In the audio commentary for the movie Bad Day at Black Rock, director John Sturges quoted Alfred Hitchcock, who had told him a rule for making movies called "Meanwhile, back at the ranch." He explains, "You want to have two things going. You reach the peak of one, you go to the other. You pick the other up just where you want it. When it loses interest, drop it. Meanwhile, back at the ranch."
After its opening act, Grand Theft Auto V [official site] lets you switch at any moment between its three criminal characters: retired thief Michael, young hopeful Franklin, and the psychotic Trevor. You'll perform some missions as one and, as you grow weary or their plot begins to lose interest, you can switch to either of the others. When you arrive, their story is already in motion, and you'll find them at home, having a fight in a car park, or perhaps drunk among some farm animals. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
The impact of this structural addition to GTA's normal singleplayer ripples out throughout the game, and I think it's the story's strongest device for maintaining the integrity of its world even as its cinematic ambition continues to rub awkwardly against its pretensions towards player freedom.
I'll spend a while trying to re-unite Michael with his layabout son Jimmy and, when I tire of the A-to-B driving sections and start to consider running over pedestrians on purpose, will flick over to Franklin. I'll spend a while assassinating supposedly immoral business owners and profiting on the stock market and, as the trigger-happy repetition begins to feel like grind and I become tempted to use my firepower to create some havoc outside of the prescribed missions, I'll switch over to Trevor. I'll spend a while listening to him grumble and, as his relentless unpleasantness and psychopath-for-laughs schtick begins to make me feel sad about the game and myself, I'll switch over instead to my GTA Online character, in which violently breaking the integrity of Los Santos is rendered as playful roughhousing by the presence of other people both as audience and co-conspirators.
Splitting Grand Theft Auto's normal story of criminal excess across three distinct characters helps the game diminish or delay the consequences of those excesses. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic at first felt to me like a sympathetic character; a recent immigrant to America attempting to escape his troubled past, but being inexorably drawn back towards old patterns of violence. That sympathy quickly dissipated after around five hours, when he was essentially rich, still doing jobs for people he hated, and persisting with violence long past the point where it had stopped protecting his family and friends and started hurting them.
By comparison, GTAV's moment of lost sympathy happens later - at least in the case of Michael and Franklin - and happens for each character at a different moment. In the case of Trevor, who is unsympathetic and despicable from the start, his bond with the others makes him almost tolerable. I don't like embodying him, but I understand why the others cannot wholly reject or escape him.
The structure of the game helps, but GTAV's singleplayer is not simply a case of making the best of a bad situation. I've been surprised over the past week how much I've enjoyed revisiting these storylines and missions, after first playing them on XBox 360 at release. For much of the first half of the game at least, GTA is content to let you have fun. Michael restarts his life of crime because he is bored, aging, and desperate for excitement, and the missions are exciting, as you race down a highway after your stolen boat while Franklin jumps to and from the hood of your car, or as you perform your first heist by optionally gassing the staff of a jewellery store so you can make off without having killed anyone. Franklin, meanwhile, commits crimes because he needs money as a way out of his neighbourhood where other opportunities are non-existent. You share his thrill as he shifts from street thuggery and car theft towards more sophisticated crimes and a beautiful house in the Vinewood hills. All of this is depicted with levity and hint at an Ocean's Eleven-style game that might have been, one where crimes are caper and we get to enjoy people who enjoy each other.
On page two, the messy satire of GTA, Rockstar unfortunately being Rockstar, and thoughts on Los Santos.
Unfortunately, Rockstar too quickly revert to type. First, it's by introducing the requisite cast of assholes to act as mission givers. You feel bad for working for them, you're disempowered with every plot point they railroad you into, and your actions are rendered meaningless by every dangled mission reward that's yanked away from you by a post-completion cutscene. Second, it's by dunking the plot headfirst towards attempted social commentary with the series' now standard scattergun approach. Aren't people who believe in things all deserving of ridicule? And aren't all institutions fundamentally corrupt? All that crime you were enjoying? Maybe it's bad! Take my wife, please! Poop joke, dick joke, murder a guy, lol.
In the resulting soup, it becomes hard and then impossible to enjoy the game's hedonistic thrills. Is its embrace of and comment upon real issues a request to be taken seriously, and if so, am I meant to view Michael and Franklin as sympathetic characters, cautionary tales, or as figures of derision? Is that multiplicity and my uncertainty part of the point? And if it's a serious attempt to say anything at all, what does it mean that the game goes out of its way to make its characters seem cool - depicting Michael's life for example as empty and meaningless but then making sure you know he has a prodigious penis?
