Review: GTA V, The Most Perfect (and Perfectly Disturbing) Game You'll Play This Year

Everything you wanted it to be. Everything the moral majority fears. And then some.

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Complex Original

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Grand Theft Auto V
: Rockstar North 
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Action-Adventure Open World
PS3, Xbox 360
Basically: It's as incredible as a video game as it is a work of storytelling and pop art. The most viscerally disturbing game we've ever played, the most important video game of the year, and the last truly important cross-console game of the 360/PS3 generation. And one that lives up to the hype. 
Graphics: Stunning.
Gameplay: Perfect.
Reason To Cop It: You play video games. You have the money to do so.
Reason to Not Cop It: You're mentally unstable, or you're 16.
Bottom Line: Despite being nothing new, or innovative, it is one of the most perfect video games you will ever play. 

I am watching TV.

I am hitting the bong.

I am smoking a joint.

I'm playing on my cell phone. I'm switching the radio. I'm playing tennis. I'm going for a walk. I'm going for a bike ride. I'm having a beer. I'm hitting the bong. I'm watching TV and playing on my cell phone. I'm going to the gun store. I'm going to the shrink. I'm going to the gun store and wondering if I can kill my shrink. I'm taking a selfie. I'm putting the top down. I'm driving and checking my phone and trading stocks on it.

I am black and in the hood. I am white and upper middle class. I'm a balding methhead in the desert killing bikers. I am on the come up. I am finally feeling alive again. I am chasing the ghosts of my past in a tragicomic psychotic rage. I am the game. I am self aware. I fucking hate you.

My daughter is bulimic. My son is a fuckup. My mother is a waste of life. My wife is fucking the tennis instructor. She doesn't love me anymore. I'm in my 50s and my life is already over. I'm in my 20s and my life is already over. My friends are crackheads or methheads or white-collar criminals. I need new friends. I need new hobbies.

I'm going for a drive and stealing someone else's car. I'm getting blown by a stripper I spent too much money on. I'm going for drive in someone's stolen ATV and driving to the top of a mountain and dying and doing it again. I am saying the N word over and over and over again. I am laughing at startups. I'm laughing at social networking. I'm laughing at video games. I'm laughing at the people who play video games. I'm laughing at TV. I'm laughing at movies and video games and criminals and cops, and we make fun of all these things, we do it together. We got arrested together. We kill people together. We will rescue that woman who's getting robbed, give her back her purse, and then run her over with our daughter's compact car. We will randomly beat people up on the street together. We will torture, maim, invest, kill, rob, cheat, steal, smoke, snort, fuck, destroy, and run errands. We will thrive. It will be fun. We will chase the missions down. Maybe we'll just take a cab, though. Maybe we'll trade stocks in the back of that cab. Maybe we'll just enjoy the ride. We do it for thrills. We do it for fun.

1. Grand Theft Auto V is incredible. It's an achievement in every sense of the word, and may be Rockstar's finest hour. It's the greatest sandbox action-adventure game ever. It is perfect. It has an epic story and its gameplay fits it, seamlessly. It's a beautiful game to look at and play. It's a massive game—it makes video games of generations before it, in which you explore worlds, even universes, look absolutely tiny by comparison. The city of Los Santos is as close to a pulsing, living metropolis as you'll ever find in a video game. The action sequences are dizzyingly fun. The characters are thrilling. This is a game where you can spend hours just as you do in real life: Doing nothing. But there's a price to pay for all that grandeur and splendor, and it's a lot steeper than whatever you're going to pay for it in cash: Opening up what's undoubtedly one of the most disturbing games you'll ever play.

2. The gameplay is nothing revolutionary so much as it is perfect. If you've played a Grand Theft Auto game, you know what to expect. Where GTA IV introduced players to bigger ideas about what one can and can't do in a video game, GTA V simply sharpens and crystallizes those ideas. The game is fundamentally a duck-and-cover shooter on a sandbox map filled with missions, combined with driving and side-quests, driven by storytelling and a deft sense of satire.

There's a price to pay for all that grandeur and splendor: This is undoubtedly also one of the most disturbing games you will ever play.

That said, almost everything has been perfected: The duck-and-cover shooting system isn't going to get much better. The driving mechanic strikes a perfect balance of arcade-style madcap fun and simulation-style physics: The cartoonish tricks you've pulled before are less possible now, but more rewarding when you can manage them. The range of weapons you can use and vehicles you can steal—from cars to planes to helicopters to tanks and more—is bigger than anything we've ever seen. For example: One heist combines a personal submarine and a military chopper. It doesn't even come halfway through the game.

3. The new additions and tweaks to the gameplay combine the best of Rockstar's ideas. About those heists: They aren't just typically run-and-gun missions, oh no. These are elaborate schemes and set pieces, and ones that begin with options. Do you want to go in stealth, or no? Do you want to rob a jewlery store guns blazing, Reservoir Dogs-style? Or by quietly dropping gas canisters into the air vents, and knocking everyone out, Oceans 11-like? You can give your getaway driver, your hacker, and your gunman a bigger or smaller cut of the steal, but skimp on them at your own risk, as they might let you down, and cause the entire operation a larger net loss of cash.

