There’s a lot to be said for Grand Theft Auto V, and it’s nearly all in the superlative. It’d been aging in the Rockstar North smoky oak barrels for over five years, so it’s no surprise it was both highly anticipated and then supremely fulfilling once it came out. I mean, god damn, it had $1 billion in sales in its first three days.
That’s thanks in no small part to its immense and top notch infrastructure. First off, the voice acting and motion capture combine to tell entire life stories of Franklin, Michael, and Trevor in each cutscene. For as long as they may seem relative to industry averages, they actually are rather short for how much we gather of each of their life stories. The way they hold themselves and the way they command or move about a certain space is just as important as the way they deliver their lines.
And of course there’s the fantastic writing (expected at this point from the Houser brothers), amazing sound design (and that killer original score), and the absolutely absurd production value. Rockstar produced more than a city; they produced a world. Every part of Los Angeles found its way into Los Santos. Every little neighborhood, every expansive working community, and every historical landmark. It feels more like Los Angeles than being in Los Angeles does. (It’s also a lot better for your health.)
But that’s not the core of Grand Theft Auto V. That’s just blanket of cherries they threw on top of the sundae. No, the thing that makes Grand Theft Auto V is chaos. Abject, unfettered chaos. And I’m not talking about the heists, though they are emblematic of the concept. It’s about the three characters and how they almost always seem out of their depth but just manage to scrape by.
That could sum up the entire story: three dudes keep getting into deeper and deeper shit until they catch a break and dig their way out with explosions, guns, and blood. But that also sums up every amazingly set-up predicament the game puts down in the player’s path. Anytime you have those three controllable in a mission is when the game manages to elevate itself.
If Michael is up on a ridge providing sniper cover, Franklin will be coming up the left flank of a lumber yard while Trevor goes charging down the middle. It’s all good on paper, but then shit hits the fan. You snipe and snipe, trying to open up space for the others to make their move, but there’s a guy running up through stacks of crates towards Trevor, preventing you from getting a shot, and Trevor can’t see.
So you switch to Trevor and you move to make the anticipatory shot. But you hear Franklin call in, so you switch to him and he is swarmed. It’s no good from here, so you go back to Michael and holy shit dudes are crawling up the hill to where you’re camped. Can Trevor turn back and pincer these thugs? But Franklin is still in deep shit. Michael can’t take a single shot with so many guns on him.
They are so fucked.
It’s that sort of chaos that I’m talking about. No matter what you do, it always feels like you’re just barely beneath the water, looking up at all the air you could be breathing, lusting over the free range you could be using to shoot all these bastards. In a back alley with a dump truck or in a military depot or in a helicopter buzzing around a skyscraper, you always feel like you’re in too deep.
But then you are given free, reminded that there’s always a way out. With the special abilities of each character, you can always construct (or destruct, as it usually goes) a path to salvation. It’s a rapid contrasting of extremes that makes it so fun. One minute you’re thrown into the deep end with a brick around your feet and then you’re the one doing the dunking.
It’s an immediate and well-earned retribution. You suffer and then you succeed. It’s what makes every momentous trio-fueled mission so tense. It’s what makes me want to go back and play every battle again. It’s what makes Grand Theft Auto V my number four game of the year.