The supposed satire of GTAV is so broadreaching and messy that you can convince yourself it's about almost anything. I can spin a story about how Trevor is the personified id of every chaotic Grand Theft Auto killing spree, but for every suggestion that you're meant to hate him, there's a scene in which the game clearly believes he's funny. I can layer a theme of twisted masculinity upon the three characters and the broader world of Los Santos, but the results of that warped masculinity are celebrated and rewarded as often as they're condemned. And if masculinity is the target, why is so much effort taken to make sure you sympathise and empathise with its leads while women are solely subjects of derision, often precisely because of their femininity?
The best way to excuse all this sophomoric slop is to stand at a step removed and say: it doesn't mean anything. It's just a dumb game, designed to be dumb, so have fun. But not every person has the luxury of doing that and the game actively fights it. On some level, it seems like it doesn't want you to have fun.
The only other way I can resolve the thematic swamp is through that same thing which redeems GTAV as an enterprise in its entirety: the city itself, Los Santos. If GTAIV's Liberty City was defined by the rage of its inhabitants - a city in which, if you simply stood still on a pavement, eventually someone would come up and start hitting you - then Los Santos is defined by the feverish madness of its populace. This is not an uncommon vision of real world Los Angeles, a land of, as BLDGBLOG put it, "freeways and plate tectonics, Philip K. Dick and gang warfare, bikinis and Jurassic technology; city of tar pits and the porn industry, Joshua trees and desert gardens, Scientology and cinema – and so on. Mike Davis. The Italian Job. Anonymity and desert apocalypse." Through this lens, GTAV's treatment of human beings in its story, and the implicit and explicit endorsements it makes of certain ideas, is still despicable, but maybe I can sort of see what they were trying to do in a way that explains why all the stuff contradicts all the other stuff.
But now we come down to the reason why GTAV is great and why I love it and why I think you might find something to love within it, even if the criticisms above resonate with you. Los Santos is the most gorgeous, expensive, robust world ever to be built inside a videogame. From the fabric on the pillows in Franklin's Aunt's home to the way grass fades to sand and back again in the wilderness north of the city to the seemingly infinite variations of pedestrians who linger on Vespucci beach to the way rain-slick roads look under streetlight to the way Michael's mansion seems perfectly natural in its setting but the drive to it always seems brief and fun. Los Santos is real, and seems like it was crafted by that same system of happy accidents that gives birth to real cities, and that it wasn't, but was instead designed and deliberately constructed by videogame creators, seems impossible and magical and worthy of all the praise I can muster.
This is also why the plot's maintenance of the world's integrity is so important, because the world is why you want to play and stay in GTAV. I like shooting in it, but it seems too real to wantonly destroy for kicks and to do so might eventually peel back the facade and lay bare the limits of the simulation beneath.
So instead I prefer travelling in it. Climbing in the back of a cargo train and circumnavigating the sprawling play area, or hopping in the back of a cab and watching the city streets stream past the window, or simply walking in the new first-person mode, looking into the eyes of the city's residents or staring up at the skyscrapers or off towards some distant, climbable mountain. If I go for a drive, I like hitting ramps, or taking bicycles and motorcycles off-road and tumbling down mountains. And I like re-experiencing these journeys through the made-for-PC Replay Editor, which lets you change camera angles, filters, game speed and other details on the way towards directing your own short films. It is clunky to use and fundamentally unchanged since GTAIV's equivalent, aside from a new Director's Mode which lets you place down characters, take control of animals, and control the world in more profound ways. A fountain of creativity will spill from this and across YouTube, and even if you never unlock an inner Sturges, there's fun to be had in fiddling with recordings of your antics.
All of this is supported by the game's commitment to a certain level of simulation. It's not just that the cars wobble and characters tumble with physics. It's the traffic accidents that happen even without your involvement, and the fire brigade and paramedics who arrive to treat the injured. It's that people in real cities have mobile phones, and so you have a mobile phone with its own Instagram-equivalent and access to the game's own internet and fictional websites. It's that you can sit down in front of the TV and watch long, scripted, made-for-purpose TV shows, and then see adverts and figurines and fans of those TV shows out and about within Los Santos. If a game like SimCity lays out the infrastructure of a city at the municipal level, Grand Theft Auto V is a game concerned with depicting that same infrastructure at the human level. Crime is one way to use the city, but it offers many others, to its credit.
