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What happened to pacing?
Grand Theft Auto V is a game that does not get off on the right foot at all. The intro tutorial is a complete mess.
Remember how in Grand Theft Auto IV, the protagonist was introduced in a cutscene during the opening credits? We learn about his personality and motivations, and why he is coming to America. Then you get off the boat, gameplay begins, and you are immediately given a simple driving tutorial in which you taxi your drunk cousin two blocks to his shithole apartment, all the while learning more about the characters and the game world itself. Then you do some simple taxi missions that let you practice driving while simultaneously letting you learn the layout of the city and soak in the environment. Then you start getting asked to beat people up and throw bricks through store windows and get tutorialized on how to fight, shoot, and do other advanced mechanics. And during all this time, the game slowly builds up a hatred and distrust for the criminals that you are working for while simultaneously laying the foundations of the game's depressing-but-exceptionally-introspective plot.
Remember all that? Remember how well that game was paced? Remember how the tutorials always showed up at appropriate times, explained a mechanic during non-interactive cutscenes so that you can pay attention to the instructions, then lets you practice the mechanic while it's fresh in your memory? Remember how well it slowly built up the important mechanics one at a time - as they became relevant - while also immersing you in the game world and building up its story to a climactic closing of the first act? Yeah, that was great game design, wasn't it?
Well, GTA V has none of that.
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In median res: the good, the bad, and the ugly
First few minutes of gameplay: the tutorial rapidly goes through basic game concepts and controls in a tiny tooltip in the upper left corner, which you can barely read because there's other instruction text at the bottom of the screen, and you're trying to read both of those at the same time that you do the thing(s) that it's telling you to do.
The intro tutorial literally throws the player into the middle of a bank robbery in progress. You have no idea who your character is, why he's robbing a bank, who your companions are, or what the "plan" that everybody keeps telling you to "stick to" is. Then it puts an assault rifle in your hands, and a tiny little box pops up in the corner of the screen with 6-point font telling you what to do while you're trying to do the thing that it's telling you to do - and hopefully not doing the wrong thing. And then they stick you in the middle of a gunfight with an entire small army of police, and these barely-visible text popups try to tell you how to use the cover mechanics, switch weapons, and trigger super powers - all while you're being shot at. Then you go for hours before using many of these mechanics again, so you forget them all because you had zero time to practice and remember them, and they were all thrown at you at once.
I understand that they were going for an "in median res" thing so as to get the player into the action as soon as possible (because some lowbrow, moronic gamers must have thought that GTA IV was "boring"). And that technique can be very effectively used in a narrative-based game. For a comparable, positive example of "in median res", see Final Fantasy VII, in which the first few minutes of gameplay require you to perform an act of terrorism. That game builds up to the sabotage of the MAKO reactor with banter between the characters about the evil and corruption of the Shinra Corporation and how MAKO energy is killing the Planet (in a somewhat ham-fisted global warming metaphor). So in Final Fantasy VII, the player does have context for your [otherwise reprehensible] actions.
GTA V doesn't bother.
In Final Fantasy VII, you begin the game in the middle of an act of terrorism, but at least that game takes the time to attempt to justify your actions and provide context.
Do I have some reason for robbing this bank? Or is my character just a greedy douche? What if I don't want to shoot 40 police officers? Why should I care about any of the people with me? If they die, doesn't that just mean that I get a bigger slice of the loot? Oh, I'm not supposed to be that much of a douche? And what the hell is the damned "plan" that they keep yelling at me about?! Is it something more complicated than "pick up all the money you can and shoot anything that tries to stop you"? Because that's not much of a plan, but that's basically what you end up doing. All while tiny text boxes pop up and disappear in the corner of the screen.
Later tutorials aren't much better. The game rarely stops to explain anything to you. It just expects you to keep your eyes locked on that corner of the screen, waiting for tiny, black boxes to tell you how to do something. Sometimes you have to play story missions that require using gameplay mechanics that aren't tutorialized until later. Other times, they give you one notification of how to use a particular mechanic, and then don't give you an opportunity to use it until hours later (after you've forgotten). Other times, you get a tutorial, and then one opportunity to try it out, and then the game does it for you in a cutscene. Why did you teach me a mechanic that you're not even going to let me play?
I don't know what happened. I've come to expect a great deal of quality and polish from Rockstar. I couldn't believe what I was playing. I almost turned off the game after the tutorial because it was soooo bad. One friend did give up on the game and didn't even finish the tutorial. I couldn't blame her.
