Second Life isn’t something you hear much about these days in the offline media. Initially, companies flocked to the Linden Lab-developed virtual world, launched in 2003, within which you “play” yourself to interact with individuals and businesses as you would in real life. But as users migrated to more streamlined social media platforms, Linden’s digital landscape became a little less busy.
Don’t go thinking it’s unsuccessful: Second Life maintains a million active users, with $700m of virtual goods traded in a calendar year. But the numbers game is based on relationships, A against B, however impressive A might seem shorn of context. So, a B for you: Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North, 360, PS3) generated $800m for its publisher, Take Two, within 24 hours of going on sale.
Which tells us… Well, that the GTA franchise is incredibly popular. And why wouldn’t it be? Since going three-dimensional with its third iteration in 2001, GTA has provided players with a window into a world not so far removed from their own, where the balance of crime and punishment enjoys a polygonal dance that’s both astute of mechanics and escapist of aesthetics. Its appeal is absolute: here you can be a terror, and nobody really gets hurt.
But the relationship works both ways. Commit an atrocity and expect substantial repercussions – the law and order of GTA is predominantly binary, with little grey area between right and wrong. This is something missed by the media furores rising whenever a new GTA title hits shelves. Yes, you can murder a prostitute. Hell, you can kill anyone. But chances are that someone will shop you to the cops, and you’ll be tailed by a swarm of squad cars until you’re wasted in a hail of lead.
This is known: in GTA games there is murder, there is violence, there is theft. There are lots of cars. Plot progression requires participation in a multitude of unsavoury activities. In GTA V, this extends as far as waterboarding an IAA (read: CIA) informant under the instruction of the FIB (read: FBI) during an interactive torture scene that’s been subject to much scrutiny.
Is this graphic depiction of a (US) banned interrogation practice entirely necessary? The story of GTA V wouldn’t be poorer for its omission, or demotion to a cut scene. But to criticise GTA developer Rockstar for this instance of show-it-like-it-is transparency is to not acknowledge the visceral history of the studio.
Is the torture in GTA V as harrowing as a moment in the same developer’s Max Payne 3, where a character suffers necklacing? (He’s stuffed inside tyres full of petrol and burned alive.) Or as brutal as the point-blank execution of a seemingly major character in the same game? I’d argue not. And don’t even start on Manhunt. The set-up for the torture in GTA V is prolonged enough for its shock to be tempered by expectation – there’s a more grizzly image in the mind’s eye than that which plays out on screen.
Besides, this is GTA: there is murder, there is violence, etc. Rockstar has long known what works – GTA III was the PlayStation 2’s fastest-selling game, almost tripling Take Two’s share price. So they serve up the slaughter by the skip load. But just because the hot buffet’s there, doesn’t mean the player has to pile their plate so high that they can’t see what’s on the dessert trolley. And GTA V has a lot to offer the less-malevolently minded gamer.
Which takes us back to Second Life, as that’s precisely what GTA V can offer. The money isn’t real, and although you can customise vehicles and characters (you swap between three, Franklin, Michael and Trevor, and each is a splendidly realised creation, exhibiting distinct traits from the next), there’s none of the detailed macro-management of a life-sim “proper”. Yet, this is a game that goes way beyond its fetch quests and assassination assignments. Beyond, even, its wonderful, triple-perspective heists, clearly influenced by the Three Leaf Clover mission of GTA IV, the bank raid borrowing liberally from Michael Mann’s Heat.
This is a game of little details adding up to a brilliant whole, within which you’re free to be a goggle-eyed tourist of its huge State of San Andreas setting, fully accessible from the start. It neatly plays the pure against the pained, the grotesque against gaping-of-gob grandeur. Climb a mountain. Scuba-dive to a crashed UFO. Cruise from the rocky north to the beaches of the south as “West End Girls” plays on the radio and the sun sets to your right. Wade into the ocean and see your character shudder as the waves smack against his balls.
These details, broad and minute, make this game the enveloping delight that those preaching its controversies simply don’t take the time to appreciate, because they see only the headlines and not the elegance of the systems beneath them. A functioning internet with Facebook equivalent adds to the already layered lines blurring fact and fiction – check out lifeinvader.com on your own computer.
And it knows its place, too. Just as you’re thinking that GTA V is trading in silver-screen clichés, Michael tells another character: “You know me, I’m a movie guy.” GTA V stays a step ahead, always, and as fast as you run to complete the mandatory missions, it’ll constantly throw distractions at you. Take this ditzy, hitchhiking blonde to meet her jealous boyfriend. Help these crazy British OAPs rummage through celebrity bins. Tolerate the company of an infuriating paparazzo.
Which isn’t to say that these branches from the main storyline can’t get bloody. Usually it’s one character who gets himself into this sort of trouble, and willingly, too. Trevor is the game’s embodiment of psychopathy, a gut-twistingly funny but uncommonly violent criminal turned in-hiding hick (at the game’s start, at least – you can soon put him in a suit and steal some fancy wheels) whose prime purpose is to pour gas on to already combustible situations.
