Grand Theft Auto V: Why Los Santos Is Not A Place I Want To Visit

There is a feeling I can't shake. The feeling that Grand Theft Auto V is a step back. That it is not the game I personally hoped it would be. That it disappoints in the wake of previous, more sophisticated Rockstar games. That Los Santos — when compared to GTA IV's Liberty City or the wild west of Red Dead Redemption — is not a place I want to visit.

What does that mean precisely? And why do these video game spaces feel more engaging than the technological masterpiece that is Los Santos? I’m not really sure.

I loved Grand Theft Auto IV. I loved it specifically because it pushed back against everything I found problematic in Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels. Instead of clumsily shoehorning a lengthy list of activities that sounded fun on paper, Rockstar honed its focus on making the game worthwhile from the bootsoles up.

Out went the parachutes, the jetpacks — the wacky antics that always felt far more interesting to talk about than engage with — in came a Liberty City that felt far more like a space in which you could simply exist.

Out went clumsy animations that forever seemed behind the curve. In came Euphoria: a dynamic motion engine that made every movement significant; that made the act of walking down any street in Liberty City engaging; that gave your actions purpose and momentum, created an endless matrix of possibility. It felt good. Grand Theft Auto IV would never be the water cooler game its predecessors were, but it made the small things work, and that made the game as a whole work.

In came the sombre tone and, in my own personal opinion, better writing. At its best Grand Theft Auto IV's writing evolved past the parody and pastiche of earlier Rockstar games, at its worst it simply found more obscure movies to imitate. GTA IV was Eastern Promises to San Andreas' Boyz in the Hood. Colder, smaller, more intimate, far more brutal and (strangely) responsible in its portrayal of violence.

Yet, according to most fans of the series, less 'fun'.

No series has a more tempestuous relationship with the word 'fun'. When we talk about 'fun' in GTA we're most likely referring to ‘outlandish', 'zany' content featured in games like San Andreas: parachuting, stealing jumbo jets, heading into area 69 to steal a jetpack. So when it was ordained that Grand Theft Auto IV was less fun, what we really meant was the list of random things we could do within that world was short a few bullet points.

The truth is, Grand Theft Auto was a more cohesive, rewarding experience. It refused to dilute itself and did its best to remove content that had the potential to subvert the darker, subversive tone of Niko's story in Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto IV was far from perfect — it still struggled with the dissonance of a protagonist sliding seamlessly from cold blooded murder on a mass scale to struggling with moral issues in a Liberty City minute — but it was more consistent in its presentation of violent behaviour than any Grand Theft Auto game previously and that made for a better video game.


Red Dead Redemption: as seamless an experience as any open world video game could ever hope to create. It’s easily my favourite of Rockstar’s games. Creases in the fabric still exist. John Marston is still a cold blooded killer one second and a sympathetic man searching for redemption in the next. In his best moments he is a man attempting to serve his family by doing terrible, terrible things. At worst he is an empty vessel, a dupe for vagabonds, snake oil salesmen and phony revolutionaries.

Undoubtedly the strength of Red Dead Redemption is its environment. A sprawling sunblast of dust and desolation. Much like Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, it presents a space you are content to simply exist in. You take a stroll in the desert. You hike off the beaten track and wait for the sun to set. Then, when the sun rises again, you pause. There is always a reason to pause. Red Dead Redemption is that kind of video game.

Red Dead Redemption is the only video game past or present where I have been content to leave the beaten track and spend hours searching for herbs. Or hunting rabbits. Or wading through marshes searching for hogs to skin. I can’t think of a video game that ever made the most banal quests feel pleasurable. In a medium where making invented obstacles seem meaningful is the end-goal, Red Dead Redemption may be a genuine masterpiece.

Why was I so content to aimlessly wander in games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV? I’ve thought a lot about that question. I am not sure I have the answer.


In Liberty City it was a combination of technology and artistry. The visual step up was significant. Liberty City was dense with detail. Niko’s stooped posture, the trash littering the streets, the massive leap in technology combined with the intricacy of the art made GTA IV special. I wanted to be there. Being in Liberty City felt like an experience in itself. Grand Theft Auto IV revelled in its own drudgery; it allowed us to indulge in that, to become a tourist.

