10 Things You Want to Know About GTAV

I feel like I learn more about this game every day. Here’s a short list of 10 noteworth things you want to know about GTAV: 

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1. Rampages Are Back

Rampages are back. GTAV accommodates the senseless violence by attaching it to a character that is the most unstable; Trevor. Each of the five rampages all follow the standard GTA format, unlimited use of one weapon against an infinitely spawning enemy. Trevor’s uncontrollable rage actually makes this exercise in destruction sort of make sense, especially considering each rampage now comes complete with a brief and funny backstory. Kudos to Rockstar for preserving GTA’s sadist roots. Again, this is only possible because each character seems to bring something to the table personality-wise that is different, but still ultimately identifiable as classic GTA.

2. Missions Now Have Checkpoints, Are Not Part of Busted/Wasted System

This is a huge improvement that makes the missions significantly easier. When you start or accept a mission, failure, either due to missing a key objective or by death, results in a replay or quit option. Although this sounds fairly straightforward, it’s a first for the GTA series. Previously, when you were killed during a mission or missed an objective you would need to start all over. At least GTAIV helped mitigate this inconvenience of having to drive back to the start point by having a cab parked outside the hospital or police station. Still, multi-part missions were very frustrating. There would be missions where you would have to drive somewhere with no time limit, then kill 100 gang-members, then evade a NOOSE Team (GTA’s own version of SWAT). One of these things was not like the other; there were lulls or portions of the mission that were just filler between harder portions. Obviously I can do the driving part where there is no time limit and nothing to chase or evade. It made the action sequences repetitive, especially considering how bad the shooter mechanics used to be. GTAV abandons this format and puts frequent checkpoints into each mission, and keeps you out of the hospital if you die. It’s a huge improvement that makes things flow easily. 

Does this ruin the experience by making it too easy? Not really. Passing the missions is no longer the only objective, getting all the subsidiary objectives for a “Gold” trophy adds replay value here. In other words, it accommodates two different styles of play. The missions are so diverse and generally do not lean heavily on exactly the same mechanics over and over again that I think I’ll probably replay all of them at some point. Still, I appreciate being able to move along without being bogged down with a lot of busy work in between story segments. I can always come back later if I want more trophies.

3. Auto-Aim

Auto-aim is back, although there are multiple settings where it can be completely disabled. Despite looking very different from GTAIV, the auto-aim functions essentially the same. Aiming for a new target sets you up at center of mass, and fine tuning the controls sets up a headshot. Likely the online version of the game will force you to use free-aim entirely. Other aspects of the HUD are also customizable (always a good move in my book). 

Aiming is now a lot more precise as well, and is accomplished with a very tiny white/grey reticle. Functionally it works a lot like Resident Evil, only without the laser pointer assistance. Although higher levels of play are clearly possible now (the sensitivity can also be adjusted), the reticle is way too small and frequently blends into what you’re shooting. In a nutshell, I don’t see how the free-aim mode would ever work well. I mentioned Resident Evil because the laser in that series lets you very easily mark up what you’re shooting without having a cartoony bullseye logo on your target. It looks realistic while aiding the player effectively. I honestly think that’s the gold standard in 3rd person shooters right now. If a laser-sight isn’t an option for at least the pistol or carbine rifle in either DLC or future updates, I would be EXTREMELY disappointed. It seems like an especially natural modification as a number of guns have the option to attach a flashlight already. 

You can’t see where you’re shooting at all right now. This is the only genuine thing that’s irritated me about this game so far. 

4. Hang Outs Far Less Annoying

One frustrating aspect of GTAIV was that you were constantly being interrupted by calls from friends to “hang-out.” The hang-out and social function in GTAIV was integral to the spirit of GTAIV, although ultimately you didn’t need to spend time with your friends, and if you did, you didn’t get much out of it. I thought it was a good feature in GTAIV because it helped develop the characters more. It also gave meaning to a convoluted moral tale about revenge and loneliness. After all, most of the sites and sounds of Liberty City only existed when you shared them with a friend. Maybe there was a deeper meaning there for the sandbox genre. But at the same time you constantly had five or six people calling you and interrupting you from something you were trying to do. Worse yet, if you declined a hang-out, you would lose respect and potentially abilities from your friends. It’s like you had a gun to your head to waste time doing the same task over and over again. It was a good concept that was poorly executed. The only thing worse in this series to date has been GTA: San Andreas’ requirement that you eat periodically (despite not having any grocery stores in the game). 

