Wait, you haven’t played Grand Theft Auto V? Seriously? I obviously haven’t done my job if you missed this review and the top pick on this list of my favorite games of 2013. But if you’ve got Playstation 4 or Xbox One, your timing is impeccable. Rockstar’s latest and greatest is ready for you and there’s no excuse for you to miss out on an absolute masterpiece of modern videogaming. It’ll even be along on the PC shortly. Oh boy, are you in for a treat.
But what if you’ve already played it on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3? Is this newest release relevant to you?
After the jump, when is it worth buying a game a second time?
During the transition to Blu-ray, remember when you had a movie on DVD and then it came out on Blu-ray? If the movie was good enough, if it meant enough to you, there was no question. You bought the Blu-ray version and then you just had to decide what to do with the DVD. Keep it? Why? When were you ever going to watch that instead of the Blu-ray? Give it away to someone? Who wants a DVD of a movie available on Blu-ray? But the issue was never whether you should be content with the DVD version. That’s just crazy. Having a movie on DVD that was also available on Blu-ray was tantamount to just not having the movie.
That’s how I feel about this latest release of Grand Theft Auto V for a number of reasons. You might have it for the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. You might have spent your fifty plus hours seeing through to the end — and beyond — the saga of three disaffected men, each a facet of the mind of a videogamer in an open world. You might have exhaustively criss-crossed Rockstar’s sometimes canny and sometimes grotesque parody of Los Angeles. You might have even leveled up a character in the often clunky online multiplayer. So you probably know that Grand Theft Auto V is a game too ambitious, too generous, too ample, and just too damn good to languish in its last-gen incarnation. You don’t need me to tell you that you’ll want this game for a latest-gen system. But I’m going to do it anyway.
I can offer four reasons a seasoned Grand Theft Auto V player will want to re-buy it for the Playstation 4 or Xbox One. First and mostly obvious, there’s enough of an improvement in the technology that it really matters. Los Santos and Blaine County look so much better than they did on the last-gen systems. The amount of detailed real estate wrung from last-gen systems was astonishing, but you could see the limits of the technology. You could almost hear your console creaking and groaning under the strain, like a submarine well past its crush depth. There was a definite sense of “we can go this far and no farther”.
But that strain is entirely lifted now and in its place is the effortless grace of an ambitious engine given as much power as it needs. It’s a technical marvel easily the equal of any of Ubisoft’s gorgeous open worlds. You can read road signs as you drive. You can admire posters up close. You can see farther and with considerably more detail. Look across the Alamo Sea, take in the view from Michael’s patio, or drive down out of the hills into Vineland. It looks as marvelous as it should. The world of Grand Theft Auto V is brimming with atmosphere and attention to detail and now it’s all realized with unprecedented technical power. How many game worlds bear up under the discerning eye of photographers like these and melancholy like this?
Then there’s the significant gameplay impact of putting extra cars on the street! The increased traffic density is truly wondrous for how much better it looks and for how much more challenging it makes the driving. In one of the early story missions, Michael and Franklin chase a yacht being towed along Pacific Coast Highway down to Long Beach. The mayhem on the last-gen version is fine, but it’s nothing compared to playing on this latest version. It’s like the difference between a car chase in an indie movie and a car chase in a Michael Bay movie. Grand Theft Auto V on the Playstation 4 really puts the auto back in the title!
The second reason to replay this latest version is the new first-person perspective. The Grand Theft Auto series has always been a third-person endeavor, which suits its emphasis on character. You could always see your character, and he was always smack-dab in the middle of the action. But Rockstar now lets you play Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a first-person shooter. And even if this mode doesn’t work for you, it’s worth trying just so you can see how much work Rockstar put into it. This isn’t just a quick n’ dirty adjustment. It’s a major bullet point for a reason. It feels natural, it looks great, it’s supported for all modes in the game, and it gives the action a completely different feel.
That said, I don’t use it. I’m too attached to seeing my character during the on-foot segments. Like Tomb Raider or Uncharted, I think of Grand Theft Auto V as a character driven narrative, and I don’t want to take the character away. It’s interesting to get a closer look at the tattoos on Trevor’s hands, and to use the cell phone as physical objects, and to admire the detailed weapon models right under your nose. You can even configure the view so that it’ll pop into third person when you take cover, letting you see your targets even when you’re protected, which is one of the main benefits of a third-person perspective in a cover shooter. But for me, it’s less interesting than having the characters fully present.
For driving, the cockpit views inside all the cars are absolutely lovely. But it’s harder to get around with the viewpoint down lower so you can’t see as far ahead. Furthermore, Grand Theft Auto V is much more about the rough-and-tumble of sliding around and banging into things beside you and having to back up and carefully taking tight corners, all of which fare better with the increased situational awareness of a view from outside the car. Unlike most racing games, where once your front bumper has passed something you can put it out of your mind, Grand Theft Auto V really wants that wider field of view.
