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.

GTA 5: Expectations

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

My last post had a lot more views compared to other ones I’ve had recently, so I decided to get a poll going.  So, what does everybody think GTA5 is going to do in September?  Is this game going to be break Rockstar’s long streak of outdoing itself?

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.