Grand Theft Auto 5 review: great, not grand
Like the real world city of Los Angeles that inspired it, Grand Theft Auto 5 can be summed up with one word: sprawling. Three main characters! A massive open world! Underwater missions! In terms of sheer size, Rockstar's latest is certain its greatest. Yet, the core game design has not changed much from the early PS2 days. Despite its rebel persona, Rockstar has produced a sequel that is extremely likable and, for the most part, fairly safe.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is easily more likable than its predecessor, striking a better, more consistent tone than GTA4. Whereas Liberty City shifted jarringly from dire seriousness to slapstick, GTA5 is largely a purely fun, interweaving story of reluctant friendship amid shady activities. The three main characters--Franklin, Michael, and Trevor--feel like flesh-and-blood people. I may not want to have a drink with them, but a cooler version of me could. Every character is sympathetic--even Trevor, in his own bizarre way. However, Rockstar isn't quite able to keep the tone consistent throughout the 30 hour adventure, especially when trying too hard to be poignant. The three main characters also occasionally veer out-of-character in service of advancing the plot, and the NPCs remain dull stereotypes.
As is typical for any sequel, Rockstar attempts to improve the gameplay systems. In particular, driving has never felt more natural. Each vehicle carries its own sense of weight and momentum. The personalized cars for each character are a nice touch as well, and I got a kick out of customizing their respective rides. Part of the thrill of a GTA game has always been weaving through traffic at high speeds, and Los Santos affords plenty of opportunity.
Shooting plays an equally large role in GTA5. And while the experience is improved, it's nonetheless serviceable at best. Shooting suffers from an overload of options that aren't mapped in any intuitive way, and the aiming shifts wildly in quality depending on your auto-assist setting. That leaves gunplay firmly in no-mans-land: too difficult without the assist but too automated with it. I left it on, and got used to winning confrontations by merely squeezing the left trigger and then the right a split-second later. Aim, pop, repeat.
Unfortunately, mission design also leaves wanting, steering players away from the freedom afforded by an open-world sandbox. Outside of heists, most missions don't allow any freedom on how to achieve them. Instead of giving you a general goal and letting you find the right tools to do it somewhere in Los Santos, each of them have you follow a tightly gated series of checks. The checkpoints guide you through Rockstar's carefully-engineered set pieces. While I understand the desire to show them off, too often player agency has been sacrificed. Anytime I veered from the path with a creative solution, I felt like I was getting my hand slapped. "We made this really cool, do it right!"
And as beautifully rendered as it may be, the world doesn't offer much substance beyond playing dress-up or engaging in a handful of mini-games. Additions like robbing gas stations or playing with the stock market are interesting, but they're minor diversions. The heists could have been a major differentiation, but they're far too binary, and then guided once you pick a path. I never felt like I was really planning a heist myself, and the choice of hired goons barely seemed to make a difference.
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Despite its relative infancy, Grand Theft Auto Online shows a glimmer of making good on a true open-world adventure. The addition of other human players to the world makes it a much more dangerous and engaging place to spend time. Los Santos is essentially a gigantic lobby system that houses various instanced matches, and simply roaming the city itself is a fun way to spend some time whilst waiting for friends. Whenever I need to make some cash but don't feel like getting into a match, I'll rob one of the stores that dots the landscape and try to outrun the cops.
GTA Online is at its most fun when players take advantage of the flexibility offered by the world. A fight isn't limited to guns after all, and I've had more than one opportunity to surprise opponents by running them over, or just sending a car flying in their direction after bailing out. Last Man Standing--an extremely dangerous single-life twist on traditional deathmatch--is especially compelling due to how varied your tools of death are.
Grand Theft Auto Online gives us an idea of where open-world gaming could go next. However, the single player adventure simply aspires to being an excellent Grand Theft Auto game, falling short of genre-defining. I hoped for a bigger shake-up, something that would reclaim GTA's role as the leader in genre innovation. Like the real-world Los Angeles, GTA5 is a massive, beautiful thing--guaranteed to leave an impression, no matter how fleeting. 
Driving has never been better in GTA
This review is based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Grand Theft Auto 5 is now available on PS3 and Xbox 360 at retail. It is also now available on PlayStation Network for $59.99. The game is rated M.