Best of all it was confined. Smaller than previous games. Liberty City was a space where every square inch felt designed, felt like it mattered. We weren’t used to that sensation in Grand Theft Auto. It was the shock of technology pushing in a new, smaller, dense direction. It was a distinctly invented place that represented the American city in all it’s muck and glory. It was the shock of something new.

Red Dead Redemption’s wild west was the precise opposite of that — it was engaging because it was so precisely under designed. When you stumbled across something beautiful in Red Dead Redemption it felt less like an experience you were supposed to have and more like something you stumbled across in your wanderings.

Red Dead Redemption is a sparse, dead wasteland but, unlike Los Santos, there isn’t a single acre of space that feels unaccounted for — no dead flat textures informing you that you are going the wrong way. The game gently asks you if you’d like to look for herbs, hunt bears in the mountains, and no matter where that quest takes you there is never the sense that you are lost. Red Dead Redemption plays with that tension brilliantly. It’s under designed but, at the same time, every inch of the game has a reason for existing.


Grand Theft Auto V may feature the same level of detail as its predecessors, but I wonder if it does as good a job of making you notice those details.

Yesterday a friend told me a Grand Theft Auto V story.

He is on the run from the cops and, for some reason or another, has to leave his vehicle and escape on foot. He runs up the alleyway in an attempt to break the line of sight and, at the back of a building, sees three men dressed in black smoking cigarettes. ‘Ah, they must be waiters,’ he tells himself. He runs to the front of the building and, of course, a restaurant. Amazing that Rockstar would go to so much trouble. Waiters smoking precisely where they should be smoking. Had my friend remained in his car he would have never noticed. He’d have driven past this tiny detail, this small story within a story. He would never have been given the chance to appreciate the incredible effort that goes into making Los Santos such a believable, functional universe.

In Grand Theft Auto IV I walked. I walked because it felt as though the game often encouraged me to walk. In a city like Liberty City you could walk. There were taxis everywhere. I rarely drove in Grand Theft Auto IV and that provided me with the time and space to appreciate and fall in love with the universe.

In Red Dead Redemption you have your horse. You can ride that horse at high speed across the plains but there is always the sense that you should slow down. That you should slow your horse to a clip clop and just explore the universe at your own pace and exist in that world. That is by design. In Red Dead Redemption you are encouraged to explore. You can leave on foot. Your horse is only ever a whistle away. You will never be left stranded in a desolate area with nothing to do and no direction to head towards.

In Grand Theft Auto V you drive. You always drive. You can choose to walk but there is never a sense that you should. It never feels encouraged. Your mission points are dotted throughout a massive sprawling city and moving on foot requires a massive commitment.

Details get lost in the blur of a constant high speed chase. The streets blend into one another and there is little incentive to explore. Grand Theft Auto V is always about the ‘thing’ you should be doing right now: the mission, the skydiving, the ‘zany’ stuff. The red dots on the screen you should be shooting, the blue dots you should be driving towards. The world is there, Los Santos is there. It is a vast, incredible thing but I often forget it exists. I forget that I am there.

The game provides you with that one single moment. Trevor learns his old buddy Michael is still alive. He drives from his rickety shack all the way to Los Santos to find him. After driving through the hills and the wilderness he stands at the vista and slows to a crawl. Trevor notices the view. You notice the view. The city is lit up in the dark. The cars move in the distance, a blimp flies overhead. For a second you remember that Los Santos is a place. That it was built by human hands, that it is a place you should visit. You remember all these things in a video game that so often forces you to forget.

And then you get back in your car and you drive.


Comments

    You and I are opposite Mark, I didn't like RDR at all, thought GTA IV was boring and think that GTA V is probably one of the best behind San Andreas.

    I often walk in GTA V to hear the npc's talking abound random things, also, swapping back to Trevor is always a laugh. SCOOTER BROTHERS!!

      Yeah I think it's definitely a case of different people liking different aspects of Rockstar games compared to others. GTA V focused on the side of GTA I like less.

      I still recognise what an insane technical achievement it is, just prefer the other games.

      LOOK, I'M SORRY I SHOWED YOU MY THING!

