Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PC)

It’s hard to believe there was a world without Grand Theft Auto V on PC. Originally released in September 2013, GTAV broke practically every sales record and was lauded in almost every circle. When its “definitive” edition debuted on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One during last holiday season, many were questioning if Rockstar would be able to pull it off on PC considering the numerous delays and spotty track record. While they made huge promises and had all the potential in the world, whether or not they were able to optimize Grand Theft Auto V on a bevy of current and last generation machines was still up in the air. While it may have taken Rockstar 19 months to bring their biggest and best game to PC, the result was well worth the wait.

The world of Grand Theft Auto V is so big that it requires three characters to explore it. While that line may sound ripped straight from a PR-laden interview, it’s quite accurate considering telling a story from the eyes of just one man would lead to new areas not being discovered for tens of hours into the game. The game stars three protagonists: Michael, Franklin and Trevor. After a prologue that sets the events of the game in motion, Franklin is the first playable character. Similar to CJ in San Andreas, Franklin is well-meaning gangster who lives with his aunt in the ghetto and is trying to make a better life for himself. Clearly more intelligent than his known associates, Franklin is confined to being a repo man for a shady car dealer who plays the race car to get customers into vehicles they can’t afford, only to have Franklin repo them weeks later thanks to ludicrous financing. After one of the customer’s father, Michael, gets a whiff of this little scam, he comes down to pay the dealer a little visit. Impressed by his attitude, Franklin decides to reach out to Michael to see if they could work together.

A former two-bit criminal, Michael has retired into a witness protection program. Thanks to his previous life, he’s absolutely loaded and lives in a mansion with two kids and a wife. His kids are spoiled brats, with the son spending all day smoking pot and playing video games (no offensive, readers) and the daughter a fame-obsessed promiscuous teenager who will do anything to become a celebrity. His wife, on the other hand, resents him even though he gives her anything she could possibly want (including some surgical enhancements) and is having an affair with likely multiple suitors. Depressed and not challenged in his current country club life, Michael decides to team with Franklin for some excitement. Unfortunately, coming out of retirement made former partner and current psychopath, Trevor, take notice.

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After Michael went into “retirement,” Trevor relocated to Sandy Shores and decided to do what he does best — be a redneck. He lives in a trailer, has terrible hygiene, is promiscuous with all the wrong people and associates with…let’s just say the “the wrong crowd.” Even though he has delusions of grandeur thanks to his shell company “Trevor Phillips Industries,” he’s a broke loser with little to show in life. After finding out that former accomplice Michael is alive and well under a different name, he decides to drive down to Los Santos to pay him a visit. Soon all three characters are thrust into the plans of a crooked FiB agent (guess what initialism that’s a play on) and some notorious gangsters in the city and have to work together to survive and bring in a handsome payday while they’re at it.

The first game in the series to offer more than one protagonist, things play a bit differently than before. As each character is introduced, you’ll play only as them for a few hours to get acquainted with their backstory and style of play. After all three characters are firmly established (about ten hours in), however, the rest of the narrative shifts between them. There’s missions unique to each character, some of which focus solely on their story (like Michael keeping his awful family at bay) and others that combine all three characters together. One mission, for instance, has Trevor flying a helicopter, Michael repelling from it and scaling a building and Franklin providing cover via a sniper rifle from a neighboring building. While some parts of the mission must be done as a certain character (like Michael repelling), others let you play as you want to. For instance, after fleeing, you can choose to either pilot the helicopter, shoot from inside or provide cover from a building with a sniper rifle. This swap happens on the fly via holding down on the d-pad, which allows any one of the three of the characters to be chosen. You can complete these mission parts as just one of the characters, but it’s generally best to cycle between all three to be most efficient. In-between missions, characters can almost always be swapped to at will by the same d-pad method. This is effective for both doing individual missions and covering different parts of the city. As the character’s safehouses are generally spread apart, it’s a nice feature as the character closest to the desired destination can instantly be swapped to, saving commuting time.

