“Ah shit, here we go again.”
On a chilly September evening back in 2013, I was queuing outside waiting for the midnight opening to get my copy of Grand Theft Auto V on Xbox 360. If you’d have told me then that in eight and a half years’ time, I would be reviewing this game, I would question how exactly. And yet, here we are, with GTA V releasing on an unprecedented third generation of consoles. However, the longevity of the title clearly lies with the accompanying Grand Theft Auto Online; a game so different now compared to back then it is worthy of another review. We are here however for the largely unchanged single-player component of Grand Theft Auto V. How does it hold up in 2022 on Xbox Series X|S?
This is the solo portion of Grand Theft Auto V as it was back in 2013. In it, Michael, Trevor and Franklin are your three protagonists through which the story is told. Michael, a career criminal in remission is trying to live an honest life in Los Santos under a new alias. A chance encounter with Franklin – in which Franklin is caught trying to steal Michael’s sons’ car – sets their path in motion. After accidentally destroying the house of a drug lord, they must work together to find the money to pay him back. Cue robbing a jewellery store.
Trevor, meanwhile, is an old accomplice of Michael’s, and has been presumed Michael has been dead for the past nine years. When Trevor gets wind of this jewellery heist, he immediately recognises Michael’s work, and is determined to find out the truth of what really happened to him.
The trio are then off on some madcap adventure that is partly them trying to live the American Dream, and partly despicable behaviour.
Story-wise and via the mission structure is where Grand Theft Auto V is head and shoulders above others in the series. There is a real flow to the narrative in missions; they don’t just feel like a series of tenuously linked missions anymore; like in a Vice City or San Andreas kind of way.
Grand Theft Auto V represents a satirical look at life back in 2013. Back then it was a microcosm of life in a world after a global recession and the rise of various forms of social media and reality TV stars. It’s hard to believe it was all before President Donald Trump, the rise of influencers, #MeToo and a global pandemic; all prime source material for Grand Theft Auto’s slanted view on the world whenever GTA VI decides to make an appearance.
The world is a very different place than it was in 2013. As a result, some of Grand Theft Auto V’s humour and character actions don’t land as well as they once did. There has always been the puerile side to GTA; you only need to look at the billboards and names of shops to get a sense of that. This is not an issue, but newcomers may not gel as instantly as everyone else. Though if there are still newcomers coming into this in 2022, I would be surprised that they haven’t given it a go by now. This Xbox Series X|S version represents my fifth copy of this title, and I know I am not alone in that respect.
Past me was clearly looking out for present me though, when after returning to my Xbox One save of GTA V after almost four years the next mission I had to do was Scouting the Port. This mission sets up the second heist in the game as we spend some quality time with Trevor. It is also the mission where the introductory cutscene shows Trevor and his genitals in all their glory. In my quest for the fairest review, I will go where few dare to. Now in 4K and at 60fps!
That is in Performance mode: The Xbox Series X|S version has three graphics modes to choose from: Performance mode targeting 60fps at upscaled 4K on Xbox Series X (Xbox Series S is 60fps at 1080p); Fidelity mode is native 4K with ray tracing but locked to 30fps; Performance RT aims for upscaled 4K with ray tracing and 60fps targeted. The game defaults to Fidelity mode when first loading up but from a purely personal point of view, I immediately switched to Performance to get the 60fps.
Even without ray tracing, the improved lighting and textures really do invigorate this title. Graphics were never a problem on the Xbox 360 or enhanced Xbox One versions, so the improvement may be less noticeable there, but the new lighting and shading is excellent. Cruising through Lost Santos as the sun was setting, I was getting these simulated lens flares that really helped to add a new level of immersion. Seeing the light bounce off the waves of the water also looks spectacular.
As well as the graphical updates that you would expect from a next-gen upgrade, the load times have significantly improved. In fact, because you can now choose to purchase Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online separately, there is a new launcher upon starting the game up. This also helps speed things up as it doesn’t instantly start loading in the last version of GTA you played in the hopes that it wants you to jump back in. This in turn also means the bypass to get into GTA Online without being instantly kicked back out by launching it from the single-player portion is no longer required. As many returning fans will note, this was a pain in the arse. Though if you wish to switch back and forth, holding the down button in either mode is still a viable option.
Weirdly, returning to the single-player component after so long spent in the online section, and this version of Los Santos feels very vanilla in comparison. Gone are the flying cars, ray guns, new Dr. Dre music, additional islands and everything else that was added to GTA Online post-launch (stay tuned for a review of Online soon). With the aforementioned circa 2013 satire and the lack of any post-release single-player story since launch, returning to Grand Theft Auto V feels like opening a time capsule.
Advancements in open-world design too have not been overly kind to it either. Jumping from the Xbox Series X|S versions of Cyberpunk 2077, there is almost this lifelessness and beige-ness to Grand Theft Auto V. That’s even with the increased traffic and pedestrian variety. It feels empty.
What was once the standard-bearer for open-worlds has been overshadowed in the near decade since its first release. Grand Theft Auto V still holds up really well, but playing it now does feel like stepping into a time machine, such is the way that real-world and video game development has changed in the years since. Even when returning to it after years of GTA Online, it can feel a bit bland.
But I doubt many people will be buying this next-gen bundle to sit and play through the single-player component again. And that is why in the 8+ years since there has never been any additional single-player content to Grand Theft Auto 5. This next-gen version would have represented the perfect opportunity to add some fresh content in. Instead, we have the exact same single-player game from 2013, warts and all. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play, but very much of its time.