Sin Abounds in the City of Saints - lmvalle Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Sin Abounds in the City of Saints

 

Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto franchise has established itself as the developer's flagship IP and a patented blueprint for creating successful, sprawling sandbox environments. The series' wanton mixture of subversive parodies and pop culture commentary, in addition to the pure mayhem players could cause, has entertained millions of game players, for varying reasons. Some like to explore and interact with each unique and detailed environment, mainly parodies of actual cities in the US, and by interact, I mean "rob random citizens, kill hookers after receiving favors, hijack vehicles, perform outlandish stunts, and try to survive waves of law enforcement while committing as many dastardly crimes as possible."

Others appreciate the characters and stories these games tell, in addition to the wealth of allusions to real life dilemmas. All of them, or most of them, one could say, have no problem entertaining the unapologetically dark, explicit, and violent content the series has attained infamy for, as well as controversy. However, Grand Theft Auto is also known for another important, yet oft-overlooked aspect: it ultimately remains a meditation on the state of our country's morale, questioning all the values and privileges we take for granted through the lens of protagonists whose exploits reveal the ugliness festering underneath the sanitized classist veneer. Or you could be a person that skips all the pseudo-academic interpolation and embraces the game for being so damn fun.

No matter how or why one plays Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar's franchise always has a wealth of content to offer players, and the fifth entry brings us back to Los Santos, with an ambitious premise revolving around three protagonists. They shoot for the stars - or shoot the stars, rather - and tell a story filled with b-movie action, societal excess, surprises, moving characters, and an impressively detailed caricature of Los Angeles, all situated in a world where the only heroes are villains with the least baggage. It's now my favorite in the series thus far.

We're first introduced to Michael de Santa, a would-be robber involved in a heist with his partners-in-crime: Brad, and Trevor Phillips, also one of the main protagonists in this story. After the job goes awry and all shifts into chaos, we find Michael some time later living under a new identity with his family after managing to mysteriously fake his death; all while complaining about his conflicted and unstable lifestyle during visits to a therapist. The plot later shifts to our other protagonist, Franklin Clinton, a gangbanger that boosts cars for a living and aspires to escape the violent and dead-end lifestyle that's now lost its luster in favor of a more ambitious and drama-free life of opportunity. Then, we meet Trevor later on, after a mind-blowing event I won't spoil for players. Each has their own story to tell that eventually unites them into a larger, nihilistic narrative filled with all of the trademarked subversive themes of Rockstar's storytelling approach.

One concern I initially had about this game involved how its story would remain intact with three central figures somehow vying for attention. Would it be restrained and mannered to the point that other protagonists felt insignificant and more of a second thought in comparison to another? Would it feel formulaic and overly-plotted; or would it be sprawling and overblown with vaguely relevant events somehow tying them together via a big plot twist at the game's climax? We've seen that formula done in film numerous times before - Crash - yet very few actually did so successfully and without leaving more plot holes than the largest slice of Swiss cheese in existence. However, Grand Theft Auto V handles the trope with more subtlety.

 

 

Each character is seamlessly introduced to another in seemingly mundane scenarios that never feel out of place; I won't spoil them naturally, because they're executed well and every player should enter this game with a blank slate to appreciate just how organic and cohesive these interactions are. Once a series of events unites all three of them, the personal exploits of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are revealed to be small pieces giving texture to a series of larger conflicts neither can escape.

Players are allowed to deviate from the main story and follow these events at their leisure, but certain developments only become available after important events in the main narrative are completed. Instead of this feeling like another case of restrictive game design, the wealth of side quests players can discover by venturing throughout Los Santos gives players plenty of time to spare in the meantime.

I also have to praise another aspect of this feature: the ability to switch protagonists at nearly any time in the game, outside of character-specific missions as well as certain points in the primary narrative, and when engaged in solo encounters like police chases, amongst other minutiae. In a significant number of missions involving all three however, players will eventually be able to alternate to gain different perspectives when engaging the enemy or completing a task. Don't think this will be a hindrance however; the AI is relatively smart and characters will automatically take cover and shoot targets on their own. In tougher firefights, your allies may call out for assistance when bombarded by enemies, prompting the player to direct their attention to them or to switch to that character if they wish. A very simple interface makes this a cinch. The big decisions, of course, will naturally be yours to make.

In addition to smart AI that operates well without the player's guidance in story missions, you won't find any of the three protagonists mindlessly standing in the same places you left them. The other two will go their own ways, traveling to different locations in Los Santos. When you switch to another, players will in fact find them in the middle of scripted situations that suit their personality, sometimes stuck in traffic on the highway, leaving bars after a drink, or hungover from wild drunken binges. I surprisingly found one of them in the middle of a police chase that I had the displeasure of being involved in, and another chowing down on some food I've yet to be able to eat outside of these scripted events. All three have their own safe houses as well.