        I WAS AS SURPRISED AS YOU WHEN HIS HEAD POPPED OFF.

        Last edited 24/10/13 1:14 pm

      Scooter brother fo lyfe!

      First time I switched to him like that I went and souped up his little scooter haha.

      I always look forward to switching to Trevor Also, a new one i saw recently he was starting a fight with the bodybuilders on Vespucci beach saying "You think I wouldn't recognise my own underwear!!" farkn hilarious.

      I gotta say when playing as Trevor, i never felt that disconnect between his actions and his character. He's like the perfect protagonist for the GTA world, and always compelled to get upto crazy shenanigans when playing as him.

        When there's a random event, such as getting a stolen wallet back, he's the only character i use that doesn't return the money.

        "I gotta say when playing as Trevor, i never felt that disconnect between his actions and his character. He's like the perfect protagonist for the GTA world, and always compelled to get upto crazy shenanigans when playing as him."

        Yep agree 100%. This is why Trevor might be the best Rockstar protagonist ever.

          Except for the torture part, which was bloody horrible and I wish was omitted.

            Felt the same way until immediately after. Trevor's true understanding of the topic and plays an interesting counterpoint to his actions just moments before. It's one more scene where his messed up psychosis and hipster mentality collide in all it's glory.

              I felt bad about the follow up too. He brings the guy to the airport with no money and no passport? How the hell does that help anything?

      Agree, gta v is the game I expected and on some levels even more. Gta4 is not even close

    I think the fact that there is a broad sprawling world that you choose to overlook in favour of rushing from place to place is probably a good analogy for people and life in general. GTAV is a great world to linger in and explore, if that's what you feel like doing. However, the game keeps you so occupied that the opportunity doesn't really present itself naturally - you have to force yourself to do it.

    Last edited 24/10/13 1:13 pm

    The thing is too, you have to force yourself to walk, it feels really unnatural to walk, in any GTA game, but if you do, the rewards are there.

      Definitely. Conversations, tiny details, everything.

    GTA stopped being one of my favourite after San Andreas. I feel like PC gamers weren't treated with respects. If the delay to the PC release would be justified with better optimisations, maybe, just maybe I would buy it.

    The visual step up was significant. Liberty City was dense with detail.

    Yet it was also so empty at the same time. Whilst visually stunning GTA 4 in comparison to *everything* that had come before it, had so little to do outside the main plot line realistically. Personally I love how V tailors the activities to the characters personality. Only Trevor can do rampages, only Franklin does races etc. It works far better for me personally, in that it's a lot better thought out than 4. With V the characters aren't as flat out boring as IV, Niko was a void of personality, his cousin becoming where the true entertainment and evolution occurred. This was in contrast to San Andreas and Vice City before it where the characters were fully fleshed individuals.

    Details may get lost in the blur as you drive, but go for a drive along the coast in real life, along a beautiful beach sometime. If you don't stop to appreciate the scenery you'll merely get a brief glimpse of what's around. When you stop in the game, you get to appreciate said scenery too and the little things that never existed before. Tides come and go, birds flock together, animals hunt other animals, water leaves its mark around your ankles as you stand on a beach, little things like that. Then there's the meta details, the sun cascading over the city skyline. The fact the city has individual, noteable areas unlike IV which was very much 'the same' all over the map.

    GTA online also allows you to explore in a way you never would in the main game, you literally have to create your own fun which works amazingly well. I get you won't change your mind, everyones entitled to their opinion, but possibly I do think you're donning the rosed coloured glasses a little too much for IV.

    But not RDR. That game was perfect.

      I probably will change my mind! I'm always changing my mind about games!

        Never change your mind about RDR. I've had arguments over the perfection reached with that game lol. I am in agreeance 100% that Rockstar hasn't hit the heights with V that they hit with RDR. The plot, the characters, the exploration, the combat. Everything fed into one another in one synchronous glorious way. You WANTED to go out of your way with John to go on impromptu adventures.

          RD: R was a fantastic game, but you can't deny it had heaps of glitches, once I was innocently riding my horse, and out of nowhere the stupid nag just dropped dead.

