Thursday, October 03, 2013

FTM

I'm having a blast so far with GTA V. According to the completion percentage, I'm a bit over 50% of the way through the game, so I figured this would be a good point to drop in and share my thoughts so far.


First, at a high level, the game is (so far) delivering on what I wanted: a fun, open, beautiful world filled with cool stuff to do and nice sights to look at, combined with a high level of detail like that seen in GTA IV. The plot is pretty engaging (though so far it isn't grabbing me quite as strongly as San Andreas' or even IV's), but the highlight for me has been exploring Los Santos and Blaine County, letting the sense of place seep into my bones.

Let me get my criticisms out of the way up front (there aren't many!), then I'll dive back into what I'm digging about the game. I have to admit that, while I vividly remember GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas, my memory of GTA IV is relatively sparse, so in some cases I'm not sure whether these were things that previously existed in IV or not.

In the "classic" PS2 generation of GTA games, wanted stars were a regular way of life. It has always been impossible to win a prolonged shoot-out against the cops: sooner or later, they will always bring you down. With discretion the better part of valor, I always try to lose my wanted stars as quickly as possible. (Of course, some people do enjoy seeing how long they can go while remaining wanted - more power to them, but it's impossible to do anything but evade the police while you're evading the police.) In the early GTA games, by far the most effective way to lose your wanted level was to high-tail it to a Pay-n-Spray, where for a cheap $100 or so, they would repaint your car and instantly render you unrecognizable.

At the time, I'd laughed at how unrealistic this was. There were multiple times when I would be pursued by multiple cruisers with flashing sirens, unmarked black FBI sedans, armored SWAT vehicles, and maybe even a tank or a helicopter, all converging on my position, sometimes even slamming into me from behind in the final moments as I slalom into the painting bay. The door would slide, down, then slide back up seconds later, and... poof! Everyone would instantly lose interest. "Huh, that guy who shot thirteen helicopters out of the sky with an RPG just drove in here in a blue coupe, and now a RED coupe is driving out! Nuts, we lost him! Okay, go home everyone."

While that wasn't very realistic, it was fun. Any encounter with the law would deliver a huge jolt of adrenaline, and lead to a very intense and very brief period of time where I raced to reach the nearest Pay-n-Spray before the authorities blew up my vehicle.

As part of GTA IV's reinvention as a more serious, more realistic game, they revamped this core mechanic of evading police. There are still auto shops (Los Santos Customs in GTA V, I forget what they were called in GTA IV), but they are much farther apart than in previous games, and are no longer realistic destinations in most pursuits. Even if you do reach one, you now need to be out of sight of your pursuers before you can enter (and, as in previous games, you can't get a re-spray if in a police car or other obviously improper vehicle). Instead, they've implemented a more nuanced system of diminishing heat. You need to get out of sight of your pursuers, and stay out of sight for a period of time - of course, greater wanted levels will require longer periods. You have several strategies available to you, including speeding away from them, or ducking into an alley, canal, or other off-road area and lying low until the heat dies down.

In theory, this is a more engaging system. In practice, it's awful and I hate it. For starters, GTA V has multiple missions where you're required to steal a big and insanely slow vehicle - like a garbage truck, or a dump truck. Trying to evade multiple cruisers when your speed tops out at around 40 MPH is the definition of futility. And you can't take out your pursuers, of course, because that would just add MORE wanted stars and more troubles. So, you end up spending 10-15 minutes driving around, your giant hunk of steel impervious to all the bullets and vehicles they throw at you, but helpless to ever achieve necessary separation. That's the opposite of engaging. That's boredom incarnate.

The situation's a bit better if you're in a vehicle of your choice, but even then, it sucks. The game will spawn additional police units directly in front of you, meaning that even if you succeed in evading a tight spot, you'll immediately run into more. I totally get why they spawn more, it would be too easy to slip a dragnet otherwise, but they should really come in from the edge of your map, not in the middle of your current block. They also continue sporting classic GTA nonsense like giving you a star when a cop car crashes into you from behind, then giving you a second star a minute later for no reason at all. It's getting to the point where I want to just reload whenever I touch off a chase, just because I don't want to waste another 10 minutes of gaming time dealing with this nonsense.