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Crime by committee
Then, once the tutorial is over, there is a very confusing, disjointed cutscene about somebody dying (one of the fellow people in the bank robbery who my character may or may not know or be friends with?), and then suddenly you're playing as a completely different person repossessing cars in Los Santos. Is the whole game going to be this cryptic and schizophrenic? Well, yes actually; it was part of the game's fundamental design. Fortunately, it's not as big of a mess as the tutorial makes it out to seem.
A party-based single-player action game
I was ambivalent about having three main characters. I recognized that it would open up a lot of potential for creative story-telling and interesting gameplay mechanics (similar to old-style, party-based RPGs), but at the same time, I feared that it would suck some of the immersion out of the game. Why would I bother doing side quests and bonus content just to kill time if I can switch to another character and do an actual mission?
I'm feeling murderous...
Let's switch to Trevor! =D
But more importantly, I recognized the greatest potential in this paradigm in relation to Grand Theft Auto: that it would allow any player to play the game how they want without contradicting the characters and story. By creating three protagonists that the player can switch to at any time, the player can select the most appropriate character to fulfill any whim they have at that moment. This would give the developers and writers the opportunity to make each character much better defined and developed, since that single character didn't have to cater to a plethora of varying gameplay styles, and there wouldn't be a stark disconnect between how the character acts in a cutscene and how the player plays him in the game.
Now, no matter how psychotic or straight-laced you want to play the game, there's a specific character for you. If you want to play schizophrenically and switch at the drop of a hat between helping sweet old ladies carry their grocery bags across the street, then psychotically running them down with your car, then there's a character for both those whims! The designers could even create scenarios in which the different playable characters get into conflict with one another, forcing the player into having to make uncomfortable, but interesting decisions with real narrative consequences.
This is clearly what the designers were trying to accomplish. Each of the three protagonists have distinct mission sets and side content that they can access, and each character has stats that are supposed to affect their performance in various aspects of the game (such as driving, shooting, stealth, flying, and so on). I'm not sure if these stats really do anything. Even after I had maxed out the "Flying" stat for both Trevor and Michael, I still couldn't keep planes and helicopters flying in a straight line, and car-handling and weapon aim didn't seem to change at all over the course of the game either. Franklin is your driver, for when you want to race cars; Michael is your "rich guy", who can afford to play golf and other mini-games; and Trevor is your psychopath, for when you feel like going on a murder spree. Further, the characters are not entirely on the same page with each other, and some are trying to play each other as ends to a means and not being entirely honest.
Unfortunately, this intent didn't pan out over the long run. All three characters still behave inconsistently within the narrative. Franklin starts out the game insisting that he wants a normal, legitimate life so he can pay taxes, have a 401(k), and get out of gangbanging. He even verbally harasses and alienates friends and family who glorify the urban, gangbanging lifestyle. For the first few hours of the game, it seems like he's going to play very similar to Nikko Bellic from the previous game: being the reluctant gangster who is dragged into a life of crime against his will in order to protect himself or someone he cares about. But then people start offering him "jobs", and he just shrugs off the moral high ground and gladly assumes the role of hired thug and assassin, even going so far as to drop lines like this:
"I like blowing motherfucking fools' heads off just as much as the next psychotic asshole."
Maybe this is supposed to be some allegory of how life in Los
Angeles Santos creates psychopaths who are unconnected to reality, but it completely defeats the purpose of having three distinct characters. Two of the characters could have been removed, and the story and mission structure wouldn't have needed to change much at all. Without Franklin and Trevor, Michael could have served as the only protagonist. He's terribly erratic in his decisions and actions, and is even seeing a therapist for his emotional instability. He already swings radically between level-headedness and outbursts of violence. Trevor is much the same. He's much further on the psychotic end of the spectrum, but he still has his moments of calm rationalism, and he operates by a strict moral code of honor (although this code's first and most important rule seems to be "Do what Trevor wants, when Trevor wants, and how Trevor wants, or Trevor will hurt or kill you.").
Michael is seeing a therapist, so emotional instability is built into the character.
On top of that, I was disappointed that Rockstar didn't take this chance to give us more novel protagonists. I would have really liked to have seen the world of GTA through the eyes of a female lead and have to experience the rampant sexual objectification of the game world first hand. Or we could play as a teenager slowly throwing a promising future down the drain to make a quick buck in crime. Or an Hispanic having to deal with the redneck racism and anti-immigrant prejudices of the rural countryside. A more varied character collection would have given us different filters from which to view the world of Grand Theft Auto through new eyes. But nope ... three main characters, and they chose to give us reiterations of the same archetypes that we've already been playing as for years.
