GTA V continued: now it gets interesting

[Previous spoiler warnings still apply; I try not to get into story spoilers, but talk about missions and characters are unavoidable.  Do not read if you’ve not yet played.]

[Also: I’d been working on this post all morning but then I got sidetracked with the SteamOS announcement, and so I have no idea what the hell this post is about any more.]

So, where was I….

Ah, yes.  In my last post, I was treading water, somewhat; I had not yet performed the first in-game heist, and I was kinda just messing around in the world, killing time until the last piece of the pre-heist puzzle was solved.  I was feeling a little bit lost, a little less enthused about the game than I’d hoped.

I am many more hours into GTA V now.  Its hooks are now firmly planted in my brain.  I am still a little put off by the relentless profanity for profanity’s sake, but I admit that could just be me and my changing attitudes towards that kind of thing.  The game itself now has a forward momentum that the early hours just didn’t have.

That forward momentum is, of course, personified by the game’s introduction of Trevor, the final member of the player’s trio.  He may yet be the least sympathetic character in the entire franchise; he is also the most appropriate.  He embodies the sociopathic nature of the franchise; he murders and destroys because it’s fun, and because he’s good at it.

But first, before I talk about Trevor, I need to get caught up.  I did finally finish that first heist.  All things considered, it was pretty satisfying to pull off – and the take was nice, too – though the post-heist escape was lifted straight out of Italian Job.  I haven’t seen the original film, so I’m not sure what’s referencing what, but the only real significant difference between the Mark Wahlberg remake and GTA V was the absence of Mini Coopers.  There are times when I wish GTA wasn’t so reliant on pop culture references; things feel familiar when they shouldn’t, which ends up spoiling the surprise.  It’s one thing for film references to help put you in the right frame of mind (i.e., Scarface/Vice City), but sometimes it feels as if the mission designers would rather ape something tried-and-true than come up with something original.  This is something the entire GTA franchise has been guilty of since at least III; I’m just noting it here because it seemed particularly egregious.

(I’m not totally against references, mind you; I just get ornery when it feels like a missed opportunity to do something unique.  That said, there is a post-heist Franklin mission that takes place in what might as well have been CJ’s house and cul-de-sac in San Andreas, and that one gave me goose bumps.  That reference works, though, because it’s (a) subtle, and (b) earned.)

*     *     *

Quick tangent: having never been to Los Angeles – or California, or the West Coast – the verisimilitude of Los Santos is something I can’t necessarily appreciate in the way that I, as a native New Yorker, could with Liberty City.  But I did play L.A. Noire, and San Andreas, and I’ve certainly seen lots of movies that are set out there, and so there’s quite a lot of stuff that I recognize, and everything certainly feels true, which is pretty amazing.  And yet: it’s the stuff north of the city that really knocks my socks off…

*     *     *

But yeah, once the game shifts gears and introduces Trevor… wow.  He’s a really tough character to watch.  People complain that GTA IV was too dark and gritty for its own good, but Trevor is even darker, more menacing, and completely insane – and also maybe a little bit silly, which is off-putting, to say the least.  Are we supposed to laugh at him?  with him?  Is he meant to be entertaining?

We are introduced to him mid-coitus, as he discovers that Michael (his old thieving partner) is not actually dead.  5 minutes later, he’s more or less killed a biker with his bare hands.  It’s hard to know whether what happens over his first set of missions is a continuation of earlier events or simply Trevor’s id exploding with rage, but it almost doesn’t matter; everything goes batshit insane immediately, and without warning, and so the narrative context is made irrelevant.  (This may or may not be a good thing; it’s hard to tell.)  Trevor’s personality is so dynamic and dominant and spontaneous that it’s entirely possible that he just decides to take over all meth operations in that part of town, blowing the hell out of everything in his way in the process – it’s not a culmination of months-long planning, it’s just a thing that he chooses to do, right then and there.

And so suddenly the game is no longer about social issues or class warfare or the financial crisis; it’s about blowing shit up and causing maximum amounts of chaos… which is kinda what the game has always been about.  The franchise just never had a protagonist who enjoys this sort of work with the glee and gusto of a true psychotic sociopath.  Trevor wouldn’t be out of place in Saints Row, frankly, except that the cast of Saints Row aren’t this dangerous; they’re wacky-ha-ha, not wacky-holy-shit-look-out.

On the flip side of the coin, being introduced to Trevor also introduces us to the northern half of the map, which I can’t even describe without completely losing my train of thought. I knew the game would eventually take me up there, but I was too wrapped up in the early missions to really go exploring.  Once I was up there, though… it’s truly breathtaking, what Rockstar’s managed to create.  For all the vulgarity and the racism and sexism and ugliness of the narrative, the world itself is mindblowing.  I mean, the city of Los Santos is as incredibly detailed as anything I’ve ever seen in a game, but once you get out of the city it somehow gets taken to a whole new level.  Honestly?  There’s a part of me that kinda wants to finish the story as quickly as possible just so I can get it out of the way and have the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of that map.

*      *      *

Tangent, part 2:  If I were to interview Rockstar – and specifically the guys in charge of the gameplay experience, however that’s delegated – I think the main question I’d want to ask is how they balance the need for narrative urgency to complete the next story mission against allowing total freedom to do whatever the player wants, or if that’s even something they worry about anymore.  GTA3 took the idea of non-linear, emergent gameplay and made it the centerpiece of the game experience; with each subsequent game they expanded the number of toys you could play with, while also making their narratives larger and more ambitious.  Here in GTA V, they’ve gone and given you THREE different main characters to play as, and yet they’ve also given you the largest and most pliable sandbox ever created.  (This is to say nothing of the online component.)  So, then:  is the story even necessary?  

*       *       *

This post is now running very long and is probably long past being coherent, so let me try to run down some things that are working for me, as well as some things that are not.

Things that work:  The stock market.  I’m really impressed with how this system works, and it’s only because I’m an idiot that I didn’t truly make the most of the first two assassination missions that could’ve given me millions.  Even in spite of my stupidity (wherein, as Franklin, I immediately spent most of my post-heist take on buying a taxi dispatcher business, which meant I had less than $50,000 to play with), I made over $160,000 by buying up the cheap stock that was set to explode because of each mission.  And it’s only now occurring to me that I’ve done two of these missions now and never bothered to switch over to Michael or Trevor so that they could take part in the action as well.  *sigh*

Things that don’t work:  Franklin’s dog.  And not just because the iFruit app is completely useless right now.  Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be that big a deal so far, and so I’ve been content to ignore it, but it’s a needless distraction in a game already full of distractions.

And speaking of Franklin, I’ve been spending most of my time playing as Franklin at this stage in the game; he’s certainly the most sympathetic character of the three, and his special driving ability is a lot of fun to play with, and his new house in the hills is sweet… but it also needs to be said that his character is not written all that well.   I don’t really understand why he was willing to follow Michael so blindly at the beginning; similarly, nearly all of his side missions are taken with great reluctance  (i.e., the paparazzi dude, the legalize-weed dude).   He gets pushed around and agrees to do things for no good reason other than the game makes him, which is kind of dumb.  It makes him look weak, and I’m not sure the game intends for him to look weak.

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