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GTA V doesn’t even try to be enjoyable

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Last weekend, I decided to resume my month-old save in Grand Theft Auto V. About an hour in, I was reminded why I gave up on it.

For all its technical brilliance, GTAV is boring. It’s emblematic of the current industry trend – longer experiences at the cost of diluted engagement – but taken to such an extreme that it barely resembles its peers in the open-world genre. As a demonstration of Rockstar Games’ dedication to their craft, it’s exceptional. As a “game,” it fails miserably, sandwiching its ten-minute segments of mild entertainment between hours of travel time and busywork across an empty open-world.

Being more tech demo than game, I can understand why critics loved it. Given the hype leading up to its release, I can also understand why players loved it at launch. What I don’t understand is why it’s gone on to be the most successful entertainment product of all time. Yes, I see and appreciate its technical merits, but fail to grasp how scores of gamers would flock to purchase (and celebrate to this day) a thirty-hour experience that drip-feeds its entertainment in such agonizingly small and infrequent doses – an approach that, as far as I know, no other AAA developer would even try to get away with.

1. Open-world

Usually, open-world games have two main selling points that separate them from linear titles: exploration and freedom. In the case of Rockstar Games, another factor garners consumer interest – the design of the world itself. Few developers make Rockstar’s effort to fully immerse the player, and their output’s consistent acclaim from both critics and players demonstrates that at least relative to their competitors, they’ve succeeded. Even great open-world games, like Breath of the Wild or Arkham City, regularly break the player’s immersion to remind them that this is a game and, as such, they should play it. In GTA’s open-world, immersion almost always takes center stage.

However, what other developers understand (and why Arkham City and BOTW are great for their incomplete immersion, not in spite of it) is that they’re making games that take place in worlds, not worlds with games hidden inside them. BOTW, though leaving the player relatively free to explore the world at their own pace, fills its iteration of Hyrule to bursting with Shrines, Towers, Korok Seeds, and monster encounters. Arkham City is packed with enemies, side missions, and Riddler Trophies. There is almost always something to do in these games.

But in GTA, outside of missions, what can you do? Get a haircut? Do yoga? Sightsee? Bike? Play golf or tennis? All of GTA’s side options are utterly pedestrian. More often than not, I find myself driving down streets I’ve already driven down twenty times, flipping through radio stations, wondering why I’m doing this in a game when I could just as easily do it in real life.

Most frustratingly, GTA’s world isn’t even fun to explore. It’s a beautiful recreation of Los Angeles and is filled with details and funny posters, but there’s nothing really to find in it. Everything you’d expect to see is there, from a shipyard to a rich neighborhood to an airport. But beyond recreating exteriors, Rockstar has made no apparent attempt to make their world hold any interest for the player. You can’t go into most buildings. You can’t interact with NPCs except to harass them until they either run away or attack you. Random events are infrequent, repetitive and rarely benefit the player. The only side mission I attempted had me drive a damn tow truck.

It’s ironic. Rockstar has put so much effort into making the world of GTAV immersive, and yet that immersion crumbles almost as soon as the player attempts to interact with it, making me wonder why Rockstar tried so hard in the first place.

2. Progression

Progression is a vital part of any game, be it in the form of a narrative, character stats, unlocks, or a player’s skill. Tangible progression provides the player with feelings of accomplishment and encourages them to continue playing. Journey provides progression in the form of a scarf your character wears, which increases in size as you collect white orbs, allowing you to fly higher and longer. Zelda games increase your Heart Count with each defeated boss. FPS games like Doom, Wolfenstein, and Half-Life, expand your arsenal as you progress.

GTA’s progression is far more subtle, and as a result, far less satisfying. Every once in a while, you’ll see a bar pop up above your minimap. “Shooting: 80/100,” it says. Your shooting has improved somehow, but because most weapons already shoot with pinpoint accuracy, you wonder what this means. The game provides no explanation. I myself noticed no difference before and after levelling up various stats. The Stamina upgrade is probably the only obvious one, and considering that I drive pretty much everywhere, is irrelevant.

No matter. GTA makes it clear from the start that it’s about thriving in a hostile world, and stats have no bearing on that. The player should focus on working to become the self-made mogul the game seems to both disparage and make its ultimate goal.

However, GTA fails to provide the player with tangible, achievable sub-goals to achieve this. In Skyrim, you can save up to buy a house. Because you had to work for it, that accomplishment becomes your accomplishment. In GTA, Franklin is given a house, and so that accomplishment is only a reward for making it to that point in the story. In BOTW, you have to complete a ten-hour DLC with multiple challenges and puzzles to unlock the most impressive mode of transportation in the game. In GTA, you can pull up to Vinewood Hills at any point in the game and steal a car faster than you can probably handle. In the Far Cry series, you can spend earned currency to purchase new weapons with different stats/handling. In GTA, all of the weapons handle pretty much the same – compounded with there being few instances to use your arsenal, there’s no reason to expand it.

