Grand Theft Auto 5 review: How to take it in America

It was after waterboarding a man with a canister of gasoline that I realized Grand Theft Auto 5 operates on its own set of rules. While other games have shied away from societal hot-buttons like torture in the past few years, developer Rockstar North runs toward these problems with a loaded weapon, an angry mob of cops in tow as businesses are being robbed and cars explode around them.

As a series, Grand Theft Auto has proudly poked the Western world about its obsessions and the things it finds offensive, offering its own slanted view of that world – a view that refuses to be dishonest. Politicians promise to nuke adversarial countries, a crowdfunding website equates its business model to panhandling, social media moguls brag about selling their users' private information, and the list goes on. Despite Grand Theft Auto's glamorization of virtual violence, which has never irked me, Rockstar's franchise has been able to maintain its likability with expansive, believable worlds and a band of interesting and redeemable characters.

Grand Theft Auto 5 has difficulty with its cast, however, as the latest in the notorious series features some of the most unbearable people I've ever had the misfortune of interacting with. Thankfully, interacting with Grand Theft Auto's world is better than it's ever been.

Grand Theft Auto 5 features multiple controllable protagonists, a first for the franchise. There's Michael, a family man retired from a life of crime; Trevor, the psychopath looking for the next big adrenaline hit; and Franklin, a street-wise hustler from the block. Though each character has a valid motivation for his journey, it's difficult to want them to succeed.

Michael's motivation is to take care of his wife and two adult children, all of whom are a chore to deal with. Living in the lap of luxury, his son and daughter whine incessantly. His wife condemns him for past mistakes, while judging his life choices and sleeping with yoga and tennis instructors. Michael's relatives are a painful bunch, and never have I dreamed so much for a big red button to detonate the nuclear family. Trevor's motivation sways throughout, but he begins in search of the truth about a moment in his past. Saying more would spoil his story, but it's clear that Trevor is never meant to be liked, as evidenced by the morbid way his character is introduced. Franklin is the standout, a kid who wants to rise past a menial life in his aunt's house. He hews closer to Grand Theft Auto's typical path, as someone who works hard to prove his worth to those around him – a character strong enough to kill but not willful enough to say no when ordered around.

Grand Theft Auto 5 brings players to Los Santos and Blaine County - two regions located in San Andreas, a satirized recreation of California. Throughout the campaign you can switch between each character, and sometimes you're required to swap leads on the same mission. In one scenario, Trevor hovers a helicopter in place as Michael rappels down a building, all while Franklin stands watch with a sniper rifle on an adjacent roof. Switching among the trio changes the objective, keeping you on your toes and providing momentum. Multiple story missions follow this path, giving GTA's crime-focused gameplay a fresh coat of paint.

Grand Theft Auto 5 review How to take it in America

Narrative has long been a crucial component of the Grand Theft Auto series, which prides itself on exaggerated social commentary of the Western world, but the franchise has been made famous for its sandbox gameplay. The core of GTA remains true in the latest iteration. You can run the streets of a fully-realized world, steal cars, cause chaos and attempt to flee from an extraordinarily irritable police force.

There are still hiccups in the formula that poke holes in the world's particular brand of realism. For example, running over a dozen civilians and accidentally bumping into a police cruiser are roughly equal in terms of illegality, as either action will summon the cops like you're public enemy number one. That silliness aside, creating a mess of trouble and seeing how long you can last against the coming onslaught of police resistance - something I've enjoyed since since GTA 3 – is still thrilling.

When you tire of randomly wreaking havoc, the story is prodded along by accepting missions, and Grand Theft Auto 5 introduces a new type: heists. Heists are multi-tiered missions with big cash payouts, and they typically begin with a recon overview that outlines the overall objective. Once the story behind a heist is established, you're given the chance to plan how it will play out. Two different options of execution are offered. Generally you're given a "smart" way to complete a heist that lengthens adversarial response time and initial resistance, or the "loud" way that often brings the full weight of your enemies down on you like a hammer.

Grand Theft Auto 5 review How to take it in America

Call a friend, check out the stock market or take a "selfie" with your iFruit mobile device

In the first heist, for example, you can use the air ducts you spotted during recon to knock out the customers and employees of a jewelry store with sleeping gas, allowing your entire crew to focus on cleaning the place out. Or you can go in loud, forcing one of your team to keep the crowd in check. Based on the crew you select and how well you execute your part of the plan, your take of the payout can change. When selecting your team, you have to weigh each crew member's take – their asking price of the total score – against their abilities, and your greed can come back to bite you if you're not careful. During a jewelry heist, I hired a gunman with relatively low stats. His asking price was lower than someone of greater skill, but he was ultimately sideswiped by police and knocked off of his escape motorcycle – along with a million in jewels. The choices you make all have their effects, running the gamut from changing the difficulty of a mission to altering how much money your crew can pull in.

