Grand Theft Auto 5 is a good game. It’s perhaps even a great game. However, reading critical reviews of it would make you think it is The Best Game Ever Made Ever, Like Seriously Guys It Is So Freaking Awesome. It’s not that good. If anything, it’s an incremental improvement over GTA4, and that game had its fair share of rough edges and painful moments.
There’s a lot of competition in the “open world sandbox” genre, and although GTA3 arguably started the arms race, many other games have come along and moved the state of the art in the years since. While I play GTA5, I’m struck by a number of things that seem to be simple ideas that other games have improved upon, yet GTA5’s execution is clearly inferior. Here are my “top 5” major gripes, along with a look at what games out there are doing the GTA formula better.
Thing I Hate About GTA5 #5: The Immature and Hypocritical Tone
The GTA series has always had a relatively crude tone. Deviant sexual activity and depraved violence tend go hand and hand with this type of game. Although there’s a lot you can do with this kind of scenario, GTA seems content with aiming its humor squarely at the stereotypical American young teenage male. Given that the game is off-limits to those under 17 here, it’s a bit of a surprise that they never aim any higher than junior high humor. There’s really only so many genetalia jokes that one can really find funny before the crude humor as a whole starts to wear thin. The rampant misogyny is hard to stomach as well.
The Competition: Saints Row 4 is really quite good at keeping it fun and light but without resorting to a constant stream of crude humor. It’s sad when “the game with the phallic bat” is outdoing you in maturity, but it’s true. Sexual activity, relationships, and the role of women is handled superbly by comparison. Even Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, a game that’s rated E-10, manages to inject a certain amount of adult humor without crossing a line into inappropriate territory.
The other major gripe I have about the tone is that it’s maddeningly inconsistent. Trevor is really the first GTA character who actually fits the GTA mindset – the man is clearly unhinged, and prone to violent, psychotic episodes. Meanwhile, practically every other character spends every cutscene talking about how they’ve changed, and all they want is a peaceful, normal life. Then they are told to massacre thousands and just sort of shrug and get on with it. The fancy term for this is “ludonarrative dissonance” and Franklin in particular has it in spades.
The Competition: Far Cry 3 is similarly inconsistent in its tone. Often Jason Brody whines about his inability to cope, during or just after a murder spree that would make a serial killer blush. Saints Row 4 again here comes out on top, as it keeps the level of ridiculous so high that the “heroism” of the Saints is believeable.
Thing I Hate About GTA5 #4: Stupid RPG Mechanics
Returning again from GTA3: San Andreas is the concept of your character “leveling up” as you undertake mundane tasks. Each character has a set of stats, and each of these stats is tracked independently per-character. In order to really be effective during missions, you’ve got to invest time in each of your characters’ stats in order to bring them up to spec. Again, this is a more or less terrible idea.
These stats are all core to the experience – it’s stuff like your ability to sprint, shoot, drive, and fly. If I wanted to spend hours at a shooting range so that I could become a better shot, I’d freaking do that. I want to play a video game. My guy should already be a pro at offensive driving, flying planes, shooting – all the things inherent in being a badass criminal.
Additionally, it’s not always easy to know what your individual characters will be up to in a given mission, so properly preparing is more difficult than it really needs to be. It seems like the best option is to grind your stats to the max from the start, so that every character is a pro at every skill.
The Competition: Far Cry 3 does a pretty good job here, as you start out reasonably powerful and by earning experience you can upgrade your “tatau” with new abilities. The new abilities feel good, and you’re not a weakling by any measure from the start. Saints Row 4 introduces super powers which are super fun, and then they give you many opportunities to upgrade and round out your power set as you play.
Many of the stats can be increased by playing mini-games, but the mini-games aren’t that fun. If I want to play a half-baked tennis simulation, I still have a Wii collecting dust on my shelf. Triathlons are about as much entertainment as they sound. Games are defined by their verbs – in a sandbox game, I want my verbs to be things that enhance the sandbox experience. “Triathlon” and “tennis” are not fun sandbox verbs; they’re wastes of time. In a game packed with things to do, why inject stuff this boring?
The Competition: Diversions in Saints Row 4 are interesting takes on core game mechanics, and there’s usually something for everyone. They tend to be inventive and fun overall. Far Cry 3 hasn’t got a lot of side quests that deviate from “go here, kill this” but still everything feels like a hunt, both technically challenging and deadly simultaneously.
Thing I Hate About GTA5 #3: Poor Communication
With every new mission type or game mechanic, there are a set of controls to master. This is all fine and good, but the tutorial popups are impossible to read. They’re located in the far upper left hand corner of the display, and displayed in a very tiny font. Usually there is more than one “dialog” worth of text to read, and it’s typically happening at the same time you’re being shot at or otherwise expected to be focused on the action. I do appreciate they are trying to keep the “mandatory tutorials” to a minimum, but this is a bit extreme.
The Competition: Far Cry 3 gives you context-sensitive button popups that are easy to read.
I’m not a huge fan of the “screen turns red when I’m almost dead” mechanic, but hey, it’s effective. I can accurately and easily gauge when I’m close to biting it, and I can take the appropriate measures. For better or worse (mostly worse, you’d assume, since this is an article about things I hate about GTA5) GTA5 ditches this in favor of life and armor bars. The issue with the life and armor bars is that they’re relegated to the bottom left corner of the display, far away from the action.
