Backlog Redux 2014 #29 – GTA V

GTA V

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I’m not a sensationalist or anything, but when all the uproar about the apparent misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V started up just prior to its release last year, I was already thinking to myself, “Yeah, I’m gonna play that game!” Even back then, having played almost the entire series starting with GTA III (minus the handheld stuff), and going on the defensive whenever someone levels accusations of bigotry against games in general, I staunchly defended Rockstar’s latest offering against what I was sure was the media blowing things out of proportion once again (as they are wont to do on a regular basis).

I should state that, having now completed GTA V, I still don’t consider it sexist any more than I did before. For that matter, the entire series has always been pretty much an equal opportunity offender, targeting races, genders, sexual preferences, and stereotypes from all around the Great Round Table of Humanity. I don’t plan on devoting an entire article to this topic, any more than I was fixated on it during my playthrough, but I thought it important to reiterate that I don’t condemn Rockstar as guilty in this arena at all.

Now, having said that, I will go on record that this game shocked as much as it amazed, and I can honestly say that I have never before been made to feel as uncomfortable as I was during one very specific mission of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin’s criminal career in Los Santos! More on that later; but if you’ve played the game through yourself (or read about it), you likely know what I’m alluding to.

GTA V

Thug life is reality for Franklin.

As I stated, GTA V splits its story between three playable characters: Franklin, the thug from the streets who’s trying to get out of a life of drive-bys and senseless gang violence; Michael, the has-been criminal now languishing away in witness protection under an assumed identity, trying to figure out why his family is self-destructing all around him; and Trevor, the will-not-be-reformed sociopath who lives and breathes violence and whose moral compass only points in one direction – towards the money.

At first, I was doubtful this triad approach would work as well as it did. However, the game doesn’t just throw everybody into the mix all at once, but introduces them at a very organic pace, whenever the story calls for it. In fact, it took quite some time before Trevor, the third and final playable character, entered into the game’s story proper (and boy oh boy what an entrance it was!).

Some years ago in North Yankton, four small-time crooks tried to make it big by pulling off a bank heist. It went sour, and Michael Townley is apprehended, while Trevor Phillips escapes and their two accomplices are shot and mortally wounded. Now, nine years later, after entering witness protection and receiving a faked burial to divorce himself from his former life, Michael (now De Santa) lives the good life of marital spats and personal therapy in sunny San Andreas when, through a chain of events involving a case of mistaken identity and a revenge plot against the yoga instructor his wife’s been secretly having an affair with, he gets pulled back into the world of crime, now owing a great deal of money to a local crime boss. Along with his new protegé Franklin, whom he took under his wing after a botched repossession of his son’s ride, Michael sets about planning “one last job” to settle his accounts – a jewelry heist at a posh downtown store.

GTA V

It’s not always “honor among thieves” out there…

Though the robbery goes off mostly as planned, a witness on the scene later shares an incriminating bit of evidence with a news crew on the scene, which, when broadcast, tips off Trevor in his nearby trailer-park-turned-meth-lab, who puts two and two together and decides to pay his old friend Michael, now newly risen from the dead, a little visit. Packing his cronies into his jeep, and stopping on the way to lay waste to a local biker gang, Trevor heads to Los Santos to confront Michael after nine years in hiding.

GTA V‘s story is very lengthy, even without the myriad activities and side tracks open to the player to embark upon. Once all three characters have found their way into the story, you can freely switch between them at any point (except during missions and a few other times when the story demands one or more of them to be lying low). But even apart from the more-than-generous critical story path, this game is absolutely massive! The amount of things to do seems positively limitless. There are “Strangers and Freaks” side missions, sky diving missions, Trevor’s got a drug-running side business and rampage missions scattered around, and each of the three can purchase legit businesses within Los Santos that trigger periodic missions. Pastimes aren’t short-changed, either: tennis, golf, hunting, yoga, races – both on land and in water, and collectibles scattered around the map make for something new and exciting to do all the time! The developers have scattered plenty of other hidden secrets onto the map, for players to ferret out for themselves. I’ve finished the game, and I still feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface in some of these areas!

GTA V

There’s an actual mission to sail THAT parachute onto THAT train while it’s crossing THIS bridge in THIS canyon.

Now, I haven’t really even mentioned the online component GTA On-Line yet, and I’m afraid I don’t have a ton of knowledge on the subject, but now seems like the right time to bring it up. Included with the game, it is essentially an alternate version of it, only this one is populated with other players, which is to say you’ll be sniped and blown to bits for no apparent reason regularly! I’ve only ventured on-line two or three times, and then only to laugh hysterically as a friend and I got into as much trouble in as short a time as humanly possible, then proceeded to kick each other’s asses in hysterical moments of fun. Just like the main game, the on-line content takes place in San Andreas, so you’ll see all the familiar locations. It didn’t take people long, however, to figure out where to find the tanks and rocket launchers, so the mayhem unleashed upon the urban city streets is pretty intense. To be honest, I would have preferred it if GTA On-Line hadn’t immediately turned into the equivalent of Call of Duty or Halo; if you want a free-for-all fragfest, play Titanfall. But that’s how the cookie crumbles in the age of adolescent multiplayer gaming, I suppose. From what I’ve been able to gather in my brief stint in this alternate universe, there is an actual storyline to follow in GTA On-Line as well, but good luck getting anything accomplished while you’re busy getting carpeted into the asphalt by half the city’s population out to gun you down.