One thing Rockstar has done right this time is to allow players nearly unprecedented freedom when exploring Los Santos and its many locales. I've had the pleasure of spending hours just marveling at the incredible detail and care placed into every inch of GTA V's immense world. Character-specific side quests introduce players to unique and somewhat colorful personalities with their own problems that need to be sorted out. Random events players can discover will add a much needed dose of variety, often hilarious or exhilarating, whether they're protecting said-victim from a biker gang, snapping unflattering photos of major celebrities, or helping a runaway bride escape her controlling and narcissistic groom. Sometimes, events will take place with little to no incident whatsoever, although they'll usually end with a unique reward in return. The refreshingly in-depth conversations any of the three protagonists can have with them make each of these otherwise insignificant NPCs feel alive and vibrant, even in the most mundane of scenarios. These events provide the depth that sandbox games tend to lack due to repetitiveness and oversaturation.

 

 

Michael, Trevor, and Franklin each have their own property that they can purchase also. Quite a few are incredibly expensive and won't be earned until late in the game, with the proper management of your funds. Acquiring the insanely steep level of financial capital required for a few of them will undoubtedly require you to stake your claim in the stock market, mainly the BAWSAC(don't say it out loud), in order to acquire the profits you need to become filthy rich, often by manipulating them through several special side missions. It will take a keen eye to invest wisely and memorize the trends. Otherwise, each property will have its own rewards and monetary profits received weekly. Some will require tasks for the player to complete in order to reap any benefits, and a few may request assistance on occasion, whether it's transporting cargo to restock a bar or handling thieves and other miscreants. Other pastimes also add to the entertainment.

Michael, Trevor, and Franklin can "hang out" and visit different locales with each other as well as their friends ala GTA IV on occasion, from the usual bars to competitive events like tennis and darts. Movies are a new pastime, and feature about three lengthy short films that players can view. Characters will bond with each other en route with witty conversations that reveal each of their personalities as they interact. Quite a few were heated and undeniably tense, while others more congenial and introspective banters. Each of them feels authentic, and as the story progresses, some will reflect the events previously past. Then, there are those drunken monologues we love so much. Those are fun to watch. I haven't even gotten into the unique character-specific pastimes players can unlock. Trevor's is my favorite so far.

GTA V also offers experience-based skill customization in addition to staple appearance customization features like purchasing clothing, getting haircuts, tattoos, and modding vehicles. The Driving attribute, for instance, obviously refers to how well that respective character handles a vehicle while driving; successful trips doing risky maneuvers without crashing or driving continuously at higher speeds advances this skill faster, which allows players to perform more stunts successfully as well as control the angling of their vehicle while airborne. Thankfully, the controls are relatively smooth and handle much better than in previous entries. Stamina controls a character's fatigue level, which determines how long they can run for extended periods of time without becoming winded - pushing a character too far will result in the loss of health. In addition to Strength, Shooting, Stealth, Flying, and Lung Capacity, players will be able to craft powerhouses. The proficiency of each skill is tracked by a multi-tiered bar so that players can take note of the ones that need more experience, giving players a more tangible means of stat tracking. Pastimes like triathlons, street and off-road races, swimming, running, target practice at the shooting range, and just plain ol' scrapping are a few of the pastimes specifically designed to help improve these skills.

 

 

The special abilities unlocked - each unique to a specific character - are the most attractive and vital of the available attributes: Trevor's allows him to go into a blind rage while reducing the damage taken; Michael's is yet another bullet time skill akin to Max Payne's; Franklin's allows him to dramatically slow time while driving, providing extra time for difficult turns and a window of escape from high speed crashes. These of course are also improved with the right experience, allowing them to last longer, which adds the oomph to GTA V's combat system.

GTA V's gunplay is much smoother than IV's, with players able to snap to targets in their line of sight and alternate while firing rounds. Aiming outside of this isn't much of a hassle, but it will require skill depending on the weapon the player chooses. Players can change the reticle for weapons if they feel it's too small. You'll start off with an average load out and some attachments available for purchase in the local Ammu-Nation shop, but more effective ones will unlock as the game progresses- you'll receive an email each time. Acquiring gold medals at the shooting range can unlock some of them earlier. There's an incredibly varied range of weapons at your disposal to accomplish whatever tasks you need; some are expensive, but well-worth the price given their value. Melee combat is solid, with the standard attack, dodge, and counter maneuvers available for the player when engaged with another pretentious bozo annoyed by your presence for inexplicable reasons. Countering is much easier than in GTA IV in my opinion. However, don't expect any of the three you'll be playing as to turn into martial arts champions. Close-quarters combat with multiple enemies is still a challenge.