Still, on foot and in cars, the first-person view is nice for an occasional visit, and it’s surprisingly convenient: just tap the touchpad in the middle of the controller and you can pop in and out of whichever view you prefer. I can’t deny enjoying a relaxed drive from inside the car from time to time. And if I played more multiplayer, I might find myself enjoying it more as a first-person shooter. But whatever the case, this new view is a significant feature, even if you don’t use it often.
The third reason this is the definitive Grand Theft Auto V even for those of us who’ve played Grand Theft Auto V is more music! And not just a couple songs. Literally dozens. In fact, I just counted: 161 new songs. Now it’s worth noting Rockstar quietly patched several songs out of the Steam version of Grand Theft Auto IV recently. I presume owning Grand Theft Auto V on physical media means I’m mostly safe from that sort of thing, although who can tell what’s going on with music licensing these days. For all I know, some of these songs are only good for a limited time. It’s a shame recent events have introduced uncertainty about licensed songs in a game where they add so much value. But for the time being, Grand Theft Auto V on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 is a smorgasbord of varied music stations brimming with songs and commentary. And now there are even more songs on most of the radio stations, and even a new radio station with Danny McBride as the host. To think that I used to play without Kansas’ Carry On My Wayward Son, M83’s Midnight City, and the Jackson 5’s I Believe in Miracles.
Fourth and most importantly, Grand Theft Auto V is a game that’s so damn good that it bears up under a second playthrough, even this close to the initial release. One of the signs of a great movie is that it rewards additional viewings, because a great movie isn’t just great for the discovery of seeing it the first time. It’s great for the experience of seeing it, even though it’s the exact same movie you saw the first time. I’m not sure that’s true of many games, where being replayable is usually synonymous with something being different the second time around. But Grand Theft Auto V is replayable not because anything changes, but because the experience is so sublime, often in the same ways that great movies are great. You can’t deny the talented voice acting, incisive writing, natural animation, and deft cinematic touch that goes into the cutscenes. The dialogue is just as alive the second time around, crackling with audacity, with mundane poetry, with wit, with insight. It’s really disappointing that big budget AAA games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Assassin’s Creed: Unity still can’t manage cutscenes without awkward videogame conventions like weird pauses, creepy animation, unimaginative blocking, and careless composition. Middling writing is bad enough. But why do other games fail so miserably at cutscenes and yet rely on them as a foundation for storytelling? Why is there such a low standard for competent videogame cutscenes? Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps better than any other videogame, knows how to craft cutscenes that compare to great movies. This is even true when the “cutscenes” are just dialogue that plays while you drive to a designated point. This doesn’t diminish their effectiveness in the least, partly because the act of driving through Los Santos can be such a dazzling backdrop.
But then there’s the gameplay. The mission design in Grand Theft Auto V is top-notch, which is a remarkable accomplishment in an open-world game, where story missions often mean betraying the appeal of the entire genre. But almost without exception, the story missions are a delight. Not once was my reaction “ugh, I have to do this mission again”. Instead, my reaction was routinely, “oh right, this one!” Whether it’s Trevor chasing a downed lear jet across the desert, or the phenomenal bank robbery in Paleto Bay, or even the infamous torture scene, the story missions are among the strongest points in Grand Theft Auto V, and they hold up a second time around. In fact, this is a rare game where they included varied dialogue during some of the missions so that you might hear things differently when you replay them. The differences tend to be subtle, but they’re differences nonetheless. So it’s possible that you technically missed content if you didn’t replay these missions. What kind of Grand Theft Auto V completionist are you?
So are there any drawbacks to upgrading to this version of Grand Theft Auto V? For instance, do you lose your progress in the multiplayer game? Nope. Rockstar lets you import your previous multiplayer character into the upgraded game. I suppose there’s a case to be made that you could spend the many hours it takes to play through Grand Theft Auto V with something you haven’t played. I wouldn’t make that case, mainly since I feel there are so few games this good. But it’s still a case that could be made. Theoretically.
But for me, Grand Theft Auto V on the Playstation 4 is a no-brainer, just as easy as the decision to get your favorite movie on Blu-ray. With this latest version, Rockstar’s latest game is no longer just a masterpiece. It’s now a state-of-the-art technical marvel. On many levels, you haven’t seen what videogames can accomplish until you’ve played this version Grand Theft Auto V.
Grand Theft Auto V
A grand psychoanalysis and canny indictment of open-worlds, of videogame characters, of slaughter without consequence, of the entertainment industry, of race, of gender, of men, of cars and guns, of enchanced interrogation, of music and TV stations, of Southern California, of America. The iconoclasts at Rockstar have finally found a voice -- indeed, a set of voices -- to give clarity, structure, and operatic scale to the disaffected "fuck you's" they've been muttering since they first envisioned a world where you could just take whatever car you want. Mean, petty, grand, sublime, ongoing, stunning, unforgettable, relevant, epic, intimate, and something that you could only do in a videogame. Instead of asking "where is the Citizen Kane of videogames?", we should ask "where is the Grand Theft Auto V of movies?"