Rockstar Games, I think most of you heard about them before. Their catalogue is nothing short of amazing. From massive open world shooters, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Red Dead Redemption 2, to linear, narrative driven shooters, like Max Payne 3 and L.A. Noire, and even Arcade racers, like Midnight Club. This does not even include Bully, which is the hardest game to characterize in Rockstars catalogue. Rockstar is one of the most legendary developers and publishers of all time. I think in the Western gaming market, only Bungie (Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo: Reach, Destiny), Bioware (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins) and Bethesda Games Studio (Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) had anywhere close to the reputation Rockstar have. But all of them lost the luster now, with the failures of Destiny, Anthem and Fallout 76 respectively. Rockstar has literally no misfire since the PS2 era. The lowest rated game on Metacritic from Rockstar ever since the release of Grand Theft Auto 3, which launched the studio into the fame it is now, is Manhunt 2, scoring a 67, which is decent, but not good. But the game still enjoys a very good 8.0 out of 10 from the audience. The Grand Theft Auto series is headlining the studio’s work. With San Andreas and Vice City being the legends of the genre. GTA IV and V are infinitely controversial and polarizing though. IV was dogged by the GTA community, because of missing features and the story being too much of a focus and the tone was way too depressing. V was criticized for its way too light hearted story and the pay to win online mode. Let me be frank, I am a big fan of Grand Theft Auto IV, due to its moody atmosphere and good characterization. Niko Bellic is one of the best protagonists in Video Game history. He is multi dimensional and he is very fleshed out. He struggles to change his violence tendencies from his best and it is so compelling. Some may say the game perfectly defined the term “Ludonarrative dissonance”. The player can carry out very violent action despite Niko’s whole narrative being avoiding violence. But the main message of the game, especially shown from the ending, is that you can never escape from the violent past. Whichever ending you choose, Niko always loses someone close to him. No matter is his girlfriend or his cousin, as retribution from being in this violent world. The player's action only strengthens the message, instead of breaking it.
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This is not off topic though, as Rockstar took this criticism personally. They changed GTA V’s narrative into something much lighter. GTA V is essentially the anti GTA IV. People don’t like GTA IV setting in moody Liberty City? GTA V is set in sunny state San Andreas and Los Santos. People don’t like GTA IV’s super serious tone? GTA V takes itself not seriously at all. People don’t like GTA IV only have one protagonist? GTA V has 3. Rockstar learnt a lot of lessons from GTA IV, but did they learn the right things?
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When you think of a Rockstar game, what will you get? First, an over the top story and characters. San Andreas and Bully’s story and characters are the best examples. They are, with lack of a better word, pretty unhinged. Second, a massive open world. From the state of San Andreas in San Andreas, the West in the early 20th century in the Red Dead games, or even post war Los Angeles in LA Noire. Every one of them has a lot of scope and identity. Third, the very rude and sarcastic writing. This is best seen in Max Payne 3. Max Payne 1 and 2 were written primarily by Remedy Entertainment’s Sam Lake, and the dialogue and monologues sound like this: “They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger. And then it was all over. The storm seemed to lose its frenzy. The ragged clouds gave way to the stars above.” Then compare it to Max Payne 3, which is primarily written by Rockstar’s Dan Houser, the guy behind the GTA games. The dialogue and monologue in Max Payne 3 sound like this: “It had taken me right into the heart of it. Becker's gimps were everywhere, so he and Branco must be close. Smart move would have been sticking with Da Silva and going straight to the hangar, but when was I ever about smart moves? I'm a dumb move guy, "Hey Max, we'll drive onto the runway, No thanks I'll walk into the main entrance". I'd put a big shit shit-eating grin on my face and let these assholes take turns trying to kill me, that's my style and it's too late in the day to hope for change. Boy were they throwing numbers at this problem, but then I wanted this. Was it redemption? Not really, it was pathetic desperation and not much else. The further in I got the more guys I saw, Becker wasn't running a police force, he was running an army. These guys were better trained and better equipped than anyone I'd seen out here and I saw some mean sons of bitches. The mission was screaming suicide but I didn't give a damn, at least I'd die being a pain in the ass…” The dialogue by Rockstar was much ruder and sarcastic than those by Remedy. The fourth characteristic is the linear levels. Rockstar Games, even in open worlds, have very linear levels with a lot of restrictions. Even in more imaginative titles like San Andreas or GTA IV, the levels are still very linear. And the final characteristic is the controversy it has brought on. Rockstar games basically made Jack Thompson into a thing, which his idiotic crusade to ban GTA and other violent games to sell in the US. Every single Rockstar Game attracted various negative attention from the mainstream media with the same talking point again and again. Grand Theft Auto V is the most Rockstar game Rockstar ever put out. It has every single of these characteristics and pushes them to the maximum. Is that a good thing? Not really.