Another benefit to the multi-protagonist setup and also one of the biggest new features to mission portion of the game are heists. While the majority of missions are either driven by a single character or are like the aforementioned one, there’s a handful of heists sprinkled throughout. Heists are basically multi-tiered missions that contain multiple small missions to set them up and require a higher level of planning to correctly execute. The first heist in the game, for instance, concerns knocking off a high-end jewelry store. There are two methods available to tackle the job: quiet or loud (smart or dumb). Going in loud is what you’d imagine, simply rushing into the store with heavy artillery and running out with the merchandise. Going in quiet, however, requires more planning and stealth tactics. In a jewel heist, for instance, chemicals and an exterminator truck must be stolen. Using the exterminator gig as cover, you head up on the roof with a gas mask and uniform and drop some gas into the vents of the store. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew bursts into the store with similar outfits and cleans it out while the customers and clerks are unconscious. One great feature of these heists is that the crew itself must be individually selected. You’ll generally need a gunner, driver and hacker, who are selected via a pool of known associates and characters encountered throughout missions. These criminals vary in expertise, with those highly experienced demanding more of the cut. Going with a low experienced crew member means that more could go wrong (for example, having a bad driver could mean they get captured and lose whatever loot they were carrying), but the more they are used, the better they get with the same cut. Heists add a fantastic dynamic to the game and make the scope of the universe seem larger than ever.

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Combat itself has been overhauled in GTAV. Instead of blindly cycling through weapons, there’s now a weapons wheel that is brought up by holding the left bumper, allowing available weapons to be seen and selected easier. Additionally, getting busted or killed no longer forfeits your weapons, which makes spending money on weapons upgrades much more realistic. Actual combat is more customizable, allowing players to choose how much they want to be assisted with automatic locking. By default, it’s a bit of a mix between free-aim and full-lock, with targets in clear view automatically locked on and those hidden or at weird angles left to free-aiming. The cover system has also been improved, allowing smoother transitions. On the driving side of things, vehicle handling has been updated, with vehicles feeling better than ever before. While this is still the sort of game that lets you bounce around after landing a jump, handling feels more realistic and tailored to specific vehicles, instead of cars simply being “fast” or “slow.” Even supercars feel distinct from one another. Realism has also been visually improved, with cars mirroring their real-life counterparts like never before. It’s clear what’s a Mustang or what’s an Audi and even though the brands can’t be used, it’s better than simply looking for a “fast” car.

The most notable addition to GTAV is the all-new first-person mode. For the first time ever, players can now choose to experience a Grand Theft Auto from the eyes of the protagonist (or in this case protagonists). Instead of being a mere gimmick, Rockstar made multiple changes to accommodate the new perspective including a first person cover system, a new control scheme, a different targeting system and thousands of new animations. As it’s hard to create a first-person experience that caters to everybody’s preferences, multiple optional settings have been added including the ability to change control schemes, alter ragdoll perspectives and rolls and even turn off head bobbing. I wasn’t a fan of how the game controlled in first-person by default, but was easily able to tweak it to a point where it felt like a standard FPS. Turning up the sensitivity and any auto-locking off is key to this. Commendably, Rockstar has even allowed the option to mix and match when first-person comes into play, permitting players to drive in first-person and shoot in first-person and vice versa. Allowing the former is a huge addition as it allows those who dislike first-person driving to still experience combat in first-person without having to continually swap modes or commit to one.

Of course, the biggest question on many’s mind is whether or not this is a mere gimmick. With the amount of work and customization Rockstar clearly put into it, it’s far from a throwaway feature. Those who tailor the settings to their likings will realistically find a whole new way to experience the title. Some may even prefer many aspects of first-person mode. While I found it agreeable, I still prefer to experience the entire game in third-person, but there’s no denying that gunplay can be more smooth and precise in first-person. However gamers decide to experience it, though, they can be assured it will be in a beautiful setting.

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The world of GTAV is the biggest ever. Although the majority of it is rural, know that it’s not that they’ve taken away from the city, but simply added hundreds of miles of land outside it just for good fun. The city itself is huge and rivals the entire world of GTA IV. Outside of it, there’s mountains, rivers, beaches, desert and more. Surprisingly, however, hardly any of it is empty. There’s small towns, unique buildings, military bases and more sprinkled throughout. The incredible thing is how alive it all seems. Off one of the back roads, for instance, I noticed a car pull over at a fruit stand and decided to see if it was a coincidence, but nope — a woman got out, walked up to it and examined the produce. That’s level of detail to expect in the world, from the boardwalks with interactive rides to trains carving through mountain passes. To add some spice for players who like to drive around exploring the world, random events have been added that unfold during a day. Represented by a flashing blue blip on the map that appears when nearby, these range from a thief snatching a purse to a carjacking. After stopping the miscreant in one of these robberies, you can either keep the stolen item for yourself or return it to the victim. Doing the latter results in good karma that might just come back to you later in the game.