This is the first GTA game that also includes multiple characters—you can choose from three, and switch between them seamlessly—and leveling up. The switching is flawless and beautiful—just hit down on the D-pad, and select a character. The map pans out over the throbbing veins of Los Santos streets, and lands you in a new body, in a new place, in a new mindset. Sometimes you'll switch between characters during the missions themselves, playing the crucial role each part of the operation fulfills. 

Each character has different attributes that make them better suited for different missions. You can level them up by playing side-quests. Your characters also each have a respective special power: One has bullet-time for driving, one for fighting, and the other goes into berzerker mode, and can't be hurt while the power is activated. Think Red Dead Redemption's Dead Eye targeting, but smarter, more effective, and more playable.

The missions range from utterly mundane to utterly insane. After all, in what game will you spend hours towing cars and taking your son out for a bike ride? But they soon become white-knuckle stuff. One mission has you assassinating four jurors in ten minutes. Another has you raiding a military base on a four-star wanted level, armed with only what you have on you. Another has you waking up in a morgue, leaping off of a medical exam table. And then another, of course, has you working a blue collar dock job. Each is distinct, few are painful in repetition.


4. The story is an intense triptych with nods to the great crime epics of our time, and is one of the greatest contemporary L.A. crime stories of any medium. In Grand Theft Auto V, you play as three characters, primarily. The first is Michael, late 40s, a married father of two pissy teens, a disintigrating baby boomer whose current existence generally hates him on all ends, and whose past is calling him back to cash old moral debts. He's part Tony Soprano and part Michael Corleone, with hints of Danny Ocean and Butch Cassidy. The second is Franklin, a kid trying to escape his hood-bound existence as a repo man, which goes without mentioning the gang life he grew up in: Think Ice Cube in Boyz n tha Hood. The third is Trevor, a methhead psychopath who has no moral or ethical compass, chaos personified. He's as much Charles Manson and Timothy McVeigh as he is Tyler Durden, with the brilliant criminal mind of Heisenberg, and also, the funniest of the three. He's the funniest and most fun character of the game.

The game has obvious nods to every great crime epic you can think of: Heat, Reservoir Dogs, The Salton Sea, Drive, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Point Break, True Romance, The Godfather III, Ocean's 11, Jackie Brown, Boyz n tha Hood, Meanace II Society, Lethal Weapon, Collateral, Colors, Training Day, The Sopranos, and even Fargo, to name a few. That time you dreamed about one of these movies as a (great) video game? It happened.

The voice acting is perfect. It's jarringly real, which is to say nothing of the fact that Rockstar reportedly used real gang members for voicing and inspiration. And the way the story plays out is cinematic, and compelling—while it will take over half the game the draw you in, the rewards for seeing it through are as much in the journey as the results you'll get from it. The game's dialogue is funny, sharp, and painfully charming (just wait until the "Did somebody say Yoga?" moment, a jaw-dropper if there is one).

5. This will be one of the most controversial games ever made. Understandably so. Nothing is sacred. One character is intent on turning a Middle-Eastern stereo shop owner into a terrorist after you torture him (with a car battery, a wrench, a pair of pliers, and waterboarding, natrually). Michael's son, talking to his video game, a first-person shooting called Righteous Slaughter: "If there was a rape button, I'd be using it right now. Unless you're a faggot and you like that sort of shit. And then, I'll just ream your mom instead." This is after you do yoga with your wife, who then leaves you for the Yogi, after you catch her sleeping with her tennis instructor.

Franklin and his friends drop the N-word with every greeting. You can get drunk until you stumble, and then go for a drive. Or you can simply hit your son's bong until you're stoned out of your mind, talking to yourself, watching TV and laughing. Women and gay men are sport for contemptuous jokes. Then again, nothing isn't.

Rape jokes. Military shootings. Rampant misogyny and misanthropy. Pushing the line is one thing. Setting it on fire is another.

The game mocks everything from televised news to pop radio to American Idol to Facebook to Call of Duty to video gamers themselves and back. This isn't just a game where the characters are self-loathing, but the game itself seems to be goading you into becoming a vapid, violent, numb participator in a world where existentialism reigns supreme above all. This is a work of nihlism, plain and simple, one that could be written off as the doctrine of fratboy libretarians everywhere, but even libretarians have ideals. As it tries to punish and teach its characters, by structure, by the way anarchy reigns supreme, GTA V has no ideals, no guiding philosophy, or at least none that can be discerned before the end of the game. And even then, that's a stretch, given the gameplay. This is a game that hates you and the world that created GTA V as much as it hates the world of GTA V. It's scathing even as it revels in its own beauty.

