It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, but it’s also classic Grand Theft Auto. Like the graphics and the size of the open world, the vulgarity reaches new heights in GTA V – and it’s what makes it perhaps the funniest game in the series. It’s a constant assault on Americanism and all that it entails; the recent financial crisis, cultural trends, techno-utopianism and political issues all get skewered.
Talk shows, for example, complain about LifeInvader, a social network spoof of Facebook where the average employee age is 14.4, while the “Fame or Shame” TV show challenges contestants to be “the most racist guy in America.” Radio ads, meanwhile, entreat listeners to vote for legalizing medical cocaine. A paparazzo complains to Franklin about how smartphones have eviscerated his business. Another spot advertises a new drug called Toilet Cleaner – “It’s time to smoke a real bowl.”
The game – like its predecessors – casts a wicked mirror on pop culture, which is all the more ironic considering how much of a part of the zeitgeist Grand Theft Auto has become. It’s almost a pop culture Ouroboros by this point.
Aside from all the little things introduced and added through the sheer size of the world, the game also takes some new strides in its core gameplay. The most obvious departure is the inclusion of three protagonists, which the player can generally switch between at will. Joining Trevor and Franklin is Michael, a retired bank robber who’s living comfortably in Los Santos as part of the witness-protection program. Trevor and Michael used to run jobs together, while Franklin is an up-and-coming hustler who considers Michael as something of a mentor. Fate throws the trio together and they end up working together on a number of missions, often uneasily so.
The new gameplay is mechanically sound and also helps serve the narrative. Story-wise, it takes the series away from its old standby – the low-level criminal’s violent rise to the top. Michael is already well established, with lots of money, a big house and fancy cars. While accumulating wealth and buying businesses around town is still a concern, that’s not the main motivation in this game. Both Franklin and Trevor live in the lower social trenches, but they have access to finer things relatively early on.
Instead, the story focuses on a heist-gone-wrong from nearly a decade previous that both Michael and Trevor took part in. Trevor had thought Michael dead, but when his old partner resurfaces, he begins to wonder whether some sort of betrayal took place. The tension between the two characters is palpable as Michael worries about whether his unhinged friend is eventually going to turn on him. His own personal life, meanwhile, is a shambles. The way his wife and children rather colourfully express their hatred to him, it’s no wonder he’s in therapy.
Franklin, meanwhile, is trying to escape his old life by moving on up. He’s an earnest and likeable guy who simply doesn’t want to end up like so many gangstas. As the semi-innocent foil to both Michael and Trevor, he’s the most likeable of the three main characters. The often dramatic and sometimes humorous interplay between the three is thoroughly engaging as a result.
That goes double for the action. The game’s key missions require switching between characters on the fly, with each having their own specialties and special abilities. Trevor is particularly good with guns while Franklin is a great driver – he can, for example, drive in slow motion for short periods of time.
A typical big mission might require one character to drive a vehicle while another provides sniper cover fire, with the third snatching an objective. Switching between the characters at key points almost makes it feel like you’re playing a multiplayer game with yourself.