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Let's talk about the plot. The game starts In 2004, Michael Townley, Trevor Philips, and Brad Snider partake in a botched robbery in Ludendorff, North Yankton, resulting in all three being presumed dead. Nine years later, Michael is living with his family in the city of Los Santos, under the alias Michael De Santa, after making a secret agreement with Federal Investigation Bureau (FIB) agent Dave Norton to stay hidden. Across town, gangbanger Franklin Clinton is working for a corrupt Armenian car salesman and meets Michael while attempting to fraudulently repossess his son's car; the two later become friends. When Michael finds his wife sleeping with her tennis coach, he and Franklin chase the coach to a mansion, which Michael partially destroys in anger. The owner of the mansion, Mexican drug lord Martin Madrazo, demands compensation to avoid further violence. Michael returns to a life of crime to obtain the money, enlisting Franklin as an accomplice. With the help of Michael's old friend Lester Crest, a disabled hacker, they rob a jewellery store to pay off the debt. Meanwhile, Trevor, who now lives in a trailer park on the outskirts of Los Santos, hears of the heist and realises that it was Michael's work; Trevor had believed that Michael was killed in their botched robbery nine years ago. Trevor tracks Michael down and reunites with him, forcing a reluctant Michael to accept him back into his life.
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As time goes on, the personal lives of the protagonists begin to spiral out of control. Michael's increasingly disreputable behaviour prompts his family to leave him. When he becomes a movie producer at the film studio Richards Majestic, Michael comes into conflict with Devin Weston, a self-made billionaire venture capitalist and corporate raider, who vows revenge after Michael thwarts his attempts to shut down the studio and inadvertently kills his assistant. Meanwhile, Franklin must rescue his friend Lamar Davis from rival gangster and former friend Harold "Stretch" Joseph, who repeatedly attempts to kill them to prove himself to his new brethren. At the same time, Trevor's reckless efforts to consolidate his control over various black markets in Blaine County see him waging war against The Lost outlaw motorcycle club, several Latin American street gangs, rival meth dealers, private security firm Merryweather Security, and triad kingpin Wei Cheng.
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After breaking his agreement with Dave by committing heists again, Michael finds himself coerced by him and his superior agent, Steve Haines, into performing a series of operations alongside Franklin and Trevor to undermine the International Affairs Agency (IAA). Under Steve's direction and with Lester's help, they attack an armoured convoy carrying funds intended for the IAA and steal an experimental chemical weapon from an IAA-controlled lab. As Steve comes under increasing scrutiny, he forces Michael and Franklin to erase any evidence being used against him from the FIB servers. Michael takes the opportunity to wipe the data on his activities, destroying Steve's leverage over him.
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Eventually, Michael, Trevor, Franklin, and Lester start planning their most significant heist ever: raiding the Union Depository's gold bullion reserve. By this time, Michael reconciles with his family. However, Trevor discovers that Brad was not imprisoned as led to believe, but killed by Dave during the Ludendorff heist and buried in the grave marked for Michael. Trevor's feelings of betrayal cause friction within the group and threaten to undermine their Union Depository plans. Meanwhile, Steve betrays Michael and Dave, and they become caught in a Mexican standoff between the FIB, IAA, and Merryweather. Trevor, feeling that he is the only one who has the right to kill Michael, comes to their aid. Despite not forgiving Michael, Trevor agrees to perform the Union Depository heist and part ways with him afterwards.