For this writer, the most disturbing section wasn't that torture scene—which is supremely fucked up, stomach churning, and difficult to handle—but a level in which you single-handedly raid a military base to steal a chopper. The military men are doing nothing wrong, they're simply guarding the base and the chopper. They have yet to be proven evil or antagonists in any way. And yet, there is virtually no possible way to make it through the mission without killing a mass of them on your way to completion. For those of you who watch the news, it recalls the Fort Hood shooting to a disturbing degree. Over the last five years, America (and the world at large) has had a disporportionate share of random acts of mass violence. The game is disturbing within and removed from its context. Rockstar seems intent on pushing the boundries of social satire, free will, and controversy to the point of bursting at the seams. The moments where they don't give you a choice but to act beyond these boundries will be appropriately maligned by the moral majority. There is no excuse. There is no looking past it. And anyone who tries to explain that it's just a video game will be hamstrung by the fact that it's so much more than Just Another Video Game. Like swimming out into the furthest reaches of the oceans on a game map, Rockstar has pushed the limits further than they've ever been pushed before. But unlike other maps, in Los Santos, there isn't just more ocean. There are sharks in the water. There is substance and meaning there. And not all substance and meaning is an inherently good thing. 

Rape jokes. Military shootings. Rampant mysogony and misanthropy. Pushing the line is one thing. Setting it on fire is another. I never thought I'd say this—especially as a kid whose father once wouldn't let him rent Leathal Enforcers, a cartoonish light-gun game with an MA-17 rating—but no child under the age of fifteen should really be allowed to play this, at least not unsupervised. They won't understand the things they should, let alone what brittle meaning it might ultimately hold as well.

6. The graphics are perfect, and push the current generation of consoles right to their limit, without overworking them. There are few if any graphic issues. Light flares, water shimmers, passersby react to you accordingly. Transitions from cut scenes to missions are seamless. Mapping from one side of Los Santos to the other doesn't lag a bit. There isn't much to say about the game's looks other than: If they don't satisfy you, not much will.


7. It is one of the largest and most complex video games ever made. Los Santos itself seems as sprawling as L.A. actually is. This game pulses with life. There's never a shortage of ways to blow time idly, just as is the case in reality.

Whereas a full story mode playthrough of Liberty City will earn you a full familiarity with that game's entire map, it'll be a long, long time—well past the story mode—before you're ever going to get around Los Santos without a map, or radar. It's sprawling. Massive. Neighborhoods are distinct, from the people who populate them to the cars that roll through them, to the way passerby act when you walk by them. The mountains and deserts of Los Santos hide things from you: From cults to farmers, from secret military installations to theme parks, from ocean floors of coral reefs to skyscraper tops, there is always more to see, more to do, and more to explore. You will get lost in this game for hours, just driving, just looking, just wanting to take it all in. 

8. It mimics the mundane reality of your life to an unprecedented degree. There's no shortage of ways to waste time: At nearly any given moment, there are upwards of thirty or more activities for you to do: Watching movies, watching television, playing tennis, playing darts, racing jet skis, going to flight school, skydiving, off-roading, go-carting, amusement rides, marathons, bike rices, browsing the Internet, browsing the Internet on your phone, trading stocks on your phone, buying real estate, selling real estate, collecting rent, texting, emailing, even—yes—taking selfies. To go from checking the email on your phone in the video game to checking the email on your phone (in reality) while pausing the video game is incredibly weird, and meta.

There is no question whatsoever that it's an effective video game, a perfect video game, and a thrilling, jaw-dropping experience.

9. Only one thing didn't improve from previous GTA games. The radio, which was perfect in Liberty City, has lost much of the charm here without the DJs of the last few games (Karl Lagerfeld, Iggy Pop, et al). The music selection is still fairly amazing—from Jai Paul to Kendrick Lamar to Tyler, The Creator, to All Saints and Bob Seger and Brittney Spears and back—but its impact is less stunning and amusing than it's been in previous iteration. Here's hoping DLC content will make it better.

10. Just wait until GTA online. That will be in a seperate review, once they activate it. But nobody here has any doubt that it will change the way games extend their playability, as if this game didn't have enough already.

Final Take: Despite bringing nothing substantially new to the table, Grand Theft Auto V is a contemporary masterpiece, as perfect and epic a video game as will ever be made, with little competition to speak of. It is the last line in current-gen cross-console gaming, and will get no better than this. As far as Rockstar's titles go, it's only rivaled by Red Dead Redemption, and just barely, at that. It's an insane amount of fun, it's absurdly compelling, and it's also painfully disturbing: Be ready to be—maybe for the first time ever—hated and mocked by your video game in ways both subtle, overt, and ultimately visceral. As for whether or not it's an effective social commentary, that will ultimately be up to the people who play it. But there is no question whatsoever that it's an effective video game, and a thrilling, jaw-dropping experience.

One of the most weirdly profound moments of GTA V is the pause screen, when the game is truly reduced to nothing more than a game. The music is eerie and ethereal, and singular. You're just a dot on a map. That's it. At the end of the day, nothing else in the game could act as a more profound analog to what the entirety of GTA V adds up to. 

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