So Close, So Far

Grand Theft Auto V Screenshot

HIGH Flying a crop duster into a cargo plane, then riding a jeep out of it.

LOW The frustrating early mission that introduces the wonky drive-by mechanics.

WTF We're escaping a full-on military response by hopping onto a freakin' freight train?

The most telling arc of missions in Grand Theft Auto V involves one of its protagonists, Michael, in a movie production.

The missions themselves are nothing special: an infiltration, a few chases, an explosive shootout—all par for the course in Rockstar's brand of open-world crime game, but the arc is remarkable for the tone it adopts. In its relentless cynicism, GTA V rarely lets its protagonists have an unqualified win, but it never completely pulls the rug out from under Michael here. Despite their game's tone, Rockstar can't bring themselves to say no to the dream of Hollywood.

The goal of the Grand Theft Auto games (since their first 3D incarnation) has been to make something like a playable crime movie. This desire underpins their envelope-pushing visuals, the kinds of stories the games tell, and even the nature of the worlds. For all their beauty, the limited interactivity of the cities themselves has always made GTA's worlds feel like an avenue of false fronts on some studio backlot. The aim is to create a world that looks convincing, rather than one that acts convincing.

In this context, the decision to introduce a playable first-person view for PS4 and XBox One seems superfluous at best. The implementation is competent, even slick, but it doesn't speak to the game's aesthetic goals in any meaningful way. The game's core tasks—moving, shooting from cover, and driving—all worked smoothly, showing significant advances over GTA IV's occasionally clunky play. However, despite being welcome, the smoothness of the controls doesn't address the central problem confronting cinematic games. That is, the visual features necessary to make a playable game forbid even the most basic techniques for storytelling in film.

I've gone on about this enough in the past that I won't attempt a serious elaboration here; at any rate the basic problem is self-evident. Close-ups, long shots, low angles, cross-cutting… virtually every camera trick that skilled filmmakers use to convey plot and emotion is forbidden to games by the requirement of playability. A film's camera can start at a character's feet as he steps out of a car and move up to focus on his face as he mows down gangsters, but if this happened in a playable game moment it would undoubtedly result in epic controller-throwing fits. Worse, the need to stick with the player's character prevents any playable cross-cutting between action at different points.

Grand Theft Auto V doesn't solve all these problems, but it aces the last one. The decision to allow (and occasionally force) the player to switch between three separate protagonists gives GTA V the power to explore more intricate incidents without relying on cut-scenes. Vanishingly few games have even attempted this, and almost none of those have succeeded. GTA V makes it work seamlessly, and backs it up with ally AI that keeps the non-player characters alive and moving naturally to the right points without making them functionally immortal.

GTA V shows off the character-switching by depicting a series of increasingly elaborate heists that call for its three protagonists to play critical roles simultaneously. The detailed planning also imposes pacing and story arcs on the mission structure since the characters need to case the joint before acting, then get their hands on the special tools they need to complete the job before the explosive finale.

That said, the game still has a few too many missions that boil down to "here's an area full of guys, kill all of them", and a surfeit of scripted chases and rubber-banded races. The quality of the heist missions makes up for a lot, however, even if so many of them are inspired or directly lifted from crime movies. However, GTA V shoots itself in the foot when it takes moments from movies such as Heat because they're all it manages to lift—compelling characterization and conflict are almost completely absent from this game.

A common complaint about Rockstar's work is that they never create good female characters, but even if Hollywood gave them some good material to copy, GTA V demonstrates that they couldn't pull it off. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are passable pastiches of Robert De Niro, Ice Cube, and Jack Nicholson (in crazy mode) respectively, but their motivations are thin and dull, their growth is minimal, and their interactions are tedious and repetitive. While Rockstar have largely overcome their habit of forcing their characters to be unnaturally incompetent and pliable in cut-scenes, they can't muster anything like the through-line of shared obsessiveness on opposite sides of the law that animated Heat.

Instead of drama, Rockstar constantly streams jokes into the world, but it rarely manages to muster any perspective other than to say "America: crazy place, huh?" like a low-rent observational comedian dying at open-mic night. It's not satire so much as cynicism—a universal disdain that GTA V slings against politicians, women, the rich, the poor, and its own players. Worse, GTA V's digs mostly feel like a pro forma exercise, and a tepid rehash of jokes that weren't particularly funny when they were first made years ago by more nimble humorists. GTA V did provoke a fair few laughs, but never when it was pushing its artless brand of "satire".

When all is said and done, Rockstar's playable Hollywood feature remains a dream rather than a reality, despite all of GTA V's considerable accomplishments. In a graphical and mechanical sense, Rockstar are as close as they've ever come to achieving a true synthesis of cinema and gameplay. What they seem unable to do is come up with compelling characters or an interesting story to tell with them. Grand Theft Auto V is as visually arresting as the greatest crime movies ever made, but it's as thoughtful and moving as the worst. Rating: 8 out of 10


Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 60 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed twice) and 2 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs and alcohol. Do I really need to say anything here? GTA is the archetypical game that is not suitable for children.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The vast majority of main character dialogue is subtitled, as are some of the ambient sounds. Most sound cues of any importance are accompanied by graphical cues. Colorblind individuals may have some trouble differentiating character-specific mission icons.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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