As video game players have gotten older, as anti-heroes have become routine across the culture, as sex and violence have permeated prestige television, the controversies that once surrounded the Grand Theft Auto games have begun to seem like sepia-toned oddities from another age.
Sure, the new installment, Grand Theft Auto V, contains plenty that might offend those who enjoy taking offense, and it is still disturbing to see parents giving these games to preteenage children. Among the interactive pastimes Grand Theft Auto offers — alongside pursuits like yoga, sky diving, tennis, scuba and golf — are bong hits and lap dances.
But while the franchise has lost the ability to shock, it remains the most immersive spectacle in interactive entertainment. And with the profane and hugely enjoyable Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games has produced the best plotted, most playable, character-driven, fictionally coherent entry in this 16-year-old series.
The game is set in an immense, parodic vision of Southern California. While Los Santos — the game's version of Los Angeles — and its surroundings exist in an alternate reality, it is also a contemporary one that evokes and satirizes the anxieties of 21st-century life. There's a fake Facebook (LifeInvader), a fake Twitter (Bleeter), a fake Apple (Fruit), a fake Kickstarter (Beseecher), a fake 50 Shades of Grey (Chains of Intimacy), even a fake Call of Duty (Righteous Slaughter 7, a first-person shooter game that advertises itself with the tagline "The identical art of contemporary killing").
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Grand Theft Auto V is still an action game about hoodlums and thieves; we start with an extended bout of cop killing and proceed to a series of increasingly ambitious heists. But the structure feels more logical than before. Your character doesn't arrive as an outsider in a new city and start carrying out the requests of people whose only purpose is seemingly to delay him. Instead, the events flow from situations and desires.
For the first time, there are three controllable characters instead of only one: Franklin, a repo man on the make, loses his job; Michael, a witness-protection retiree, miscalculates after finding his wife cheating on him with her tennis instructor; and Trevor, an oddly lovable psychopathic meth dealer and gun runner, learns that Michael, his onetime partner, faked his death 10 years ago.
Most video games are about repeated actions, about mastering a skill and exploiting it. Grand Theft Auto games are about variety. There's the array of content, including radio stations DJ'd by the likes of Bootsy Collins; entire TV shows with names like Republican Space Rangers; and a fake Internet. And there are the missions the characters execute, encompassing car, boat and plane chases; paparazzi ambushes; train robberies; and triathlons. Failure in the new game is less frustrating than in previous iterations, since a generous checkpointing system means that players don't need to restart a mission from the beginning if they don't get it right the first time.
For all that the game does right, it has a genuinely problematic aspect that is not its enthusiasm for violence or sex but its lack of interest in women as something other than lustful airheads. One of the only young women in the game not oversexed and under-read is sucked into a jet turbine.
In the main, however, Grand Theft Auto V represents a return for the series to the broad comedy of violence. Tonally, it lives somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's movies, in a sun-dappled land where using a grenade launcher to mow down American soldiers, or a cavalcade of clowns, is a lighthearted romp.
This being a stylized Los Angeles, the movie business plays a role.
"Movies are about telling the same lies over and over again," Michael says at one point. "You know, good beats evil, things happen for a reason, attractive people are interesting."
Video games tell their own lies to their players: you're powerful, you're smart, you're important, your problems can be solved if you just keep trying. Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most beautiful, seductive lies yet uttered.
VIDEO GAME REVIEW
'Grand Theft Auto V'
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North