written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
To live and die in LS! Rockstar is back with another Grand Theft Auto game and this one has us going back to the great state of San Andreas, the setting of the best selling PS2 game of all time. It’s been a hot minute (almost a decade to be exact) since the last San Andreas romp, the city is bigger and different in many ways, but still oozes west coast charm. Now let me welcome everybody to the wild wild west.
I’ve been on the fence between looking forward to this game or rather just getting to it eventually, as much as I loved GTA IV (and the DLC stories that followed) the ending left such a lackluster taste in my mouth, like all the awesome moments in between that first scene with the boat to the final scene before the credits roll, even though there were two different endings to GTA IV, they felt like slight variations of the same thing, kind of killed replay ability a bit for me.
A fresh and innovative take on the protagonist is explored in this game, rather than having the player step into the shoes of one character, you are given the reigns to control three distinctly different characters from three distinctly different backgrounds. Michael is the former criminal who “retires” from the game after a bank robbery goes south and he enters witness protection, Franklin is young African-American representing the Grove Street Fam, and Trevor is Michael’s former running mate and currently runs a meth operation in the boonies. The narrative revolves around these three central characters and their struggles with each other and the central powers that be that try to control their fate.
At its core, the story is about making money the only way they know how to, illegitimately with a mountain of corpses in their wake. The story’s central missions revolve around heists; think every summer action flick involving heists and fast getaways. Not just pigeonholed into a formulaic story, the journey of these three characters is equal parts Fast and the Furious meets No Country for Old Men.
I felt that the story was the strongest suit of this entire package. Gone are the pointless fetch quests and missions from GTA IV like driving hookers to clients and what not, the secondary and tertiary missions hold just as much weight (as far as the narrative is involved) as do the heists or central story missions. One element I mentioned that I did not like about GTA IV was the way the ending just felt like moderately tweaked versions of the same end. When the final choice is presented and you as the player chose to pick option A, B, or C… the end results are all so very different it begs for replaying.
This world is huge; this ain’t your big brother’s San Andreas. While some locales may feel a bit familiar from CJ’s romp through San Andreas, the scope of it is just so much bigger it begs to be explored. I found myself just going for a long drive the moment I had control of my character outside of missions. From the bustling city of Los Santos to the barren meth-fueled Sandy Shores, each main location is carefully crafted. While the world may be bigger, I did notice that interior locales were not as frequent as they were in Liberty City. Maybe I need to explore a bit more but I couldn’t find any public places like Hospitals or Police Stations that my character could enter. Some cultural nods like the Vinewood sign (based on the Hollywood sign) and the Playboy mansion can be discovered (you can even find the famous Grotto). Their attention to detail is astounding and makes for a fun world to explore.
There is a definite bump in visual fidelity. Characters emote better than they did in GTA IV and the current trend of hiring real actors to mo-cap their digital avatars is clearly evident. The story based cinematic sequences felt like watching a movie or television show. With all the good do come some bad; it's obvious that Rockstar pushed the capabilities of the current generation to its proverbial brink. Noticeable hiccups like draw distance pop in and even some graphical glitches pulled me out of the experience. While not too often, I did notice that at later missions this glitchy nature was more evident than early points of the game.
This has to be the best-voiced game in the pantheon of GTA experiences. From the main characters to secondary characters, they all had character. Even random pedestrians on the street had stories to tell. Try walking along a busy street and just listen in on someone on his or her phone or a group of construction workers having a conversation. This lends to how “alive” this city feels, I thought Liberty City teemed with character, but GTA V’s San Andreas makes GTA IV’s Liberty City feel two-dimensional. The music is a great selection of west-coast hip-hop, top 40, pop, and even classic rock. Driving on the 5 from Los Santos to Sandy Shores feels pretty epic when a song you love comes on the radio.
The gameplay is largely unchanged from the previous iteration; the cover-based gunplay of GTA IV is back. Each character has varying levels of proficiency in a myriad of stats, from shooting to driving, these are naturally “leveled up” by gameplay, running helps build stamina so a protip is to run as often as possible. New to the gameplay are special skills unique to each of the three, when their special skill meter fills up, you can click the analog sticks to activate bullet-time-esque slow down (Michael), slowed-down-focused driving (Franklin), and crazy-rage-mode (Trevor). A new stealth mode allows the player to sneak up on enemies or unsuspecting pedestrians for quiet stealth skills. This mode I rarely used and rather went in guns blazing most of the time. Speaking of guns, the customization options for weaponry is robust! Walking into an Ammunition treats you to not just buying new boomsticks, but also adding suppressors or a new coat of paint to the respective weapon.
Driving is greatly improved, every car handles dramatically differently depending on the type of car you are driving or the terrain you are driving on. Modding your vehicles at any of the Los Santos Customs locations further improves your ride. What helps out is that every character has their own personal car that always respawns at your safe house, even if you blow it to shit with a rocket launcher. And much like GTA games of the past, you can save cars you steal in your respective garages. On the flip side, flying is still shit. I found myself so frustrated whenever I had to do a flying mission with either a helicopter or an airplane. After failing multiple times you are given the option to skip them, and I did that quite a few times. This pulls away from my enjoyment because there are many missions where flying is a central part of the mission or heist. I hope they can improve this in future installments of the franchise.
A bit outside of the main game, you can download an app for your iPhone or iPad called iFruit. This connects to your Rockstar Social account and links directly to your game, allowing you to train Franklin’s dog Chop or customize each characters respective ride. It’s a fun distraction but I found myself rarely using it on the go.
This game was a fantastic experience, while a few major hiccups did draw me out of the experience a few times and the horrendous flying mechanic made for some expletive heavy gaming moments. All in all, I enjoyed this game. The more engaging story with the sheer magnitude of this huge setting made for an unforgettable gaming experience. While not confirmed, I’m sure there will be next-gen ports of this game. Hopefully they will be just as awesome as this current gen package.