Friday, September 20, 2013

Grand Theft Auto V impressions

What I like about the game so far:

A lot of things that I've liked about previous entries in the series. The story is engrossing, the writing is top notch and the gameplay is, for the most part, fun and challenging without being frustrating.

The soundtrack. As opposed as I usually am to licensed soundtracks in video games, this franchise nails it every time. When I heard Jane Child on the in-game radio, I involuntarily flashed back to being a sixth grader carrying a Trapper Keeper full of fluorescent-colored folders.

The little things. A pleasantly surprising amount of detail has gone into things that often get glossed over in game development. The spray of dirt behind a car in the desert is a nice touch that immediately comes to mind. And the game is full of working props handled by characters during cutscenes: maps that fold, backpacks that open and close, pants that drop. Many games use slight of hand (read: convenient camera angles) to avoid actually showing a character putting something into a briefcase or the like, but not this game.

The police in this game don't mess around. Anything more than Wanted Level 1 and you need to work considerably harder (and more creatively) than in previous installments to lose the heat. I found out the hard way that if they're angry enough, the police will follow you into your own "safe" house!

Right after I took this, I suddenly gained Wanted Level 2 and got shot for standing on top of a parked police car.
Scenery. This game seems to have dipped a shovel into Jerry Bruckheimer's Bottomless Barrel of CSI Miami sunsets and appropriated a bunch of them for its own purposes. This is probably the first video game I've seen accurately emulate the appearance of moonlit clouds. And, although I'm not sure why it rains so often in a game that supposedly takes place in southern California, they've done a nice job on the lightning effects, too.

Camera phone. With so much to see, it would have been a crime not to bring back the camera phone function. The Social Club component adds further utility (allowing players to access their in-game camera roll, as well as other players'). And who doesn't love taking selfies?

Driving dialog. This probably isn't a feature you'd mention on the back of a video game's box art, but I really like how GTAV treats dialog that happens between characters while driving. Unlike in previous games, now if you experience a collision while talking with an NPC, there is a moment where the character(s) react to the accident -- usually with some colorful combination of expletives -- and then pick the conversation right back up, sometimes in mid-sentence. Somewhere out there is a very competent (and probably under-appreciated) audio designer.

It's huge! All the hype about how big the map is didn't really hit me until I started playing and actually immersed myself in it. But...

What I don't like so far:

It's huge! Grateful as I am to have such a big playground, it's easier than you'd think to find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere -- especially if you're easily distracted. One minute you're trying to lose the police, then the next you're like, "Is that an observatory?" And then, "Hey, look...deer!" And then you hit a rock and wreck your car, realizing only too late that you've been off-roading for ten minutes and cannot call yourself a taxi.

It's clumsy. All three protagonists are great at driving, flying, swimming and shooting. But not running. And certainly not jumping or climbing. I've been grateful for the addition of the climbing mechanic since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but in this game it doesn't always work the way you expect. Too many times I have pushed the jump button with the intention of climbing over a wall, and instead end up watching my character sprawl on the ground in pain because he jumped into the wall.

Ugly character face models. I guess we were all spoiled by L.A. Noire. Each game since then has been underwhelming in its approach to realism in human characters, particularly in the face. It's not enough to detract from the gameplay, but seeing characters close-up during cut scenes and being startled by how gruesome they look is never fun. (Note: When enjoying a private dance at a strip club, do not look at the dancer's face for this reason.)

Not all the optional activities are fun. I'm not saying that previous GTAs were much better in this regard...but tennis? Come on. Nobody plays tennis.

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