Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gaming Time Awesomeness

I've been too busy playing GTA Online to write up my thoughts on the finale of GTA V. I figure I'd better do that soon, before all my memories of playing with Michael, Trevor and Franklin have been replaced with visions of Gallivanter Ballers.

So: yeah, the game is awesome. It's probably the best technical achievement to date: the scope of the world, the level of detail, the intricate interconnectedness of all elements are mind-blowingly well-done. I'm still getting amazed by all the things people are discovering about this game, like how if you get four people into a car it'll add more weight and noticeably ride lower; how it's actually possible to board one of those 747s that you see flying far overhead in mid-air; the way that crimes are reported, or not, depending on your policy for leaving witnesses alive. GTA III almost single-handedly created the modern sandbox game, and GTA V shows that they're still the best at building the biggest, most detailed sandboxes imaginable.

On the flip side, I think that the least-impressive aspect of the game is its story. I don't mean it's unimpressive, or bad, just that it doesn't excel in the same way that the game's mechanics, controls, characters, and environments do. I've been mulling over the reason why for a while. I'm still not completely sure why it doesn't connect with me the way that earlier games' stories did, but I think it might be an unintended consequence of the fairly revolutionary three-protagonist structure of the game. There are lots of really great gameplay consequences from having three PCs, but since each player is their own person with their own ambitions, history, and goals, it shouldn't be surprising that the plot takes a meandering route.

I feel like the prior games have an advantage in that their plots are organized around a central theme embodied in the main character, and the plot mostly exists to flesh out that theme. GTA III was motivated by revenge. Vice City was motivated by greed (for status, money, and power). San Andreas was a game about building an empire. GTA IV was a surprisingly melancholic tale of guilt and redemption. GTA V... is mostly a game about pulling off daring robberies. And don't get me wrong, they're fantastic! But the motivations for those robberies feel tenuous, partly because they're varied. Franklin wants to make some paper; he sees these big scores as a means of advancement, leaving behind the ghetto life and joining the slick world portrayed in the media. Michael starts out (well, restarts) due to financial needs, but is primarily motivated by the thrill of excitement, and pride in his work. Trevor, a pure anarchist, enjoys any excuse to shoot at things. With all those different goals in the mix, conflicts and tensions inevitably float to the surface; but while they made for a pretty good story, I didn't feel like there was the same sort of thematic coherence that characterized the earlier games.

None of this is to say that the plot itself is boring or anything. I think I've got it mostly straight now, so I shall recap it in these


Working just from my own (very possibly flawed) memory, here's the outline of the story. This is told in chronological order, not in the order of revelation within the game.

Roughly 15 years earlier (so, circa 2000), there was a gang of robbers operating in North Yankton, a fictionalized upper midwest city. Major members of the gang included Lester, the brains of the operation, who helped research targets, plan the operations, and fence stolen goods; Michael, the leader of the gang, who recruited other members, made the key decisions on what targets to hit, and led each operation; and Trevor, a skilled pilot who was discharged from the US Air Force due to psychological issues, and felt incredibly connected with the other men helping him pull off crimes.

At some point, Michael was caught by the FBI. The young agent in charge of his case, Dave, made an unorthodox offer: Michael could go to prison, or he could help deliver the other members of his gang. Dave would become a hero and see a huge boost to his career, while Michael would be able to walk away with no jail time. Michael had recently gotten married and had two young kids, and was becoming aware that his life of crime would have no good ending. He took the deal, agreeing to set up a final job that would let the FBI capture the entire gang in a dramatic swoop.

Except, it went wrong. Lester didn't like the target of the job and advised them not to do it. During the operation, the police arrived too early, and so they ended up in a massive shootout. In all the chaos, both Michael and Brad (another member of the gang) were shot, and Trevor fled under heavy fire.

According to the media, Michael was killed in the shootout, while Brad recovered from his wounds and was sentenced to life in a federal penitentiary. In reality, it was Brad who had died. Dave orchestrated a coverup that hid his involvement in the sting, burying Brad in Michael's grave, thus giving Michael the new start he had been promised. So Michael was reborn as Michael de Santa and moved to beautiful, sunny California... er, Los Santos, with his family. He made monthly payments to Dave in exchange for his extended freedom; keeping a low profile, he was able to spend the ill-gotten gains with a very respectable upper-middle-class lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Trevor, already slightly unhinged, spiraled ever further out of control. He got involved in a large variety of criminal enterprises, eventually ending up in San Andreas as well, albeit in the rural Blaine County rather than glitzy Los Santos. Trevor is a bit of a svengali, bending weak-willed individuals to his desires, eventually building up a chaotic criminal syndicate populated by drug addicts, disturbed veterans, and juggalos. By the time the game starts, he's running a major meth cookery and distribution network, and rapidly expanding by ruthlessly (and very capriciously) eliminating his rivals.