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[Poorly] Time-sharing the player's attention
As a gameplay mechanic, being able to switch characters does help to keep the game's pacing up (at times). If you complete a mission that sends you out into the middle of nowhere, you don't have to walk back to the road to hitch a ride to your hideout. Instead, you can just change to another character and get right back into the action doing something productive. Unfortunately, there isn't always something for everyone to do. Most of the time, there is only a couple active missions for any given characters, and one of those missions is usually shared between two or all three characters (such as the joint heist missions). There's always ambient side content, like racing cars, playing golf, and so on, but there isn't much incentive to do any of these things. If I wanted to play video game golf, I'd play Tiger Woods PGA Tour. If I wanted to street race, I could play Midnight Club. And so on.
A really weird design decision (given that there are three playable characters) is that certain actions and misisons will arbitrarily progress the game to the next day. Since some events and missions are clock-dependent (such as street racing only being available at night and therapist sessions only being available during the day), you may lose out on an opportunity to play them.
There's one point in the game in which Michael and Trevor have to lay low after a job, and so control switches to Franklin, and you can't switch back to Trevor or Michael for several missions. So people on the team were clearly thinking along these lines. There's other places where the game missed opportunities for efficient use of the characters:
- Saving at your safe house (with any character) progresses the game clock by eight hours.
- Being arrested or wasted fast-forwards to the character's release from prison or the hospital.
- Entering Michael's home early in the game triggers a mission that forces a skip to the next morning so Michael can interact with his family.
- Many early-game missions for Franklin advance the game to the next morning.
- Trevor sleeps with a woman in a hotel as a reward for a completed mission, and the game skips to the next day.
- Going back to a stripper's home to have sex with her advances the game to the next day (regardless of which character you use).
- All the heists take place at pre-determined times in the day, and so they advance the game clock to that time. In this case, it doesn't bother me as much because all characters are participating in the mission.
- and more...
Well, what if I don't want to advance the game? While Michael is at home at night saving the game and sleeping, why can't I play as Franklin and take advantage of the night to earn some money in street races? While Franklin is waiting for the sun to come up in order to start a mission that takes place during the day, why can't I take control of Trevor and do a rampage? And if I get Trevor "wasted" (i.e. "killed") during said rampage, why can't I switch to Michael to visit the therapist during the day that Trevor is at the hospital recovering?
Geeze, if you're gonna skip the whole night like that, just give me access to Franklin so I can street race!
Similarly, if I get one character arrested or wasted for any reason, why doesn't the game just force me to switch to another character while the first character recovers in the hospital or waits for bail to be posted? (instead of just skipping ahead to the character being released from hospital / prison). Heck, the other two players could even have been given a "mission" to bail-out (or breakout) the character in prison! This would have added real in-game consequences to failure and made the game much more dynamic. These are just really strange oversights considering that the whole game was designed around this multi-character paradigm.
Beyond that, you have no idea where the other two characters are or what they are doing at any given time. The game doesn't bother to track their simulated activities or display their current location(s) to the map. So if you do switch to another character, there's a chance that you'll end up in the middle of nowhere, wearing random clothes, driving a random vehicle, or even take control while the character is in the middle of a fist-fight or dick-measuring contest (literally!). Or they might just be vegging on the couch smoking pot and watching TV.
The story campaign is also strictly single-player. Despite having three protagonists with equally-important roles in stories and missions, Rockstar did not bother to provide any kind of multiplayer co-op. No split screen; no drop-in / drop-out online play; no multiplayer campaign; nothing. Again: surprising, considering the paradigm.
Yes, there is Grand Theft Auto Online, but that's practically a different game (similar to what Metal Gear Online was with relation to Metal Gear Solid 4). You create a personal avatar, rather than the story characters, and your progress in Online is completely independent from the story campaign. I've heard from some friends that Online is pretty good. I haven't played it yet, as I generally do not get excited about online play. Maybe I'll review that separately in a later post.
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Lots to do, not much reason to do it
Despite questionable decisions with the implementation of the multi-character mechanic, I bet there are plenty of people who didn't like GTA IV who will like GTA V. There's more mini-games, collectibles, side missions, customization, and other unnecessary stuff to keep players' attention. San Andreas is huge and is loaded with things to do. Unfortunately very few of these things are fun or rewarding in any way. There's only a few points in the story in which you actually do anything in the countryside, and they only last for a few missions before you're back into town. So a lot of the countryside just ends up feeling like wasted space.
The strippers are actually topless this time around.
Fans of mini-games will be very pleased! This game is loaded down with mini-games, ranging from car races, to jet ski races, to smuggling guns with an airplane, to playing golf, and even doing yoga. Heck, even getting a lap dance in the strip club has been turned into an interactive mini-game! A lot of these mini-games can be used to enhance the characters' skills, but I had all my pertinent skills maxed by halfway through the game anyway, so it really isn't necessary to play mini-games.
