Just towards the end of the last console generation two games released that redefined what I expected or even though possible on such closed and outdated systems. These two games were Grand Theft Auto 5 and The Last of Us. After a life spent gaming and regarding PC as the best gaming platform, I find it ironic that the two of the best games I have ever played were born on console. It reminds me that while the PC is certainly for most powerful, dynamic and unrestricted of all platforms great games can be found anywhere.
Please note, this review does contain mild spoilers regarding game content but I've tried to avoid story information. Many joggers were harmed in the making of this review.
Suspension of disbelief
'Open world' is the buzz phrase at the moment in the games industry and we are seeing some incredible games set to release this next twelve months, Witcher 3, The Division and Phantom Pain in particular look very special. In most open world games there's often that moment when you step off the beaten path and the game world suddenly becomes far less convincing. There will be areas of the map the developers didn't fill in because very few people will ever see it, sometimes you'll get a few trees and a barren texture map before the invisible wall smacks you in the face: in GTA 5 that moment never comes. With all the incredible game design to marvel at this is my personal favourite aspect: no matter where you walk, no matter if it's a forgotten storm drain or a deserted beach on the northern coast: every single part of the world is lavished in immersion, secrets and details that ground you in the experience.
The PC version has now taken this to a whole new level in a way only Rockstar seemingly can do, the game world is nothing short of breathtaking. I have honestly lost count of instances where I've just stopped what I was doing to gaze at something (I've even been run over twice taking pictures on my phone camera). Cruising down the coast roads, the V8 engine purring under the hood of my sports car,the reds and pinks of the fading sun are reflected off the paintwork, even the tarmac has a warm glow curtsy of the sunset . A classic 80s track booming from my car stereo and the open road ahead. As morning mist fills the valley and the sun starts glinting through the trees and across the ocean. Most days in San Andreas I take Franklin for a morning drive just for this experience. Litter collects on street furniture, stray cats (which look almost real) wander around bins, dust blows across the desert roads and so on. The new lighting system is gorgeous, seeing the rising sun hit buildings, the cool blues at dusk in the desert and the consistently gorgeous night sky. As well as lighting, shadows also add so much depth to every place and it really does seem like everything casts a shadow, even birds high in the sky. A few times now I've had huge shadows fly past me from passing planes high up in the sky, all in real time.
It's not just cars anymore, planes, bikes, bulldozers, subs and so many more...Hell you can even steal a Boeing 757.
As the new features videos show, the whole game has been improved. The new foliage is incredible, it's not just some extra bushes here and there. It's everywhere and not only that but no two places look the same. An obvious improvement are the textures and character models, every single material looks photo realistic, even spending a few minutes looking around the rooms in Michael's house and you are blown away by the detail. You can now read the magazines, look at photographs and just generally be nosey. Every place you visit from some random shack in the desert to the hundreds of sights, they are saturated in detail. The water reflections and depth of field have also been used to great effect, I've been blown away by how many things can be reflected in cars, windows, puddles etc and still keep a blisteringly high frame rate. As mentioned, the depth of field is pretty much perfect in every situation. Even when taking pictures on your camera phone.. maybe that's why they added a photography competition in the game.
Welcome, to the real world.
Rockstar have crafted on of the most realistic cities I've ever seen, nay the most realistic. The plane I mentioned in the previous section, that plane isn't just on a loop in the sky: it took off from an airport, before that it had to taxi onto the runway and so on. If I'd wanted to I could have broken into that airport and stolen it, flown it into the mountains or just bailed out over the city and parachuted down.
There's not much point making the most realistic game every made if you don't feel like your in it. Some of the ways GTA 5 connects your character with the environment are beyond fantastic, it's bordering on OCD. The fact that the protagonists can pretty much climb anything low enough is a testament to how solid the game engine is. From sliding down slopes, rolling when you land after a jump and the great cover system all these lock you into the world and suspend disbelief. Sometimes you will jump to early, nut the wall and crumple to the ground. Even your legs and feet morph to the floor shape your on such as rocks and curbs.
The new first person mode which was introduced on the PS4 version has also been carried over to PC. It's mind blowing how every single vehicle has had their own interior recreated as it would be with working instruments and wheels. Even planes, boats and the blimp have their own look. I also love how putting a bike helmet on in this mode muffles sound. Weapons have all been remade and look top notch in first person, fitted scopes and such all work as well as any COD game. There are so many little touches that make it work and I've been in countless situations where I switched to first person to see the action from a whole new view.