Wow, that was a much longer rant than I was expecting. It's by far my least favorite aspect of GTA V; fortunately, though, it's just about the only part of GTA V that I don't love. (Briefly, things I miss from San Andreas: dating, dancing, fat.) Let me enumerate my many praises!

Gorgeous scenery. This has GTA IV's detail, where you can stop at random on any street corner (or in the middle of the woods, or along the shore, or up on a hill) and have something intricate, interesting, and high-resolution to look at. You never NEED to do this, and will spend much of the game blasting past it at high speeds, but at any moment you can slow down and soak in the fantastically realized world. Last night, I saw my first sunset over the fake Pacific ocean. It was gorgeous, a fine match for the real one that I enjoy so much. Later the next (in-game) morning, I was walking along some dunes, and noticed a shadow rapidly receding from in front of me. I looked behind me, and noticed that the sun was rising over Mount Chiliad. I got chills - I've experienced the same thing several times, in the shadow of Mission Peak or Mount Diablo or any number of East  Bay hills, and it was weirdly thrilling to encounter the same thing, purely by chance, within this game.

Varied main characters. The prospect of multiple characters had seemed like a gimmick when I first read about it. Now that I'm deep into the game, though, I'm realizing that it's brilliant on multiple levels. First, on a pragmatic level, it significantly increases the odds that any given player will have someone they can really enjoy playing as. Historically, many GTA fans will identify their favorite title in the series based on how much they enjoyed the main character's personality. People who love playing violent, amoral psychopaths love Vice City mostly because of Tommy Vercetti. People who enjoy playing ambitious strivers with roots in the community are more likely to dig CJ from San Andreas. People who enjoy melancholic, reflective characters will like GTA IV's portrayal of Niko Bellic. Well, there's something here for everyone. Trevor is so insanely out there, a totally unhinged (and hilarious!) homicidal ball of quivering furious rage that he makes Tommy Vercetti look like Desmond Tutu. Michael captures the world-weariness of middle age, someone with the depth of experience of Niko, but with plenty of roots of his own. Michael is dumb but wise, sarcastic yet yearning, a nicely complex guy. And Franklin, by far my favorite of the crew, has several superficial similarities to CJ, but also a much more collaborative spirit and a deeper level of engagement with the people around him.
Having multiple varied characters also has another interesting side-effect: it lets you create some psychic distance between you, the person holding the controller, and the guy on the screen who is shooting cops with a sawed-off shotgun. I've been thinking a lot lately about character development in video games (no doubt due to my dabbling in writing a PC and NPCs for my Shadowrun missions), and have pondered a great deal about the relationship between a player and his or her character. Many people turn to video games for escapism, and delight in acting out in ways they could never get away with in real life: they might indulge in violent fantasies ("Kill pixels, not people!") instead of living a boring law-abiding lifestyle, or they might become gregarious and outspoken instead of an introvert. Personally, I generally try to make moral decisions in games in ways that are congruous with my "real-life" values, but enjoy the heightened stakes and extreme situations presented by such games (what if all of the galaxy was threatened by sentient synthetic lifeforms? what if zombies were killing everyone?). All that to say: personally, I am often uncomfortable when I'm playing a game and need to take an action that I disagree with. The silliest-slash-most-profound instance of this might be the murder of the Companion Cube in the original Portal; I spent something like twenty minutes trying to get out of it, and felt really bad when I actually tossed it in.
Wow, this is way too much text to put into a single bullet point! Bottom line: having multiple characters lets me see them more as actors in a play, and less as avatars of my own will. Trevor is a sick, twisted man, but I don't feel responsible for him in the same way I felt responsible for Tommy. I find that this even extends past the story and into the gameplay: when playing as Michael or (especially) Franklin, I make an effort to avoid unnecessary loss of life; when playing as Trevor, I just figure, well, yeah, he WOULD drive over all of those people. The end result is more fun, and also more interesting than a single static character would be: I get to see the different sorts of reactions you can provoke, without feeling like I'm tarnishing the soul of (all) my characters.
Finally, from a role-playing-game perspective, there are nice mechanical benefits to having multiple characters. In a way, this is kind of like a party-based game, except using an action interface for combat instead of an RPG system of menus or cooldowns. Franklin is a fantastic driver, so I'll rely on him when I need to complete a race or jack a specific vehicle. All characters drive sometimes, so they all benefit from increasing their driving stat, but I don't feel the urge to max anyone but Franklin. On the other hand, "lung capacity" is a borderline useless stat, and as far as I can tell is really only used if you're going to be diving for pearls. If you want to do that, you can build up one character's lung capacity, but there's no reason to increase anyone else's. Anyways! It reminds me well of building up a warrior's strength, a thief's dexterity, and a mage's intelligence.