They’re small enough that they’re hard to get a quick read on, and they’re out of the way enough that it’s tricky to follow them and keep track of the action. There’s no indication of when you’re getting hit or are at critical health either, so frequently I die and have to reload a checkpoint because I thought I could take another bullet or I didn’t know I was being shot.
The Competition: As an extension of the “context-sensitive button popups” I mentioned above, Far Cry 3 will even remind you to heal yourself (by telling you the button to press) if you’re seriously injured.
Every mission in the game has “optional objectives” that can be completed in order to earn medals. This is cool, and it has the potential to increase the replay value of the game’s main story mode. However, the game doesn’t tell you what these optional objectives are unless you dig through the menus during a mission. At the end of the mission you’re given a summary of the objectives you did or didn’t do correctly, with no explanatory text about what the objectives were specifically. This could be a good feature, but muddy communication ruins it completely.
The Competition: I can’t think of a game that does this any worse. Literally any implementation of secondary objectives is better than “we don’t make a point to tell you there are any until the mission is over, and even then we won’t tell you specifically what you missed.” I’ll say Assassins Creed 3, as it has secondary objectives on most missions and is clear about what they are and how to get them.
Thing I Hate About GTA5 #2: Realism In The Wrong Ways
GTA as a series has frequently flirted with realism. There is a fine line between simulating reality and making a fun open world game, though. The decisions in GTA4 and GTA5 with respect to realism are often nonsensical.
One big example of this is evading the cops. Up until GTA4, the cops could be instantly pacified by driving to a Pay n’ Spray and paying a small fee. Since the name of the game is causing chaos and the cops react to your every crime by going ballistic and attempting to murder you, it’s common to need a way to get rid of them quickly and easily.
In GTA5, the cops still hunt you down for even the most minor infractions, but now evading them can easily be a 5 minute chore, especially on the higher wanted levels. It’s not particularly fun, and there’s not really a “quick fix” if you just make a mistake and want to get back to doing whatever it was you were doing prior to the mishap.
The Competition: Retro City Rampage kicks it old school with the same “cop star reset” pickups as the first couple of GTA games, and the same “Pay ‘n Spray” mechanic as well.
Cars have also had their realism upgraded – if you get into a couple of major car wrecks, your ride is likely to be reduced to a hunk of undriveable junk. That’s certainly accurate with respect to the actual physics of car wrecks, but it’s not particularly fun. High speed collisions are something that happens often in GTA, and having to stop and replace a vehicle every couple of accidents is more annoying than it’s really worth.
The core to remember here is that games should be fun – if an aspect of the simulation isn’t fun, why is it there? If it can’t be removed, can it at least be tweaked to reduce the impact it has on the entertainment value?
Thing I Hate About GTA5 #1: Fast Travel That Isn’t
GTA5 builds a huge world and lays out objectives at all four corners. And yes, driving around is a key part of the game. However, getting from point A to point B is only so fun for so long, especially with all the other game mechanic issues we’ve already gone over. Sometimes you just want to play the missions, and not spend 20 minutes driving around the same streets for the Nth time.
Thus, games like this tend to feature fast travel systems. GTA5’s is somewhat puzzling though. Again, it is trying to be somewhat more realistic. In order to fast travel, you’ve got to get out your phone, navigate to the contacts menu, find the taxi service, then make a call and wait. When the taxi shows up, you’ve got to get in, and then they will take you to your destination by doing the driving for you. If you want to skip the trip, you’ve got to pay an additional fee.
Why all this hassle? If I just want to get to a quest on the other side of the map, why can’t I just do that?
The Competition: Far Cry 3 will let you open the map and pick an unlocked fast travel location to jump to instantly. It’s easy, it’s quick, and it gets you where you’re going fast. Saints Row 4 is missing a fast travel option, but since you can run from one side of the map to the other in under a minute, this is somewhat forgivable.
GTA5 isn’t a bad game. It’s a good game, possibly a great one. However, as a follow on to GTA4 it is slightly disturbing. The trend seems to be more towards realism in bad ways than creating a game that is fun. Compared to games that came out even a year ago, it feels like a step backwards for sandbox open-world gaming as a whole. I’m sure it will still be a huge blockbuster title, but I can’t help but hope that somewhere, someone is reading the criticism and taking it to heart. A game this big with this many simple yet glaring issues is a real shame.
If you’ve got just enough cash this year to afford a new release, AAA game like GTA5, I can’t really recommend it over the other options out there. The games I’ve been mentioning are superior in several ways. GTA5 is not a game that is going anywhere, and there’s no real reason to pick it up now, while the online element is a disaster and before the inevitable DLC packs expand the core experience.
If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, consider these games, which are quite good and can be had relatively cheap by comparison:
- Saints Row 4 – It’s a relatively new release, but there have still been price drops already to compete with GTA5. As an open world game, it scratches many of the same GTA-esque itches. It’s also just damn fun from start to finish. If you haven’t played Saints Row 3, it can be had for a song and is also a worthy open world experience.
- Far Cry 3 – FC3 is a beautiful world packed to the gills with content and lush tropical experiences. The plot is pure nonsense, and there are some silly mechanics, but the stealth, gunplay, and various activities are all super fun. There’s a standalone DLC pack called Blood Dragon which takes the absurdity to 11 and even at full price only runs $15.
- Retro City Rampage – An indie, 8-bit styled throwback to the early days of GTA, this game is fun and dirt cheap. It’s challenging at times, but the core gameplay is tight and the tone is hilarious.
- Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time – If you can get past the “kiddie” exterior, there’s a lot of fun open-world action to be had and a ton of silly moments.