There’s this parody of Fox news in the game, but it’s called Weasel News, and they fill your radio every hour on the hour with sensationalized claptrap turning every news story into a USA terrorphobic nationalism explosion.

The protagonist is trying to get on with his life, mostly, but is dragged into a life of increasingly violent crime because it’s pretty much all he knows how to be paid to do.

There are loads of cars with names that you’ll instantly know who they’re mocking, but it’s all slightly insulting.

One of the radio stations is filled with this presenter called “Lazlo” who is sleazy and desperate to climb back onto some kind of greased pole of celebrity. Not that he could get though that sentence without four penis references.

It’s another Grand Theft Auto game.

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I’m running it on an XBox 360, which I pretty much bought so I could play GTA4 and Rockband, and it’s been gathering dust for most of the last year. I’ve never been much of a console gamer. In the run-up to GTA5, I reinstalled GTA4 for PC, so it might be that a lot of this is coloured by having played the last one so recently.

It’s another iteration on the previous one. It’s still running on the same ideas, kind of trapped by everything its done before, but really it’s the same game as when it revolutionised its area ages ago. That’s a fairly stretched comparison to the iPhone 5s, as it happens, because I see them mostly alongside. They’ve hit popular culture with similar bombast, and everyone even slightly connected to the industry they launched into has an opinion, and *has to*. But really, they’re both the most recent iteration – Major for GTA5, Minor for the 5S – of something so ingrained into pop culture that they’re kind of trapped in their own revolution.

GTA5 is the next iteration in a direct line from 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III reboot of the game’s concept as a 3D open world. I’ve played every single major iteration, and most of the minors, but the three I’ve dug into most were Vice City, GTA4 & GTA5. I’m about 25% of the way though GTA5 right now, and feel free to friend me or follow my progress, but it’s struck me a lot how little has changed over the series, for better and also for worse.

It’s all very pretty. I look forward to seeing it – maybe even playing it – on PC or a next-gen console at some point, because it’s quite clear this is the furthest the 360 can be pushed. Mine is wheezing like a drunken sailor at all points, warming the room around it, and still textures and whole objects pop in for a while after a scene change. The city in general is beautifully rendered, the cars shine or not in the daylight, and the whole thing is generally a step forward for the occasionally over-bloom-filter of GTA4. 4’s advantage of sky scrapers to restrict view distance is mostly gone, especially for out in the desert areas, and as far as I can tell the whole map is available to you from the start, to explore and destroy.

The gameplay has had five major innovations that I can see:

The combat’s been streamlined and repaired, aiming on a gamepad is a lot easier, and the run-and-cover mechanics are a lot easier to use, pretty much required for this new iteration which goes into heavy gunplay this quickly.

The vehicles likewise have been given a control upgrade, generally feeling more solid and less floaty; it’s a welcome change to be able to do an entire mission on a motorbike without being terrified of every fire hydrant.

GTA-5-Characters-TrailerThird thing is the most famous one, the multiple protagonists. This changes the game in a few ways, partly it slightly avoids the “ludonarrative¬†dissonance” (There’s a ten dollar word for you) of the dry and stoic Niko Bellic entering drag races around the city. In 5, missions are spread over the three main characters. Some are available to more than one, but most are divided. The white-collar gangster Michael will tend to get the middle range standard GTA fair, go to this place to get this car, run and drive. He also gets the yuppie missions of Yoga, Tennis etc. SA Gangster Boy Franklin gets a lot more of the low-level gang crime missions, drag racing, drug running. Trevor gets more of the classic GTA missions, high explosion rampages, air flights, weird shit. In the story missions where you collaborate with each other, you can switch at any time, which is the first of the big things making the game a lot smoother to play, which I’ll explain in a sec. When you have more than one, you can switch to the character doing the thing you find most fun. If you’re a better gunner than pilot, you can choose to play as Michael shooting down the pursuit rather than Trevor flying the plane. These missions aren’t massively common (So far, 25% though remember) but it’s a welcome option when they are. The rest of the game you can switch between any of the three currently available. The open world switching is generally cool, as you flick in to the character doing something in their every day life. Be it Michael on the phone to his shrink; Franklin trying to regain his ex-; or Trevor with a 3-star wanted level and nothing but his underpants and an uzi.

