We've updated this review with new impressions based on the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game.
In the five years since Grand Theft Auto 4 was released, open-world games have changed quite a bit. Games like Infamous and Saints Row chose to empower the player and make getting from point-to-point easier. Hell, Saints Row took all of the chaotic glee from earlier GTA games and made it the whole point. Grand Theft Auto 5 is grand achievement, albeit one that feels like it hasn't changed very much over the years.
GTA 5 has three protagonists, but the story really centers around Michael de Santos, a retired bank robber who has gone into some sort of witness protection program after a heist went wrong. Early in the game he meets up with Franklin, a low-level thug who has dreams of doing more with himself. After Michael gets back into the heist game his old partner Trevor catches wind of his old friend's exploits and seeks him out. Crime ensues.
Each character has a special ability that can be toggled by clicking in both analog sticks. Michael can slow down time while in combat, Trevor can go berserk in combat reducing his damage intake, and Franklin can slow down time while driving. Franklin's was the most useful for me, especially considering how aggressive the police are in this game. You can switch who you're controlling at any time, and the characters all go about their own business when the missions don't require they spend time together.
The Heist missions are the centerpiece of GTA 5 and are a good deal of fun. Prior to a Heist, you'll have to decide on an approach (usually loud vs. stealthy), and how skilled you want your support team to be. More skilled accomplices take a bigger cut out of your final haul, but generally make your life easier. Once in the Heist, you can swap between the the protagonists as their particular role needs to be filled, or leave things up to the AI if you prefer. Make it out, and everyone gets a real generous amount of cash - so much cash that there's almost instant gratification when it comes to your personal arsenal.
Other story missions are character-centric and are usually pretty entertaining as well. Trevor's were almost always my favorite because his are more centered around causing a whole lot of chaos, at least until I got to the now-infamous "torture" mission, which was... needless. Franklin has to deal with more street/gang-level issues, and Michael's often involve his horrifyingly awful family dynamic.
The writing is uniformly great, as is expected from Rockstar these days, though the tone hasn't really changed to fit the times. Often, the game comes across as a bit of an anachronism with the way it handles female characters and minorities, considering the current "lets talk about this stuff" zeitgeist.
It took me a long time to get used to driving everywhere, since I was busying myself with Saints Row 4 prior to GTA 5, and it didn't help that the handling of most cars felt squirrely until I got used to its handling model. If you want some advice, set the vehicle camera angle to "high" and save yourself some issues. Combat is the best the series has ever had, although the snap-on aiming feels a little too much like whack-a-mole for my taste. You can turn the auto-aim off in settings, but the manual mode doesn't feel very good.
It's a good thing that games like Saints Row exist, because it really feels like GTA is no longer about the randomized chaos unless it's in the context of a mission. The police are absurdly aggressive, and even with body armor, the characters all feel too fragile. Long standoffs against the police are hard to keep up, even at a three-star wanted level. It's fine that they've gone this route, but it's just not as fun to have to be so cautious when you want to steal military aircraft, or simply blow up all of the cars in a city block.
It bears mentioning that the version of San Andreas that Rockstar has built here is an enormous technical achievement. The environments are gorgeous, and whatever they're doing with their lighting engine is a marvel to behold. About the only thing that belies the game's place in the current generation is the detail on the character models. Well, that, and the nearly five-minute load time you have to endure each time you boot the game up.
Shortly after GTA 5 launched, Rockstar enabled the multiplayer component - Grand Theft Auto Online, which spent has spent nearly the entirety of its existence wracked with connectivity and cloud server issues. Since then, things have settled down considerably, so let's talk about it.
After you create a character, you'll hop off a plane and get picked up by Franklin's friend, Lamar - who serves as your tour guide to Los Santos' multiplayer offerings. Apparently GTAO takes place several weeks before the events of GTA 5, but that's not super important. Once you're introduced to the world, you'll be dropped into a random server of 16 people.