Trevor is a fascinating guy. He's pure id, totally unhinged, with no filter whatsoever. He's also weirdly honest (well, much of the time), paying no attention to social norms and telling people exactly how he feels about them. He appears to regularly suffer blackouts, often regaining consciousness surrounded by dead bodies. He's a libertine, eager for any degree of sexual contact from anybody, of any gender, of any age. He seems to have a basic need for connectedness, and builds those bonds with shocking vigor; and just as quickly and shockingly, he can cast them off and destroy someone he once thought of as a friend.

Michael is aging poorly. The only thing he was ever good at was crime, and now he's constantly bored, with a wife who cheats on him and two children who don't respect him. He regularly visits a psychologist who seems fully aware of his actions and offers blase admonishments and pappy advice.

Michael's son Jimmy and daughter Tracey hate him, and feel no hesitation at stealing money from their parents or otherwise going behind their backs to further their own desires. Jimmy forges his dad's signature to buy a hot new car from a shady dealer named Simeon. He doesn't realize that he's fallen into an insurance fraud: Simeon has sold him an over-valued car, for which he will extract usurious interest rates, then repossess and sell again. Simeon relies on poor black youth to handle the repossession angle of the fraud, particularly two young friends who grew up on Grove Street (holla at me, families!) named Lamar and Franklin. Both want to be hustlers: Lamar is more tuned into the gang scene, trying to set up his own drug deals; Franklin is more skeptical of the thug life, and is looking for opportunities to leave that world behind.

When Franklin repossesses Jimmy's car, he's surprised by Michael, who quickly figures out exactly what's going on. They get to talking, and Michael gradually develops some fatherly affection for Franklin: unlike his own kids, Franklin appreciates his wealth and his capabilities. Having learned of Michael's past as a bank robber, Franklin starts encouraging him to start looking for new scores, and bring him in on it.

Michael resists, but after accidentally destroying a house owned by a Hispanic crime lord and falling into his debt, he needs to raise a large sum of money quickly. Michael locates Lester, who has also moved to Los Santos. Lester has gone off the grid, becoming a hacker promoting his libertarian philosophy. Lester is a little bitter about how everything went down in North Yankton - he was crippled in the aftermath of the incident, and lost all the money he had accumulated - but Michael agrees to help him out, and Lester eventually agrees to join. Like Michael, Lester is really good at what he does, and he gains more confidence and energy as he turns his attention back to planning heists.

With the help of a few local ruffians, they knock over a jewelry store and make off with over a million dollars. Most of this goes to paying off the crime lord, but they still end with respectable takes, feeling incredibly euphoric. However, Michael left a witness alive, and news stories go out reporting his perspective of the robbers.

Trevor, high on meth and trading drugs for sex with the girlfriend of a biker gang leader, overheard this report and immediately deduces that Michael is still alive. His world comes crashing down: he's mourned Michael for years, idealizing their time together, and now finds that it was all a lie. He consolidates his business concerns in Blaine County - wiping out the biker gang, wiping out an Irish gang, trying to line up a distribution deal with the Chinese Triad syndicate - before exploiting his followers' connections and descending onto Los Santos like a hurricane. He crashes into the apartment of a minion's cousin and immediately starts setting up his own scores, which are insanely ambitious, like stealing secret weapons projects from the US military.

Everyone starts freaking out a little. Michael knows Trevor well, and is worried what will happen when the other shoe drops and he learns that Brad is dead. Even before that shoe drops, though, Trevor is a violent, homicidal man with no filter, and is an enormous risk for exposing Michael's past and present misdeeds. Dave (from the FIB) is even more worries. Trevor has no love for his organization, and if Trevor figures out what's going on and spreads the word, Dave's career will end and he'll be sent to prison for life.