          And then there's this

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKbTVOV6xpI

          Last edited 24/10/13 1:56 pm

            Of course it is, no game is ever glitch free. By perfect I mean the story, the characters, the plot, the controls etc were just perfect.

      The only game I shed a tear at the end of the story. To the point where I didn't even want to play the game anymore playing as his Son

        I liked using Jack, but I played it as a 'Im on a revenge quest' sort of free roam. Ended up going from town to town getting into massive gunfights with the law, each time I managed to kill a set amount of marshalls etc, I'd vamoose and if I survived, check that place off as 'complete' on a list. Works surprisingly well.

          Gotta remember to do this when I get around to replaying Red Dead again.

            Leave killing the guy you have to til *very* last, that way it kind of feels like an overarching storyline.

        Woah! WHOAAHH!!!

        You...... you didn't keep playing as Jack?

        Not even for *his*... erm.... conclusion? ;-)

        If not, stop what you are doing now..... and play RDR NOW!!! [though, its MUCH better after just finishing as John]

          Not sure what conclusion you are talking about, I played though the post-game a fair bit, mainly hunting etc. I did take revenge, if that's what your talking about?

          It just wasn't the same a plaing as John

          Last edited 24/10/13 3:28 pm

            I understand what you mean about not being the same, its kind of not. But dress in Johns gear and just dream. lol

    I liked them all for different reasons, but I'm still having a blast with GTAV. The banter between the crew is goddam priceless. Trevor and Michael's discussion on hipsters had me in stitches.

    Los Santos feels alive and vibrant, and just aimlessly walking around can put you into some shitfunny situations. Take the time to do all the side missions too, as that will assist your sightseeing tour.

    I suppose it’s just a different kind of environment. I loved GTA IV’s Liberty City and thought it was a more interesting, liveable “place” than anywhere in GTA V. At the same time, being able to drive along a bumpy road through a canyon on a dirt bike while the sun is setting is an amazing experience. The world itself is just so epic.

    I think the other thing to note is the way the online mode encourages you to appreciate the smaller parts of the GTA V world. Missions set in small areas that you would have driven in single player now require you to stop and focus on the detail. There comes a point when you realise that in a deathmatch the lumber yard that you’ve driven past several times is actually as detailed and “liveable” as most of the maps you’d find in something like COD.

    It really builds on your appreciation for the world Rockstar has built.

    Also I agree the writing and themes of GTA IV were deeper. Part of me wonders if to some extent it was caused by the long development cycle of GTA V. Many of the major themes like the GFC have to some extent passed their peak. I feel like the world was designed to tell a story of consumerism and poverty but by the time the game was finished they decided not to beat a dead horse.

      I noticed and learned a lot more about San Andreas through playing the unofficial Multiplayer modes than the official Singleplayer missions.

      Hopefully it will be the same for GTA V on PC.

    I dont know why but the people in GTA4 I really cared about not running them over, the citizens in GTA5 I rarely bothered to swerve if I was going to hit them. Maybe I'm just getting more psychotic as i'm getting older but I felt more connected to liberty city.

    Im loving GTA online though. lately i've been hanging around the backwoods, specifically in the pub where you can play darts. you and your friends can hole up in their and have a real ned kelly at glenrowan good time with the cops and everyone outside trying to shoot you all up inside.

      That’s the thing I liked about the 3 different characters.

      When I’m playing as Trevor it seems absolutely fine to do things that I’d normally avoid with the other two. I always feel like I shouldn’t intentionally run down pedestrians or shoot people unnecessarily with the other characters but I just go nuts with Trevor.

      For the record I actually really didn’t like the Trevor character. There were several points in the single player story where his actions were so mindlessly violent that it really put me off even playing as him.

        I preferred when the main character/protagonist was mute and generic like in GTA III.

        That way they're basically who you make them, not some fictional scumbag you happen to have control over in-between cutscenes.

        Niko annoyed me in GTA IV, acting all shy and innocent after he'd slaughtered a bunch of people.

    I guess a lot hinges on your reason for gaming and what you define as an "experience". I've loved all the GTA's but for wildly varying reasons, and I'd have to disagree and say this is one of the best.