Trevor is you, if you played previous GTA games to mow down innocent pedestrians. He is Rockstar’s gift to those who found the progression of IV’s Niko Bellic, from downtrodden immigrant to accomplished killer, somewhat jarring. No awkward evolution here: as soon as we meet him, Trevor is the go-to guy for gleeful gunplay. Each character has a special ability, activated by clicking both sticks: Michael has Max Payne-style bullet time, Franklin’s is a slowing of time when driving to enable precision turns and traffic dodging. Trevor’s is that he gets real mad, dealing more damage while taking less, for a limited time.
Trevor has unique Rampage missions, where the objective is to kill a set number of enemies within a given time. In one spliff-assisted moment, these adversaries are clowns, spawned from colourful trucks. As a meth dealer, you’d think Trevor could take a little weed. When Michael takes the same toke, he battles laser-wielding aliens. It’s all in his head, of course, although GTA V features an abundance of extraterrestrial easter eggs. And when Franklin has a drag… well, let’s not spoil that. Just make sure you do it as three of three.
Trevor and Michael have history. They’ve worked together before – indeed, the first mission in the game is a flashback to a robbery gone wrong, where you play as both characters. While Trevor winds up in the desert, slinging drugs to the same biker gang that featured in IV’s The Lost and Damned expansion pack, Michael lives an apparently comfortable life in Los Santos (the game’s vision of Los Angeles), the sprawling capital city of San Andreas. He has a wife, two kids, swimming pool, nice car and clothes.
But the cracks appear before we’ve even settled into his shoes: the wife’s sleeping around, the kids are dicks and the swimming pool’s probably been pissed in. It’s actually affecting when, on returning to an empty house after his dysfunctional but certainly loved family have moved out, Michael remarks: “I am never going to get used to this silence.”
Franklin is the articulation of ambition on show: a low-level gang-banger from a rundown part of Los Santos whose move into a repo man role for a shady car dealer turns sour when Michael pops up in the back seat of a reclaimed SUV. But Michael comes around, later thinking of Franklin as the son he never had. Again, it’s a little touching, indicative of slow-burn scripting that sees characters’ foibles revealed as they would across a multi-episode television series.
And the game plays in a comparable fashion to box-set viewing, presenting natural breaks in tempo in order to pursue a variety of leisure pursuits, from darts to golf to jet ski races and nuclear waste salvaging (really). Or, of course, you could take the opportunity to turn it off… Just kidding.
GTA V, like IV before it, is a massive time sink that consumes hours like Cookie Monster does macaroons. And like IV it delivers a blockbuster experience that only a handful of developers – Rockstar, Naughty Dog, increasingly Ubisoft – can realise. It’s not the greatest game of this outgoing hardware generation, but it certainly is a most remarkably rewarding swan song.
Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser commented, around the release of GTA III, that he wouldn’t stop until he made a billion. GTA V sales passed that figure, in dollars, in three days. But can anyone really see a future without a GTA game on next-generation hardware? Thought not. And if a humble 360 can run GTA V, then the possibilities for what comes next stretch far beyond this game’s ever-inviting horizons.
COAST TO COAST: CONNECTING IV TO V
Even though GTA V’s California-styled setting is a couple of thousand miles from IV’s Liberty City, Rockstar’s version of New York, and its events unfold five years after those of Niko Bellic’s story, there are several connections between the two games.
1. Discounting the prologue flashback, the first time the player properly sees Trevor he’s balls-deep in someone we’ve been introduced to before. That’s Ashley Butler, a member of the Lost Motorcycle Club, who briefly made an appearance in IV. Her role was rather more fleshed out for IV’s expansion pack, The Lost and Damned. And her on-off lover from Liberty City is about to help define Trevor’s tendency towards extreme violence.
2. Johnny Klebitz was someone in The Lost and Damned: deputy of the club, later its president, and the lead protagonist. Now, five years on, he’s a washed-up addict living half a life amid the sands of San Andreas. But even though his relationship with Ashley is a rocky one, he doesn’t take kindly to her being intimate with Trevor. And Trevor doesn’t take kindly to Johnny’s opposition.
3. Boot, meet head. Head, meet boot. In a heartbeat, the main character in a previous GTA storyline is wiped off the map. Or, rather, he’s spread all over it.
4. A little earlier, the central trio’s fixer Lester, the mastermind behind the main heists, is talking to Michael about the best men to help him raid a jewellery store. He mentions a certain Eastern European who was making waves in Liberty City five years ago. Well, who might that be, then?
5. Providing Michael meets him, during a poorly planned hold-up, another of IV’s characters can assist in V’s heists: namely Packie McReary. Pick him up after he’s bungled a robbery of his own and he tells Michael how he used to be a big shot in Liberty City. Employ him and he’ll tell you that he and Niko are no longer in touch.
6. And GTA wouldn’t be right without Lazlow. For V, the trash-talking radio host has turned TV presenter, fronting a Los Santos-filmed show called Fame or Shame, a parallel of America’s Got Talent.
7. Lazlow might’ve thought a move to the West Coast would improve his fortunes after slipping down the sponsorship pecking order in Liberty City, but a close encounter with Michael and Trevor early on in V literally leaves his trousers around his ankles.
8. Just what is it with Trevor and his insistence that strangers take off their pants?
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