The middle portion of the game operates in this zone, with Trevor, Michael and Franklin pulling off various jobs for figures in government in order to appease them and stay out of prison. Many of these deal with internecine feuds between the FIB (FBI), the IAA (the CIA), and Merryweather (Blackwater and all other private contractors to the US military). The missions are very dark and slightly comic. It all comes down to funding: the IAA is pumping the threat of terrorism in order to increase their budgets, so the FIB wants to thwart them, and also find (or invent!) its own terror targets to convince congress to add to their own funding. Merryweather in turn is trying to replace the military, at enormous cost to taxpayers; and, unlike the US Army, they have received authorization carry out operations within the borders of the United States, so they are also interested in finding credible threats that they can bill for.

Along the way, Trevor helps torture an innocent brown-skinned man, Michael assassinates a guy because he has a beard and is smoking a cigarette, and Franklin is increasingly nonplussed by the idea that they're working for Uncle Sam instead of robbing banks. However, they're also following the traditional GTA arc of gradually getting introduced to more powerful and wealthy contacts. They meet Dave's FIB division chief, and a wealthy playboy with a fetish for fast cars and torture, and an aging film director. Michael is a huge fan for classic Hollywood (er, Vinewood) movies, and he starts to think that a career in film might be the one thing that could replace a career in crime.

Like all aging criminals, Michael has a dream: The Big Score, one big and final job he can pull off before retiring forever. He and Lester fantasize about robbing the Union Depository, where a major national bank keeps its gold reserves. Franklin has proven himself as a reliable ally. Trevor is... not so reliable, but determined to become a part of whatever Michael has going on.

Things start to come to a head. Trevor pieces together enough information to get a strong suspicion about the circumstances of Michael's miraculous recovery, and flies back to North Yankton with Michael in hot pursuit. Trevor digs up the grave where Michael was supposedly buried, finding Brad's corpse inside the coffin. He understandably flips out, leaving Michael with some huge problems to resolve. The work he's been coerced into doing for the FIB has made him an even bigger liability to them, so Dave reluctantly agrees to pull him in. Things swiftly grow out of control, though: Dave's superior decides to take out Michael directly, and then the IAA and Merryweather jump in as well, each eager to help take out a major domestic "terrorist." A four-way firefight ensues, with Trevor appearing to help out - his hatred of Michael is only exceeded by his hatred of the US government.

At last, they pull off the big final heist. I managed to do this fairly cleanly in my game. I'd hired the female hacker back for the jewelry store, and so she had achieved a maximum skill by this point. I also had two highly skilled gunmen by my side. The drivers had only middling skill, but still enough to pull off our daring caper, which included an incredibly high-tension sequence of trying to make Trevor act like a normal human being while, dressed as armored security car drivers, they rolled out hundreds of millions of dollars in gold.

That, in all honesty, was the highpoint of the game. Then comes the aftermath. They should be celebrating, but Trevor and Michael are still at each others' throats. Worse, Franklin is getting leaned on from two directions. Agent Dave and his allies need him to take out Trevor, who is uncontrollable and could bring down everyone around him. And Devin, the billionaire playboy, demands that Franklin kill Michael, who thwarted his attempts to rezone a Vinewood studio for lucrative condo developments, and incidentally (and accidentally) killed his vice-president in the process.

Not unlike the ending of Mass Effect 3, I was presented (as Franklin, and via the cell-phone interface) with three choices. Option A: Kill Trevor. Option B: Kill Michael. Option C: Death Wish. What to do?

Honestly, I hardly had to think at all before picking option A. Trevor was the most entertaining of the trio, but also by far the most disturbing. I'd been rather distressed by his sadism, and when you couple that with his total lack of control, he was just too big of a threat, both within and outside of the group. I do tend to prefer picking the diplomatic or peaceful choice when it's presented, but given all the people I'd already killed over the course of the game (most of them as Trevor!), it seemed hypocritical to spare him at the end.

Franklin called Michael and enlisted his support. Michael was filled with contradictory reactions. He knew that Trevor was a dangerous lunatic, but still, Trevor was also one of his oldest friends, someone who'd had his back and saved his life multiple times. As Trevor kept reminding him, Michael was the one who had lied, deceived, and betrayed. Trevor does monstrous things, but he does them forthrightly (at least where Michael & co are considered; he's less honest to his underlings). So, Michael was ultimately on board, but clearly conflicted about the whole thing.

Carrying out the betrayal felt a bit brutal. Trevor is understandably upset about the whole thing, and leads the others on a wild chase. He ends engulfed in flames, burned alive, defiant to the very end.