The coast in GTA 5 is gorgeous, realistic waves crash against rocks, sandy beaches, industrial docks, sewers and storm drains, speed boats, yachts, jet skies and so on. Again, attention to detail is exceptional, when you wade into the sea your clothes only get wet to the depth you go, at dusk tractors rake the sand, at night fires can be seen with people sat keeping warm. You can just wander over and listen to what they are saying. In the PC version this all looks eye meltingly stunning, just take a drive down the west coast at sunset or see the reflections of the Ferris wheel in the water at night. For a game that has a premise of crime and violence it's surprising how easy it is to just sit and watch the world go by.
Speaking of the oceans, it's not just what's on the surface. When you sink below the waves it's difficult not to be impressed. Rockstar have created an entire underwater environment with every conceivable detail. Around the docks you find all kinds of industrial debris, sewer pipes heading out to sea and well as sunken ships and hidden locations (and a UFO if you know where to dive!) It looked great on last generation but on PC it's a treat to behold. They have added plenty of assets such as dolphins, hammer head sharks and new particle effects, the way light penetrates the deep ocean from above is gorgeous. In one mission you have to steal a submersible from the docks, once on board piloting this craft through the depths is incredible and instantly feels like a scene from Abyss.
"In my yellow submarine!".. sorry that was bad.
I can't not mention the cars as they are possibly the star of the show. Each one drives and handles differently, suspension sways as you change direction, glass shatters, lights smash, wheels pop and burn down to their rims.. for any car enthusiast the vehicles in GTA 5 are a game in themselves. Not only can you upgrade any of the cars in the game but there are also a myriad of ways to find or win special rare cars. Some vehicles have special functions such as the fire engines high powered hose, blasting people off their beach towels has never been so much fun.
If a family member was to sit down and watch me play GTA5 how could I justify some of the activities and actions depicted in the game? Torture, mass murder, wounding, sexual exploitation, drugs, prostitution and so on. This is a question some of us might have pondered while murdering our way across San Andreas. Why do we find so much enjoyment from playing the role of a sociopathic criminal? Now with an added first first mode the violence and despicable acts you inflict on innocent people seem more intimate and less detached. At least before it was Michael, Franklin or Trevor doing these things, when you are up close and personal it does take on an uncomfortable new perspective.
I guess the easy answer is this is escapism at its most basic form. While I would consider myself overall a good human being, being something I'm not in a computer game brings with it a sense of freedom from my everyday life. All that said, most computer games dress up the killing as a necessary evil: the thousand or so guys you just murdered were all trying to launch a nuke. It's very rare you get a gaming experience which doesn't try to hide this. In fact Rockstar seem of have gone the other way, almost emphasising the fact the most of the people who kill are innocent bystanders and you have no justification for these crimes. If there was ever an argument that violence in video games causes acts of real violence then advocates of that theory would almost certainly be looking at this game for evidence. I don't think for one second playing a GTA game makes people more likely to commit violent acts, these impulses are there before they pick up a game controller. It's still an interesting debate but one I fear is in the main had by people who don't understand the source material.
Ten amazing details.
bought a blue pair of sunglasses while changing Trevor's clothes, while in first person was thinking it was looking very cool in the desert, then it clicked. The colour saturation is affected by what colour shades you put on.
Police officers try and pull injured colleagues behind cover in fire fights. With a true line of sight playing cat and mouse is a game in itself.
Some radio stations that are based in the city start to crackle when you leave town. In addition radio stations will comment on events you have caused in the world.
The downwind from helicopters bends trees and moves foliage
There's a full hunting simulation in the game, one of Trevor's friends teaches you how early in the game and you can even GPS locate the dear you shoot to sell the meat to said friend.
When it rains water pools form and in the city actual streams of water start wishing down the roads, on PS4 this looks stunning.
While doing a bounty mission the guy I'd apprehended turns out to be an old friend of Trevor's. While talking Trevor mentions he's found a woman, bearing in mind you could have done this bounty before the mission where he kidnaps Patricia and falls in love with her.
A plane shot down in one of the missions lands in the ocean, you can requisition some scuba gear or a submersible and salvage the re jags at a later date.
Each character has their own mobile phone (iPhone, Android and Windows) which can be customised and functions as a smart phone. What's really impressive is that the phone Michael uses in the past to blow a charge is just as it would be, some ancient worn out Nokia 1.0.
'You talkin to me?'
