Despite being the progenitor of an entire genre, Grand Theft Auto has never really established a strong identity in terms of mechanics. Some titles have lock-on targeting. Some are free-aim. Some use cover-based combat, others favor run-n-gun. Some make driving feel effortless and arcade-y, while others make the vehicles heavy and cumbersome. San Andreas had this whole territory control mechanic that never appeared again.
Saints Row is an amusement park where you hop from one challenge to the next, picking up whatever activity seems fun. Sleeping Dogs has the Hong Kong / John Woo action flavor. Watch_Dogs has that lame half-assed hacking stuff. But Grand Theft Auto? About the closest thing the series has to a distinct style is the awful scripted mission design where the designer secretly changes the rules to make the gunfight / chase more “cinematic”. Aside from that, GTA doesn’t have a particular mechanic to call its own.
At least, until now.
In Grand Theft Auto V you can pull off heists. Aside from the extravagantly produced world and the near miraculous technology driving the thing, heists are the best thing about GTA V. They’re tightly integrated with the story so they don’t have the tacked-on feel you get from the extraneous side contentDarts and bowling et al. littered all over the world. At the same time, a lot of the best crew members can only be met and recruited while exploring the open world which means the heist system is also connected to the freeform gameplay. You have the strategy of choosing an approach, the whiff of sim-style gameplay as crew members gain experience over the course of several jobs, and you have the familiar core mechanics of shooting and driving when it’s time to pull the job. Heists are broken into a chain of missions, which leaves you free to piss off back to the open world if you’re getting story fatigue. As a nice bonus, it’s thematically consonant with the premise of the game in a way that attending therapy with your bickering family or watching in-game television aren’t.
How it Works
The story will reach some point where you need to steal something big. Maybe some jewels. Maybe a big piece of hardware. Whatever. You need it, and someone else has it. So the characters will put the plan up on the wall / cork board and you’ll get to make a few A or B decisions regarding approach and escape. Do you want to shoot your way in, or sneak in? Do you want to escape via dirtbikes in the desert, or jet skis on the water? Then you’ll get to choose your crew. Some crew members are more skilled than others, but more skilled people demand a bigger cutMost crew take between 5% and 15%.. However, their skill goes up as they gain experience, while their asking price doesn’t. So you can pay a lot now and have really good help, or you can cut corners now and have crappy help. But even if you take the second option it might be worthwhile, since that cheap crew member will eventually mature into a reliable teammate.
Once you’ve made your plans, the game cuts you loose again. When you feel like it, you can gather the items you need for the job. Maybe steal the getaway car or grab some weapons. These activities function as simple pickup missions. No cutscenes. No scripted nonsense. No rules-changing shenanigans. You just go and get the thing. I love these sections because I feel like I’m connecting with the established rules and not trying to out-guess the schemes and machinations of a sadistic mission designer.
Once the heist is over, you get a nice big screen of feedback letting you know how it went. How did the crew perform, how did you perform as a player, and what was the take?
The whole thing is brilliant, and I wish that more of the game had been built around it and built up to it. Yes, the game ends with a major heist, but we spend the vast majority of the game doing regular Grand Theft Auto type stuff. It’s not bad or anything, but the heist system is so much better.
I think Grand Theft Auto has found its voice. I think the next batch of movies it rips off should be the likes of Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, Snatch, Ronin, Logan Lucky, and Heat.
I would have enjoyed it if the individual heists were a little more involved. As it stands, the “preparation” jobs are very short and simple. But still. This is a good idea to build a franchise around. I hope it carries forward and is expanded for the next game.
Trevor’s arc is… strange. He learns from the news that his supposedly deceased running buddy is still alive somewhere in Los Santos. Rather than heading off to LS to track Michael down he instead begins a long, brutal war with some gangs in the area. He wipes out the biker gang that comprises most of his customer base. (Meth.) He takes over the local gun-smuggling business from the Aztecas. He wipes out the rival meth-producing gang the O’Neil Brothers. He has several scenes where he gives a tour of his meth labs to some Chinese gangsters, hoping to branch out internationally. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work out.)
This is pretty indicative of the weird-ass approach this game has to pacing. The writer drops the bombshell on us that Trevor is alive and follows that up by showing he’s incredibly dangerous and interested in tracking down Michael. Now we have some proper tension! Michael and Franklin just completed their first heist together and are celebrating its success when we cut to Trevor and learn that because of their triumph, a new threat is forming out here in the desert. We in the audience are naturally curious as to how all of this is going to shake out. What is Trevor planning to do?
But then the game gradually dissipates that tension over the next hour or so as we tangle with all these gangs that have no bearing on the plot. By the time Trevor returns to his quest to track down Michael, the story has completely lost its way. Even once he reaches Los Santos, he doesn’t immediately confront Michael. Instead he bullies he way into an apartment (we’ll talk about about his roomates later) and begins planning an unrelated heist at the docks.
