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LOS SANTOS - It seems strange to realize that "Grand Theft Auto V" may well be the final game I buy for the Playstation 3.
Shortly after "Grand Theft Auto III" was released, I was at the apartment shared by my friends Josh and Kevin, and they had the game on. I'd heard the title a few times, but I didn't own it, and I hadn't played it. Once I watched Kevin play for about ten minutes, I left their place, went directly to a store, and bought the game and a Playstation 2. I played it incessantly for a while, and when I finally set it aside, I felt like I'd gotten everything out of the mayhem and the free-roaming lunacy that I could get. It was depraved, it was ridiculous, it was damn near impossible to finish as a game, and I loved every bit of it. The game seemed like the sort of thing that the authorities were going to catch wind of and shut down as soon as possible, and that made it even more fun.
Morality in gaming is a funny thing. When I played "Mass Effect 2" and "Mass Effect 3," I found that I couldn't make the renegade choices, no matter what. The way the narrative worked and the way I played Shepard, I felt it necessary to try to be as moral and as compassionate as possible. It seemed like the only way to navigate the political landscape of the games and come through it with my crew intact. The same was true of "Skyrim" when I played that for a few months. I never even considered playing it as anything but a hero. Even when I digressed to finish missions involving the Thieves Guild or whatever, I found myself overcompensating to make sure I was as far on the side of right as possible.
But when it comes to the "Grand Theft Auto" games, the brilliance of what Rockstar created is that there is no choice offered up to you. There's no reward for playing the game and trying to be careful. You are, simply put, a bad person, and you are tasked with doing very bad things. And the way the game is built, there are unlimited options for how to do terrible things, but I don't really see any buttons for doing charity work or rescuing puppies and orphans. This is, simply put, a release system for our worst impulses, and Rockstar seems to refine the formula a little bit every time.
"Vice City" was fun for the obvious "Miami Vice" riffs they were playing, and "San Andreas" was a game I liked but didn't love, and I think it was the busy work that was used to fill out the game. The ambition was amazing, and the customization was, if anything, almost too complicated. For me, the real winner of the series came with "Grand Theft Auto IV," and that was one of the few times I've ever played every single thing on that disc. It took me the better part of a year, with other games in-between, before I was able to say I'd pretty much played the disc out. Even so, I had some problems with it. I thought the whole thing about the way friendships worked in the game was a big pain in the butt, a time drain with no real payoff. I loved Niko Bellic as a lead character, and I thought the way the game built the narrative around him was the most interesting protagonist they'd had in the whole series.
The game that finally permanently won me over to Rockstar wasn't even a "Grand Theft Auto" game. Those were the games that brought me in, but it was "Red Dead Redemption" that convinced me that they can do anything in game form with enough care and attention. The world-building, the environment, the way it plunges you into the Old West… that game blew me away. These are experiences at this point. I don't remember "Red Dead Redemption" as a game that I played. I remember it as a narrative that I lived. I remember it as an experience that happened to me. That's what gaming at its best manages right now, a sort of out-of-body experience that allows you to do anything. And in "Red Dead Redemption," morality was less important than living by a personal code, and the way the ending of the game took an unexpected jump from one character to another was brilliant and disorienting and, ultimately, quite moving.
I intentionally tuned out all conversation about "Grand Theft Auto V" before release because I wanted to walk in cold. I would assume, based on the evidence of Twitter and Facebook, that lots of you are going to be playing the game in the weeks ahead. Well, I am, too, and when I joked recently on Twitter about running daily updates on the site, I was only half-joking. Part of me wants to be able to justify handing myself over to Rockstar Games for another massive chunk of time, because I know it's going to happen. Their games have become more immersive each time they make one, and that has never been more overt than it is "Grand Theft Auto V."
I went to the midnight sale of the game at the Best Buy near my house that threw a special "GTAV" event. I had it easy. There were maybe 40 or 45 people in the whole store, and we got numbers based on when we showed up so we could go walk around and shop and still keep our place in line. When it was time for the sales embargo to be up, I was the third person out of the store. and I was able to play a little bit before I had to travel for business. When I got back to town, I managed to sneak a few more hours. It hasn't been enough to really scratch the itch, but it's been a great start, and already, I feel like Rockstar has topped themselves in this series. I have a ton of writing to get through this week, so I think I'm done playing it now until next weekend, but in those first five or six hours, I've definitely had a chance to form a few opinions about what RockStar Games hopes is a standard-bearer, another example of how to do a world-building game right.
"Grand Theft Auto IV" started with a better opening scene, but this one seems to be building more steadily, in a more organic way. Part of that is because of what I think is a first for gaming, at least as far as I've ever played. During the game, there are eventually three characters who you are playing. You can go from person to person at the touch of a button, but beware… you have no idea what your body will be doing when you arrive back in it. When you pull up your character wheel, you can select between any of the people you see there and become them. It's handled in a very interesting way visually, as you pop up out of your body into the sky above Los Santos, and then you drop back down into the new person you're becoming.
I thought I'd put together a few thoughts about what I've played so far. I'd love to hear from you about your own experiences with it, and I'd be curious to see if anyone's got any major gripes. Please try not to spoil it for me beyond what is discussed in the gallery, and if this goes well, maybe we can check in a few more times over the course of the game to discuss some of the big moments that are still ahead for me.
For now, I'll just say that when I give my time over to a game, I want to be rewarded with something that feels this thought out, this fully realized. Hype can ruin almost anything these days, but this feels like it is well worth the wait between games, and like it delivers on the obviously massive expectations that gamers had for it.
"Grand Theft Auto V" is in stores now for PS3 and XBox 360, and the online multiplayer aspect of the game will be opening soon, which I'm sure will be worth a whole different conversation.