Wandering through the world in GTA Online works much like standard GTA 5, though you'll constantly have to deal with the other players on your server, most of whom are merely content to hunt other players down and grief them. Hitting activity points on a map, or selecting a job via your mobile phone will prompt other players to join your activity, though most will ignore your request and you'll be pulled into a matchmaking lobby to find other players. Most of the time, completing an activity dumps you back out into the open world with another random set of players, though you can choose to stick with your current group if you'd like.
What can you do in GTA Online, you ask? Just about anything that you can in normal GTA 5. Want to play golf or tennis? Go nuts. Want to race cars, motorcycles, or planes? Great. However, we're here to talk about the co-op and it's hit or miss. First, if you came looking for Heists, you're out of luck, as those are going to be patched in at a later date. For now, all you can do are simple jobs, such as retrieving cars, robbing stores, or taking out gang hideouts. If you played Red Dead Redemption, it feels a little similar. There are also wave-based survival and deathmatch modes to participate in, though I'm not an enormous fan of how combat works in the game, so your mileage may vary there.
One nice touch is that whenever you're in a car with another player, you can switch the radio station at-will, which leads to a little back-and-forth if your partner doesn't like what you chose to listen to. It was funny until my teammate decided to open-mic his home stereo. Sadface.
Unless you're big on the anarchy, it's tough for me to recommend GTA Online as it stands. It's stupidly ambitious, but unless you opt out of the open PVP system or set a Crew-only session, you're going to have to deal with a lot of people who are only out to grief you. Standing around looking at your phone? You'll get killed. Are you in a store trying to buy something? Expect other players to stack cars up against the doors so you can't get out. The community surrounding it is (let's be honest- predictably) hostile, and after meeting nothing but rude players, I muted all voice communication.
Ultimately, I can recommend GTA 5 for its single player experience, but GTA Online still feels very much like a beta test. Once Heists get patched in, I'm definitely going to go back for more, but for now it doesn't feel like a place I want to spend a whole lot of time. Perhaps it's just me, but when I play an open world crime simulator, I want to go looking for trouble, but don't want it to come looking for me.
UPDATE: A year later and new versions have changed a lot with GTA. Read on for some updated impressions.
It’s been a year since GTA Online launched, and with the next-gen versions of the game the service has really come into its own. In terms of co-op content you’ll still find the heists are sadly missing, but there’s a lot more to offer than the game had a year ago.
Players can take part in story based missions now gotten from contacts met within GTA Online. These missions have a player range from one to eight players, with most missions being tailored towards four. At this point there’s well over 30 missions to take part in and most offer a pretty decent variety of activities.
You can definitely feel some missions require co-op to complete, for instance the car jacking missions that make it a necessity to take out the driver of the other car. WIthout someone riding shotgun and being the gunner taking out the opposing driver, it’s almost impossible to capture the opposing vehicle. Other missions are simply more fun with the extra players. In a multi-staged mission four of us jumped in a gang drug deal, stole the goods, and took them to our own dealer. Along each stage we set up our players and took advantage of chokepoints and building tops. There’s even a mission where you need to assault the army base to take out an informant.
Throughout it all you’ll bring in your character, arming yourself with the guns and goods you own from the open world. Your vehicles even come with you into the mission to use, so depending on the mission type, this can come in handy. In terms of getting into the missions themselves you’ll need to level up to at least five and then contacts become accessible via the phone. You can also join random co-op missions and use the game’s built in match making to fill spots or play the missions with your crew. There are cash and experience bonuses depending on difficulty and plenty of replayability.
All in all - this is what we hoped GTA Online would become when the game came out. Now we just need the strategy, setup and structure of the heists to enjoy with pals. The updated visuals are simply gorgeous in the campaign, with the lighting and weather effects being a highlight. The game is very photogenic and several additions clearly show it off well. GTA V on next-gen is a worthy pickup for sure and it's easy to recommend the entire package now, something we had a hard time doing on first release.