GTA V

A mini-sub opens up a whole new area to explore.

I know it’s a “thing” to try to one-up the other open-world games out there, and especially to trump your own previous installment, but GTA V is just too big. I honestly don’t think I could handle a sequel that offers even more content. The way I approached V was to switch between the characters every second or third mission, to never stick to one specific storyline for too long, and to veer away from the critical path on a regular basis and pursue other interests. In this way, I hoped to kind of advance all possible threads at an equal pace, and not get too far ahead in any one area. I think it worked passably well, but this also had the result that the game took an immensely long time to reach its conclusion (made even worse by taking a break from the game for a while mid-way through).

There was really only one part of the game that gave me trouble, and it wasn’t the kind of trouble induced by an excessive degree of difficulty. This was more of an emotional issue, a mental anguish, if you will. These days, games are big on letting players choose their own path, i.e. Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark Side, , Picard vs. Kirk, Turkey vs. Beef. Given the choice, I often find myself pursuing the Good story path, or at the very least the Rough Around the Edges path of the scoundrel. I don’t delight in kicking virtual puppies or causing digital harm to helpless AIs. This is why I actually found myself having a hard time getting through Trevor’s torture mission at some point late-ish in the game.

GTA V

This mission is difficult to stomach.

Now, Trevor is only a likable character in the sense that he is so over-the-top violent and deranged that he’s actually funny at times, and always keeps you on your toes, wondering what unpredictable thing he will do next. Not a good sign when it came to him putting the screws to a captured informant. When words fail to produce the desired result, the game switches views to a table near the unfortunate, tied-up victim; a pair of pliers, a hood and canister of water, and a sledgehammer are just some of the available instruments. At first, I found myself pushing the thumbstick left, right, down, and up, looking to highlight the “off the table” option that would surely let me decide not to torture the man at all. In a game stuffed to the gills with player choice, I was justified in assuming that I’d be given an option here too, right? But no such option existed; in fact, the mission didn’t conclude until I’d used each of the available torture methods, without exception! I don’t squeamish about blood and guts, but the act of purposefully inflicting pain on a helpless individual, regardless of only being in the video game realm, made me extremely uncomfortable.

But even here I feel some praise is warranted. I don’t buy wholesale into the notion that Rockstar’s long-running series is purely satire; therefore, I’m not of the mindset that this mission existed simply to make a point about governments torturing war criminals. But I still (almost begrudgingly) applaud the developers, simply for succeeding in showing me some content that made me feel uncomfortable; in a game full of senseless violence, not an easy feat! Also of note is the voice acting, particularly (of course) the screaming and wailing of the hapless victim, without which the whole scene would have lost a good bit of its emotional impact. While playing this mission, my girlfriend, who happened to be in the room at the time, continuously turned around to chide me for “hurting that man”, and escalated to name-calling the longer it went on. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t far from being in some serious hot water with her because of this mission!

But here I am, talking about one ten-minute segment in a game that had my jaw on a rubber hinge for nigh on months. GTA V is simply awe-inspiring, in everything from the water cooler moments to the graphics to the soundtrack. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed the in-car radio stations this much, and I was still catching new jingles or commercials even by the time I was wrapping up the game. There wasn’t nearly as many annoying music line-ups as in the previous game, though I did feel the ads and programs between the music were less laugh-out-loud-funny and more crass. The voice cast was, as per usual, large and top-notch. Of the leading men, I found Ned Luke and Steven Ogg to be particularly noteworthy, as Michael and Trevor respectively, with Slink Johnson as Lamar as a hilarious third. And the graphics! Where do I even start? Practically the entire game was one giant Kodak moment, with lush oceanside sunsets, dusty trailer parks, and detailed downtown shopping districts. I honestly can’t even begin to fathom how much sheer manpower must have been required to design the city itself, never mind any of the content within it. This game is definitely the poster child for the “You Have to See It to Believe It” category!

GTA V

“Picturesque” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

As you can clearly tell, I grew to have a lot of love for GTA V. In spite of (and a little bit because of) its controversial beginnings, this is a masterpiece of interactive fiction, and for so many reasons that extend beyond the simple realm of a well-told narrative. I would heartily recommend anybody with the right sensibilities to experience this game at least for an hour or two, then stick with it for the remainder of your lifetime as you experience everything it puts on offer.

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