I said that the ability to flick between characters during missions made the game flow smoother, and I’d like to get back to that for a bit, for that’s the focus of my last two gameplay highlights. My main problem with the GTA series has generally been that I hit a wall at some point with a mission that I don’t have the resources or skills to complete. As Dara O’Briain says, games are the only major media which you can be punished for being bad at, like a film which kicks you out if you can’t name the actor who plays the lead’s brothers (You should watch that video if you haven’t seen it. Dara got stuck on the same mission as I did for a while). I’m not the world’s greatest console gamer. I can run a DPS ‘toon through high level dungeons in Secret World, I can snipe Vanu Sovereignty engineers from the top of a fucking mountain in Planetside. But give me two analog sticks and tell me to drive and shoot at the same time, and I am a five year old with an algebra exam. This is what killed GTA games for me before. I’ll get to a mission – generally one of the major story missions – which will go though the standard four act structure: Act I, in which our reluctant hero is badgered into going into hostile territory to do A Thing, and drives to the Place. Act II, in which our hero fights though an army of bad guys and gets to The Thing, which he takes/activates/kills. Act III, in which the hero is SHOCKINGLY BETRAYED and now must fight though four armies to get out. Act IV, in which the hero runs the fuck away, optionally avoiding the cops. Every fucking time I would get as far as Act III, be low on health, ammo and armour, and suddenly have no resources to fight ALL THE PEOPLE or – on several notable occasions – I will get to Act IV where I will immediately manage to drive into a lorry which is apparently and for no good reason hauling dynamite. Boom, wasted. Back to Act I.

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This is why the number Four major gameplay change that has made the GTA game significantly less frustrating to play has been to add checkpoint saves at the beginning of each act, so that if I die I don’t have to go right back half an hour to the start of the whole debacle.

And fifth, which expands on the above, is that if you repeat a required mission a few times and absolutely fuck it up, and eventually want to throw your controller at the screen in frustration?

You can press X to skip the mission.

 

And this is where I compare back to the iOS7/iPhone article from yesterday, it’s not a revolution. They’ve fixed annoyances with the previous version – and added a couple more – and while it’s a major new release (for the phone, iOS is), it’s not a paradiem shift. The difference is, I think, that iOS doesn’t really need one, but GTA… kind of does.

Saints Row IV is the classic comparison here. I’ve not played it, so I can’t do it directly, but I’ve sunk a lot of hours into SR3, which is almost exactly the same. SR gives you complete control over your character, from gender and body sizing though to voice and clothes, and you can complete the game exactly the same as a 30ish straight white male with slight stubble as you can a five foot girl in a maxi-dress and heels. Nobody in the game will react to your character, only ever to what your character is doing. Saints Row took the diversion that GTA played with around Vice City, San Andreas (and was more prevalent in the first couple of games) into absolute crazy-town and went far down that road, whereas Rockstar very much doubled back, and then doubled down on the Scarface/Movies/Mock The American Dream low satire which has barely progressed since Vice City.

There is what is now a moderately famous torture scene about 20% though the game where the playable character – who is the Psychopath at this point – has to torture someone who is already telling them everything he knows for no greater reason. There’s no switching at this point, and – bar skipping the mission – no way around interacting with the torture scene. You can choose any one of half a dozen ways to do it, but the game drags you to that level anyway. Afterwards, the psychopath gives a long monologue on how torture is evil, how the government have started to believe that it’s necessary to get information, and how deep a pit that is to fall down. It’s a heavy moral point, and the high horse it rides on would blot the sky a lot more efficiently if it wasn’t standing in the deep and bloody ditch it’s spent the last half hour digging with great gusto. Almost always in these games, there’s a lack of sympathy with your target. The jewellry shop owner insults you as you case it the place, the entire city is corrupt and depraved, and this somehow makes a lot of the things your characters do – and they do some terrible things are your command – more of a game you’re playing along with. The torture scene misses this sweet spot entirely, so caught up is it in winding up to denounce you for something you had no option but to perform.

There aren’t any positive female characters yet (25% in, as I said). They all fit like a two-year-old’s shape matching toy into standard bitch/slut archtypes, and nothing I’ve read online convinces me there are many more in the rest of the game. GTA4 at least had a couple of female leads, top of their field if just as weak and corrupt as every man in the game.

One of the more telling elements in the game is that Michael’s son is addicted to a game called “Righteous Slaughter 7”, a guileless parody of CoD/Battlefield/MoH et al, which comes up on the in-game radio as adverts with pot-shots about how it’s barely different to the last one, and subtle digs at how similar the gameplay always is, with trailers of mindless explosions and weird level turns. You could take a video of some of Trevor’s missions for the game and use the advert as a backing track without anyone being the wiser.

So, it’s GTA, but five of it. For all the above problematicness, it’s still a fun game to play. The missions are better crafted than ever before, and the dialogue will always be hackneyed and clich√©d, but that’s part of the point of the high-hollywood action movie nature of what it’s trying to be. I would like to see it try to be something else, one day, but it’s not going to stop me putting a few dozen more hours into it.