You can still "hang out" with various friend characters, but this time around, it is entirely voluntary - which is good, because the characters in this game suck in comparison to GTA IV, and even Red Dead Redemption.
A significant new feature is the ability to buy in-game stocks. The game makes it seem like you're going to be able to make yourself into a millionare by buying stocks in companies and then using your criminal skills to affect the stocks' values. Unfortunately, this "white-collar" crime is never fully realized in the game, despite being a very clever idea. You do this in a few missions early in the game, but then the feature kind of disappears, and you don't have much reason or need to check your stock portfolio for much of the rest of the game. And in the missions where you do cause changes in stock values, you rarely (if ever) have a chance to switch to the other characters and buy or sell stock before the value changes.
Ownership without responsibility
This game adds a concept of "ownership". The characters can "own" vehicles. The default cars are automatically considered owned, as well as any cars you buy or store in a lot or garage. But you don't have any responsibility over these vehicles. You don't have to spend any money to upkeep them. If you damage it or lose it, it will respawn at your safehouse or in Los Santos' impound garage (recovering an impounded car costs a small fee) in perfect condition. You can spend some money to upgrade them, but these are just one-time costs.
Or at least, it would be just a one-time cost, if the game didn't keep glitching and losing your cars. At least three times during the single-player campaign, I bought a car and spent tens of thousands of dollars upgrading it, only to take it on a mission and have it disappear from the game world when the mission was done and then never show up at my safe house or in the impound lot. I was pissed!
In one case, I switched to Michael only to find that my garage was empty of all but a bicycle that I had bought but never used. Both of my personal cars had vanished without me even taking them out of the garage!
An empty garage. I'm supposed to have two very expensive and highly-upgraded cars parked in here, and neither of them is the black car sitting further down the driveway. But hey, at least my bicycle is still there...
There's only finite space available in your characters' garages anyway, so there's a finite number of cars that the characters can possibly "own". So it would be trivial to include a simply database of owned cars that stores their location in the game world and physical condition. The cars' positions could then be displayed to the map so that the player knows exactly where you left them if you want/need to recover them, and it can even be assumed that the character does this automatically during the time in which you switch to another character. But no, if you walk away from your car for two seconds, there's always a chance that it will have disappeared from all reality by the time you turn back around to drive it. Absolutely unacceptable!
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Ownership with responsibility: the property paradox
Purchasing properties is also back in the game. And this time, they actually offer special missions, so they do more than just provide a constant stream of money. The game even makes you feel like owning properties is important since you'll start to find out that missions are very stingy about paying you. But I still don't recommend buying properties. But if you do decide to start purchasing properties, do it early in the game so that you'll have the income when missions stop paying you and you want the money.
One of the first properties that I bought was the Hen House, a strip club in the far north of the map. I was hoping to be able to use it as a place to recover HP by having sex with the strippers, and maybe as a safehouse in the northwest corner of the map. But no; you can't even go inside the building to buy drinks or watch the girls dance. You want strippers? You still have to drive all the way back to Los Santos. You want a safehouse? You still have to drive to your safe house in Sandy Shores or Los Santos (depending on which character you're using).
This delivery mission caused enormous frustration and is stupid!
Having a timer that requires absolute perfection defeats the purpose of balancing
the integrity of the goods against the time it takes to deliver.
On top of that, their first mission required me to drive an alcohol freight truck halfway across the state, through a mountain pass, and without running into anything, within 4 and a half minutes. I tried it about 6 times before giving up and checking online to find the "solution". Meeting the the time limit requires an unconventional shortcut and absolute perfection. This sort of arbitrarily-strict time limit should not be a necessary mechanic for adding challenge to a game anymore! They already force you to have to compromise between speed and keeping the goods undamaged, but if you bump into anything or slow down for any reason, then you fail the time limit, so there's no reason to add the complexity of trying to balance travel time against the integrity of the goods! The time limit could have been loosened up by 15 to 30 seconds, and they could have just added more traffic and hazards for you to avoid and risk damaging the goods, or - I don't know - actually have meaningful police in the game that force you to have to plan a route that avoids police patrols and speed traps. Instead, the road is practically empty. It just felt like really shitty, outdated design that reminded me of the painful days of games like Driver.