A pretty dark ending, kind of, but I think less dark than any in which Trevor had lived. I liked Michael, so was never tempted by option B. I'd initially assumed that the Death Wish option would result in Franklin's death, for reasons of symmetry. I've since learned that this is actually the "best" ending, in which you can fight off all your enemies and save all three protagonists. Still, I'm content with my choice, and sticking with A as my canonical ending. A world without Trevor is a less interesting world, but a far better world.

The game ends with a breathtaking cinematic, the camera sweeping through Los Santos and then all of San Andreas as cool music plays and credits scroll. Rockstar has been doing this at least since GTA III, but each outing is an order of magnitude more impressive than the one before. When I saw some icons hovering over a couple of the scenes, I realized that, nope, this wasn't a pre-rendered cut-scene: this was all the same gorgeous engine that I've been playing for the entire game. It made me want to go out and keep exploring, which I'm sure was their intention.

After this, you're presented with your Psychological Profile from Dr. Friedlander, which collates the decisions you've made throughout the game and gives you a unique psychiatric evaluation. I absolutely love this idea. I'm a sucker for post-mortems, like the ones that often adorn Civilization and other Sid Meier games: they give me more of a sense of achievement and uniqueness. They even upload the profile to the Social Club, so you can compare yours with others.

That said, I think it's flawed since it seems to combine data from all three characters, instead of just focusing on Michael or giving a separate profile for each protagonist. I actually played quite differently as each one: if you check my playtimes, I spent the least time playing as Trevor, yet he has far more kills than either Michael or Franklin. I was actually pretty invested in Michael's marriage, and kept him on the straight and narrow, even during his prolonged separation: I even made him get a "Michael + Amanda" tattoo during this period. In contrast, Franklin is a young, single guy, and so was more exploratory in his amorousness. I was a bit bummed to see Michael's faithfulness impugned by Franklin's seeking.

Some final random thoughts particular to the single-player game:

