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'Grand Theft Auto V' review (Part One): A big huge epic about big hugeness

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Grand Theft Auto V is the biggest and messiest game I’ve played in years. It’s a quieter Grand Theft Auto but also a louder Grand Theft Auto, a more mature Grand Theft Auto and a shockingly adolescent Grand Theft Auto. It’s set in a big huge FauxCal where Los Angeles is a 10-minute drive from Lake Tahoe and the policemen actually notice when you break traffic laws. If you can imagine an automobile, you can probably steal it in Grand Theft Auto V. At the turning point of videogame generations, with a whole rush of big-huge open-world games arriving in the next 12 months, this is Rockstar Games’ bold, beautiful, and batcrap-crazy proof that nobody does Big Huge like they do Big Huge. It’s their Watch the Throne, their Olympics Opening Ceremony; it’s The Videogame-as-Mic-Drop.

The game features three protagonists: Retired heistmaster Michael, who’s like an older version of the protagonist Ray Liotta played in Vice City; Rookie criminal Franklin, who’s the most realistic, most admirable, and most boring of the leads; and insane semi-human Trevor, who looks like Jack Nicholson on a decade-long meth bender and talks like Yosemite Sam reciting with a libertarian comment board.

You could argue that the game is actually a step back from Grand Theft Auto IV, which struggled to graft the games’ inveterate silliness onto the semi-realistic tale of an Eastern European immigrant with big American dreams. I know some people loved GTA IV, but I could never get into it. Vice City and San Andreas were great specifically because they took GTA III‘s addictive gameplay and added in style. Those games were set in vivid gameworlds that visualized Miami and Los Angeles with hyper-precise cartoon detail; they reimagined the ’80s and the ’90s as fantasy worlds. GTA IV drained the hyper-stylized craziness and felt a bit bland. It was a little bit of everything and not much of anything.

V is set in the same rough landscape as San Andreas, although there’s more to do. Much more. In my first twelve hours of gameplay, I stole cars and towed cars and swam in the Pacific Ocean and smuggles weapons  and killed a character who was basically Mark Zuckerberg and tried to kill a character who was basically Ryan Seacrest. The game is filled with references to contemporary American culture that could be considered satire, except they’re all so on-the-nose that the nose has been pummeled into the brain. Facebook is called Life Invader — get it? American Idol is called Fame or Shame — get it? There’s probably a more subtle version of Grand Theft Auto. But something tells me that game wouldn’t be called Grand Theft Auto.

The simple fact is that GTA V is a game you cannot stop playing, because it just keeps on getting bigger. There’s a point, around 1/5 of the way into a game, when everything you’ve been working towards culminates in an elaborate heist sequence. (You can go in guns blazing or go in quietly.) If all goes well, you walk away with a few million: It’s an upper-class criminal act.

Suddenly, the game radically shifts, and you’re driving a truck into a biker den and setting fire to motorhomes. It’s like going from a Michael Mann movie to a white-trash horror movie. Games like this are put together over the course of long years of long hours, but in that moment, it feels like the game’s creators said to themselves: “Okay, we’ve done a great little stealth mission that is unlike anything we’ve ever done before. Now how about we break out the flamethrower?”

Grand Theft Auto V‘s gameplay is addictive, and so is its vision of Los Angeles as a hell that looks like heaven. Other stuff is more problematic. Like every Rockstar videogame in the last ten years, everyone talks too much and says almost nothing of interest. The game’s treatment of women has evolved a bit since the dead-prostitute days, but wives and girlfriends are still just wives and girlfriends. (Weirdly, said wives and girlfriends all have the tendency to put giant portraits of themselves up in their house.)

This time around, one of the main characters has a daughter…who wants to be a reality TV star and/or a porn actress. But that same protagonist also has a son who’s a fat potsmoking slob addicted to videogames. Rockstar has made emotionally rich games, like the shortlisted-for-best-game-ever Red Dead Redemption and even the definition-of-intriguing-failure L.A. Noire. Grand Theft Auto V, conversely, is set in a world of aggressive stereotypes.

And what a world! Around the twelve-hour mark it becomes clear that you’re in the middle of a story that involves branches of government, Fortune 500 companies, and every type of crime and criminal. (You can trade stocks!) It feels a bit like the craziest James Ellroy novel ever adapted into a 70-hour South Park episode, and I mean that as a compliment.

When I talked to GTA co-writer/producer/head honcho Dan Houser a couple years ago, he compared Rockstar’s open-world odysseys to serialized television. In his own words: “The games, the length they are, are more akin to a season of a TV show than a single movie.” GTA V is more like five seasons, and I’m not at the end yet. I’ll post a full review (with a deeper analysis) when I am. But after two days of playing, I’m hooked. I worry that it sounds like I’m damning GTA V with faint praise, but it’s more like I’m praising it with faint damns. This a Grand Theft Auto game that wants to be every Grand Theft Auto game, and it kind of is. This is the videogame epic of 2013, big and brash and going every direction at once. It’s a videogame that tries to capture everything about contemporary America — and then shoot everything with a rocket launcher.

Grade: A