Fun from the start. That sort of implies that previous GTA incarnations weren't fun early on, which isn't true... I've always enjoyed the early game. However, there has almost always been a progression through the game to reach the cool stuff: you start out driving crummy cars or bikes, traveling through an ugly crime-ridden neighborhood; over time, you gradually expand your world, eventually reaching the wealthier areas and gaining access to better stuff. Here, Michael is a pretty wealthy guy from the start, and Franklin has access to great sports cars (for good story-based reasons), so from the very beginning you can live in a nice big house, drive a good car with good handling, and have enough cash to buy the available weapons and gear without scrounging. Oh, and no areas are locked, so if you want to you can tool around pretty much anywhere you want in all of Blaine County from the start (though the game's story mode does have a nice progression for gradually familiarizing you with the geography).

Solid controls. Every iteration of GTA has significantly improved the feel of the controls. Trying to melee anyone in the early games felt like wrestling a waterfall; now, it's highly satisfying to land a punch or a well-timed kick. Cars tend to handle very well: yeah, plenty of crummy cars will lose traction and spin out, but you don't need to drive crummy cars! Even vehicles that used to challenge me have been significantly improved. I was always really bad at driving the Banshee, but its incarnation in GTA V handles extremely well, and has become my go-to vehicle for most road races. There are tons of other interactions that go into the game, too: managing your cell phone (complete with an Internet browser with streaming video!), switching between your vast arsenal of weaponry, moving into and popping out of cover... all of this stuff takes only a little time to learn, and quickly becomes muscle memory. Even goofy things like raising or lowering your convertible roof have dedicated buttons for quick access.

Music. This has always been a highlight for GTA, even in the comparatively low-budget GTA III when they couldn't afford to license any A-list bands. The depth of music in GTA V is insane. In previous games, I would typically find a radio station that I liked, listen to it until I started to get sick of it, and then have plenty of other stuff to listen to instead. In GTA V, I can keep listening to Radio Mirror Park, FlyLo, or Space, giving me a steady diet of awesome electronic-ish music. But, I can also drop in on any of a variety of hip-hop stations (we've moved far beyond San Andreas's two-station "Classic East Coast hip-hop vs. West Coast gansta rap" dynamic) which are spinning fantastic tunes,  the shockingly good Non Stop Pop station (I don't think of myself as a pop fan, but that station's making a convert of me), and even huge names from the expensive world of licensed classic rock acts (Queen, Def Leppard, Robert Plant, Chicago, Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks, etc.).
One of my favorite things about the music, though, is how it's layered into the fabric of the world. That's long been a hallmark of GTA: If you jack a low-riding gangbanging hoopty, it'll probably be tuned to a rap station; if you jack a self-righteous hybrid sedan, it'll most likely be tuned to public radio. Part of the fun of switching between multiple characters, though, is getting a feeling for their own musical tastes, independent of your own. These aren't particularly surprising: Franklin usually is tuned to a hip-hop station, Michael likes classic rock, and Trevor really, really likes the punk rock on Channel X. It does add flavor, though. I find that, while I'll generally tune in one of my favorite electronic stations if I've jacked a fresh car, I'll usually keep their favorites on when riding in their personal vehicles.
Heh, this is as good a point as any to describe one of my favorite little moments in the game thus far. As Trevor, I jacked a dune buggy, tuned it to Radio Mirror Park, and then started cruising down the highway, chilling out to The Chain Gang of 1974. Suddenly, I started to hear this weird rumbling sound. As it grew louder, I realized that it was a shout of disdain. Finally, Trevor shouted out, "This... isn't... working for me!!!" and flipped the station over to Channel X, where Black Flag was playing, and cranked up the volume. I was stunned and delighted. I've never had an in-game character criticize my real-world musical tastes before, and I loved it. (I also got a brief flashback to playing GTA III in college, when my roommate would do almost exactly the same thing as Trevor.)

