The fifth installment of the Grand Theft Auto series was published a month ago on September 17th 2013 and is already a huge commercial success, grossing $800 million in the first 24h after release. Video game reviews are unanimous, it’s a visual masterpiece, but is it really a video game masterpiece?
The question is less frivolous than it seems. Video games are a complex medium combining several different elements, from visuals to sound, from gameplay to storytelling, and each piece cannot exist without the others. In a video game masterpiece, all those pieces are well-adjusted so that it provides a great overall experience to the player. And if I agree that Grand Theft Auto 5 is indeed a work of visual and sound art, I feel it lacks in the way the gameplay and the storytelling alike. Let’s get down to the details.
Let’s start with the obvious, the storytelling failures. Like many critics, I have been mildly uncomfortable when I had to torture a poor guy that already wanted to talk before I started. I say “had to” because I couldn’t not do it. It’s a seemingly critical part of the plot and seems to be part of an inept critique of torture by U.S. government, but completely misses the point by not allowing players to choose whether or not torturing this Azerbaijani guy. Instead, we got a lecture afterwards by the psychotic playable character Trevor on the uselessness of the torture, although he probably enjoyed every bit of it. Point missed again.
If the rest of the story had so much as the beginnings of a meaning, that particular scene could have been overlooked as an isolated mistake. Unfortunately it is not the case. Each playable character from the 3 available fits his stereotype so well that each mission is painstakingly outlining a particular trait of that stereotype. And the player has absolutely no part, no decision, no influence over it. It’s just an easy stunt game with expected cutscenes before and after. Which brings me to the second part of my critic, the gameplay.
In Grand Theft Auto 5, everything is easy. Driving is easy, shooting is easy, climbing is easy and playing tennis is easy. Everything is simplified up to the point where there’s no real challenge anymore. Even losing the cops is quite easy, you just have to drive fast in a straight line and turn at some private entrance, and both are easy. Sure, there’s feats you can try to achieve in each mission, but I would never do them again, for fear of the dreaded cliché cutscenes.
The problem of having everything simplified is that there’s always a game that does it better than GTA. Need for Speed does driving better than GTA. Flight Simulator does flying better than GTA. Call of Duty or Battlefield do gunfights better than GTA. Street Fighter does brawls better than GTA. And as long as the story was coherent and compelling enough as it was in the previous Grand Theft Auto games, those obvious comparisons could be easily overlooked. But as the game painfully stumbles from one far-fetched stunt mission to another far-fetched massacre mission, I started to wonder if my time couldn’t be better spent on better games.
Fortunately for me, I found a specific kind of mission that no other game I played does better: the heists and their preparation. I know it’s the thing of the Payday series, but it’s not as appealing as it in Grand Theft Auto 5. The approach choice, the team choice, and the seamless progress of the heist itself were a very good experience gameplay and storytelling-wise.
To end on a common critique about this game, it has been criticized to be misogynistic and show a bad image of transexual people. However, this isn’t any news. Grand Theft Auto games have a long history of mocking and joking everything and everyone. The interesting part of that critique about Grand Theft Auto 5 is that, this time, there’s nothing else but the mocking part, either in the missions or in the environment (billboards, signs, radio, overheard conversations…) and that made it stand out from a lack of serious content.
Grand Theft Auto 4 had a serious storyline with ethics choices, a challenging but rewarding driving and flying engine, and jokes on top of that. Grand Theft Auto 5 kept only the jokes, stretched to the worst clichés and stereotypes, and its commercial success is a bad news for video game industry, players included.