If I was to summarise my feelings towards GTAV in singleplayer, I would say that the game's city and world have integrity, but the rest of the game - its missions, story and characters - do not. There is fun to be found in those latter elements regardless, but I wish - as I always do with Grand Theft Auto games - that it would allow you to enjoy that fun more. Instead the major heists, around which the story is told, feel distantly spread across a saltwater ocean while you thirst for something more than drive to the place, do the bad thing, lose the cops.
On page three, hope and loathing in GTA Online, and the conclusion.
That's the singleplayer. It is possible that GTA Online is where romping thrills lie. Possible, because after more than ten hours of trying, I've only experienced brief flashes of what it's striving to provide. Hearing that it's a "persistent, open-world", with character progression in a city in which you can commit co-operative crimes conjures images of an MMO. The reality as I've experienced it is that it's akin to the multiplayer in GTAIV, which already offered 32-players in an open-world city. The difference here is that the modes of play aren't separate. You begin in free-roam with other players by default, and the other modes - deathmatch, last team standing, races, and more - are then accessed through your in-game phone. It acts like the world's worst server browser, giving you too little information about the player-created jobs you're connecting to, placing you unknowingly in full, in-progress games after a load screen, and leaving you with little other option than to quit and wait for it to load back to the open city - after which you'll likely find you're in a different server than before.
Playing with strangers is most often a disaster, as people don't communicate, communicate in yells, drive off to the mission location alone, trigger it alone, die and fail the entire mission for everyone alone.
Playing with friends, meanwhile, is a nightmare. The pause menu has JOIN FRIENDS and JOIN CREW buttons, but clicking them starts the connection process with no further information and I've often found it drops me in servers with neither friends nor crew members. Maybe there were none online at the time, but why force me to load out of my current server to find that out? You can invite or be invited to servers by friends, but almost every time I've done this, one or both of us has been in a server that's already full, forcing one of us to queue for a space to open up. Once in a server with friends, creating a mission to play together is no less baffling: player-created missions under the Jobs List will show for one player and not the other, there's no way to coordinate joining them, and by default, creating a Job of your own sees the lobby immediately filled by strangers. You can turn that off under Options, but only once you find that setting, and by then you'll have likely been separated from your friends multiple times.
If it was simply a case of learning how this opaque menu system worked then at least there'd be promise of better times to come, but much of my experiences have been marred by random disconnects. I played with friend-of-RPS Craig Pearson and we'd be on a server, driving in a car together, when one of us would suddenly vanish. Queue another round of queuing and fighting the menus. After some practice, it seems like perhaps the best way to play is by starting in a closed, just-for-friends world, though that feels like it negates the point of having a persistent world and characters to begin with.
When it does work, at early levels, it's mostly only to let you play those dull deathmatch and races. Co-operative heists can't be accessed till later unless you have a higher-level friend to create the Job for you and bring you along. This is all terribly designed.
Yet, I've encountered two flavours of fun within GTA Online so far. The first is the kind you make yourself and can do in almost any multiplayer open-world with vehicles, such as flying a helicopter to the top of the tallest skyscraper in Los Santos and flinging yourselves over the side, or attempting to leap a motorbike over the blades of a low-hovering helicopter, or, really, anything to do with helicopters. I enjoyed doing this in GTAIV, I enjoy doing it in GTAV. As an activity, it's less impressive than it once was - I also enjoy doing it in Just Cause 2's just-as-stable multiplayer mod, for example - but it's still great.
Second, the co-operative missions, either heists or performed for NPCs from the base game, provide ample opportunity for antics while still providing more satisfying direction in your objective. Craig and I had fun teaming up with two strangers in order to steal some cars, for example - and a physics glitch involving a floating car and one stranger disconnecting mid-way only served to make the experience more enjoyable, not less - and I suspect there's much more fun like this to be had. I imagine, with new knowledge and some patched fixes, I could also spend the next fifty hours in GTA Online having enough fun experiences to make the frustrations of the first ten hours be forgotten. Or maybe not. Either way, I have wanted it to be good, and it has been a frustrating waste of my time. This should not be excused.
Nor should the other myriad problems with the overall game's stability or port. It's not as bad as GTAIV: I get a steady 60 frames per second on almost max settings and my computer is good but not top of the range, the graphics options are plentiful, and as bad as the multiplayer is, it's better than when it was powered by Games For Windows Live.
But there are still bugs. I've experienced half a dozen hard crashes to desktop. I've experienced other pop-up error messages after which I could keep playing. Adam has been trying all week to get the game to work but it says he needs an .exe file neither he nor I have. The fix, discovered last night, was to completely uninstall - not disable - his virus checker. At all levels of severity, there are a growing list of problems. Patches are forthcoming I'm sure, but we waited a long time for this already. For a game this expensive not to work so fundamentally for so many people seems inexcusable.