That these heists can exist side-by-side with random, player-driven shenanigans is a testament to Rockstar's expertise in world-building, which is apparent in its adamancy to create heaps of peripheral content, wrapping an entire world around disparate gameplay systems. There's bad television and movies to watch. You can play a round of golf or tennis. There are bars, shooting ranges, a seedy strip joint and an entire carnival to explore. There are even missions that can only be discovered by scratching through the surface of your character's in-game cellphone web browser. Visit a few websites, fill out a survey and suddenly a Scientology-inspired organization takes notice of you. You can go scuba diving for treasure. Or maybe you'll decide to help an elderly couple collect celebrity memorabilia, culminating in a mission that has you kidnap a movie star. Purchase property and you'll unlock an entire set of new missions, like clearing out nuclear waste at the bottom of the ocean. It's all there for you to explore at your leisure – or entirely ignore. It's exactly the type of discovery you want from an open-world game.

If these scripted experiences aren't enough, you can also take on random objectives that pop up on the map. You could find yourself pursuing a purse snatcher, aiding a few armed robbers that need an escape car or chauffeuring drunks looking for a ride home. Of course, how you choose to complete an objective is up to you. I once chased down a stolen motorcycle for a distraught citizen, but decided the bike was too nice to return and instead added it to my own garage.

Grand Theft Auto 5 review How to take it in America

With so much to do, there's a danger of feeling bewildered, but GTA5 is never overbearing. For one, you're no longer forced to perform peripheral tasks to curry favor with other characters, one of the more onerous parts of Grand Theft Auto 4. GTA5's world exists to be played with the way you want. One component that stands out is a pair of functioning stock markets, one of which is based on global connected player interaction. If many GTA5 players purchase weapons and gear at Ammu-Nation shops, for example, the company's stock will rise. Some missions even allow you to affect how the stock market reacts. I found myself cheating the system a little, picking up missions that would affect the market, restarting my game and dumping all three character's bank accounts into the company I was about to tinker with. Pieces like this add character to the world to give you a sense that life is happening around you.

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The best of these components are the ones that can tie into missions, two of my favorites being piloting planes and parachuting. Combined with GTA's general freeform style, these features add a great spark to the campaign. In one mission, for example, I was asked to steal a helicopter from a heavily guarded military base. After banging my head against a wall, being gunned down time and time again, I found a parachute, stole a plane and touched down right next to my target. Grand Theft Auto 5 doesn't set limitations on how objectives are completed, and that remains one of the series' best contributions to open-world games.

Where Grand Theft Auto 5 loses its focus, ironically, is where the player has the least freedom: the story. As the three characters grow closer, the narrative goes from an interesting story of past mistakes, redemption and revenge to the story of three men screaming at each other in a seemingly endless cycle. This centers mostly on Michael and Trevor's shared history. After a lengthy time apart, emotions between the former colleagues come to a head, and GTA5 pounds at this conflict for far too long. At every turn, the pair are at each other's throats. Character development is difficult to parse as each refuses to move on from the past, reluctant to show any significant growth, and it became less and less entertaining to watch them interact with one another. Even the final heist – a colossal job that you are told will require nothing but patience and perseverance – devolves into a screaming match between the protagonists.

It's only Franklin, introduced as a kid that knows enough to survive but not enough to succeed, that achieves any meaningful growth. Franklin takes what he learns from his mentors and becomes the most mature of the trio – and ultimately the main character of Grand Theft Auto 5.

Grand Theft Auto 5 review How to take it in America

In previous Grand Theft Auto games, the narrative is made memorable thanks in part to the slew of interesting characters that interact with the protagonist. Watching these characters react and play off a single persona helps tie the story and its cast together. Since GTA5 features three main characters with vastly different personalities, your time is split, and the narrative isn't given enough room to resonate. Peripheral characters suffer as well, with each protagonist being designated specific individuals throughout the story. You spend less time getting to know the people that make up the craziest parts of the world, which has always been one of GTA's more fascinating components.

Story complaints aside, it's the world of San Andreas that is the main attraction, and it does not disappoint. For every narrative quibble, there are dozens of discoveries to be made, and many of the best moments will be the ones you create yourself.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is an ambitious game, attempting to meld three very different characters together to tell one encompassing story of survival in what amounts to the worst place in America. That story stumbles, but the open-ended gameplay remains a showpiece for the vast amount of content that can be poured into a virtual world.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Grand Theft Auto 5, provided by Rockstar.

An online component for Grand Theft Auto 5 is scheduled to be added as a free update to the retail game for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 1.

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