    Perhaps you need to simply afford it the same opportunities for introspection as you did IV and RDD. I've found myself in the middle of nowhere without a car several times and found the trek back to civilization to be a breathtaking experience. The sound is great, as are the vistas and small, confined instances that pop up all over the map. It's stellar.

    Perhaps it's simply not the gaming experience you're after right now?

    Could it just be that it feels like it's been done before?

    I sort of feel the same about GTA V. I have found that i'm not as absorbed with playing this one as previous GTA's and I can't put my finger on why. When i'm in the game I spend time checking out the detail and the game is technically amazing but it's not enough to keep my in it for long or make me go back to it often.

    I remember when they announced it I was like please let this be in a completely different, new location.. London, Paris.. anywhere! Checking out a new place kept me playing Sleeping Dogs more than it's story line.

    The writing (the character interaction is hilarious) and the story has kept me entertained but as you say I can drive and get to that more quickly, so why walk?

    Los Santos is not a place I want to visit probably because it's basically a carbon copy of that hellhole L.A.

    Having played GTA IV and V back-to-back within the last 2 months GTA V had me captivated from start to finish. Niko was an unlikable bore who's relationships with other characters felt forced. Meanwhile the performances of the actors in GTA V were movie quality for mine.

    Both games captured their environs beautifully, but tell me what you remember about the locations other than Manhattan? Nothing. I was swept away by the detail of California and have a burning desire to head to the crazy California countryside again.

    To your point about driving around California - I felt it captured exactly the LA experience. Meanwhile, everyone catches a subway/taxi in Manhattan.

      I preferred GTA IV, and I recall many, many locations around Liberty City.
      After finishing GTA V and become disillusioned with online, I booted up GTA IV and started on Luis' story.

      GTA V was a struggle to finish, I kept telling myself it was going to get better, and then it was over.

    I think the real reason we drive more in GTAV is that unlike GTAIV, the car controls are actually good.

    I see where you're coming from; I agree that RDR is perhaps the best game Rockstar have ever done, and it and GTAIV probably had better stories with more interesting things to say. GTAV wasn't bad, but it was the writing and characters that sold it, not the story.

      That's very much the reason I don't fly in GTA V as much as I used to in IV. Even with your piloting skill maxed, helicopters are horrible to fly (for me) because of that damned rocking motion. Even at very low levels when the in-ground effect should smooth out the hover, they just never level out. I loved cruising around Liberty City in a Little Bird, but not in V.

      Not a big fan of the change to the way the bikes handle either, I preferred IV in that regard, but I have a few buddies who swear by V's handling, so maybe I should stick it out.

      Last edited 25/10/13 7:46 pm

    I know I'm in the minority here but I just couldnt get into RDR. I must of put in a good 15 hours, some story missions, some random exploring and whatnot and it just felt like a chore.

    It could be that I'm not a huge fan of westerns, but I didn't even like marston. The story bored me and there was never that drive to keep going or that "just one more mission" feeling gta gives me.

    Finally, someone else who agrees with me.
    I can't STAND Los Santos!

    Love Trevor and Michael's banter, love the scripted heists and I LOVE the gameplay and weapon wheel.

    I just hate Los Santos, the setting annoys the hell out of me. It's empty in ways Liberty City never was.

    Sure it has more people, has more activity going on, but they seem so superficial and empty. Which I suppose is the point, but I don't enjoy it.

    I don't agree with your key point. I don't believe a good game forcibly encourages you to experience all the tiny nuances the designers put in. I don't think that hand-holding a player to experience all there is to experience is what makes an immersive game. I believe that in a true open-world game, everything is up to chance, just like the real world. I like that I could potentially miss interesting NPC conversations if I don't linger long enough after or during a mission. I like that I could miss out on specifically designed restaurants or whatever if I blow through a town too fast. I certainly don't want to play GTAV, see everything there is to see and never touch it again, because missing out on things gives a game replay value. I like the idea that on my inevitable 10th replay of the storyline, I could still have a never-before-heard conversation that adds to the backstory of the characters. I could still stumble upon graffiti on a wall that pokes fun at a certain real-life egotistical rapper. Accidental stumblings are what make a game truly immersive, because I want to still be wowed by GTA in the years and possibly decades to come. And if I want to experience absolutely every tiny detail, event, conversation and easter egg, well then the internet can document it, put it in a gamefaq and leave it up to me to find if I so wish.