Have I mentioned yet how dense the world is? It's pretty incredibly dense. Modern GTA games are partly defined by the insane breadth of stuff you can do, even if it's just sitting on a couch and watching TV. While waiting for the sun to rise, I watched a surprisingly long cartoon titled "Kung Fu Rainbow Lazerforce," just one of a large number of streaming videos available on your in-game in-phone web browser. I took a buddy to the movie, and sat through a fascinating, incomprehensible, amusing subtitled European art-house film about... uh... well, I'm not sure, but it was filled with fantastic imagery like a man climbing a ladder to nowhere. There's the usual vast assortment of races, including downhill bike racing and motorsports and ATVs and aeroplanes. They got rid of the much-hated bowling from GTA IV, but have darts, tennis, golf, yoga (surprisingly enjoyable!) and skydiving. In many cases, you'll have a single mission that requires doing one of these things once, after which they'll unlock for you to replay as much as you want (possibly increasing your stats or earning a little bit of money along the way). For the most part, though, I just love exploring. There's some incentive for doing this - finding scraps of letters, hidden spaceship parts, etc. - but I've never been a 100% Completion kind of guy, and just dig exploring the beauty of this fictional world.

Decent cinematics. The bar for these things keeps getting set higher and higher, so this is by far the most impressive in the GTA franchise yet, although in a few specific cases they are lagging a bit behind smaller studios like BioWare. (For example, I think that Rockstar is really good at making expressive eyes, but poorer at creating realistic mouth movements.) As in previous games, all cut-scenes are rendered in the existing game engine, which is a fantastic achievement on its own, all the more so when you have images like a teenager throwing a video game controller at their TV screen, or a middle-aged dude awkwardly sitting in a hip beanbag chair, or a character mournfully lamenting the passing of an ugly pottery sculpture.

Fantastic setpieces. If the cut-scenes are good, the actual gameplay scenes are incredible, which is an inversion from what you would expect. Without giving too much away, there are certain particularly dramatic sequences that involve a ton of simultaneous action by multiple friendly and hostile characters and vehicles at the same time; you're in complete control, so it all feels wide-open and can go in any of an infinite number of ways, and yet every moment feels like it was shot by Michael Bay for a summer Hollywood (er, Vinewood) blockbuster.

I could go on. I won't. At least, not until I finish the game's main plot, when I might duck back in with some spoilery thoughts on the actual plot.

Before then, though, I figured I'd leave a few brief impressions about online play. I wasn't even thinking about online when I pre-ordered this thing, and I'm famously pretty ambivalent/hostile towards multiplayer games in general. Since I've gotten so attached to the single-player game, though, I've correspondingly grown increasingly attracted to the prospect of carving out a piece of Los Santos for myself.