At this point, I've written over 3000 words and it feels like I've only scratched the surface of Grand Theft Auto V. I could talk more about Trevor, or I could go into detail about the gun and car-handling, or I could explain the ways that first-person does and does not work in a game that wasn't initially built for it. (On this last note at least: I like first-person and use it all the time, though it means you can't later edit camera angles in the Replay Editor, the PC version's other addition. I understand why this is the case but it creates a tension the entire time I am playing, which is testament to how great both features are).
I could meanwhile, back at the ranch all day, in other words, because there are far more than two things going on simultaneously in Grand Theft Auto V. For every moment when part of its plot loses interest, you are blissfully able to drop it and pick another strand up instead - even eventually able to skip parts you're stuck on. For every moment when it is objectionable for no good reason at all, you are free to drop what you're doing, and go take selfies in front of a sunset instead. For every moment when its mission linearity is restrictive, you are free to cycle away and skydive off a clifftop.
For every moment when GTA disappoints, meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's probably something wonderful, beautiful, silly or sublime happening elsewhere in the triumph that is Los Santos.
Here endeth the review. On the final page, some thoughts on GTA Online from earlier in the review process - optional reading at best.
The below is what I wrote after my first day of playing GTA, with an even split between the singleplayer and multiplayer. My write-up focused on GTA Online and the problems I was having with it - and some of the below is covered if you've read the review on the pages that precede this. Read on only if you want a little more detail.
I've played almost four hours of GTA Online and I haven't had any fun yet. I've been trying - to find a Last Team Standing match in which my foes aren't overpowered or barely visible, a race where my opponents don't teleport due to lag, to participate in heist preparation in which the other players communicate or at least stick together, or to make my own fun with Los Santos' open world of vehicles, guns and players. But any moment of levity has felt like it's come in spite of the game, not because of it.
Grand Theft Auto V [official site] came out on console 574 days ago, so there's a good chance you've played it, read about it, watched videos about it, or made up your mind about it long ago. The PC version of Grand Theft Auto V came out at midnight however, which means you might have some questions: Is the performance good? Does it offer a broad array of PC graphics options? Is the PC-exclusive Replay Editor improved over what we had in GTAIV? Is first-person mode everything we dreamed it to be? Has GTA Online grown beyond those teething problems that made for such a bumpy launch on PS3 and 360? I'll endeavor to answer each of those questions over the next couple of days, updating this feature as I go and eventually sloping my way towards an all-encompassing review - with a few new words on singleplayer, too, just in case you haven't read about it before.
But for now: I've played almost four hours of GTA Online and I haven't had any fun yet.
GTA Online is Grand Theft Auto V's persistent, multiplayer cousin. It takes place within the same open world of Los Santos, but instead of playing as singleplayer stars Michael, Franklin or Trevor, you create a character of your own via a neat system which begins with choosing a parental pairing to determine the basics of your appearance. After you've tweaked your eyebrow shape, nose width and how much your chin looks like a butt, you're set loose to make your mark upon the city. That means taking Jobs, which are online missions and game modes and range from races, deathmatch and last team standing modes, to committing crimes alone or with others for NPC characters familiar from the singleplayer story, to taking part in co-operative heists.
In theory, these missions should combine to create a constantly rolling experience across the surface of GTA's beautiful open world, in which you tumble from caper to caper against a background of multiplayer japes, and are regularly rewarded with character progression through levels, and money with which you can buy outfits, cars, and eventually apartments. In reality, I've found the experience far from frictionless.
After a brief introduction in which you do missions for a couple of NPC characters, you're turfed loose into the world with their names in your phone but without a high enough level to call them to get jobs. Instead, you're reliant on joining Jobs created by other, higher level players. These are accessed via an app on your in-game phone, where you can see who has created the activity and what it involves. If it's a race, you might get a description of the area and type of cars you'll be driving. Choose to connect though and you're spinning a wheel and hoping for a good experience.
I've joined races and, after the loading screen, found half the players juddering around Los Santos' streets, appearing in front of me one moment and behind me the next. I've joined races and discovered that they're already in progress, leaving me with the option to either spectate or quit back to the open world. The latter means another loading screen and being deposited in a different place than I was before; the former comes with no guarantee that the other players won't up and quit as soon as their current race is done.