GTAV does not do this to you. Although you’re bombarded with text messages and emails from properties you own, the gun store, and parts updates from the customization shops, you never are forced to address these until you want to. Although calling people and setting up hang-out trips to bars or tennis outings is still possible, it’s only under your own initiative that these things happen. You’re not constantly being solicited for activities. And there’s good reason for this; each of the three playable characters will have at least 20 names in their contact list half-way through the story, including multiple copies of the same contact for the other player. It would be overwhelming to keep track of these. Even without the hang-outs, there are plenty of other things to get distracted about in GTAV as it is.

5. Cars Are On Point Clones

There was an article in Forbes about this already, but I think it really downplays the fact that MOST of the vehicles in the game are direct clones of actual vehicles. Rockstar has even gone so far as to make very obvious knockoffs of corporate logos. The GTA series has always had cars that could be mistaken for real life models, or were two models glued together into some sort of vague resemblance, but there are so many in this game that are spot on that it stands out. There are both the new Taurus style cop cars in addition to the classic Crown Victorias (in the more rural areas only). There is an identical Town Car. The new Corvette is in there as well. And I mean the Corvette that was just revealed a few months ago. It’s not just the cars either; it’s right down to the actual logos (see below).

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I’m wondering if there is some sort of backdoor advertising deal in here. Certainly that’s not an alien concept to Gran Turismo 5. On the other hand, you’d figure if you were a carmaker you wouldn’t want people using your car to mow down pedestrians or pick up prostitutes. And especially you wouldn’t want to be GTA’s own Vapid Motor Company; there is a mission where you have to assassinate the CEO. 

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6. It’s More Amoral Than Ever

As soon as the general public catches up to the middle of the story in GTAV, there is definitely going to be some controversy. Aside from the pervasive swearing, there is a good deal of sexual content that isn’t that far from the whole hot-coffee incident that really hit GTA:San Andreas. In addition to the strip club content though, there are also some disturbing instances of violence (aside from committing literally hundreds of murders of course).

One thing that especially stood out for me is a mission where you have to torture a suspected terrorist to get information. The mission setup and resolution offer incredible commentary to the way we’re doing things in a post-911 America (“I got him, I think?”), but the actual mission itself is disturbing. In torturing the target, you the option of using pliers to remove a healthy tooth (it’s a mini-game where you have to use the joysticks), and also engage in waterboarding (I don’t mean surfing either, I mean the bad kind). Granted GTA has always been a lightening rod, but I can’t remember doing anything like this before. It honestly made me a little uneasy. As did murdering a kidnapped celebrity locked in the trunk of a car who was pleading for his life. Torture is not a common part of GTAV from what I’ve seen in the other missions, but it’s in there in a key story mission you need to complete. Absolutely this is one game that is truly M for mature. If you have younger kids in your house it would be hard justifying access to this game. 

7. Drafting and Driving

The driving really works well in GTAV. I’m not sure if I’m getting so much better at it, or if the driving skills of my characters is helping as well, but the movement and physics (including collisions) are greatly improved. In addition to tweaking, a slip-stream system has been added, although most missions are not straight-forward enough for you to really feel the difference because you’re swerving through congested traffic or bounding up the side of a desert dune. 

Driving is also greatly aided by the fact that the map is gigantic. It’s good fun running a super-fast Infernus or Comet car through traffic, but it’s a lot more fun to be able to get onto the highway and actually speed over to another county. I would actually like to see some straightforward racing missions, other than the racing around obstacles that the game normally presents. GTAV could be a competent racing game if it were setup for that though. 