When players aren't out causing chaos in Los Santos, there are plenty of small details to appreciate, from the wondrous return of our favorite spoofs of popular television shows and concepts - "Shame or Fame", an obvious caricature of high profile talent shows - to the exceptional score for each of the varied radio stations. Faux radio personalities offering their ridiculous advice, as well as disturbing ads  - one advocating child abuse while young boys proudly yell "waterboard me!"- and outlandish news segments from Weasel News, a clear analogue of the Fox News channel, are pure ear candy. The latest entry in Rockstar's franchise doesn't fail to skewer America's pop culture fixations with its hilarious and often shocking parodies. The internet returns, although online dating is scrapped, but it has its own surprises and fake websites as well. The greatest details, outside of GTA V's always prescient commentary, can be found in the world of Los Santos itself. 

 

 

Night-and-day cycles are a staple feature, in addition to varying types of weather and lunar cycles. I've ridden an ATV through Los Santos' vast desert terrain north of the city, where old trailer parks and dilapidated mobile homes can be found rusting in the hot sun. I drove to the very top of Mt. Chiliad while courting danger with its narrow pathways, and I've watched the clouds in the sky change shape as the day passed, sometimes obscuring the sun briefly over time. I swam to the sea bed and marveled at trails of coral, fish, and uniquely designed rock formations. In some areas of the Pacific Ocean, just drifting off-shore, there were small bits of wreckage floating aimlessly; abandoned camp sites on the beach with fires still going; wild animals like deer, coyote, and cougars - one mauled me, to my disdain - roaming the forests and desert, even the outskirts of the city. Screenshots that players can take and upload to Rockstar's Social Club allow them to capture these impressive scenes. Despite a somewhat underwhelming lack of interior environments, the city remains a character unto itself, beautiful yet filled with excess, corruption, hypocrisy, and excitement, all of the things players will find in one of the most important aspects of this game.

I've already spoken on my impressions regarding how the narrative involving Michael, Trevor, and Franklin is successful in remaining cohesive, but is it as thrilling as it sounds? I'd have to say yes. Things start as usual, with players completing relatively mundane missions peppered with action and new developments occasionally; the real fun comes as the consequences of the actions our three makeshift-heroes make begin to accumulate, leading to adrenaline-laced showdowns with all kinds of high profile enemies, even the government itself. The FIB and the IAA are the usual culprits, but there are a slew of other entities on varying levels of the social strata with their own motivations and schemes. Some missions emphasize stealth and investigative prowess; others will focus more on straightforward action and high-speed chases. The best ones combine elements of both - and there are plenty that do this - with epic payoffs and set pieces that easily raise the bar above some of the franchise's best missions and heists.

 

 

There is a general formula to the most important missions that will typically involve players completing certain tasks and/or gathering info in preparation for the operation, as well as casing the environment itself for any weaknesses or exploits. A vital ally you'll meet later on will be the primary brains behind the operations, but players themselves will play the decisive role, choosing between one of two approaches. A crew to assist you in your exploits will be required; each available character that you can select to aid you during the mission comes with their own varying levels of skill and will charge different rates in exchange for their services. Your crew's skills can improve, but crew members that are too inexperienced may die if you choose them for demanding operations. While fun, these missions are mainly confined to the plot itself, the only drawback. You probably won't care much after you've successfully beaten them though. A much-improved auto-save system completely removes most of the tedium that came with GTA IV that often caused intense frustration each time players had to restart entire missions with no progress saved after failing an objective.

GTA V is an incredibly cinematic, electrifying, and melancholic narrative experience given soul primarily through impressive vocal performances by Ned Luke, Shawn Fonteno, and  Steven Ogg; Michael, Franklin, and Trevor, respectively. Nearly all the voice actors in this game provide terrific performances, including Slink Johnson as Franklin's childhood friend Lamar Davis. Each brings veteran writer Houser's script to life with candor you can feel in each tonal shift. The three protagonists clearly have a stake in the story at hand as players witness their lives spiral into chaos in pursuit of the elusive and ultimately deceptive American Dream, whether it's Michael's attempt to overcome his personal demons and repair his dysfunctional family, Franklin's desire to escape his destructive past without sacrificing the bonds made with those closest to him, or Trevor's volatile and unstable view of life after years of living at the bottom. All three have colorful stories that fit the narrative like a glove, yet it's Michael's that unites them with a singular purpose. None of them, however, feel like afterthoughts and manage to retain their potency when the narrative hits a fever pitch.

Concluding, Rockstar has done a fantastic job with their swan song for this gaming generation. A successfully interwoven narrative featuring three protagonists and a superb cast of characters (that unfortunately still lacks significant female roles, c'mon Rockstar!), a meticulously detailed environment, wild and entertaining missions, and dozens of hours of playable content make for a stellar gaming tour de force. How it holds up in comparison to previous Rockstar offerings is a matter of debate, but it is unquestionably leagues ahead of its current competition.

10/10

 

 

 

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