Like the majority of the gaming public I’ve spent the last few days boosting cars, capping fools and terrifying any pedestrian silly enough to abide by the laws of the road.
I’m of course talking about Grand Theft Auto V, the latest entry in Rockstar’s phenomenally popular, generation-defining franchise. Yet while the series is well known to gamers for its biting satire, ambitious open world landscapes and immersive gameplay, even those who wouldn’t know a controller from a TV remote have also found themselves talking about ‘that game with all the criminals in it’. GTA is one of a select few entertainment properties - like Harry Potter or Star Wars - that can halt the consciousness of seemingly an entire country. Whether the coverage is positive or negative, GTA has developed into a landmark series for the videogaming world and is a genuine cultural juggernaut.
What gets lost in all this hyperbole and mythologizing is a basic, fundamental question. Is GTA V any good? There is an assumption that something this monumental that has been hyped to fever pitch cannot be any less than perfect and yet it could well have been that Rockstar had sunk a reported £170 million into a complete stinker. It’s happened before, just ask John Romero about Daikitana, or Rockstar themselves about the truly dreadful State of Emergency. Thankfully for everyone who purchased one of the 1.57 million units of the game sold on its first day of sale, GTA V is brilliant. It’s a bravura example of the potential of videogames to build livable and living worlds that offers a warped reflection on our own, a thrilling blockbuster to rival the best that Hollywood can offer and a reminder that games can be stupidly fun without sacrificing its intelligence.
Although in hindsight, wasn’t GTA IV all those things as well? You remember, that game with all those annoying phone calls, the friend-dates, the depressing colour palette, the wobbly physics, the terminal opening hours and your ‘cousin’. Five years ago, GTA IV was released to the same level of hype and expectation as its sequel and it consequently received a critical smothering as journalists quickly threw out perfect scores while championing its technical and narrative perfection. While there are still those who would defend Rockstar’s scathing magnum opus to the hilt, myself included, the game’s reputation has changed, warped and often soured over the years as it is remembered for its minor faults rather than its major triumphs.
And yet, while the videogame community can be a needlessly temperamental, venomous bunch, at times their concerns and criticisms are entirely appropriate and it’s this communal post-release re-evaluation of games that determines their lasting influence and reputation. While reviews are subjective by nature, when something is as ‘important’ as GTA the context - the critical expectation and the impatient fans - can sometimes obscure and overwhelm the quality of the content.
I recently found myself fall foul of this problem after playing Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us in the last month, a good time away from all of the launch hype. This elegiac, solemn, disquieting title deserves a focused eye unfettered by external influence which I found was quite an easy state of mind to assume months after its release. The Last of Us made me reflect on whether Bioshock Infinite was the groundbreaking, intelligent, immediate classic I thought it was on launch and in all honesty it probably isn’t. I still think it’s a wonderful game and an impressive achievement made with admirable craft and imagination, but the languors in its story and the lack of context for its endless, occasionally gratuitous, violence bother me after judging Naughty Dog’s tour de force in total critical isolation.
So yes, GTA V is insanely popular and so far it seems like it has satisfied critics and fans alike, but will we be able to say the same in five years time when we’re talking about how amazing GTA VI is? I guess time will tell, but for now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in Los Santos.