Friday, November 8, 2013

Grand Theft Auto 5, A Review

I'm not the biggest gamer in the world, at least anymore. I remember when the N64 came out and I spent hours playing it at my friend David's house (while being 'grounded' from Nintendo no less!). From then, I've been hooked on the more old school form of video gaming, at least from a distance. While at my bachelor party, my friends and I broke out the N64 for Mario Kart and SSB. It was a good old time.

I've been familiar with the GTA series since San Andreas. I know this because I played it constantly on my laptop while at Biola, even in class. I think it was New Testament or something. Either way, I made sure to sit in the back to avoid giving other students something to actually do.

So I'm been pretty invested in the GTA series. I've always loved the free-roaming environments, the satire, the essential libertarian freedom to do pretty much whatever you wanted. Usually, the satire was enough to get me through any ethical reservations I would have. Same with the newest incarnation of GTA, which takes us back to where I started.

Los Angeles. Errr San Andreas.

Anyway. As a prelude, this review isn't intended as a comprehensive examination. Its more about what stood out to me in playing this game.

The game moves through three main characters: Franklin, Trevor and Michael. In a sense, the three stooges if they decided to embody a living critique of their own American excessive culture. Through their chasing the American dream (a butt load of money), we are privy to stupidity, immortality and hilarity on a near perfect plane. The heights of government to the sewers, GTAV traverses a literal world. Its compact yet expansive.

Mechanically, the game is as fluid as a maple syrup enema. The land vehicles in GTA4 handled, most often, like there was a rhino attached to the rear fender. Here, the physics are tweaked to the point of being a cartoon. Cars still spin out, but the traction holds well once you gain a bit of speed. The hide and shoot mechanic is solid as usual, so no complaints there. There are a few instances of pop up, but nothing worth mentioning more than once here.

In regards to shooting (c'mon, that's the main reason my wife let me buy this game), everything is ramped up beyond anything GTA4 could've handled. Firing a grenade launcher into a group of cars reveals a series of massive concussive explosions, as each car explodes more than once, pieces flying about like paper in a hurricane.

Its technically and narratively dynamic. The world is filled with plenty of side missions. A standout for me was helping a group of white racists track down 'illegal immigrants' and ship them back to Mexico. Not because I really enjoy the prospect of shipping pixelized people around imaginary borders, but because the characters are so simply absurd.

That is where GTAV shines and simmers. The satire is absolutely brutal, flaying everyone from high top religious leaders to the FBI. Some missions revolve around two agencies fighting each other over budgets, pettiness that one hopes isn't indicative of reality. Other missions are controversial and, frankly, some of the most jarringly shocking material to drop in my lap in some time.

I defended the controversial mission in Modern Warfare 2 on the grounds that it was narratively consistent, and realistic in the sense that it placed the gamer in the shoes of someone genuinely moral who was required to act out in an immoral way. It simply plops someone down in a bad situation and says "go."

*SPOILERS*

Here, we have an extended sequence involving the torture of a man of Middle-Eastern descent, though clearly a native San Andreas citizen. In order to extract 'necessary' information, Trevor engages in some well-known torture techniques. What makes the scene difficult is not merely the physical torture. Trevor tears out teeth and shocks the man with a car battery in the same way one would make breakfast for a lover.

In doing this, the scene can come across as 'enjoying' the man's pained experience, though I sincerely doubt that was the writers' intent.

Instead, I think the writers expected the gamer to behave in the same way as Trevor: detached, slightly demented, even enjoying the scene to some extent. They believe that the America they are subtly criticizing would happily indulge in some freely chosen torture. As long as it doesn't happen in real life. After all, we've heard plenty about waterboarding in the "War on Terror." Many reviewers have decried the sequence, and it seems that gamers and critics are split on the necessity and effectiveness of this particular piece of the game.

For me, maybe that is the point. The satire boils down to what the writer's expect American's to do when handed a pixelated pair of pliers. Was the scene necessary? Not really. It doesn't particularly stand out as needing to exist, though it is consistent with the satirical elements already established. It does, however, emphasize pain in a way the game hasn't up to that point. Particularly emotional pain. So, is the scene necessary again? Maybe. Most likely not. I also wonder to what extent the writers believe in the im/maturity of the gamer. Since they don't let you opt out of the mistreatment, maybe that's my answer. Was the scene effective?

Absolutely. I'm talking about it with you right now.

*END SPOILERS*

Certainly GTAV gave me plenty to consider, on top of being a technically flawless experience. I still hop in a customized bike and ride around to the top of the Vinewood sign just to observe some deer running across the road.

To say the game isn't narratively gripping and genuinely fun to play is to be dishonest. What matters more is how mature a gamer is in regards to negative content. Anyone can have a good time, but it takes reflection to truly recognize the limitations of fun.

GTAV a bruising, darkly funny satire of the country that would encourage much of the world to spend over 1 billion dollars on it in three days. Its that good. Its that funny. Its that desperate.

--Nick

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