The fact that GTA 5 was rumored to be an oft-delayed, unplayable mess, combined with the fact that Rockstar’s quietly put it in stores before Thanksgiving without giving the press early builds for reviews, usually means one thing: the game is a disaster. Imagine our surprise when we installed it just after finishing off the last of the turkey only to discover one of the coolest and most absorbing games we’ve played all year. Even more surprising, we love the game despite its myriad minor, but annoying, flaws. It has an awkward camera setup; the map function is useless; the AI drops out at times; and it has a ruthless game dynamic that demands players replay the same levels seven or eight times to get them right — with no in-game save. Yet getting it right and pulling off the perfect contract is so fun, so vastly cool, that even our PCs didn’t want us to stop playing.
GTA V’s in-game interface is clean and minimal, with only your health and armor displayed in the upper left, and the currently selected weapon in the upper right. Scrolling through your inventory brings up a pop-up menu including a helpful picture for picking the right tool. However, the HUD desperately needs a transparent mini-map that can be toggled on and off. The huge levels in Grand Theft Auto 5 demand that players often retreat to the map to get their bearings, and going through the load screen only to be treated to a nearly useless map with “grab” and “magnify” functions doesn’t help much either.
Once into the game, the AI is respectable but inconsistent. It’s understandable that a guard or thug would become suspicious when a smartly dressed bald guy suddenly pulls out an Uzi, but too often we would snipe some poor sap from a quarter mile away and his comrade would just sort of grow curious. The enemy would too often rush to the scene of a massacre, notice that our character was dressed like all the victims and become bewildered how so many people ended up dead.
If we had to guess, we’d say that the developers had the AI suddenly drop out at certain points because otherwise the game would be terribly frustrating. GTA V features 15 single-player levels with no in-game saves. Some of the levels are simply enormous and require three or four tries just to scope out a “hit.” Later in the game, some of the tasks are so complicated that we had to play through the levels several times, often at 20 to 30 minutes a pop, just to figure out what to do. And while all of the levels feature one or two “continues,” often those continues would have the respawn at a spot that was pretty close to where he just got gunned down, with the result being another gunfight and quick death, thus making those continues relatively useless.
So why bother playing a game with so many problems? Because GTA 5 money tricks is just so damn cool. There are few other titles that have this game’s sense of style and stealth. From the anonymous with mysterious bar code to the quiet assassinations in Chinese restaurants with silenced Berettas or piano wire, GTA V is like taking part in your own Luc Besson film. There are even in-game cutscenes that show him doing cool things like capping guards or getting thrown out of hotel rooms.
For gamers not hip on stealth-style shooters, no amount of shiny graphics or neat-o skeletal system will change their minds. But, to us, Grand Theft Auto V represents the same breath of fresh air as the original Thief game. It has great graphics, great style and, for the patient, absorbing gameplay.