|Sigh. OK. Let's do this thing.|
"[GTA V] is the endpoint of the American dream."
- Dan Houser, Rockstar Head Writer and VP
Its Metacritic score is an impossibly high 97, head and shoulders above any other game anywhere ever. It took only a few days to garner over a Billion-with-a-B dollars in sales. While it's nowhere near as dominant in the Game of the Year awards as I expected (perhaps some of the lavish acclaim has been rethought), it is still doing respectably well.
Is there any standard, critical and financial, by which this game can't be considered the finest our industry has to offer?
And yet, is there anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me that it is not a flawed piece of work? Now that the dust has cleared, will anyone step forward and give an unqualified endorsement of it? Practically every lavish review comes with a huge qualification. "It's a fantastic experience, just ignore the [boilerplate missions/flat characters/hideous torture scene/misogyny]."
I played through about 2/3 of the GTAV storyline before I lost interest. This pains me greatly, because I am a huge, HUGE Grand Theft Auto fan. I have unapologetically defended the series for years. You know how serious a fan I am? I finished Grand Theft Auto IV! The whole thing! Who did that, seriously?
I found fun bits, parts that are done really well, and a lot of stuff that just doesn't work. It is an important, ambitious title, and it deserves a solid dissection. Not just a "Fine. 10/10. Whatever. Is Battlefield 4 working yet?"
I've read a million reviews and analyses of this thing, and I have a few critiques I'd like to add (not that anyone from Rockstar will ever read them or care). Not as some moral scold. I'm not morally better than this series. I'm just a dedicated gamer who wants to love these games again.
|At least we now know how Rockstar pictures their fans.|
Don't Blame the Reviewers
Reviewing a game like Grand Theft Auto V is an incredibly thankless task. You're flown to a hotel. You get the disk. You let out a long sigh. You play for 10 hours straight. You go out for a stiff drink. You give it 93/100. You go out for a stiff drink.
What's the alternative? If you actually engage the flaws of the game, you get millions of belligerent (and even threatening) messages, and NOBODY enjoys that. Then there are demands that your site does a new review. Then you might lose your advertising dollars (and your job).
A perfect example is the Gamespot review by Carolyn Petit. It's a lavishly positive 9/10 review, that just happens to mention that the game is "profoundly misogynistic". (Which it is.) The comments thread on the article is, as of this writing, over 22000 (!!!) posts of rage.
Reviewers are humans. Editors are humans. Having this much anger directed at you, even from anonymous ghosts over the internet, is shaking, even before you consider the real business punishment that can result from actual criticism.
It's a bizarre system, one determined to punish honest feedback, replacing it with an avalanche of meaningless rating scores.
|The next part is the one that'll make people mad. As a calming influence, here is a bunny.|
Oh, and About the Misogyny Thing
Every reviewer goes on, rightly, about the incredible scale and depth and detail of GTAV's game world. The game is amazingly big and lovingly rendered. It does an excellent job of evoking real-life Los Angeles.
And yet, with all the money and effort that went into making the world, you know what there wasn't room for? A single female character that wasn't a hooker, a stripper, or a shrew.
And let's be super clear. I'm not saying every story everywhere ever needs to have women in it (or men). But what I AM saying is that GTAV's story would be improved by more variety in the cast. It's all grumpy, bitter dudes grousing at each other for forty hours. It's dour and repetitive, and it needed something to liven it up. (I'll get back to this in detail in Part 2.)
But back to misogyny. Of course GTAV is misogynistic. It's not a bug. It's a feature. It's a selling point. And that is not a crime. Some people simply want their fantasy world to be a He-Man Boy's Club, and Rockstar is making infinite dollars selling it to them.
If that's what you want, fine. It's not against the law. But at least admit it! Don't freak out when someone points out the obvious.
Young men, you already won. You got the game you wanted, and you made it a success. Thus, you will get plenty more of what you want. However, the rest of us are still allowed to say that something is gross. You can't keep us from expressing opinions. That is one thing the game industry cannot bend over backwards to give you.
|Yes, I'm about to tie Gone Home into this. This is a Difficulty Level 4 Game Critic Maneuver (DL4GCM). We'll see if I stick the landing.|
Some Things GTAV Gets Perfectly Right
No series becomes such an institution without getting some things right, and GTAV has mastered two elements that explain most of its everlasting popularity.
First, the world is mind-boggling huge and rendered to exacting detail. This sort of thing is a huge and expensive job, but it results in a kind of miracle: A world that is fun to just wander around in. See a pretty house up on a hill? You can go up there, poke around, find people sitting by the pool, and murder them.
The transgressive joy of being able to wander anywhere you want is one of the key features of the series. (Just as one of the most fun things about Gone Home is the evil pleasure of simply going through peoples' stuff. And, yes, I did just come up with the long sought-after Grand Theft Auto-Gone Home connection. You're welcome.)
Second, driving around is fun. The weird clumsy driving in Grand Theft Auto IV is gone, and peeling down the roads in a sports car at a zillion miles an hour is a simple good time.
Also, and this doesn't get appreciated enough, the driving AI for the characters is amazing. I played a bunch of missions involving high-speed chases through busy streets, and all of the cars moved perfectly believably and never ran into things in dumb ways.
It's one of those super-fiddly technical accomplishments that's really, really easy to underrate. I can't imagine all of the hours it must have taken to get that to work right.
|Every plane offers a free one-way teleportation to the nearest hospital.|
It's a constant of Grand Theft Auto games. They find the person on the team who is the biggest enemy of fun, and they put that person in charge of the planes and helicopters.
I mean, my God. The driving is so forgiving that if you roll your car onto its back (always the insta-fail kiss of death in older GTA games), you just need to waggle the joystick a few times and it magically flops back onto the tires. It looks goofy.
But when you have to land a plane, you better have your ailerons and rudders and propellors and landing gear and what-nots just so, or else! If not, well, you fail and get to try again after five more minutes of flying. If you don't have the patience for an hour of this, I believe the XBox Skip Mission button is the blue one.
(A Skip Mission button is, itself, a confession of flawed game design, but that's a battle for another day.)
|Part two. TWO. I can't recommend this video highly enough. Skip forward to 2:40 or so. The delight at spending only a few imaginary dollars to sleep with an imaginary stripper is the opposite of infectious.|
Another Thing GTAV Gets Perfectly Right
And I'm not talking about the obvious wish-fulfillment, like the violence or the drugs or the ludicrous way you can get strippers to sleep with you.
I'm talking about the little, more relatable things. In particular, I'm talking about how, early in the game, two of your three characters can actually own a house. A nice house, with tasteful furniture, a view, and no crushing mortgage I can never pay off.
You want an impossible fantasy for the young people playing the game? Can't beat actually owning a nice house.
All they need is a side-mission in which you pay off your suffocating college debt, and the game will be complete.
(This is the first half. I go on about the storytelling and characters next week.)