Hate Box is back! After taking some time away to recharge is hate-filled juices, Matt Reynolds discusses his problems with GTA V… and where he sees the solutions. WARNING: slight story spoilers ahead!
Given the unprecedented clusterfuck that was the GTA Online launch; the title of this article may raise a few eyebrows. Allow me to explain my reasoning. Grand Theft Auto V is easily the best GTA by a country mile. The size, fidelity and intricacy of Los Santos and Blaine County is mindboggling when you consider its running on an 8-year-old console with very few framerate issues. Its colourful, vibrant and feels totally alive as you make your way through the 20-30 hour campaign. But it has a serious flaw; one that spoils the hard work put into the unmatched sandbox environment.
Its narrative is complete and utter garbage.
People wax lyrical about every Rockstar teaser trailer when the studio is on the marketing trail. Character reveals are met with endless articles, video conversations and podcasts speculating on who these individuals might be, what their motivations are and how the overarching plot will play out. Rockstar have somehow positioned themselves in the public eye as master storytellers. The problem is that they are not, and with GTA V they have spectacularly overreached themselves.
The story of Niko Bellic in GTA IV was largely derided by critics and punters alike for its po-faced, bleak, rags-to-slightly-less-rags approach but at least it was coherent. Sure, you could complain that there was the usual GTA problem of narrative dissonance when you attempt to reconcile Niko’s apparent distaste at his violent past with the wanton chaos the player could arbitrarily cause, but the overarching plot was consistent in its message. The decision to spread the plot of GTA V over three characters is a double-edged sword. The actual mechanics of it are brilliant and it provides some much-needed variety, but by doing so Rockstar has not allowed enough scope for any of them to grow and develop throughout the narrative. What you have are three immensely dislikable, unrelateable cardboard cutouts that do nothing but rage at the world. It’s a fair enough argument that GTA has always had a nihilistic and cynical worldview but never before has its characters had so little motivation behind their actions. The excellent Trevor aside (who needs no excuses); Michael is simply bored and Franklin is a two-bit thug who just follows Michael around.
The main problem with GTA V isn’t really its characters though – it’s the structure of the narrative. The time-honoured GTA mission structure of ‘go to letter on map, accept mission’ has never really been conducive to a strong story and with GTA V the problem has never been worse. You are constantly introduced to totally random bit players who exist only to hand out a few arbitrary missions before disappearing, often with little to no fanfare. They either get killed off for no reason, or just disappear from the story and are never mentioned again. The much-lauded heists are the highlight of the game, but despite being hyped up pre-release the actual number of heists can be counted on one hand.
The game also veers wildly in tone from mission to mission. One minute you are chasing after a yacht with Michael’s fat son dangling off the end; the next you are actively participating in a horrendously brutal and totally unnecessary torture scene. Here even the music abruptly shifts in tone and the whole thing becomes rather sinister and a little uncomfortable. Sure, you could argue that GTA is all about violence but it has always been in a very over the top and cartoonish way. Not so here – the scene is totally void of irony or satire. After said scene Trevor gives a long-winded lecture on the futility of torture, as if that somehow makes his previous actions justifiable. This feels like a break in character and as such breaks the immersion of the game – you are no longer inhabiting the character of Trevor, you are very noticeable being lectured by Rockstar. It’s the same problem that can make Kevin Smith or Tarantino films grate on occasion – all of a sudden the characters cease to be themselves and instead give long-winded monologues that are very obviously aforementioned writers getting on their soapboxes.
The endgame missions are weaksauce too. After some of the massive setpieces earlier on; the game fizzles out in its final minutes. You would expect the final couple of missions to be the biggest of all but instead you merely tail a few guys before offing them in an underwhelming way. You then take care of the final antagonist by holding down the thumbstick. Whoop. Where was the big mission involving the army base? Instead of Brad being dead, why not have a huge, involved heist mission to break him out of the enormous max security prison? Both these locations are huge with the scope for some great action but the narrative never makes use of either of them. I can only assume that they will become more involved in GTA Online.
Ah yes, the online side. When you get past the technical atrocities that plagued the game’s first fortnight, online is where the longevity of GTA V should lie. Back in the day – well before GTA IV in fact – I never finished a GTA campaign. In GTA III I would just dick about trying to get the highest wanted level and just causing outright carnage. Same with Vice City. I know I’m not alone – before the more sophisticated GTA entries of this generation the vast majority of players bought the GTA games for their sandbox potential. No one really cared about the plot.
I believe GTA VI should be online only. Rockstar can pour all their energy into making an incredible, robust online MMO where the full potential of their amazing sandboxes and emergent, chaotic fun can be fully realised. The satire (always my favourite part of GTA) can be kept intact via the radio stations, TV shows and billboards, shops and so on. But we can do away with the weak, scattershot narrative and empty cardboard characters.
– Matt Reynolds. Stir his anger on Twitter @thelostmoment
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