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The heist is successful, but Franklin is then approached separately by Steve and Dave, who contend that Trevor is a liability, and Devin, who wants retribution for Michael's betrayal. Franklin has three choices: kill Trevor, kill Michael, or attempt to save both in a suicide mission. Should Franklin choose to kill either Michael or Trevor, he ceases contact with the man he spares and returns to his old life. Otherwise, the trio withstands an onslaught from the FIB and Merryweather before going on to kill Cheng, Stretch, Steve, and Devin. Michael and Trevor reconcile, and the three protagonists cease working together but remain friends.
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The plot has two major problems. The lack of focus and the terrible ending. Grand Theft Auto V is filled to brim with satire against everything and everyone. Rockstar is always socially conscient. Grand Theft Auto IV is a brilliant decomposition of the good ole “American Dream” by the foreign immigrant. Red Dead Redemption is another mature decomposition on the facade of the Western era. Bully is another good satire on the flawed education system and problem of school bullying in America. Politics in video games is not a bad thing. But GTA V’s attempt at social commentary fails as it wants to be too much. GTA V wants to be a lot, but it accomplishes little. Let me list the things GTA V tries to satire. Consumerism, corporatization, both sides of the political spectrum, the industrial military complex, the shady government agencies, police brutality, over saturation of entertainment, control of people by big techs, the war on drugs, terrorism, racism and religions. This is just a fraction of the things Dan Hauser and co. satirized or tries to satirize in Grand Theft Auto V. This makes the game lack a lot of focus as it can’t decide which issue it wants to talk about. The greatest example in the mission “By the Books”. In this mission, protagonist Trevor Philips interrogates a man, Ferdinand "Mr. K" Kerimov, to extract information about an Azerbaijani individual who is believed to have links with terrorists and poses a threat to the FIB (Federal Investigation Bureau, the game's version of the FBI). Trevor uses torture methods such as electrocution, removing teeth using pliers, hitting Mr. K with a monkey wrench, and waterboarding on the restrained man. Once Mr. K provides the FIB with the information, Trevor is asked to kill him, but instead drives him to the airport, providing him an opportunity to escape. While driving Mr. K, Trevor monologues about the ineffectiveness of torture, pointing out Mr. K's readiness to supply the FIB with the information without being tortured, and expressing that torture is used as a power play "to assert ourselves". This is a very clear attempt to criticize and laugh out the ugly history of the United States’ method of extracting intel. But the satire is the most surface level joke I have ever seen. The game forces the player to carry out torture with no choice, then just have Trevor give a few expletives filled snarky remarks about how bad it is. This is epitome of lip service, and renders the satire attempt worthless. A lot of the attempted satire is just like that, snarky dialogues and nothing else. As there are way too many subjects, therefore, Rockstar cannot focus on any of the topics and make it past surface level. Therefore, the social commentary of the game fails to make anything past surface level quips.
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The lack of focus and depth can not only be applied to the themes, it can also be applied to the characters. Grand Theft Auto V tries to have three playable protagonists and play as them for an extended period each at once. Where the stories of them intertwined over the course of the campaign. The only game I think can tell are any way successful with this storytelling techniques is Detroit: Become Human and Heavy Rain. However, these stories are told in a much more believable way. Quantic Dream told a very focused story on the characters. These stories are very character driven. Moreover, both Detroit and Heavy Rain are more like visual novels instead of a full open world third person shooter like GTA V was. Let’s look in depth into the characters. Trevor Phillips is definitely the most interesting of the bunch. He is somehow the most insane and sane person in the bunch. Trevor’s clearly been through a lot, but we don’t know much about him and his insanity. The only personality of Trevor is his insanity. This makes him instantly recognisable and memorable. But he failed to be anything more than that. The lack of emotional depth of Trevor is an obvious problem. But don’t worry, it gets worse. Michael De Santa is super generic and his family are a joke. The relationship between them is as cookie cutter as it can be. Each of them is a walking stereotype, from the celebrity obsessed millennial Tracey, to the violent video game addict, Jimmy and the cheating middle aged wife, Amanda, it is just stereotype after stereotype. How are they even relatable? No, they are not, as they lack one important factor, authenticity. The character of Franklin is even worse. He is just there, I guess. It is in the purgatory of all characters, forgettable. Franklin has a lot of potential, being the straight man in the attempted comedy. As all these ridiculous characters need someone to react to their shenanigan. However, he himself has almost no personality and he need not to carry out much struggle. He moved away from the hood during the first half of the game and lived in a chill mansion. His arc ended right there, in the middle of the goddamned game, Near the end, Franklin is just a plot tool used to mediate the conflict between Michael and Trevor. When one of your protagonists is shallow, one of them is bland and the final one is just there. This is not a good sign.
