Grand Theft Auto V felt like a next-gen game even on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It was banging violently against the furthest limits of what those consoles could do in every way, and Rockstar could’ve very easily given the game a nice bump up to 60fps, a 1080p spitshine, and the game would’ve still felt right at home on next-gen consoles, a shining beacon for how to push ideas forward. Instead, next-gen GTAV is an example of a developer bordering on drunk with power, a massive amount of work having gone into making an already ridiculously ambitious game into something that thoroughly, embarrassingly outclasses everything else on the new consoles to date.
Almost anything that could be done to make Los Santos into more of a living, breathing, organic city has been accomplished here. The view stretches on as far as the human eye can see. There are more plants, more animals, more details in every inch of the game. Light and images stunningly reflect off of anything with even a hint of gloss. The radio stations have been expanded with another couple dozen tracks, complete with new DJ dialogue. If you never drew a gun in GTA V, you could simply walk around, ride boats and roller coasters, swim, or play sports. The city is more than just a vast playground, or even just a placeholder home for its protagonists, but a place to conceivably live an artificial second life. There has never been a video game city as beautifully dense as Los Santos.
The bump in graphical integrity is less of a major development than the complete shift of perspective, where for the first time in the series the push of a button can now turn Grand Theft Auto into a completely first-person game, with the added details of the world now even more vital since your line of sight puts you much closer to the ground than ever before. There’s an irony to this: Rockstar may have fumbled onto making the greatest first-person shooter ever crafted by not originally aiming to make a first-person shooter at all. GTA was meant for the distance granted by the regular perspective. Now, every action feels like yours alone, and it adds an extra level of immersion, for vastly better and frighteningly worse. Walking the streets, getting into GTA’s trademark shootouts, participating in heists, are all well and good. But it also makes any moment of unfettered psychopathy all the more distressing. There’s no avatar here; it’s your hands causing the violence now, your eyes staring directly at victims, and you facing down being shot dead, run over, blown up, or falling from insane heights. You’re no longer an insane puppeteer, but the sole perpetrator, and you might wonder if there’s something wrong with you if that doesn’t at least give a brief moment of pause before you do something beyond-the-pale terrible.
There’s no avatar here; it’s your hands causing the violence now, your eyes staring directly at victims, and you facing down being shot dead, run over, blown up, or falling from insane heights.
Past that, first-person GTA has far more in common with the very underrated Mirror’s Edge than any FPS. So much of your time is spent on the defensive, adjusting on the fly, and needing to spin cameras around to get a full picture. It’s this section that makes driving in first-person a novelty, but the sole weak point of the experience. There’s just far too much chaos to have to deal with for the game’s touchy vehicle controls to be truly immersive. Fortunately, there’s a switch allowing you to make the camera switch back to third-person when getting in, so it’s an easy problem to solve.
All this is still in service of a plot that takes the greatest of joy in throwing maximum shade at its audience for enjoying what the series has always done. It’s something of a brilliant bait and switch, where the stunning veneer houses the most reprehensible digital society ever created. It’s all a dark, scathing satire on all of America’s flaws—the American dream as interpreted through by a vast prism of gluttony, lechery, and sociopathy. It’s often hilarious, often horrifying, and a year after release, it still has more to say. As much as Rockstar could and should be aiming to get a female perspective into one of their games, and sooner rather than later, their response a couple years back on the matter made sense: GTA V isn’t just a story starring men, but about manhood, about what’s expected of them in the real world, about their agency in the hyper-violent digital world, and what it’s all supposed to mean.
GTA V is Rockstar’s midlife crisis: hostile, extravagant, but ultimately revealing a fascinating depth of self-loathing. It’s simultaneously a celebration and guitar-smashing middle finger to itself—legitimately edgy and dangerous again at a time when neither of those terms mean much of anything.