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Even the goals that the player is made aware of, like purchasing properties, lack a clearly-defined path to accomplish them. Apart from heist missions and assaulting pedestrians for chump change, I don’t know how I’m supposed to make money. Not knowing when the next payday will come, I tend to save what money I’ve earned. And so, the only progress that spurs me onwards, the progress directly tied to my actions in game, is the progress I’ve made in the story. As I’ll discuss later, even that’s barely enough.

3. Gameplay

GTAV employs a stripped down version of Max Payne 3’s combat, removing the diving, killcams, painkillers, and limited inventory. What remains is the cover system, dot reticle, bullet time (depending on which character the player is using) and, annoyingly, the weapon handling. Max Payne 3 is a good game, mostly due to its atmosphere and soundtrack. But given that Max shoots with pinpoint accuracy and almost every weapon is capable of scoring a one-shot headshot at any range, the gameplay relies on its excellent presentation to make its shootouts entertaining.

GTAV has done nothing to remedy this. Most weapons still shoot with pinpoint accuracy, and headshots are still one-shot kills. Because the weapons fail to distinguish themselves, the player isn’t required to develop strategy or preference. Any weapon in your weapon wheel suffices no matter the situation, unless you’re fighting enemies at long-range, in which case the only weapon that you can use is a sniper rifle.

In any case, combat encounters are few and far between. I believe for most missions you’re given the weapons you need, and so your arsenal is intended primarily for the open-world, which presents few opportunities to use it, unless, of course, you seek an opportunity out.

Most crimes will earn you a Wanted Level, GTA’s iconic mechanic, which indicates to you that cops are looking for you and will shoot on sight. The more cops you kill, the higher your wanted level and the greater the force the game sends to take you down. You’d think this would lead to some crazy police chases and shootouts, but it rarely does. Fighting the police on foot is never a viable option unless you’re moving from one vehicle to another, because more law enforcement will come and eventually overwhelm you. Even if you’re dug into an area with good cover, shootouts inevitably become last stands.

Hopping into a vehicle and fleeing is your best bet, and even then, you can’t really escape the police by trying to outrun them. If you gun it, you’ll run into more police officers, who will renew and increase your wanted level. As such, the best strategy is to find an isolated area, and hide, which is about as entertaining as it sounds. I wish there was a way to “win” police encounters, either by killing a certain number of them or by going far enough away from where you committed the crime.

4. Story

This is where subjectivity plays the largest role, and so I won’t dwell on this for long. It seems to me that in building their world and story, Rockstar became overly ambitious, stuffing the narrative with statements instead of plot. The result is a wildly inconsistent, freewheeling satire that pokes fun at everything Rockstar dislikes about modern America, from tech company culture to torture, while its protagonists meander through its scattered ideas, serving either as the objects of the game’s satire or its observers.

I don't have an issue with games attempting real-world relevance, but I do take issue with incoherent storytelling. Splitting the narrative over three characters already makes it difficult to tell a satisfying story while providing each protagonist with a compelling arc, but it doesn’t seem like that was ever Rockstar’s goal. Character moments take a backseat to GTA's smarmy commentary, leaving Franklin hollow, Michael underdeveloped, and Trevor nothing more than an over-the-top caricature of the average GTA player.

Also, the missions are mostly terrible. The heists are fun (though restrictive), but there are so many missions in between where you go somewhere and look at something, or talk to someone, or move something, or bike, or do yoga. The mission where Trevor cases the shipyard might possibly be the single most mind-numbing game experience I’ve had this year. It’s like Rockstar thought “Hey, we’ve made this great shipping-container-moving-thing, but no player in their right mind would ever use it, so we’re going to force them to.”

I’m not saying every story needs to be action-packed, but it has to have and sustain conflict and drama, and shouldn’t abandon it at regular intervals to make its next point or show off its tech.

Closing

I don’t get GTAV. It’s not fun or engaging. It’s like going to the most beautiful restaurant you’ve ever been to, complete with velvet upholstery and chandeliers and flamingos and tall waiters with waxed mustaches, ordering a meal and receiving…a cracker. Just a regular old saltine cracker. You eat the cracker, and an hour later, they bring you another one. To pass the time, the waiter sits down across from you and lectures you on the evils of American society.

And yet, I’ve stuck with GTAV for almost 25 hours now. I’m over two-thirds of the way through the story, and though I’d be hard-pressed to say I’m enjoying myself, there is something relaxing about just cruising through Los Santos, soaking in one of the most impressive open-worlds ever made. It’s truly a shame that the food isn’t good, because the restaurant is a goddamned work of art.

tl;dr: GTAV isn’t fun

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