For me, this battle's extraordinary scope is summed up in two favourite moments. One is from a mid-game mission in which I flew a plane into another plane, fought the crew, hijacked the thing, and then parachuted out and watched it crash into the sea to escape death at the hands of incoming military fighter jets. Another time, whilst driving around in an off-road buggy, I got distracted by something that looked like a path up one of the San Andreas mountains. Turns out it was a path, and I spent 15 minutes following to the summit, where I nearly ran over a group of hikers. “Typical!” one of them yelled at me, as if he nearly gets run over by a rogue ATV on top of a mountain every time he goes on a hike.
I could go on like this for ages. GTA V has an abundance of such moments, big and small, that make San Andreas – the city of Los Santos and its surrounding areas – feel like a living world where anything can happen. It both gives you tremendous freedom to explore an astonishingly well-realised world and tells a story that’s gripping, thrilling, and darkly comic. It is a leap forward in narrative sophistication for the series, and there’s no mechanical element of the gameplay that hasn’t been improved over Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s immediately noticeable that the cover system is more reliable and the auto-aim less touchy. The cars handle less like their tires are made of butter and stick better to the road, though their exaggerated handling still leaves plenty of room for spectacular wipeouts. And at long last, Rockstar has finally slain one of its most persistent demons, mission checkpointing, ensuring that you never have to do a long, tedious drive six times when you repeatedly fail a mission ever again.
Grand Theft Auto V is also an intelligent, wickedly comic, and bitingly relevant commentary on contemporary, post-economic crisis America. Everything about it drips satire: it rips into the Millennial generation, celebrities, the far right, the far left, the middle class, the media... Nothing is safe from Rockstar’s sharp tongue, including modern video games. One prominent supporting character spends most of his time in his room shouting sexual threats at people on a headset whilst playing a first-person shooter called Righteous Slaughter (“Rated PG – pretty much the same as the last game.”) It’s not exactly subtle – he literally has the word “Entitled” tattooed on his neck, and the in-game radio and TV’s outright piss-takes don’t leave much to the imagination – but it is often extremely funny, and sometimes provocative with it. Grand Theft Auto’s San Andreas is a fantasy, but the things it satirises – greed, corruption, hypocrisy, the abuse of power – are all very real. If GTA IV was a targeted assassination of the American dream, GTA V takes aim at the modern American reality. The attention to detail that goes into making its world feel alive and believable is also what makes its satire so biting.
Grand Theft Auto V’s plot happily operates at the boundaries of plausibility, sending you out to ride dirt bikes along the top of trains, hijack military aircraft, and engage in absurd shootouts with scores of policemen, but its three main characters are what keep it relatable even at its most extreme. The well-written and acted interplay between them provides the biggest laughs and most affecting moments, and the way that their relationships with one another developed and my opinion of them changed throughout the story gave the narrative its power. They feel like people – albeit extraordinarily fucked-up people!
It’s worth mentioning that when it comes to sex, drugs, and violence, GTA V pushes boundaries much further than ever before. If the morality police were worried about Hot Coffee, there’s a lot here that will provoke moral hysteria. It’s deliciously subversive, and firmly tongue in cheek... but once or twice, it pushes the boundaries of taste, too. There’s one particular scene, a torture scene in which you have no choice but to actively participate, that I found so troubling that I had difficulty playing it; even couched in obvious criticism of the US government’s recourse to torture post 9/11, it’s a shocking moment that will attract justified controversy. It brings to mind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission, except worse, and without the option to skip over it. Some other stuff, like the ever-present prostitution and extensive strip-club minigames, feels like it’s there just because it can be rather than because it has anything to say.
There is nothing in San Andreas, though, that doesn’t serve Rockstar’s purpose in creating an exaggerated projection of America that’s suffused with crime, violence and sleaze. There are no good guys in GTA V. Everyone you meet is a sociopath, narcissist, criminal, lunatic, sadist, cheat, liar, layabout, or some combination of those. Even a man who pays good money to assassinate Los Santos’ worst examples of corporate greed is playing the stock market to his advantage whilst he does it. In a world like this, it’s not hard to see why violence is so often the first recourse. All the pieces fit.
Grand Theft Auto V is not only a preposterously enjoyable video game, but also an intelligent and sharp-tongued satire of contemporary America. It represents a refinement of everything that GTA IV brought to the table five years ago. It’s technically more accomplished in every conceivable way, but it’s also tremendously ambitious in its own right. No other world in video games comes close to this in size or scope, and there is sharp intelligence behind its sense of humour and gift for mayhem. It tells a compelling, unpredictable, and provocative story without ever letting it get in the way of your own self-directed adventures through San Andreas. It is one of the very best video games ever made.
And that is why Black Moses wins this battle.