Grand Theft Auto 5 re-review: Returning to Rockstar’s open-world epic

Any discussion of Grand Theft Auto 5 has to begin with scale. Not of the size of its world, or the weapons, vehicles, and people in it, but with sales data: Since its initial release in 2013, across all platforms, GTA 5 has sold something in the realm of 165 million copies worldwide. That’s a hard number to get a handle on. A little short of 40 million people live in California. If copies of GTA 5 were people, the total copies sold would be commensurate with the population of Bangladesh. The game is brain-splittingly big in its impact and its reach.

That number is only going to keep creeping up now that Grand Theft Auto 5 has launched on the newest gaming consoles (and now that new details about GTA 6 have reportedly emerged). I’ve spent the last couple months slowly playing through the game on my Xbox Series X to figure out exactly where this artifact from 2013 lands nearly a decade later.

After all, it is an artifact. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has always functioned as commentary, speaking directly to elements in mass culture, liberally borrowing the plots from different crime genre films and eras, trading on heroic melodrama and peppering these worlds with goofy violence. Vice City played up the early 2000s nostalgia for the coke-fueled party scene of the 1980s and its visual and musical industries. GTA 4 tracked an immigrant’s story into a deeply commodified culture of grifters and schemers. They each spoke to both their time and place in specific ways, parodying the mass culture of those eras while also becoming the dominant mass culture of the early 2000s.

The Vinewood sign in GTA 5 on PS5 and Series X

Image: Rockstar Games

We’re at a distance from 2013, and it is clear from here that Grand Theft Auto 5 was wrestling with this paradox: What does it mean to stick it to the man when you are the man? How do you keep flipping the bird at the monoculture when you are the marker against which every other open-world action game is measured?

The solution that GTA 5 came up with to resolve this, and which I think has something to do with its decadelong staying power as both a single and multiplayer game, was to create an extremely robust driving and shooting game skeleton and dress it with whatever interesting ideas came to mind. What is striking about playing GTA 5 in 2022 is how unfocused it is, how willing the game is to just take a player down a weird route of heists, train car abductions, cargo plane takedowns, and an entire torture minigame (more on that shortly). In both its online multiplayer and story-focused modes, this willingness to go to any random idea is always secured by the game’s willingness to return to that safe, solid core. A player knows that there is always something in the center waiting to catch them, that the AAA-game “30-second loop” of driving and shooting in new circumstances will return eventually. Everything gets resolved by killing your way out of a sticky situation, fleeing in a vehicle, and exploding the people who are pursuing you. The game can get as weird as it wants because we all know where it’s going.

That tight core of shooting and driving is remarkably solid on Xbox Series X. I did not think there was much room to impress or surprise me in this edition of the game, given that I have played the game on both previous console generations. To my shock, the higher graphical fidelity and the improved frame rates really did something for me in the sense that there was a whole transformed world to make my way through. Throwing the game in Performance Mode and tooling around the world at 60 frames per second while randomly fighting any enemies who crossed my path legitimately looked and played better than I would have thought possible. It was quite strange playing this game so soon after completing Cyberpunk 2077, if only because Grand Theft Auto 5 continues to feel like a lived-in world, full of people with their places and things. It’s positively lush with stuff compared to Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. Neighborhoods and their people seem to fully exist in GTA 5. It somehow remains the standard for a real sense of place and space, even in the face of games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that attempted to accomplish similar goals.

Trevor and Michael in a helicopter in GTA 5 on PS5 and Xbox Series X

Image: Rockstar Games

That said, while the look and feel of the world of GTA 5 are notable and hold up in impressive ways, the context in which it was all produced, and the commentary it has about the world of 2013, takes on a bizarre tone in 2022.

The core cast of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor live in an eternal world of early-aughts concerns: the Great Recession, the meth epidemic, the problem of getting your foot in the door. American Idol gets parodied, the hypocrisy of liberal governments dependent on the War on Terror is lambasted, and social media in Los Santos is merely an element of life rather than an all-consuming desire.