Rockstar made a brave choice when setting up the main characters in this game, instead of focusing on one you get three. Each has their own personality, background and idiosyncrasies. It's some feat to have made all three characters fairly likeable and yet not tone down some of the games more graphic content. Trevor does eat people, does ruin peoples lives and as his best friend describes him is 'a walking nightmare'. Maybe it's the grade A voice acting because some times you can't help but like the guy.
What then is just as impressive is they way the three characters mesh together in the same game world. It would have been a safe option to have each character do their own separate missions which would then have been given context and connection through the dialog in between them. However in many missions and heists all three characters take part and you get to control all of them at various stages as each excels in various areas (Trevor is a pilot, Franklin a driver and Michael an excellent point man). This excellent characterisation extends to pretty much all of the NPCs in GTA 5, the shallow paparazzi, the crazy old English couple stealing celeb underwear and hundreds more. The whole cast play convincing roles helped massively by the excellent motion capture and brilliant script.
How do you like your eggs?
All the best games have Easter eggs in my opinion, they are hidden treats that often reference other media outside the world you are currently in. As the visual quality of games gets better so to do the options open to playful developers who wish to add hidden content. From aliens frozen into ice, books about other games, hidden messages on game documents on visible with a black light and so on. The 'jet pack' mystery has still not been solved to this day and has had gamers doing some extreme lengths to fathom it out. The level of obscurity of some of these Easter eggs adds to the enjoyment, the aforementioned alien in the ice is under a bridge in the prologue. Why would anyone ever stop, clamber down the hillside and see this? Yet this is how dedicated some egg hunters are, literally scanning every piece of the game.
While Easter eggs serve as a bit of fun I do think they also serve an important role in the enjoyment of a game. Any Halo fan for example will instantly spot the Master Chief models on one of Lester's shelves, there are hundreds if not thousands of these references. While it's difficult to put into words what I mean I'll just say that I think these links ground the game in the world outside San Andreas. I have linked a video by IGN showing a few of the better ones but more are still being found every day which is a testament to not only how big the game world is but also how it's packed with detail.
Is it PC?
Games are often held back on PC while the console versions are released first, this is usually because they are the more profitable and therefore get prioritised in terms of bug testing and such. It's the way of the PC gamer and one of the reasons I set up this site: I want this industry preference for console to change.
However on this occasion, to spite being delayed a few times, Rockstar did PC gamers proud with an excellent port and lots of extra bells and whistles to boot. For one it is by far the best looking version of Los Santos and for what was already a beautiful game is now stunning. The PC version also has increased traffic/population density as well as many graphical upgrades: not least hight frame rates and 4K if your rig has the minerals. A fully functional video capture and editing suite has also been included for film makers and YouTubers alike to tool around with, features like this make them extra months wait worth it. Of course where would any PC game be without an army of modders and here we've seen some epic creations: there has even been a mod allowing you to play as Ironman. GTA online is also far more playable as a PC game for all the reasons I shouldn't have to spell out. It's just a pity hacking has been rife in the PC version of GTA online but more on that in a separate article.
We enjoy games for many different reasons, but some reasons carry over across all genres and platforms. Giving a player an open sandbox in which they can influence their environment and the events in it is one of the most satisfying feeling we can have. GTA 5 has some great story driven content which is seated in one of the most realistic sandboxes we've ever seen. There are some elements that don't work as well as they could and no game is perfect. I was surprised for example that burger stalls on the beach didn't sell me food or there was no way to buy insurance for the cars cars you spend millions upgrading, once it's gone it's gone.
However these don't even register on the scale of what Rockstar have accomplished with this game, the transition to PC could not have been better. The graphics now make this game far more rich and believable, it now feels like the game is was meant to be. In addition to the dizzying deluge of activities and collectables from the original version Rockstar have added lots more to see and do. One particular favourite of mine is the Peyote herb which transforms you into an animal for a period of time, it's with hilarious irony that you can chase spoiled yummy mummy's down the strip with a killer poodle.
I for one will be playing GTA 5 for a long time, I've already got three play throughs planned (one for each character ending) with the last becoming my meta game which I'm aiming to get 100% and it's only then can you start searching for the various UFO sightings in the game. I think it's safe to assume DLC will be on its way to Los Santos in the future but what is really exciting is where this franchise goes next. I am personally hoping we see a female protagonist step up which so far Rockstar have alluded to attempt.
This is not only the best GTA game we've ever seen I'm counting GTA 5 as one of the best games I've ever played and a true masterpiece that will be hard to top.
Thank you for reading my review of GTA 5 on PC,