Of course, one of the aspects this series is most renowned for is its music. Vice City sparked a minor resurgence in New Wave, while Grand Theft Auto IV perfectly captured the burgeoning indie scene in Brooklyn at the time. Building off of the presentation and quality of the latter’s soundtrack, V boasts one of the series’ best collections of music. For indie lovers, Radio Broker is replaced by Radio Mirror Park, which features tracks from Twin Shadow, Yeasayer, Health, Neon Indian, The Chain Gang of 1974 and more. The incredible thing is that all of the aforementioned artists are contributing new music to the game and the fact that there’s so many critically revered artists with new music on one channel is astounding. For electronic lovers, there’s Soulwax FM, named after and featuring many remixes from electronic band Soulwax. On the pop side of things, there’s Non-Stop Pop FM which features an excellent blend between current top ten artists like Rhianna, lesser-known ones like Robyn and classic acts like Hall & Oats. Of course, there’s something for everyone with other stations focusing on rap, country, classic rock and more. The amount of care put into curating this soundtrack that could have simply been a collection of random songs is more evidence of how much work goes into even the smallest features of the game.

As amazing as the soundtrack was before, Rockstar shockingly decided to add even more songs to it in this re-release. A whopping 150 additional new tracks have been spread across the radio stations. Highlights include Holy Ghost! — Hold On, Hot Chip – Flutes, Neon Indian — Polish Girl, Lorde – Tennis Court, !!! – One Girl/One Boy and many, many more. If that’s not enough, more DJ commentary has been recorded from some of the top DJs including DJ George (Twin Shadow), Nathan and Stephen (Wavves), Kenny Logins and more. On the talk radio side of things, Duane Earl (Danny McBride) has recorded new show segments. GTA has always been a series epitomized by its radio stations and by putting in the effort to expand GTAV’s selections, not only have they made an already complete soundtrack more robust, but they’ve made driving around a fresh experience.

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Adapted for PC, there are certain expectations players have become accustomed to. Rockstar’s initial attempt to bring Grand Theft Auto IV to the platform was met with negative reaction, to the point many declared it the most unoptimized PC port to ever grace the platform. Thankfully, that doesn’t follow suit with its successor. GTAV is without a doubt a much better port, not only giving the player a ton of graphical options, but being playable on lesser machines. Of course, those with higher end computers will be able to take advantage of the immense power GTAV holds, but it’s not difficult to achieve 1080p and 60fps while looking as good, if not better, than its console counterparts. It should be noted that playing this at 60fps is an absolute must as driving around Los Santos and seeing the cast of characters interact with one another so smoothly is almost a new experience on its own. That doesn’t mean it comes without its own hitches as there are numerous crashes and long hang times, not to mention AMD cards having trouble processing MSAA while in DX11 mode (at least with Post FX set at very high). Regardless, for an open world game of this size, these are minuscule issues for its launch.

Graphically, Rockstar hasn’t reinvented the wheel for the PC version, but the bevy of settings they give allow for great alterations to the game’s beauty. Those with DirectX 11 graphic cards have access to tessellation, grass quality and depth of field sliders. Everyone else will receive the traditional lengthy lineup of options. This includes FXAA, MSAA, VSync, Post FX, Soft Shadows and Quality sliders for Textures, Shaders, Shadows, Reflections, Water, Particles and so forth. Oddly enough, only Reflection Quality, Grass Quality and Post FX have Ultra settings while the rest go as high as Very High. There’s also an Advanced Graphics options which allows for Long Shadows, High Resolution Shadows, High Detail Streaming While Flying and Distance Scaling. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of options to choose from, so whether you have a budget machine or a high end beast, you should be able to run GTAV in some fashion. While GTAV is visually impressive, there is one final test it must go through: controls. The controls are still relatively preferable on a gamepad, but the keyboard and mouse functionality have been adapted very well in most situations. Driving and flying remain better with a gamepad, but tasks are on par for general combat, if not better with keyboard and mouse. The first person mode is also a great excuse to break out the keyboard and mouse, even though getting into cover is not ideal.

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Closing Comments:

Rockstar continues to improve upon one of the greatest games of all time, not to mention getting over the hump that haunted them for the past seven years. While not as significant of an overhaul as when they brought it to PS4 and Xbox One, Grand Theft Auto V offers the most graphical options and accessibilities on PC. It’s not without its launch compatibility issues, but they are small in comparison to other games of its size. There’s seemingly endless fun to be had with GTAV, and it certainly helps that their online component has grown significantly since it debuted in 2013. Grand Theft Auto Online alone should be enough to persuade gamers now that heists have been added to the experience. Whether you were able to hold out over the last year and half, or even played through it on one of the consoles versions, GTAV on PC isn’t an experience to pass up on as it beckons to be played again.