In many ways, the online mode feels more like a pure RPG than anything in the single-player game. This starts with character creation: you can customize the main characters to some extend by purchasing new clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, etc.; but in the online game, you can actually create a unique person. The way they do this is really unique and, in my opinion, rather cool. Most character creation tools use a slider system: one slider controls your skin tone, another the height of your cheekbones, another the width of your brow, etc. This gives a great deal of control over your character, but in practice, it's really hard to make anyone who looks good; in practice, you're generally better off using the randomizer or flipping through pre-created characters until you find one you like, and then just tweaking that one (maybe changing the hair style or eye color). In contrast, GTA Online uses an interesting two-pronged system that I think of as "nature and nurture". First of all, you pick your geneology: select your four grandparents, each from a pool of I think eight or sixteen choices. These cover a broad range of ethnicities and body types. Your parents will then be generated from those grandparents; for each parent, you select how strongly they inherit from their father and their mother. Finally, you select your own genetic closeness. I played around with the system a fair amount, and was impressed by how many of the people came out looking good. If you start with ancestors who you like, you're likely to end up with a decent-looking PC, without looking like a clone of them.

Next comes nurture, which is also done in a creative way. Instead of just picking a kit (Dwarf Commoner Rogue or Elf Mage?), or manually assigning stat points (STR 18+33, DEX 15, CON 14), it asks you how you spend your time in a typical day. You have 24 hours to assign, which you can distribute among Sleeping, Friends & Family, Legal Work, Illegal Work, Partying, Sports, and Sitting on the Couch. Each of these will modify your starting stats: If you do a lot of Illegal Work, you'll gain skill in Driving and Shooting, but lose points in Lung Capacity; when spending time with Friends and Family, you'll gain skills in Stamina and Driving, but lose points in Shooting.

It isn't a purely stat-based decision, though, and in fact the stats may be the least important part of this, since you'll always be able to level up later. The activities will also determine your character's starting look. Someone who focuses on partying will wear trendy clothes and a slick hairstyle; a primarily criminal person will have a leather jacket and a hard face; someone who spends all their time sleeping and lazing about will wear loose, comfortable clothing and look soft.

You can customize this a little, swapping out your starting hat and hairstyle and such, but it does a great job of starting to define you, not just as a bundle of stats, but as a character. (Oh, also: I was pleasantly surprised to see that they let players create female characters, who have their own options for customized clothing, makeup, hairstyles, etc. Given the all-male lineup of the single-player game, I'd assumed they would do the same thing for multiplayer, so it was nice to see Rockstar being inclusive here. Kudos!)

Online play has been notoriously buggy, so I haven't gotten a whole lot farther than character creation. I was pleased to see that they offer solo play, which allows me to explore this alternate game mode while continuing to cling to my misanthropy. There are also the customary settings to play only with friend, and/or invitation-only, and/or with members of your "crew" (the Rockstar argot for a guild). It looks like most of the most exciting content requires true multiplayer. The interesting missions, which pay real money and give RP (Reputation Points, kind of like XP that unlocks more character options, weaponry, etc.), requires multiple players to pull off. You can compete in races in single player, but after the introductory race, it will just be you all by your lonesome self off on the track, running laps and staring mournfully at the emptiness around you. I really wish they'd have an option for racing against NPCs in solo mode.

The main thing I've found that you can do in solo play while in free-roam mode is holding up convenience stores, which gets a bit repetitive but is still pretty fun. The payout is rather measly, especially compared to the big bucks I'm getting in single player, at just around $1500 a score; but you get some RP as well, and it's providing valuable practice in trying to get away from those dang cops that I was complaining about at the top of this post (written before I started trying online). I'm starting to get the hang of using masks for robberies, and diving for underground cover, which is helping a bit at evading the police, at least at the 2-star level.

So, yeah. I'll keep it up for a while; from what I understand, more gameplay options unlock as your online level advances, and I think I'd be more inclined to do most of GTA's mini-games as my own character than I would as one of the three solo characters, so I can see myself spending a bit more time with it.

And, really, that's what I keep coming back to whenever I wonder why I love this series so much. Everyone focuses on the violence and mayhem, but it was the first sandbox game to make a major splash, and it continues to be the state of the art in providing a fully-realized world, packed with all sorts of random activities to do for fun, filled with nooks and crannies to explore. And of all the worlds Rockstar has created, San Andreas remains my favorite by far.

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