  • Favorite protagonist: Franklin.
  • Favorite radio station: Radio Mirror Park, with lots of competition close behind.
  • Favorite visual: Impossible to pick just one, but the sun setting in the Pacific Ocean is way up there.
  • Favorite environment: Again, impossible to pick one, but the Yosemite-ish valley (complete with a Wawona Tunnel doppelganger) is high on the list.
  • Favorite activity: Would you believe me if I said yoga?
  • Favorite line: Definitely one of Trevor's. A sample: "Lay off the weed, kid. Switch to meth! You get more stuff done!"
  • Favorite supporting character: Hmmm... Lester is pretty great, with the right mix of patheticness, humor, and talent. But, I really enjoy Dave - he embodies a world-weary man who has filled his life with compromises.
  • Favorite female character: Yikes, there really aren't many, are there? One of my biggest regrets about GTA V is how it steps back from the relationships of earlier games. I guess that Molly is probably my favorite, though she's pretty minor; Amanda is well-drawn but not very sympathetic, and Tracey is deliberately shallow. I wish that Tanisha had been a bigger part of Franklin's story.
  • Most missed feature from GTA San Andreas: Probably dating, although I also miss the systems of reputation, territory (though not holding it), recruiting followers, and morphable bodies.
  • Most missed feature from GTA IV: Maybe the comedy clubs. 
  • Most improved from GTA IV: This is a bit cliche of an answer, but I like the friendship system in GTA V much more, since it's driven by player agency and not reactive like in IV. It's still on you to fulfill your plans if you make them, so I also like that they didn't totally get rid of the sense of obligation. On the other hand, though, it doesn't seem like friendship has any in-game effect, other than the extra dialogue you can hear while hanging out.
  • Deadliest enemy: The police, as a unit. They feel way more relentless than in previous games, and escalate much more quickly.
  • Favorite weapon: Saying the minigun seems a bit obvious. I do love sticky bombs, so if that counts, then those. Otherwise, maybe the carbine rifle.
  • Favorite car: I exclusively stuck with the personal vehicles in the single-player game. I'm going to answer Franklin's custom white Buffalo, though it's hard to say how much is due to the car itself, and how much due to his driving skills.
  • Favorite air vehicle: Man, flying sucks. Or, rather, I suck at flying, and always have since piloting those dang RC planes in San Andreas. Any helicopter is 100 times easier for me to fly than any plane.
  • Best skill: Shooting is the most generally useful, with driving pretty close behind.
  • Worst skill: Lung Capacity was totally useless for me. As far as I can tell, it's only useful for people hunting for hidden packages, which probably only matters for the insane few folks trying to get 100% completion. The few times you need to go underwater, you wear scuba gear, so lung capacity doesn't even matter then.
  • Best villain: I actually think this area suffered in relation to earlier GTAs; the bad guys didn't seem particularly memorable (unless you count Trevor as a bad guy). I'd probably have to go with Martin.
  • Least favorite villain: Maybe Devin. He didn't have much of a personality, other than being annoying.
  • Most unintentionally hilarious radio commercial: The one extolling the virtues of The Cloud, and how you can lose all your data after you upload it. Whoops!
  • Slight regret over: Not being able to enter Burger Shot, Clucking Bell, or any of the other recognizable dining establishments that we've been able to frequent since GTA: San Andreas.
  • Most impressive animation: Gosh, there's lots of great ones. I'm mostly amazed at all the stuff that plays out in-game, without being framed in a cut-scene. The pole dancing is surprisingly well-crafted. Trevor has really distinctive ways of hurting other people. Oh! This might be a good place to note that I love how all three protagonists have different ways of breaking into a locked car that reflect their personalities. Franklin, young and self-conscious, furtively glances around, then moves quickly to try and get in before he's noticed. Michael, an old pro at crime, casually checks to see if anyone's watching, then carefully smashes in the window with his elbow, making an entry with minimal injury to himself. And Trevor, who couldn't care less about anything or anyone, even himself, just makes a fist and punches straight through the glass. Anyways, this is an animation that will play out hundreds of times throughout the game, and it was smart of them to work so hard to get it right.
  • Favorite missions: The heists, of course, including the preparations; otherwise, I enjoyed the mechanics of the Beverly missions (though felt extremely squicky doing them), as well as stealth missions.
  • Least favorite missions: Anything where I had to drive a large vehicle at 10MPH while evading dozens of police cruisers shooting at me.
  • Favorite past-time: I didn't do a whole lot of hanging out, but the movie theater was probably the most interesting. The bar was quickest, but I didn't want to take Jimmy there. Darts was kinda fun, but way too far out of town for most pals.
  • Best system adopted from Red Dead Redemption: The random mini-quests (robberies, stolen vehicles, etc.). I love how these can just pop up while you're headed somewhere else or tooling around; they're worth doing, but not so important that you'd feel bad ignoring them if you're busy doing something else.
  • Best company parody: They sure fit a lot in here! I think they really nailed the social network scene, particularly how Bleeter is coming up and threatening LifeInvader's market dominance.
  • Favorite radio DJ: Non-Stop-Pop, with Pam Grier a close second.
  • Favorite returning character: Maybe Fernando, though he only pops up briefly on the talk radio station. Lazlo gets a lot of screen time, but comes across as an even bigger weenie than before.
  • Favorite business: I actually hardly bought any. You'd need to play the game a really long time to make a profit on any of them, and the in-game benefits are pretty low. It would have been a bit better if you could share the benefits across all protagonists - for example, when I bought the Downtown Cab Company, I'd hoped that all three characters would get free rides, but nope, only Franklin did. That said, the cab company was still probably my favorite out of the handful I bought. 
  • Favorite dwelling: Trevor's final pad (especially the refrigerator), or Franklin's new house.
  • Favorite Freak or Stranger: Maybe the drug campaigner. The elderly British star-watchers were kind of amusing. 
  • Favorite outfits: I dressed Trevor up to look like Hunter S. Thompson, minus the cheroot, and he was perfect. I usually had Franklin in a casual jacket and jeans. Michael's stuff changed around a fair amount, but I bought him an olive suit near the end that I liked.
  • Favorite mechanic: The cover system is awesome. I especially like being able to navigate around corners without breaking cover. Stealth is also implemented pretty well in single-player, and I wish they would do anything with it online. Disguises are also a really neat idea.


Anyways! All of my quibbles really shouldn't diminish the impressive achievement of this game. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is that it was totally worth the five years this game spent in development: the level of craftsmanship is unbelievably high, and if I didn't have a ton of other games to play, I would be perfectly content playing nothing but GTA for years.

I was going to also provide an update to my Online experience, but this post is already Too Darn Long, so I'll save that for a separate entry. I'll just briefly note that things are much better than they were before; that there are still plenty of hiccups (I seem to have lost about four hours' worth of progress this weekend); and that's it a lot of fun when it's working. More later!

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