Grand Theft Auto 5 Book Club chapter 1: The first 10 percent (Warning: Spoilers)
A quick note: I'm not sure how to do this without talking about plot points and characters, so this is going to be full spoiler for the sections we discuss. I'll post percentage completion, but I'm not sure how that changes with side-quests, so be aware that you may read about things you haven't yet played. Proceed at your own risk.
Can we talk about the technical aspects of Grand Theft Auto V for a few moments before we get into the story and mechanics? Rockstar clearly wanted to end this generation of consoles with a bang, but the things that Grand Theft Auto V are trying to do remind me of watching a bear ride a unicycle. You don’t expect it to be done well, but you’re pretty impressed that it’s happening at all. (A quick note: After writing this, I saw this article. Some of these issues may be due to the fact I'm playing the PSN version of the game on an original 60GB PlayStation 3.)
The PlayStation 3 is clearly straining with the pressure of keeping all this madness happening, and the frame rates tend to be lower than I’m normally comfortable with. The aliasing is distracting, and the amount of objects that just kind of pop into existence after a moment or two are annoying as hell. The game has moments of beauty, and Los Santos itself is detailed and lively, but I found myself frequently wishing I was playing on a next-gen system or my PC.
You get used to everything an hour or so into the game, however, and unless things get even worse later in the game, I think it’s safe to leave the complaints there. Keeping in mind both the PS3 and Xbox 360 only offer 512MB of RAM; Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing technical achievement, although it’s far from perfect.
So how’s the game?
The hood and the retiree
Franklin is a two-bit hood who helps a local car dealership “repossess” vehicles that are sold with less than optimal financing. Michael used to rob banks, but he got out of the life with a wad of cash and what seems to be a clean slate. They’re very different characters in terms of background and outlook on life, and circumstances throw the two men together early in the game.
They’re both unlikable, of course. Franklin interacts with his friends through a thick haze of crime and expletives, and the dialog often sounds like it was written by children who are trying desperately to sound tough. I might be getting old, or I may just be stodgy, but I kept wondering if they really needed to curse so much.
Michael has everything and enjoys nothing. His wife is sleeping with her tennis instructor. His son is a piece of shit who spends all his time playing video games on his impressive home theater conveniently located in his room, close to his bong. “You might be 12, but I’ll rape you anyway!” The kid screams at the TV, while his sister calls him a “homo” in the other room.
Franklin is tasked with grabbing the kid's car after he falls behind on payments, and this leads to a fun scene where Michael hides in the back, gun ready, before turning the tables on our young car thief. Michael is retired, you see, but you don’t take what’s his. The old reflexes and street smarts kick back in, the owner of the dealership gets his ass beaten, and suddenly Franklin is out of a job, but he has an invitation to meet Michael for a drink.
Michael is drawn back into crime because he’s bored, and roughing someone up and getting his car back by force seems fun. Soon he’s hanging out with Franklin, passing on some wisdom about why crime doesn’t pay, and then they’re off chasing a boat. Don’t ask.
We’re running through plot here, but the Polygon article about the mundane details making the game is right on. We spend a lot of time with these people, and their friends, and we learn about what makes them tick and how they operate just by paying attention to what they do, where they go, and how they deal with these situations. Part of this is up to the player, but these men feel like real people, even if they’re people you may not want to invite into your home.
Los Santos is a crazy place if you’re in the mood to get lost, and the best way to play is to let go a bit, drive around and explore, and do whatever you feel like. The story unfolds at a comfortable, leisurely pace.
I paid 20 virtual dollars to watch an art film, and I have no idea why I sat through the whole confusing mess. I wanted to get my money’s worth, I guess? The amount of things to see and do can be overwhelming at first, but once I got used to just picking something, doing it, and then moving onto the next thing it became more comfortable. The tennis minigame is surprisingly enjoyable, and I get to work on my virtual cardio!
You get introduced to a dog who runs off to hump another male dog, and the game helpfully tells you that if you download an iPhone app you can train him and improve his behavior. I feel like the player is the one being trained in this instance, however, and decided to pass on that particular aspect of the game. I’m not interested in a canine Tamagotchi.
What’s interesting about the first few hours is how low these stakes are. There are a few gunfights, but no one ever seems to be in actual danger. Sure, Michael and Franklin destroy a house they assume belongs to the tennis coach who is sleeping with Michael’s wife, but that’s as intense as the destruction gets in this early part of the game. The two men are just kind of screwing around and enjoying each other’s company, and it plays like a stranely pleasant buddy comedy.
The house ends up belonging to an actual, operating gangster, however, and suddenly Michael is on the hook for $2.5 million of renovations, and who has that kind of cash on hand? No one has to save the world, or stop a supervillain, we’re just trying to keep a complacent ex-robber alive for a few more years. But how the hell does someone come up with that kind of money?
Michael has someone he can call. His name is Lester. More soon.
A quick note on comments: Please avoid spoilers from the game that occur at a later time in the game than what is described in this story. On the other hand, I'm not going to police the comments for spoilers, so read at your own risk. Standard “don't be a dick” rules apply.