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The characters are not the last of GTA V’s issues. The ending is a big issue as well. Looking at terrible video game endings, you probably can name a few. Mass Effect 3, Fallout 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Metal Gear Solid V, just to name a few. Their main issue is an overall feeling of incompleteness and lack of player agency, which makes them ultimately unsatisfying. Grand Theft Auto V somehow was the worst of both sides. Grand Theft Auto V offers the player three “choices”. Let’s use a Max Payne 3 monologue as a metaphor. “I realized they were correct, I wouldn't know right from wrong if one of them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister…” Ending A and B is the second metaphor, and Ending C is the first. Different from Grand Theft Auto IV, where there is no clear happy ending, where the player should account for Niko’s sins, where no matter what ending you choose, someone important to him must die, as the reflection of his involvement in crime. Grand Theft Auto V has the happy ending. The “Deathwish” ending does not result in any of our “heroes” dying. Franklin, Michael, Lamar, and Trevor fight both the FIB’s strike team and Merryweather mercenaries. Once the FIB and Merryweather teams have all been defeated, the trio set out plans for taking down their enemies, and manage to locate them with help from Lester.
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Trevor volunteers to kill Steve Haines, Michael sets out to kill Harold "Stretch" Joseph, and Franklin sets out to kill Wei Cheng.
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Once Stretch, Haines and Cheng have been killed, Trevor heads to Devin's heavily guarded mansion, killing Devin's security guards. He locates Devin in a chest and knocks him out, carrying him to his car and throwing him in the trunk. He phones Michael and Franklin, suggesting they take Weston to the countryside and "make him disappear".
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The trio reunite at the Chiliad Mountain State Wilderness, where they taunt a battered and beaten Devin, before pushing the car off the cliff into the sea. The car explodes in a fireball, killing Devin instantly. The three bring an end to their criminal careers, but remain as "flawed, awful, totally uncomfortable and poorly matched" friends. The three then drive off to their respective homes, before Lester sends their cuts from the Union Depository heist into their bank accounts.
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There is no risk for any of them, no consequences. This ending is a spit in the face to the entire campaign. The struggle accounts to nothing at the end. When we see these scoundrels walk away scot free after their sins every single time, it is infuriating. They don’t deserve a walk to the sunset. Really stupid. However, this is somehow the ending which makes the most sense. How unbelievable. Ending A makes no sense. In ending A, Franklin kills Trevor to fulfill the wishes of the FIB agents. Even, to Franklin’s word, Trevor is the only one who has been truthful to him. Franklin was hated by Michael and as a result, gets nothing. It makes no sense, as the relationship between Trevor and Franklin are strong. From Franklin’s point of view, it makes no sense for him to kill Trevor, based on some feds’ advice. And the Ending B is even worse. How can you do that? Impeccable. In ending B, Franklin kills Michael. The guy who has been his mentor throughout the entire game. Why? Nobody knows. Are you kidding me. These three are the most lackluster conclusions you can think of throughout the journey. Does all of the game lead up to this? The guys behind the phenomenal closing acts of both Red Dead games, and Grand Theft Auto IV can only come up with this? The ending makes Mass Effect 3’s ending look like Nier Automata. That’s the last thing I want to say about a video game ending.
