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2013 in Review: Grand Theft Auto V: An Ugly Journey Through a Beautiful World

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of gaming's ability to squander something wondrous on mean-spirited pettiness than the latest GTA. And that's OK.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

They may seem an unlikely pair, but Grand Theft Auto V and Pikmin 3 make for bizarre mirror images of one another. Both revolve around three independent protagonists making their way in an expansive world. Both present moments of nearly breathtaking beauty. And both, fundamentally, are violent to the extreme.

Where they differ from one another is in their tone. Despite its need for constant savagery, Pikmin 3 goes out of its way to create an emotional connection between the player and the characters that inhabit the game world. GTA V, on the other hand, invariably comes off as a concerted effort to make its protagonists as unlikable as possible. I suppose that's part of GTA's schtick -- giving players a window into bad behavior as a chance to act out their antisocial fantasies, or whatever -- but for me it's always been the most difficult element of the series to accept. I play Grand Theft Auto games because they offer so much freedom and such vast worlds in which to run and drive around, and I do it despite their awful stories and characters, not because of them.

You're looking at one of the greatest games ever, if you ignore those idiots in the foreground. [Image source]

The gulf between what I want from GTA and what Rockstar North wants me to settle for has never been wider than with GTA V. Never before has the studio created such a gorgeous setting, and never before has it been populated with such despicable sociopaths. It's a parable for the modern video game industry: A $265 million investment for which teams of hundreds of people sculpted an expansive, interactive city in miniature as well as its elaborate surrounding environs, only to give players a suffocatingly narrow palette of things to do, all of which consist of crime, murder, and generally antisocial behavior.

I know, the game's called "Grand Theft Auto" -- it would be folly to expect it to eschew the crime stuff altogether. And why should it? But at the very least, that material could be so much better. To me, GTA V demonstrates just how much the mechanical underpinnings of video games have evolved over the past 12 years (when Grand Theft Auto III became a runaway hit), but also how the medium's actual content and purpose have failed to mature alongside those technical advances. When GTA III fed us pat crime caper clichés as a framing device for missions that boiled down to "kill or be killed," we accepted it. Not only did it represent a leap forward for gaming in 2001, the whole affair was all set in a world that looked and behaved as primitive as the knucklehead dialogue. In GTA V, though, the world has become far more convincing, yet the story and objectives are as clumsy as they were in GTA III. In this new setting, GTA's standard material feels practically atavistic.

The human skull on the left represents the world design, which has evolved nicely. The monkey on the right represents the plotting, which remains more primitive. The hockey mask in the middle represents the gameplay, which places you in the role of murderous psychopath. Symbolism! [Image source]

GTA V's faithful, microcosmic rendition of Los Angeles ("Los Santos") and the surrounding countryside is stunning in its detail. It feels vibrant -- alive. In the city, traffic and pedestrian behavior reflect reality. Outside the city, marvelously authentic farms dot the landscape while joyriders tear up the countryside with dune buggies and motorcycles. Water ripples and churns with a level of verisimilitude appropriate to a big-screen GC movie. The accelerated day/night cycle complements hyper-realistic changes in weather to produce a constant sense of variety within the environment. Even the cars handle convincingly, for once. GTA V presents players with the single most immersive urban sandbox game experience ever crafted.

Yet this extraordinary virtual universe exists entirely to play host to plotting and dialogue every bit as clunky as that of games two or three console generations ago. The GTA V script reads like the work of someone who tried constructing a crime thriller from secondhand knowledge after someone described The Wire and Breaking Bad to them. Its protagonists are all swagger, no soul; they lack the relatable flaws of great antiheroes. Despite the series' Hollywood aspirations, the characters spout dialogue that would get a real movie jeered on opening night. They're self-involved, anti-social, and generally demonstrate the worst aspects of humanity with none of the good to leaven their miserable souls.

The one exception comes in the form of Franklin, who like GTA: San Andreas protagonist Carl Johnson generally seems like a decent man with a tendency to make poor life choices. (Perhaps not coincidentally, both Franklin and CJ hail from the same neighborhood in Los Santos.) Unfortunately, his occasional redeeming moments can't overcome Michael, who constantly defends an atrocious family in which everyone behaves like they're mugging for a reality TV show, and Trevor, who is irredeemable human garbage.