8. Car Customization Is Comprehensive

What’s great about the car customization features is that it’s not limited to fast cars only. There are speed and cosmetic upgrades like tinted windows or turbocharging, but also upgrades for suspension, armor, and even roll-cages. Other obvious upgrades; brighter Xenon headlights.  

Car customization is aided by a design decision to create certain “owned” cars by the main characters. You start out with a ride that will follow you around on missions, whether it’s in your garage or not. The mods you put on this car will stay. There is also the ability to park cars in a central garage. Obviously dropping $100,000 worth of car modifications on something that doesn’t stay with your character wouldn’t make sense. 

9. Stats Less Invasive

I mentioned in my post last week that San Andreas-style stats have returned. What’s great about these stats is that you probably won’t know they’re there. Only after upgrading a full 20 points out of a maximum 100 will you be given an alert that your stamina or shooting skills have improved. It’s less invasive than in GTA:San Andreas where minor updates were constantly being dropped.One small gripe though; I’m not sure how much these levels are actually influencing game play.  

10. No Bugs or Updates So Far

A major, major launch and there have been no updates in the first week of play. I’ve never seen this before in a big game. Usually somebody has found a bug by now. I haven’t had any hangups of freezes on this game. And this is exactly the type of game that should freeze. It’s got a pervasive world with all these things going on and all this data being constantly loaded and dumped. Bethesda would be wise to learn a thing or two from the gang at Rockstar. I’ve never seen a game that is so hard on the PS3 (as I mentioned last week, the optical disk is constantly being read), but without any problems. 

GTAV(PS3): Spirit of San Andreas Alive and Well

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First Impressions

I’m unlikely to find a spare week lying around anytime soon, but I managed to get in on the launch here and play GTAV for a few hours. GTAV is already getting strong reviews on MetaCritic, but considering the breadth of the endeavor, there is a risk that preliminary reviews might be a little misleading. I’ll try and give my thoughts as they develop.

First off; great work by the Rockstar folks. GTAV looks to be the real deal. The game functionally looks like a heavily updated GTAIV, but feels like the spiritual successor to GTA:San Andreas. By that, I mean the RPG-style elements of play and crazy emphasis on customization have been reintroduced. Driving, shooting, and strength stats have been added for each of the three playable characters, and all are increased through player utilization. Customization doesn’t just extend to cars and clothes, but also to weapons. There also seems to be the return of endless mini-games and odd-job type ways of making money, in addition to completing missions. This is on top of the GTAIV “hang-out” features. Finally, the internet is back, but this time it’s accessible on the go through the character’s phone.

Other common sense updates have been made. Returning home to save is no longer required; outside of a mission you can do a quick-save on your smart phone. Also, as predicted, health below 50% now replenishes over time. There is less invasive auto-aim system now, and shooting mechanics make action scenes feel like an actual game. The “Wanted Level” system has again been modified, this time relying on line-of-sight as a prerequisite for escape, as opposed to just outrunning a radius. Action cut-scenes also have an actual score, in addition to the ridiculous amount of traditional radio station content. All these are really good tweaks.

In a nutshell, everything from prior GTA games is here, but then was multiplied again by 100. It’s really amazing. It’s also what the company promised to deliver. But more volume of content isn’t the only way replay value has been upped. Completing missions now gives the player a rating, and reveals additional bonus objectives at the end. Why this is significant is because there is FINALLY the option of replaying missions. GTAV does everything the other games did well (great characters, story, expansive content; extreme player freedom), but also focuses on the aspects that rewards skill and higher levels of play. No doubt the deficiency in requiring players to have a lot of skill was identified as a problem for a company that wants to base a significant part of this franchise’s future on multiplayer online content.

Other Neat Stuff

GTAV is a serious multimedia effort. In game content can be added or unlocked by downloading the “iFruit” smart phone app on an actual phone. There are also invitations for players to join the Rockstar Social Club to continue modifying endeavors. Finally, the connection to the wired world appears to be pervasive in the story mode; go to an Ammu-Nation and there is an option to go to the PlayStation Store. Although as of this morning there was nothing in there, I am excited that there will be some great updates down the road (although I’m also a little fearful Rockstar will introduce some “free-to-play” dynamics in).