      You'll play through it 10 times!?

        Haha probably not, I exaggerated to make my point, which is that GTA games have a ton of replay value

          Heh I just thought the use of "inevitable" may have meant that it was something you have done with all R* games or something. :P

      It's funny I feel this way about a game like Metal Gear Solid 3, where so much of the detail is hidden.

    RDR had me hooked. I've never liked GTA games, so I figured that being a Rockstar game, I wouldn't get much enjoyment out of Red Dead. How wrong was I? It took me a while, but I finally took the plunge and bought it. There aren't many games that had me so engaged.

    It was Red Dead that's made me want to buy GTAV. I haven't bought it yet as I'd prefer to put the money towards the PS4, but it's the first GTA game I've really wanted to get my hands on.

    ...man I hope Rockstar are working on a sequel to RDR, how amazing would that be?

    I'm one of those types who plays GTA while trying to follow the law as much as possible outside of missions. No random killing, no driving like a lunatic etc... Hell I used to restart the game if I accidently ran someone over within the first hour.
    Knowing this, you would think that the somber "real" setting of IV would be my favorite, but I found San Andreas to be one of the most enjoyable games I ever played. I could go eat, work out in a gym, drive a train, be a pimp, dance at a club, race cars, there was just so much I could do. I don't care what the purists say, San Andreas was one of the greatest RPG's ever made.
    IV was interesting for a few hours, San Andreas was interesting for years.

    Agree that RDR is a better game, although it took some serious thinking to come to that personal conclusion. And I agree with all you said about it - that it encourages slow, purposeful exploration. But I have explored most of Los Santos on foot; I've climbed mountains, walked around Vinewood at dusk with Chop soaking up the atmosphere, hiked and hunted deer through forests, crossed the desert on foot, strolled along the beach, taken a yacht slowly around the entire east side of the island....the list goes on. If you really stop to smell the roses, and don't succumb to the pressure to drive everywhere, the world you're in is un-freakin-believable. Although tearing down the highway in a sportscar at a million miles an hour is an awesome experience in and of itself.

    This is funny because anyone who likes GTA at all likes most of them apart from IV. IV is one of the worst games ever made and is only slightly better than GTA London 1969.

    San Andreas is the best, and will never be outdone.

    I think I'm just getting old, I haven't enjoyed a GTA game as much as San Andreas. RDR was the pinnacle of my experiences with R* games. Just to be sure I'm strictly speaking Single Player modes.

    While I agree that RDR is superior to any GTA, I have been enjoying GTAV much more than V. I enjoy the SP more because I *like* Trevor, Michael AND Franklin all more than I like Niko. And I have to chalk that up to the writing- they're just sympathetically written. Even Trevor, who I thought I'd never grow to like, I now love, and love to visit. When I was done with SP in 4, I was done with the game. I keep going back to the post-game content with 5 because I liked the world so much.

    The MP is about 10x better than GTA4's MP, which was pretty pointless. I don't think I love it as much as I loved RDR's MP (especially because it had challenges- I'm really missing challenges in GTAO), but it is close to about the most online fun I've ever had (and that is saying something). I'm hella addicted in a way I never was with 4 (or any game, really!)

    can't agree more. this game certainly isn't as good as it could've/should've been.
    i can't help that feel that the MP wasn't available straight away because it's so bad that R* knew it would greatly drive down the review scores. GTA V's MP is no where near as good and polished as RdR, and considering the time-frame difference, the story isn't as strong as i'd come to expect from them. Perhaps R* aren't the 'all that' company i once thought they were.

    Rockstar keep developing their games in new directions - which is great. Some ideas work, others dont. For me...
    San Andreas was too big and clunky
    GTA 4 took it back to basics with a great story
    Red Dead expanded on the gameplay of GTA4 which made better mission structure, characters and better side quests
    LA Noire... lets forget that one...
    Max Payne showed what Rockstar where capable of achieving in regards to serious story and gameplay mechanics
    GTA 5 i think combines the best of all Rockstar games.

    Last edited 24/10/13 11:21 pm

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