The great thing about GTA V, though, is that after playing through the prologue (in which you gun down policemen like Nathan Drake on a Bob Marley bender, because even GTA wants to be Uncharted now), you can pretty much bail on the core game. GTA V spends an hour or two mucking around with character intros, but eventually you're given control of Michael and Franklin, shown how to switch between the two of them, and allowed to advance through the game at your own pace.

"My pace" turned out to be "as slowly as possible." I hopped into a car with Franklin, ignored the mission icons on the minimap, and proceeded to explore San Andreas from tip to tip. I went speeding along highways cloaked in the darkness of night. I watched sunsets while sitting on west-facing capes overlooking the ocean. I wandered in the desert for a day like some kind of modern day T.E. Lawrence after I wrecked my car far from civilization (it my own fault for trying to see how far I could make it by driving along the train tracks). I visited remote farms and "borrowed" their tractors. I drove a semi cab to the peak of Mt. Chilliad by taking bike paths, terrifying several backpackers along the way. I traveled the streets of Los Santos while obeying traffic laws to the letter to get a taste of Grand Theft Auto life as experienced by NPCs. I played GTA V for hours on end by barely touching on the plot, only occasionally completing a story quest to reconfirm that, yes, the characters, plot, and mission design are easily the worst thing about the game.

Take to San Andreas' expansive desert regions and you can try to simulate the 40 days Jesus Christ spent wandering in the wilderness. (The Bible doesn't say he rode an ATV, but it doesn't say he didn't, either.) [Image source]

I can't decide if GTA V is a qualified success or a fascinating failure. Rockstar sank an unbelievable investment into creating a narrative work that, frankly, I hate. And yet, by ignoring the part of the game they pride themselves on, I had a great time. It truly is a sandbox game (and in the most literal sense of the word, considering how much time I wasted doing nothing much in the desert): A big, open space in which players can make their own entertainment.

In that sense, at least, GTA V marks a substantial improvement over Grand Theft Auto IV. Like this year's sequel, GTA IV saddled players with a contemptible husk of a human being and a trite story as well, but it also shackled the sandbox world with infuriating limitations. NPCs would constantly pester you to drop what you were doing and play minigames with them. Real-time crises would nag at you with on-screen icons. Even Liberty City itself was structured in a way to funnel players into a handful of limited pathways, discouraging exploration and free-roaming. It failed both as a story and a sandbox, whereas GTA V does nothing for me on the plot front but presents such an extraordinary world to house its petty tale of crime that I didn't care.

Make no mistake, I feel like GTA V is a terrible waste of potential. So much time, money, skill, and labor at work to create an immersive world, yet it all exists as nothing more than a vehicle for a story with HBO aspirations and The CW execution. But clearly people -- more than a billion dollars worth of people -- enjoy it, so who am I to judge? Ever since GTA IV, I've been convinced that Grand Theft Auto needs to change, to make an effort to bring its narrative up to the standards of its world-building, but GTA V has changed my mind.

GTA V gives you the freedom to simulate living like a bum beneath a bridge pylon, if you want. Sounds boring, but it sure beats sitting through yet another cutscene about Michael's obnoxious children.

I see now that there's room in this franchise for the series' standard sociopathic protagonists, ham-fisted satire, and by-the-numbers story-telling so long as I have the freedom to push it all aside and savor all the things the series does well -- because what it gets right it gets so, so right. This new rendition of San Andreas is the gold standard for open-world games, and eventually, some other franchise will match it while pairing it with a narrative that's equally engrossing. Until then, I'll just keep pretending Michael and Trevor don't exist while driving sport cars off high cliffs into the ocean or whatever other pointless nonsense I can think to try in GTA V's wonderful clockwork simulation.

So GTA, you keep right on being GTA. I don't know that you're exactly a game for everyone, but I can find my own amusement in your depths, even if it's not the portion of the amusement your creators poured their efforts into. Besides, Saints Row wouldn't be nearly as amusing without a big, inviting target to take the p**s out of.

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