And of course the strip club is back. Interacting with strippers can be increased by flirting, adding a challenge element to the outing (try your luck too hard and you’ll get booted out by the bouncer).

Problems

I’d be hard-pressed to find any real problems with this game, but I have noticed the PS3 really seems to be stressed running it. The optical disc is constantly being read and it’s loud. Some menu inputs also look a little sluggish. I’m wondering if it runs better on the XBox360. This is in addition to a solid 30 minute installation that takes up 8gb of HDD space. Given the amount of content, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best expression of the limits to the current console generation.

Finally, the additional features added to both car and on-foot mechanics are a little overwhelming. In either case, the D-Pad is used to add a whole bunch of actions that are introduced gradually during the story missions. The tutorial isn’t overly paternalistic, and clearly a significant part of the story is going to be dedicated to getting all the basics down. But now there are a ton of additional options. Guns can be equipped with flashlights which have to be turned on and off, stealth elements have been brought back (arguably a little clunky), and there a whole bunch of new things to do in cars like lower the top or flip on the lights. These are all welcome elements, but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be a logical road map as to how to do some of these things with the controls. I just know I’m going to forget how to do something on the D-Pad at some point with the way it’s laid out.

All in all, my first impressions are that Rockstar has delivered even more than it promised to.

Rockstar Games: Masters of Suspense

I’m late to the game writing about the GTA:Online game trailer that dropped some time back, but I’m kind of glad I went over to Rockstar’s GTA5 launch site because they are apparently adding content on a regular basis.  Masters of suspense as always, the seven remaining tiles of content boasting as to the unique culture of the game remained locked, presumably unlocking one by one until the launch  slowly creeps closer.  The added content is much in the GTA style of humor is present, complete with riffs on California politics, legalized pot, new-ageism, and country club exclusivity.  I really hope they bring back the huge fake internet featured in GTA4.

But what does the GTA:Online trailer do?  Most impressively, it resolves all the obvious issues with the GTA franchise and promises to bring it back to the forefront of gaming.

First off, the trailer demonstrates exactly where Rockstar is on the spectrum of player control and narrative integrity.  The stories of the three main protagonists (as much as there can be a protagonist in a game that revolves around car jacking) appear to be well thought out.  But having great characters with personalities runs afoul of mass-customization.  These characters are maybe  so well thought out that that it threatens the very soul of the GTA:San Andreas legacy; the any-way-you-like-it style of game play.  GTA:Online is the missing link between this rich story mode (which also could cleverly serve as a very entertaining tutorial) and the RPG elements that GTA:San Andreas was based on.  GTA:Online is the Skyrim and open world aspect that the games have always, at least theoretically represented (although maybe with less clunky menus and a bloated inventory system).  Focusing on all the mass customization elements, it’s goal is clearly to have players addicted to playing the game long after the three main stories are completed.  And some sort of persistent online world clearly is critical to growing the franchise.  Having a character that is your own creates some of the incentive to continually improve (and therefore play) enhancing replay value.  This is the breakthrough the series needs; to separate the funny, satirical stories about lovable antiheroes from the otherwise king of the world sandbox experience.

The trailer also clearly shows off that GTA knows it needs to get with the times in terms of player interface.  The perennial third-person shooter looks a lot like an FPS during shootouts, complete with a weapon selection wheel.  Is this game finally going to bury auto-aim?  I certainly hope so.  The action appears more fluid, and as always seems to integrate shooting with some of the other mobility elements like parachuting or dirt-bike riding.  The menu interface seems to be intentionally minimalist.

One thing is certain: Rockstar is intent on making Online a phenomenon separate from GTA5.  It has its own trailer and is being prominently advertised separately on the PS3 home menu.  The trailer straight up tells you that in addition to custom player-created content, they are intent on updating regularly.  This could be another leap forward for an already well-storied franchise.

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.