Monday, April 6, 2015

Partial Review: Grand Theft Auto V

I've always had a heavy bias against the Grand Theft Auto games.  I'll admit that going in to this review because if anybody were to comment on this, I'm sure I'd be told the following things:

1)  "You didn't spend enough time playing it to really get into it."

2) "You went into the game expecting to hate it, so of course you hate it."

3) "Meh."

With that in mind, let me describe my experience playing the latest from Rockstar Games and you can tell me if you'd reach any different conclusions with how it all went down.

I started out in story mode, trying out the stories of Michael and Franklin (I never got to Trevor, hold on, don't start complaining yet).  I was slightly hooked by the initial story of a bank robbery gone wrong, though I found it amusing that the game sets the scene early by having your character kill a guard there.

Once I was into the "now," however, I found myself...well, to put it bluntly, I found myself extremely bored.  Cars I tried to drive handled terribly, and missions involving "following" someone would wind up with them suddenly doing a turn that involved stopping on a time, and I'd keep on going.  By the time I'd get turned around without crashing into eight other cars, they'd be long gone, and the mission would fail.  Missions that involved "get this thing" or "kill that guy" usually handled themselves while I was busy trying to come up with flanking strategies or reloading.

But the characters themselves were just bland and uninteresting.  Now, I understand these characters might change as the story progresses.  That's why they call it a "story arc" and "character development."  However, I can't see how Franklin, at the start of the game, warrants being a main character.  He has no ambition other than "be a criminal or something I guess."  He just nods his head and does whatever anybody tells him to do, regardless of whether it does anything to help him.

Now, when I say "help him" I don't mean just financially or getting him respect, I mean that sometimes his actions do nothing other than provide reasons for other characters not to do anything.  An early mission involved a woman he knew needing him to drive a tow truck because her boyfriend/fiance/husband/whatever was drugged out of his mind and couldn't do it.  I could simply say "no" because the husband needs to learn consequences to his actions, but instead I found Franklin simply going "okay" and doing the job while passive-aggressively complaining the whole time.

Franklin was dull.

Michael wasn't much better.  He had a more aggressive personality, but it seemed completely wrapped up in being angry at his family and his life.  He had a complete disconnect from what it means to be a father, to the point where at one point I had to save Michael's son from guys stealing Michael's boat (Franklin came along because, well, Michael asked him to and what's he going to do, say "no?").

Michael doesn't punish his son at the end.  He doesn't talk to his son afterward.  He just has Franklin drive his son home, and the next time I popped over into Michael's life, he was just lying in bed not talking to his wife about anything.

While I do think it's rather neat that you can simply jump in and out of character's lives and that they keep living their lives even when you're not in control, it did leave me feeling like I was missing important stuff that was happening while I was wrapped up in stealing cars, avoiding police, or (frequently) dying in explosions.

I got bored playing it.  I didn't really get any sense of a long term goal from either Michael or Franklin until a villain actually entered the story, but even then I felt a bit puzzled by the logic in the game.  "Well, we're two guys who have murdered a bunch of people already, and now this tough guy has come along and threatened us.  I guess we'll just go "baa" like good little sheep and do what he says instead of, y'know, murdering all of HIS people and taking care of the problem right now."

Not that I tend to advocate solving all interpersonal problems with guns, but when the game pretty much lays out from the beginning "you solve all problems with guns and/or driving fast" it starts to feel like it's intentionally holding you back, when a game franchise like Saints Row gives you a clear goal (take over all gangs/get revenge) and the means to do it pretty early on (air strikes).

So after fiddling around for several hours not feeling at all engrossed, I thought I'd try GTA Online.  I had heard positive things, and I have friends who play it, so I figured maybe if I was doing heists and being crazy I could play the game how I wanted to play it.

I promptly built a Japanese schoolgirl who was going to run around with twin SMGs and lob grenades at everything that moved.

Sadly, this game strategy did not work for two reasons:

1)  To get the clothing and gear I wanted, I had to play through a lot of the story just to unlock things like "pleated skirt," and this will be the only time you ever see me complain about the lack of fashions available to my psycho schoolgirl character.

2)  The game would disconnect me every two minutes if it even let me in at all.

I barely got to spend any time in the actual game itself.  I had one night where the game took pity on me and actually let me take part in a mission, but we failed so often (surprisingly, it wasn't completely my fault) that the game had time to realize that it had no real compassion and booted me anyway.  I usually had enough time to get on a server, get in my car, drive two city blocks towards a job or mission that seemed fun, and then I'd get kicked out.

No other game I play has that problem, so I can only assume that it's the Rockstar servers.

So in the end, I had played a game that left me bored, frustrated, and restrained instead of simply being excited, happy, and feeling like I had real control over what I could do.  All of my favorite games either give me a feeling from the beginning that I'm in control of my fate (Saints Row series, Just Cause 2, Mirror's Edge) or they give me the proper motivation to become the baddest guy on the block (Psychonauts, Beyond Good & Evil, Far Cry).

GTA V gave me neither, instead feeling like I was just playing a laundry list of things to do for other people with no real reward, and any time I tried to branch out and have some real fun on my own, it would slap my hand and send me back to the boring toys.

My opinion of the Grand Theft Auto series remains unchanged.

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