It’s a good heist. Earlier I talked about how this game would be better if the disparate stories were quarantined in their own episodes. The Merryweather Heist (and the related drama involving the participants) would make for a fantastic self-contained episode. Trevor scouts a location, sets a goal, forms a plan, gathers the resources, and then does the job. That would form a natural arc of rising action that leads to a satisfyingSatisfying in the narrative sense, not in the financial sense. finale. It’s great. But this isn’t a self-contained episode, this is a seemingly irrelevant digression in the middle of a story about Trevor reconnecting with his old friend.
I get the purpose of the heist. The writer uses this to show why Trevor needs Michael. Michael’s heist was a clean, professional job. Michael is a natural leader and has a good head for planning. By contrast, Trevor is a terrible leader who enforces loyalty through terror, he has no head for planning, and he doesn’t even have a clear goal. He sees the big MerryweatherGovernment contractors specializing in military hardware. ship at the port and figures they must have “something” worth stealing. So he got a half-baked scheme to use a barely-loyal, mostly-incompetent crew to steal something from infamously dangerous government forces. His plans are obvious and brute-force, and in the end he doesn’t even know if the prize is worth the risk.
That’s a great way to characterize Trevor through his actions. The problem is that the writer established this “Trevor Threat” a couple of hours ago, and then just left it there. Trevor drove off to Los Santos to find Michael, and then…? Nothing? Now Trevor is doing this heist and it feels like he’s again forgotten his purpose.
The player can pull the trigger on this threat at any time by switching over to Michael and doing one of his missions. The problem is, they have no way of knowing this. So if you plow forward on the Trevor missions looking for the payoff, you’re actually putting it off.
The Failed Heist
I like that the designer was willing to give us a heist that doesn’t pay out. It’s appropriate for what the story is trying to do and it helps underscore why Trevor is such a failure despite his prowess in combat. Having said that, I think this could have been handled a little better.
Lester Crest is the “guy in the chair” for Michael and his jobs. Lester is an asthmatic shut-in with many physical disabilities. He generally runs an operation over the radio, telling the characters about the state of alarms and law enforcement while making sure to keep everyone on time and on-task. He’s in the hospital during this mission, and his absence makes Trevor’s plans seem even more haphazard.
The heist itself comes off as needlessly destructive and poorly-planned, which is what you’d expect from Trevor. But then at the end you finish the job and the writer just takes it away from you with excuses.
Once our protagonists have the mysterious prize, Lester shows up. He’s still in his hospital gown with his ass hanging out. (Uh, how did this frail man sneak out of the hospital without anyone stopping him?) He confronts the crew at the site of the heist. (Lester is very careful and secretive and would never expose himself at the scene like this, in either sense of the word.) He says the payload is actually an experimental super-weapon. (He knows this how? I mean, I get that he hacks all the computers and knows all the government facts, but how did he figure out his friends were boosting this item from his hospital bed? Being a hacker doesn’t make you omniscient.) He berates Trevor and insists they give the score back. (Guys? If this thing is such a big deal then why are we standing in the open at the scene of the crime? Shouldn’t we run for it and just leave the score here?)
I get that this is supposed to be funny, but this is a great example of how tonal whiplash can undercut a scene. “Character runs around with their ass hanging out” is Adam Sandler style comedy, but this isn’t that style of story and that kind of comedy doesn’t fit this scene. It certainly doesn’t cover up the cartoonish notion of Lester showing up like this.
A Better Solution
The point of this scene is to show that Trevor can’t do scores without Michael. This is an important plot point and I wholly agree that it’s a good thing to put in the game. The problem is that by stealing a “super weapon”, it sort of makes Trevor look competent. Instead of driving home the point that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, it sort of suggests he’s preternaturally skilled and he just got unlucky with his choice of targets. I mean, if he can steal a government super-weapon then what can’t he steal?
If you want to end on a comedy noteTo be nice, we’re assuming seeing Lester’s ass qualifies as “comedy” here. and you want to negate the score, then just have the score itself be something funny. Maybe Trevor thinks he’s stealing a super-weapon to sell to the Chinese, but then they open the package and it’s (say) a shipment of combat boots. Then someone has to point out to Trevor that just because the military keeps something locked up and guards it with guns doesn’t mean it’s treasure. They guard everything with guns. I won’t claim that’s hilarious, but it’s not less hilarious than Lester’s antics, it doesn’t require Lester to break character, it’s a lot more plausible, and it helps build the theme of Trevor being bad at heists instead of confusing or undercutting it.
 Darts and bowling et al.
 Most crew take between 5% and 15%.
 Satisfying in the narrative sense, not in the financial sense.
 Government contractors specializing in military hardware.
 To be nice, we’re assuming seeing Lester’s ass qualifies as “comedy” here.
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