Los Angeles is an ugly city. Not just downtown, with its scabbed-over theaters and the chain-restaurant misery of L.A. Live, but the whole sprawl. The cramped beach houses, the studio-and-Starbucks spread of Santa Monica, and the godforsaken Valley—ugliness abounds. That makes Grand Theft Auto V all the more miraculous. Los Santos, L.A.’s digital twin, is breathtaking. Cruising from downtown up the coast into the mountains at dusk, with a stolen muscle car blasting FlyLo FM, is an emotional rush. Rockstar North has bottled the evanescent thrill of a nighttime drive when you have no destination. Like the worst stereotype about L.A.’s citizens, though, Los Santos and its surrounding countryside is just a pretty face. Grand Theft Auto V is a masterpiece of craftsmanship but a disappointment all the same.
Every entry in the series since Grand Theft Auto III falls short as a story for the same reason: the profound disconnect between the player and the character. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic was the worst of the lot. In the game’s scripted dialogues, Niko was a haunted soldier desperate for a new life. During the main story missions, he was a vicious mercenary who would do anything for a buck. In the player’s hands, just another citizen of Liberty City, he was a compassionate, psychotic, entrepreneurial performance-artist property owner with needy friends.
The various aspects of the player’s identity didn’t bind together, so everything you did ultimately felt fun but meaningless. With not one but three characters under your purview in GTA5, you’d think the problem of feeling connected with the world where you’re wreaking havoc would be even more intense. It’s not, although the problem still stands. GTA5 is often frustrating because the player’s role feels insignificant. It doesn’t matter how many custom car shops you buy or which arbitrary character stat (driving skill, stamina, etc.) you build up—nothing you do changes the world or the protagonists, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. When the next mission starts, they and the city are back in their fitted roles, even if you just crashed a stolen jet into a golf course. The feeling of disconnect is tangibly eased in Grand Theft Auto V, though, since all three leads are explicitly cast as monsters from the very start.
Its gorgeous, intricate world may be the game’s premier achievement, but Trevor Phillips is a close second. Franklin, an ambitious but economically trapped repo man, is a mildly interesting bastard, as is Michael, the retired master thief and Tony Soprano proxy. But those two have nothing on Trevor. This meth-dealing, gun-running lunatic feels like the physical embodiment of the average GTA player’s in-game behavior. In five minutes, he’ll go from sexually violating a teddy bear to conning his way into a private military corporation’s storage facility to having a heart-to-heart with his best friend. Then he’ll murder an entire biker gang. Trevor’s an evil scumbag who’s as terrifying and funny as a five-star GTA rampage, exploding as many police helicopters and crashing as many cars as it takes to survive. He’s enthralling from the first second he comes on screen.
Trevor and his surrounding world aren’t just flashy marvels, they also feel just right. The characters move like butter. The cars drive with the fantasy speed and grace of an arcade classic like Ridge Racer. Even the golf and yoga have their own carefully crafted flow, and the game never hiccups transitioning between these activities.
No game world feels as vast, intricate, and intentional as Los Santos, and no character in a game of this sort feels as reflective of the player as Trevor does. With these tools, Rockstar could finally tell the bold story that the studio has always threatened to tell. Not this time. Rockstar fumbles the ball across the board. The story missions—those tasks you have to complete to earn cash and open new activities in the world—are the same old busywork they’ve always been. Franklin follows foolhardy buddy Lamar on yet another ill-advised con, and by the end you have to shoot 50 gang members to move on. Likewise, when Michael plots a sweet jewel heist, you still have to spend half an hour boosting a van, ditching the cops, and driving it back to base.
Even the heist jobs, GTA5’s big variation on the old themes, feel overly familiar. You select a crew of muscle, drivers, and hackers, and you even can craft a significantly different plan for each theft, but the changes feel cosmetic. There are scattered moments when the missions heat up. One the three amigos’ early collaborations has you kidnapping a CIA witness in mid-air from a skyscraper. It’s exhilarating to bounce between Trevor piloting, Michael grabbing the target, and Franklin sniping agents from an adjacent building, but these moments—moments where the plan comes together—take up a small portion of play.
The aftermath of that particular mission demonstrates the fattest worm in GTA5’s core. The crew delivers the poor witness from the CIA’s hands into the FBI’s. The crooked agents want him to ID a suspected terrorist. Michael is drafted into assassinating the suspect while Trevor tries to get the witness to talk, so play bounces between you sniping possible targets and torturing this poor sap. GTA5 gives you a choice, of course. You can waterboard him, electrocute him, even wrench out his teeth with pliers, all while monitoring his heart rate, keeping an adrenaline shot in reserve to bring him back for more abuse if need be.
The torture itself isn’t the problem. Everything you do in GTA’s missions is sadistic in one way or another. The problem is that Grand Theft Auto V drops the torture bomb for no reason whatsoever. At the end of this episode, Trevor actually frees the witness, driving him to the airport while delivering a sarcastic monologue about the benefits of torture. Trevor argues that the U.S. government doesn’t use torture to get vital information for national security. “Torture is just for the torturer,” he says. Rockstar tries to force its story to serve every purpose here. The torturing is supposed to be a fun game activity, but Trevor’s dialogue is supposed to both deliver a social message and heighten the drama. Then he turns around five minutes later and forces some guy to look at his dick. This thematic whiplash occurs throughout the game.
Grand Theft Auto V has missions with anti-smoking, anti-government, anti-PC, anti-social media, and anti-pharmaceutical messages, and all of them shift wildly in tone, opting to glorify anarchic self-indulgence and half-cocked moral superiority at the same time. One second it wants to be satire, the next simple parody. Pure pornography one second, high drama the next. These storytelling techniques can live side-by-side—just look at the Quentin Tarantino movies that Rockstar honcho Dan Houser so clearly adores—but just like the character identity divide, GTA5 lacks the courage to commit to anything and feels weightless as a result. It’s a waste of its astounding digital landscape.
Rockstar’s game could have been a grand story as well as an amazing toy. Had it committed to one of its myriad story ideas and simply advanced it beyond the first round of superficial commentary, GTA5 could have been something great. With all of its ambitions pulling in opposite directions, though, it ends up as more toy than tale.