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The story is very questionable, and the gameplay is not the best the series offered. The level design, my god, is it mediocre. Before I revisited GTA V, I was playing Dishonored 2 and the step down in level design can be noticed by everyone. The level design in Dishonored 2, Human Revolution are incredibly intricate machines with beautiful paints on it. Rockstar majorly underuse their open world. A lot of the levels involve something you should see in an indie linear third person shooter. A lot of alleyways and narrow corridors. The chase and car related levels are incredibly scripted as well. There is only one way to approach each level, and other attempts are pushed to the door by Rockstar. Even games like Deus Ex Human Revolution or even Bioshock, which does not have a huge open world to play with have much more open levels. I once thought Max Payne’s level design was closed and restrictive enough, but Grand Theft Auto V completely squanders its open world potential. Another issue of gameplay is the downgrade across previous Rockstar works. Grand Theft Auto IV’s driving and physics engine is top notch, one of the best in the business, with the driving feeling weighty enough and takes skill to master, the physics is really realistic and expressive as well. Max Payne 3’s gunplay and use of special effects is incredible, with both bullet time and shoot dodge being not only intrinsically impressive, it is also incredibly satisfying to use. These special abilities are present in GTA V as well, with each character having one special ability. Trevor's special skill is Red Mist, which allows him to take less damage and inflict more damage on others, practically making him invincible. Michael's Special ability is Bullet Time. While active, Michael enters a bullet-time-like effect, allowing him to slow time and gain the advantage in shootouts. Franklin's ability, Driving Focus, allows him to slow down time while driving any land vehicle. This allows him to easily take corners at full speed and make precise maneuvers quickly. Trevor’s ability is really passive and not particularly good in real combat. Franklin’s is really janky. And Michael’s ability works the best, but it was nowhere near Max Payne’s. It was overall a step down. The gunplay feels much more floaty with much less weight that Max Payne 3. The gameplay and level are a step down to industry and Rockstar’s previous standards.
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Finally the online mode. A lot has been said about it and I am not going to waste time on that. To sum it up, the inflation of the economy in the game makes Venezuela’s inflation look normal. The game’s addition of futuristic vehicles and weapons completely ruins the timeline of the series as supposedly, the online aspect is set before the campaign. These weapons and vehicles require very little user skill and input and can be easily bought microtransaction, making the game pay to win. The loading times are atrociously long and it took Rockstar seven years to fix that. The game is filled to the brim with advertisements for more microtransactions. Hackers lie rampant in the game with very lax moderation, therefore, many player’s enjoyment of the game is ruined. Watch The Problem With GTA Online by Youtuber Dark Space to know more about the numerous problems this terrible online mode has. Rockstar have become the very thing they parodied in the game, soulless publishers filled with greed.
Despite all that I have said, Grand Theft Auto V is not a bad game. The open world is a major highlight outside of missions with a variety of activities for players to enjoy. The driving handling, although not as good as its predecessor, is still one of the best in games outside of full blown racing games. The story even with its flaws, is still a serviceable story in a triple A situation. There is a reason why within 24 hours of its release, Grand Theft Auto V generated more than US$815 million in worldwide revenue, equating to approximately 11.21 million copies sold for Take-Two Interactive. The numbers nearly doubled analysts' expectations for the title.Three days after its release, the game had surpassed one billion dollars in sales, making it the fastest-selling entertainment product in history, and it is the second highest selling game ever. However, with what Rockstar have done before and after the game, it is clear that this game can be much more, and it is a shame that it isn’t. With GTA 6 nowhere to be seen, this may be the last GTA in a while, and is it a great footnote of gaming’s most premier and well known franchises? Not really. Let’s use one last Max Payne 3 monologue to end the review.
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The way I see it there's two types of people, those who spend their lives trying to build a future and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past.
Max Payne 3
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Rockstar have stepped out of their shadow with Red Dead Redemption 2, can they do it again with their most notorious yet prestigious franchise. For every gamer’s sake, let's hope they can.
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Credit of the photos: 1st photo: deviantart user demios remus 2nd photo: The Guardian
The rights to all gameplay and promotional materials of Max Payne 3, Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V belongs to Rockstar Games.
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