Backlog: Los Santos Reunion Edition

Greetings from sunny Los Santos! Most of us have been busy exploring Grand Theft Auto V's Bizarro-world version of the City of Angels this week, so we figured we'd share some standout moments and discuss the things that kept us thinking about Rockstar's latest grandiose production.


"Loose cannon" doesn't begin to describe it
"Loose cannon" doesn't begin to describe it

Giveittomebaby~!” The classic nasty sounds of Rick James pump out of the in-game radio station. Somehow, it’s a fitting soundtrack for the madness on screen -- Grand Theft Auto V’s designated madman, Trevor, driving an expensive luxury SUV trying to get away from the cops with two thieves who needed a quick getaway car riding in the back. This was one of the new mission types in the game, similar to Red Dead Redemption’s random encounters, except instead of outlaw wild west justice it’s women having their purse snatched or thieves with poor senses of planning. I’m only a third of the way through the game, but I’m amazed and enjoying my time.

I’m a little confused about Grand Theft Auto V. This is not to say I don’t like it -- I love the game, I’ve sat down and poured hours into it without thinking twice. It’s kept me up late on work nights a few times since release. I absolutely love it. But it’s not a great leap forward; the game is just a number of refinements on the existing formula, wrapped around the orange-tinted sunsets of Los Angeles-lookalike Los Santos and all that comes with La-La Land. (Hell, there’s even traffic jams on the freeways).

The big change is the three-headed protagonist -- and it’s the change I love the most. It allows Rockstar to do so much more than before with the storytelling structure of the game. It would not make sense for one single protagonist to, in turn, gang-bang in South Central, cruise the methed-out desert badlands with rednecks, and play tennis at the country club in the hills. I know this is a video game and we’re supposed to separate reality from fantasy, but there’s something about a world that’s consistent to itself. Three different characters also means three sets of surrounding supporting characters -- Lamar is amazing, Michael’s family is deliciously awful, and Trevor’s associates are…interesting. The protagonist change is worth it if only for the animations you see when switching from character to character -- especially when Trevor is involved.

So it’s not a revolution in terms of control or how open the open world is…but the game’s story and storytelling take the ideas started with GTA IV and continue forward. There are missions that have you not only switch between characters to aid in one piece of action, but also between them to act out both sides of a phone conversation, and it’s really new and interesting. As mentioned, the three characters are different people with divergent histories and personalities and that allows for completely different missions and mission types, which is great for the series. And the heists! The heist missions are excellent -- enough said.

I could keep going, but I need to progress further in the game before bringing up more. But in short: Is this game truly revolutionary? Not necessarily. Is it fun -- soul-devouring, time-swallowing fun? Absolutely.


Pretty much the only non-triggering image I could find from GTA V's torture scene
Pretty much the only non-triggering image I could find from GTA V's torture scene

Rockstar's no stranger to controversy. Back when it was still calling itself DMA Design, the studio was buffeted with criticism and threats over the original Grand Theft Auto, a top-down arcade-style action game that set itself apart with gang violence, drug running and naughty language. That was sixteen years ago; a lot has changed.

The best response to fend off hecklers is to double down on what you're doing, and Rockstar did so with aplomb. Grand Theft Auto became one of the top-selling game series in history thanks to its irresistible air of controversy and a reputation for crafting ever-more-surreal virtual worlds that resemble my own country as viewed through the eyes of a healthy cynic. Grand Theft Auto III brought Liberty City to life in a way no other game had done before, and the series' continual iteration through various iconic time periods (with not-so-subtle inspiration from some quintessential gangster movies) kept things fresh, comical and eye-opening. And buried content like San Andreas' infamous "Hot Coffee" mode kept critics and lawmakers busy clambering over each other to figure out how best to banish games with "mature" content to the back shelf of an adult video store.

As is usually the case, nothing really happened and common sense prevailed over fear of the unknown. Games continue to push boundaries in new ways, and from my point of view, GTA has historically been the vanguard in testing what's permissible with the broader public.

Yet despite its pioneering status in testing the limits of taste in gaming, the series couldn't hold its bad-boy status forever. GTA III showed that a daring game could be a critical and commercial success, and suddenly it wasn't the only one rattling politicians and parenting groups into dogmatic retribution: games like Manhunt and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 began to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in ways that GTA hadn't or couldn't. For better or worse, Grand Theft Auto just isn't the cardinal sin of gaming that it used to be.

But if the controversy largely died down around the time Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodic expansions came out, the quality of the gameplay quietly continued to improve. Driving, running and shooting each developed from a clunky and unforgiving mess to competent and rewarding mechanisms. Narrative coherence and acting quality grew richer and more believable, reaching a level of engrossing believability in GTA V that's hard to match. The series has never looked, played or felt better than it does today, and its aggregate review scores reflect that — keeping in mind that scores are often a formula based on perceived quality of graphics, sound, gameplay, features, and so on.

So if there's one fault I have with GTA V, it's that its perspective and tone haven't evolved with its gameplay. Lazlow and Fernando still play the same shtick of suggestive and profane commentary on the talk radio stations; obnoxious ads not-so-subtly criticizing consumer culture play on the airwaves and plaster buildings and billboards; government agents are universally lazy, crass, corrupt and violent. Which brings us to the torture scene.

In this scene you're playing as Trevor, the most unhinged of your three very unhinged playable characters. You need information on a target for Michael to hit to satisfy a government agency and keep its attention off his back. As Trevor, you're given a table with pliers, a wrench, nipple clamps hooked up to a battery and — of course — a gas tank full of water paired with a rag.

You can choose whichever implements of torture you want, but you can't finish this critical-path mission without tormenting your victim repeatedly. Teeth get yanked, nipples get electrocuted, kneecaps are smashed — and, if you choose, your victim is waterboarded. Once you get the information you need, Trevor frees the victim and drops him at the airport, never to see his family again.

It's not necessarily the content of this scene that's disappointing. Shocking content is a staple of Grand Theft Auto, and government-sanctioned torture is an unnerving and real horror today. What's distressing is how laissez-faire the game's depiction of this scene is. Michael and Trevor each express dismay to the agents at torturing a civilian, but each carries on with their duty without another word. Clearly these are both hardened criminals — satirical depictions of them at that — but there's no connection between the act of torturing this characters as the player and the later events of the game or the main characters' development.

It's just a jarring scene for the sole purpose of shock value, which makes it cheap — and it's Rockstar's biggest missed opportunity to do make a meaningful statement about something that's clearly significant to the series and its creators.

On a traditional review scale, Grand Theft Auto V is a masterpiece. Incredibly beautiful and vivacious details bring this world to life — frankly, I didn't think visual fidelity like this was possible on current-gen consoles — and the sheer breadth and variety of activities to participate in is almost overwhelming. But as the latest in a series that prides itself on its "maturity" of storytelling, GTA V feels like a series of missed opportunities.