As far as I can tell, most of these purchased properties don't provide any real game benefits. You can't use most of their services, they don't act as safehouses, they don't provide passive perks, and they don't affect the story. It's just extra income and crappy, tedious, obscenely-difficult side missions. And the only thing you need money for is to buy more properties. So if you don't want the money for buying more crap properties or clothes or car upgrades, then you have no real reason to care about doing these extra missions. There just isn't a real need for money in the game as long as you don't blow all your cash right at the start. Since you don't have any ongoing expenses, the whole property mechanic feels pointless and wasteful - just like it did in GTA: San Andreas. As far as I'm concerned, it's just complicated achievement bait.
And since the narrative rarely forces you outside of the limits of Los Santos, there isn't anything to do in the countryside except for side quests and purchasing property. This makes 2/3rds of the map feel like a complete waste.
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A brighter, more colorful Grand Theft Auto
The highway network can get pretty crowded in the city, but the technology still can't handle the sheer volume of cars that leads to the gridlock that the real Los Angeles is infamous for.
So while I don't like GTA V's overall design and story when compared against GTA IV, it does excel at a technical level. This game is much brighter and more colorful, and it's leaps-and-bounds ahead of GTA IV visually. The countryside around Los Santos is gorgeous and highly immersive, and it's too bad that the narrative didn't force players to spend more time out in the wilderness to enjoy the scenery and soak in the details.
The lighting engine is spot on and casts realistic shadows that move continuously with the motion of the sun in the sky. Trees and foliage look very believable. Wildlife will run out in front of cars and be promptly turned into roadkill. The highways have rumblestrips on the sides and median that cause the controller to shake if you start to dose off and drift out of your lane. You can turn on your cars headlights, including the high beams (for traveling in the most remote of areas at night). The radio stations will even go in and out of service depending on whether you're in Los Santos or in the more rural countryside. There's a lot of attention to detail in the game world, and it really makes a difference and provides a tremendous sense of place!
It's a shame the developers didn't add more worthwhile stuff to do outside of town. It would be nice to have spent more time in the scenic countryside.
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The Archipelago States of America: a pet peeve
I do have one pet peeve with the design of the game world. It doesn't affect the quality of the game at all, but it bothers me, and I have to address it:
Why is the map still on an island?!
Is this some long-standing practical joke that the designers at Rockstar think is still funny?
Using water as a natural barrier worked fine in GTA III, but that was only because the character couldn't swim. Now, not only can the characters swim, they can SCUBA dive, drive boats and submarines, and fly planes. The water doesn't act as a barrier anymore - it hasn't since Vice City. The devs still have to put up an invisible wall somewhere out in the water that the player can't pass. What's wrong with blocking off one side of the map with a mountain range or endless expanse of desert (with a sign that teases us that Las Venturas is only 100 miles that way)? It would be functionally the same. And heck, Rockstar did that in Red Dead Redemption! The GTA depiction of the United States as an archipelago is getting tired and silly, especially now that gameplay mechanics have evolved beyond its usefulness.
If they wanted to set the game on an island (or island chain), then they should have set it in the GTA equivalent of Hawai'i, and the game's title should have been Grand Theft Auto Five-O!
Other games have also found creative ways to corral the player back into the map. The Saboteur turned the limits of Paris into a warzone complete with landmines and patrolling fighter planes that were waiting to strafe you to death if you wandered too far off the map. Rockstar could have programmed GTA V so that if you drive too far out into the desert, your car overheats and you have to hitch a ride back into the city, or the character just falls asleep and drives into a ditch and has to be towed back to town, or a jackknifed truck blocks the mountain pass, or a herd of cows blocks off the road, and so on. There's plenty of methods for creatively and thematically forcing the player to turn around. Putting Los Santos on an island is just a dull and [now] useless gimmick.
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In the shadows of a masterpiece
The majority of the gameplay mechanics in GTA V work pretty well. I have some complaints with the way that the controls are so inconsistent, but most of those same issues were present in GTA IV, so I can't rail too hard. Flying and swimming controls are particularly bad. Despite playing fairly well, this game just didn't have the same emotional punch that its predecessor had. The characters just weren't as likeable (although I did like Lester and the subtly humorous ways that he interacted with Franklin), and the story just didn't hold my attention as much. Most of the game's drama stems from one of the characters (usually Trevor) pissing someone off, and then everybody else having to collect money to pay said person off. There's just never any real sense of tension. Everytime the stakes seem to get raised, the next mission diffuses the tension and returns the story to the status quo (with a few exceptions).
GTA V shows a level of quality, scope, and desire to innovate that is lacking from many mainstream game releases, and it's well worth playing. But I think Rockstar might have to accept that Liberty City is where they really shine. Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA V all fell a little flat for me; whereas, GTA III and GTA IV felt like contemporary masterpieces. I still consider GTA IV to be Rockstar's magnum opus, and GTA V does not even come close to unseating it.
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