It all feels quaint and quotidian, especially given how soft and uncynical the game is about those three main characters. They are adrift in capitalism, each trying to find their way in the world. They assemble families, mentors, or friends as they go, all of whom get consumed in an ever-complicating story that prods corrupt government agencies, private military companies, and wellness gurus. Sometimes we zoom out to world historical conditions. Sometimes we have to do yoga. It all gets treated the same: more bullshit for these characters to cut through in their drive for success and self-expression. Back when the game originally released, I called it conservative in how it yearned for the old days and actively pilloried any and all parts of life that didn’t adhere and respect the value of the old ways. Now I would call it out of touch — even for the era in which it was released.

What was revolutionary about Grand Theft Auto 5 was its commitment to big, shared open-world gameplay in the form of GTA Online, which is so robust at this point that it constitutes its own separate game that just happens to be sold with 5. In the few hours I’ve put into Online, I have found it more difficult to get into than I did five or so years ago when I played it consistently on my Xbox One. The online game still opens with the bunker-based gameplay of 2017’s Gunrunning update, which hooks into smuggling missions that I didn’t find all that interesting, and then lets you into a fairly complex world of activities. As in many live-service games, the new-player experience seems almost wholly dependent on identifying external sources like Reddit threads or Discords that can help you orient toward what you might want to be doing in the maximal space of possible stuff.

Characters from GTA Online on PS5 and Xbox Series X

Image: Rockstar Games

Notably, in the previous console generation, it was a pretty simple task to get into a playlist of wacky things people had made in the game, but layers of gameplay additions have seemed to make that more opaque — even if there is a huge amount of stuff that you can do once you figure it out. It seems that while Online certainly has driven some of those millions of game sales, it has also moved into communities of play that are not as publicly accessible as they once were, and really digging into the online game with others takes more than a little legwork on the part of the player.

It is also interesting to play this game post-Red Dead Redemption 2, which is motivated by many of the same ideas as Grand Theft Auto 5, but is not saddled with a cynicism or an inherently frictional attitude toward mass culture. RDR2 just leans wholeheartedly into the Western genre and its emotional trappings, never blinking at the melodrama or showing any kind of cringing attitude toward how that genre takes itself too seriously; by contrast, even GTA 5’s most engaging portions feel like they’re too cool to commit.

The oft-discussed torture scene, for example, in which players act as Trevor torturing someone at the behest of the nefarious FIB, plays jokingly at the camera, trying to split a tone between a serious meditation on what Trevor is capable of doing and the goofy way that he goes about it. It feels aimed at a Mr. Blonde impression, but it doesn’t have the bravery to do what Reservoir Dogs does by giving us a man who is so comfortable with torture that he will do it joyfully. Instead, we’re sold a touching scene of Trevor taking the torture victim to the airport and dumping him off, showing that our player-character has a heart of gold in comparison to the federal agents who told him to tie off all the loose ends. And, by the way, the entire mission takes place alongside another mission where our other protagonist is assassinating a civilian at the agency’s request.

A car wash at night in GTA 5 on PS5 and Xbox Series X

Image: Rockstar Games

Here, almost a decade into GTA 5’s life, it is a thoroughly mapped object. We know what we’re going to get, and its ability to produce novelty or wonder in its systems or narrative is now minimal. Instead, it is a time capsule that alters in slow motion, delivering us 2013 through each progressive console update that retells the single-player story at greater levels of fidelity and urban density. Parallel to it, we have the constant expansion of Online and its ever-growing festival of weirdness, a kind of sideshow that has become the main attraction for hundreds of thousands of players.

GTA 5 feels like an infrastructural flavor in gaming at this point, delivering that same action driving and shooting, showing up to comfort you wherever you might want to play it. When novelty appears, like when I was driving through the night and Burial’s “Hiders” played on the in-game radio, apparently added back in 2017, it really stands out. But playing GTA 5 today is not generally an exercise in a new experience for millions of us. It is a return to the familiar, a known entity, and these new-gen versions of the game offer us repetition with slight differences. If that is what you’re angling to get out of your time in 2022, GTA 5 is there for you.

Grand Theft Auto 5 was re-released on March 15 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a download code provided by Rockstar Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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