Grand Theft Auto 5 diary: My First Heist

We're waiting for the release of Grand Theft Auto Online before doing a formal review of Rockstar's latest game. Until then, our Steve Watts will be offering insights into some memorable moments from the single player adventure.

Grand Theft Auto 5 wastes no time setting the stage for a heist adventure. The very first mission is a heist, couched in the obligatory tutorial, with some bits of backstory and character-building slipped in to boot. In it, Trevor's psychopathic behavior seemingly made Michael swear off heists for good.

We've all seen enough crime movies to know that "for good" really means "for a little while." But still, it consequently took a while before Michael and I were ready to pull another big job. The character introductions and further tutorials on the open-world aspect lasted a few hours alone--even discounting any time to wander and cause (or stop) random criminal activity. A heist didn't pop up until Michael's erratic behavior made it an absolute necessity.

So he reached out to old contacts, including quite literal partner-in-crime Lester. The portly planner scoped out a jewelry store, and we got to work. Lester recommended one of two methods: loud and dumb, or quiet and smart. I could rush in guns blazing or think things through a little more carefully. Given that the opening mission was apparently the loud-dumb method, I went for brains over brawn. Besides, causing havoc is par for the course in GTA. The ability to strategize was an intriguing new wrinkle.

I picked my crew, stole some heist-appropriate vehicles, and got ready for the job. After tossing a canister of knock-out gas in the air duct, my crew donned its gas masks from the pest control vehicle I had secured and casually walked in. Time was of the essence, so we began smashing at cases and taking all that we could. The frantic voice of my hacker cautioned me that I was quickly running out of time, but I kept persisting. It was a big crew, and I needed to make sure I made enough to make it worth my while. Once we simply couldn't spare any more time, we hopped on our bikes and rode through a scene lifted straight from Terminator 2. When police pursued, we were ready with a large truck to bash them out of the way--also akin to the action flick. I wonder for a moment if James Cameron would get a kick out of this.

It was a singularly thrilling event. But for an open world game, this didn't feel very open. It felt more like I was tweaking variables. Sure, my choice of the enthusiastic but inexperienced young LifeInvader hacker gave me less time to smash the cases, but that's really just a matter of adjusting the mission time limit. Picking less experienced getaway crew might have lost some of the money stashed in bags, but again, that's a numerical disadvantage.

After I came down from the adrenaline high, I realized that all of my decisions were purely monetary. Less time means less take. Poor crew means risking losing some take. Aside from the initial decision to go in quiet, none of my choices really impacted how we did the job--which means I wasn't really planning a heist at all. I was min-maxing my heist stats.

I couldn't help but wonder how much more thrilling it would have been if I'd had more choices. What if I planned my own escape route? What if I had chosen to deflect the cops with a roadblock or a well-placed sniper? What if in addition to the sleeping gas, I'd had the opportunity to plan for the security technology as well, making my ill-equipped hacker less of a liability?

Maybe Rockstar simply has no interest in that, instead favoring scripted (and extremely referential) events. I hope that's not the case. I hope this was merely easing me into the idea of heists, so that I didn't feel too overwhelmed. Los Santos is both huge and dense, and failing to capitalize on that by giving us some degree of variation might end up feeling like a missed opportunity.

This diary is based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Grand Theft Auto V is now available at retail for PS3 and Xbox 360. It's also available digitally on PlayStation Network for $59.99. The game is rated M.