affluent areas of Los Santos in a choice of one of the two of the nicest cars in the game. Once that was finished with, we met the first two characters, Lemar, and one of three main protagonists, Franklyn. Two small-time hustlers, both ambitious, albeit it in different ways. At first it felt a little formulaic; ok, so here are two young, black guys from the ‘hood, a ‘dogg’ here, a ‘homie’ there (just think of a stereotype and it was most likely there). Throughout the opening stories however, we were shown a different side to Franklyn, a side of youth which is not often publicised in general media, that of a conscientious, honest, and good man. Subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) we are shown Franklyn’s more complex character, something I have been yearning for in games. Too often, characters are shown to be one-dimensional products of their environment with no depth, hidden or otherwise. It becomes apparent that Franklyn isn’t just some small-time hustler content with selling a few wraps, no, Franklyn is so much more. This can be demonstrated by the way he car-jacks. I know, it sounds ridiculous but he carefully pulls the driver out of the car; no violence, no screaming. Compare this to Trevor’s method and I’m sure you’ll agree that this was intentional from Rockstar.
This theme is continued as we meet the other characters in the game, and is not merely confined to the main 3. Yes, they have the most depth, but Rockstar didn’t stop there, they added this philosophy to all characters you meet in the game. Be it Devin Weston, the ruthless, smarmy billionaire, who somehow manages to be both despicable and admirable at the same time; Simeon Yetarian, the eccentric crook who prays on the manners and insecurities of prospective customers (just look at how he plays Jimmy in his first scene); or even Dave Norton, the average FBI agent who made a bargain with Michael, and now must deal with the consequential shit-storm. The characters are deep, well thoughtfully realised, and very believable.
This attention to detail in characters has been applied to the story too. The introduction of each character and the story around how they came to know each other is well thought-out and convincing. At no point did it feel contrived or forced, which truly is a great achievement considering the aforementioned complexity of them all individually. I actually started to invest myself in the characters, which is usually a symptom of good literature, not video games. Moreover, the difference in opinion between me and my gamer friends was quite extraordinary and goes a long way to attest to character-realism within the game (listen here to our reaction special)
In this circle-jerk of detail and depth, it would be unforgivable of me to overlook the graphics and feel of the game, and in this humble writer’s opinion, it has to be one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever seen. Anyone who knows me can attest to my love of sunsets, and I was astounded by what I saw; the colours, the contrasts, the clouds, all of it. Another noticeable feature is the water; I can’t see how water can be made to look more real; it’s truly incredible. From the waves, to the foam they create and the way the water splashes against the rocks, Rockstar have surpassed themselves, along with many other developers.
So from the opening few hours of gameplay, I was thoroughly impressed. One thing struck me however; after 25 hours or so, I noticed the game completion percentage was quite high. I put this down to the fact that I hadn’t just blasted through the main story, and had taken time to look around, sample some of the leisure activities available, and get a feel for Los Santos in general. More on that later…
After the initial ‘wow-look-at-all-this-stuff-it-looks-amazing’ glow had subsided, the story developed and grew; the missions became more in-depth and exciting. Unlike one of the main failings in GTA IV, the missions are rich, diverse, and most importantly, congruous. The side missions, rather than distracting you, immerse you further in the lives of these characters. Be it the dysfunctional family life of Michael, or the maniacal maelstrom that is Trevor, we understand the characters better, without the missions becoming abstract or arbitrary.
Then it all came to a rather abrupt end.
In some ways, I can understand it; better finish on a high than to string it out for another 10 – 15 stilted hours and end with tame, laboured (anti)climax. I also reasoned that the additional content would be interesting enough to keep me going until online was released (little did I know about the problems we’d suffer from with that however). Ultimately though, it was disappointing that a game filled with such satisfying intricacy came to a thoroughly predictable and somewhat unremarkable conclusion; no twists, no turns, no ‘holy shit!’ moment; just ‘that’s all folks!’.
After the interminable credits (honestly, they must have been 20 minutes long), I settled back into my chair to embark on the quest for 100% completion with my pockets greased with cash (see, only a little spoiler!), and I must say, I was thoroughly unimpressed. I had all but exhausted the Strangers and Freaks missions, the random world events became boring and sparse, and worst of all, the collection missions were an absolute abomination; find 30 pieces of nuclear waste which are scattered along the sea bed; collect 30 submarine parts for a not-so-grieving widow…are you serious?! What is the attraction with collection missions other than to string out game time? Who honestly enjoys this bullshit? Not me, that’s for certain.
Before I get too negative, I need to say that I do genuinely love this game. The looks, the stories, the characters, the freedom, it’s all top-notch. My problem is that it’s too short, and that the additional content is artificial and boring.
My disappointment with the game was tempered by the promises made during the online gameplay trailers and thus far, I’ve not been let down. I’ve spent around 10 hours doing missions, races, parachute jumps, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. I can now only hope that the ongoing content release keeps up pace with our collective appetites. After all the launch problems GTA Online suffered, it looks like Rockstar need to pull multiple rabbits out of multiple hats for some time.