Mild spoilers below. I am currently 42% done with the game(39/69 missions).
Grand Theft Auto V has received universal acclaim. IGN and Giant Bomb gave it perfect scores, while Eurogamer, Polygon, and Game Informer all gave it a 9/10 or higher. When Gamespot gave the game a 9, commenters screamed that the reviewer should be fired.
Sometimes, I see what they mean. Casing, planning, and executing heists can feel great, even when you realize you’re actually just walking around a jewelry store and taking photos. Swapping between characters doesn’t change gameplay tremendously, but it adds to the open world illusion and feels great. When you’re blowing up a trailer park full of meth dealers in the desert, the writing works. Feeling like an expert thief or a psychopath is fun. The former can be a blast, the latter can make you laugh in a “this is bananas” sort of way. When the game goes full throttle on absurdity, it’s fun and funny.
The game also has lots of problems, ranging from garden-variety sexism (satire or no), to providing a poor illusion of real freedom. Sadly, I’d still be having fun if the story missions had more action and less drudgery. I was excited to play the game, but I’ve been largely disappointed.
And if I really try to sell you that argument in game dynamic terms, I will probably sound like a hipster jerk. I don’t think it’s generally good policy to blab about how a huge, expensive, well-reviewed game sucks. I don’t want to be that guy who rips on a game because it is successful and I don’t like it. Seriously…that guy.
So I won’t; this isn’t a review. These are just anecdotes from my experience thus far. Most of them are scripted events, and I have an opinion as to whether their existence helps or hurts the game. I’ll let you guess which.
Trevor needs to steal a submarine. This should be exciting! I walk onto a boat, shoot a lone guard, and drive the sub up the coast for several minutes. I sit in a cutscene as a crane lifts me/sub onto a truck bed. I get in the truck and drive half a dozen blocks while the NPC complains–for the sixth or seventh time–that breaking the law is bad. The mission takes 8 minutes, during which I experience about a second of action.
At least I can look forward to the heist, in which we are going to steal a secret government thing using the newly stolen sub. I opted for option “B” during the planning stage, which promised to be less run-and-gun than “A.” Sounds good; I’m a professional, dammit. I suppose the sub-stealing mission was either reminding me that we were being stealthy or reinforcing the NPC’s discomfort about the job and the fact that I, Trevor, am an ass. By now this is old information, and rather than adding anything new, the game is assuming I suck at paying attention.
The actual heist begins in an apartment (where we discuss the plan again) and the main characters pile into a truck. As Michael, I drive through the whole city, up the mountains, and out into the dessert. “That’s a long drive,” I say to myself. The game anticipates this, because Michael and Franklin chime in with general complaints of “Hey, man, this a long drive.” Trevor responds with a diatribe about how everyone in America, millennials in particular, are afraid of a little work. Presumably I am meant to giggle and say “Oh you socio-political satire you!” and not “@#$* you this is a game! And I am not!” Trevor asks if I ever took up the flying lessons he recommended. No, I did not, because really you were asking me to grind my flying stat. So Trevor calls me lazy all over again.
I am Franklin, driving a bus. I pick up passengers for several minutes while driving as carefully as possible, trying to avoid suspicion. On my fourth pickup, the mission’s target shouts at me about fare hikes, and begins to bike away. I hit him with the bus, which, while slow, is substantially faster than his bicycle. Mission accomplished.
I am Michael, home from a long day of larceny. I park my fancy car in my fancy driveway. I head into the backyard, where my wife, Amanda, is getting ready to do yoga. We have not been on good terms lately, and my constant drinking and general brooding may have something to do with this. Her instructor suggests I should join in the workout. Why not? She may not enjoy old movies and murder, but maybe this is something we could grow to share. I buckle down and try to stretch over my beer gut. Amanda bickers constantly about how I don’t actually give a shit…but I do. I want my family to be happy, and I’m trying. I’m reaching for them, even when it really hurts me–by staring blankly at a TV and rotating analog sticks until Michael assumes the mountain pose, for example.
Then the yoga instructor starts grinding against Amanda and says he hopes this has helped my impotence. My wife seems okay with this turn of events. I become upset, and my wife shouts that she is leaving and never coming back. I plod upstairs, change into fresh clothes, and gaze into a mirror. I hear my son, from his room down the hall, calling someone a “faggot” in an online game. I head outside and try to ram my car into the living room, to no avail.
I’d like to take a break at this point and say, just once, “These things would have been way less awkward, way more fun, and much better written in Saint’s Row IV.” Feel free to imagine me saying that after every sentence, but only if you want to.
A government stooge wants me to assassinate someone. He’s been coercing me into doing his bidding for too long. I see this as the last straw. Before I can clobber him, I am Michael, driving to a building with some jerk. Then I’m Trevor again, but the only thing I can do is pick what object I’d like to torture someone with. My victim seems like a pretty okay guy, but he installed some AV equipment for Michael’s target, and I need to drag out a physical description. Unable to switch back to Michael, I pick up a jug and proceed to waterboard him. He only sputters out a few vague features, so I have to torture him some more. I assume that using the same technique again will suffer diminishing returns. I reach for the wrench, which ends up being worse than I had imagined, and I break both of his knees. I waterboard him a few more times, avoiding the car battery and pliers. I switch to Michael, see someone who fits the description, and pull the trigger as Jerk is in mid-sentence. Jerk mutters about this, and I tell him to shut up.
As Trevor, I drive my battered torture victim to the airport while ranting about how torture is bad, even though he totally just tortured this dude. People talk about ludo-narrative dissonance, but this is the first time I’ve really felt it; the scene felt cheap, Trevor, who is usually uncontrollable, went along with it, and it wasn’t anywhere near fun. If I’m an unhinged murderer, why am I working for these losers?
A paparazzo says he’ll pay me to help ruin a starlet’s reputation. This suggests that he has a wallet with money in it. Beating him up and taking it is not an option. Awww.
I give a man a ride to the golf course in my semi truck. He says I should play golf. I give him a 400-yard stare as I back out of the parking lot. Beep. Beep. Beep.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Grand Theft Auto V is a game about towing cars, going home to change out of swim trunks, and the stress of driving a truck in Los Angeles traffic. It is about pointing a camera at people from a helicopter (driven by an NPC). It is about driving to the airport as carefully as possible–no dents, please. GTA V teaches us that crime is wrong because crime is boring. It is a game that lets you do whatever you want–right before it shouts at you for having fun the wrong way.
I’ll probably keep playing until the end because I bought the game and I’m stubborn. Maybe the end is awesome. That would be great. But I can’t see how it will be worth the tedium.