Pick Last Team Standing and you're likely to find that the guns are limited to those the players own, which you carry with you at all times, and those that you can pick up around the level. This was my first experience playing GTA Online and I hadn't yet visited a gun store to stock up on weaponry, and the mode's menu screen only allowed me to buy a pistol. Every other player in the game had machineguns and the only weapons I could find lying around were other pistols. I resolved this afterwards by visiting a weapon shop and stocking up, but not before a couple of round of being blown away by opponents I had little chance of hitting. I could have quit, of course, but this risked branding me as a Bad Sport, and if that happened often enough I'd eventually only be able to play with other Bad Sports.
Of the Jobs so far available to me, the most appealing is a four-player co-op mission to prepare for a heist. This involves driving out to an airfield, three players clearing it of enemies, while a fourth steals a plane and flies it to safety. The mission begins with a long five-minute drive and each player able to either ride together or pile into separate vehicles.
In my experiences so far - I've played through this same mission seven times - people almost universally leap into separate vehicles and race off independently. On the five minute drive there, they naturally go at different speeds, by crashing, wrecking their cars, or finding themselves lost or stuck. Unfortunately this usually doesn't stop the person who arrives at the airfield first immediately starting the shootout, and unfortunately a single person getting killed instantly fails the mission for every player. All of my attempts at this have gone the same way: at least one player gets left behind and arrives minutes late, and by the time they've arrived, someone else has got themselves killed. There's either no or irregular checkpointing, so this returns you to that long drive or at least a shortened version of it.
The counter to these criticisms are obvious: it's my own fault that trying to play a co-operative mission with random internet strangers. When is that not a recipe for disaster. I will certainly find a team of friends with whom to play the game with, but surely some of the appeal of a persistent, open world is negated if it requires a group of close-knit friends before it becomes fun. And even with a posse of buds, there's little they could do about the lagging races - which can't compete with races in, say, a racing game anyway - or the slightly dull deathmatch modes, which can't compete with, say, a deathmatch game.
I hope I'm wrong, and that I grind my way through these early levels until the game opens up, and the online heists turn out to be as fun with friends as I imagine they could be. But right now, GTA Online feels like it has the same problem as GTAIV's nascent multiplayer, in that it's the kind of experience where you and your friends have to make your own fun. This might not be so bad, of course. I spent dozens of hours crafting stunts and other chicanery with a crew in GTAIV's open world, and there's even greater potential to be found in Los Santos.
Making your own fun is, of course, a staple of Grand Theft Auto even in singleplayer. Put 30 minutes into the game - to play through two, short, character-defining tutorial missions - and you're turfed loose in its open world, free to go anywhere without the limitations of locked islands that plagued previous Grand Theft Auto games. You'll be limited to playing as Franklin, not yet able to cycle between multiple characters at any moment, but you'll be free to do the things that make GTAV fun even to those who find its po-faced and inhibitive macho-man storyline a bore.
The first thing I did was grab a car and go driving to the beach, where I took photos of passers-by with the in-game cameraphone. Then I drove up the coast, till the sunset, at which point I ditched the car in favour of riding a cargo train around the entire extents of Los Santos. I saw rabbits hop, mountain lions roar, factory chimney stacks rise up in front of glorious mountains, and I arrived back in downtown in time for the sunrise. It was energising, and I will spend a hundred more hours doing similar between now and the inevitable release of GTAVI.
Shortly after my soulful tourist trip, I punched a man off a cliff just to watch his ragdoll tumbled down the mountainside. I then spent the next thirty minutes editing a video of this using the Replay Editor. I'll write more about that tomorrow.
For now, I'll finish with a brief performance report. On my i7-4770K, with 16GB RAM and a GTX 780, I'm getting almost uniformly 60fps with the graphics settings on near-maximum. During busy action scenes, the frame rate drops to 40fps, but that's a small price to pay for how good it looks.
More worrying right now is how often I've experienced crashes. Once during a singleplayer cutscene; twice while playing online; three times while attempting to view the Gallery on the pause menu. I've also had mission fail screens remain even after a new round has started, and for some reason the benchmark test under the graphics options stalls midway in a Mission Fail. PCGamingWiki have created a catalog these errors and more, along with some simple workarounds for those that can be worked around. None of these things have stopped me playing, but they're a frustration for a game that took 574 and multiple delays to get to us.
Tomorrow, I'll update this article with more on performance, the Replay Editor, the singleplayer and I suspect GTA Online after I've played it with friends and advanced a few more levels. What are your experiences so far? Beyond waiting a hundred hours for it to download.