(Spoiler Free) Movie Review: Interstellar (2014) (IMAX)

November 7, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

interstellar-poster

Well, it looks like I have to reshuffle my list of the best movies of 2014 – again.

Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy. Inception. Time and time again, Christopher Nolan proven to be one of the most creative and visionary directors of this generation. His latest, Interstellar, is his most ambitious project to date, and also arguably the most rewarding.

I rushed to see the first session available of Interstellar this morning, not knowing what to expect other than a 169-minute sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey. I intentionally avoided the trailers, the reports, and the early reviews. In fact, I didn’t even know who else was in it. Going in blind was the best decision I ever made, and so I am going to make sure there are no spoilers in this review so that your experience, if you haven’t already seen it, is as fresh and awe-inspiring as it can be.

Interstellar is the very definition of an epic. The ambition, the scale, the scope, the cast, the special effects, the storyline — even the running time; everything about this film is huge, which makes it perfect for the big screen, and in particular, IMAX, which I fortunately saw it on. It is not available in 3D (which I hate anyway), but this is one rare situation where I do wonder if the added dimension could have enhanced the visual experience even more.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so all I will say is that Interstellar is first and foremost a space exploration film. I liked the fact that there was no arbitrary exposition at the start of the film explaining the world the film was depicting. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no Star Wars-like opening crawl. It immerses you into the story straight away, while at the same time creating an intriguing mystery that needs to be slowly pieced together. And while the progression of the narrative is relatively simple, there are some exciting twists and turns along the way.

Interstellar is also a great big adventure flick filled with excitement, action, drama, and emotion. There are big set pieces, jaw-dropping landscapes and seamless effects, though all of these things feel like they are there because they are integral to the story, rather than simply to provide candy for the eyes.

My number one film of last year, Gravity, is probably best characterized as a space survival film. That was a thrilling spectacular which had some of the above elements, but Interstellar just takes it to a whole other level in every way. And it’s even twice as long! Interestingly, the film that first popped up into my mind when watching Interstellar was another McConaughey classic, 1997’s Contact, another one of my favorite sci-fi films. Both are about exploring the unknown with a health dose of hope and fear, and pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and humanity.

I don’t know much about the science the film rests on, though I assume there are going to be a lot of gaping holes, inconsistencies and flaws in logic. But the silliness of the science is beside the point. The important thing is that Nolan made me believe in it. Like he did in Inception, Nolan takes some very complex ideas and concepts and boils them down in a way that ordinary audiences can understand. Perhaps not fully comprehend or even grasp everything that is happening, but at least enough to be able to suspend disbelief and not get lost in the storyline. To me, that is the key to the film, and my guess is that if you did not enjoy it, it is because you were unable to buy into the film’s ideas in the first place.

Nolan’s films have been accused of being too cold and emotionless in the past. That is definitely not the case with Interstellar, which is powered by a surprising amount of human drama. Not all of it was effective — some of the dialogue came across as a little mushy, a little sentimental, and shall I say, McConaughey-esqe, though in the grand scheme of things I cannot fault Nolan for trying, because the film’s ultimate pay-off and message would not have worked without emotion.

I know I have not been the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan, and I admit I cringed a little when he first opened his mouth in the film (I expected his dialogue to be “Alright, alright, alright” on an endless loop). Smugness like that is hard to contain, even for an Oscar-winning actor. Slowly but surely, however, McConaghey managed to grow on me, and by the end of the film I was convinced he was the right man for the role. I cannot say much more about the other performances without mentioning their names (not knowing the whole cast adds to the pleasant surprises), so I will simply say that there is more than one Oscar winner in the cast and that they are all very good and go a long way towards mitigating the flaws in the dialogue.

Interstellar might not be perfect. It may not even be as intriguing, action-packed or ground-breaking as some of Nolan’s other films. And it even stars Matthew McConaughey. But man, I don’t think I’ve been more entertained more by a film in years. Nolan really reached for the stars with this grand epic. Some may think it was a spectacular success; others may think it was an admirable failure. For me, I’m just glad I was fortunate enough to be on the journey.

5 stars out of 5

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.

4/5

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Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

February 20, 2014 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

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I don’t get much time play video games these days, so when I do, it has to be something totally awesome. Grand Theft Auto 5 is such a game.

The first game I got on the PS3 was GTA IV, all the way back in 2008. I never got to finish that game, but I remember at the time thinking it would be very difficult for an open-world game to top it. Five very long-awaited years later, Rockstar has finally done it with GTA V,  one of the most immersive and entertaining games I have ever played — on any console.

Like its predecessors in the series, GTA 5 is also an open world which the player can run around and explore to their heart’s content. As usual, there is a central story line which requires you to complete core missions in order to progress in the game (if you want to eventually “finish” it), but if you want, you can just live a virtual life for as long as you want, wandering the streets, checking out the sights and sounds, or even just sit at home and watch TV while smoking weed (and yes, there are TV shows to watch and weed to smoke!).

I applaud Rockstar for taking their time to develop a real masterpiece rather than hastily belting the game out following the success of GTA IV. The world of Los Santos (a fictional version of Los Angeles) where the game is set is so vast, and the game itself has so many improvements and additions across the board that you can potentially spend more time playing GTA 5 than all of the previous instalments in the franchise combined (according to Wikipedia that’s 14 other games dating back to 1997).

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing this game, but I’ll give it a shot.

Graphics and cinematic presentation

I’ll start with the obvious, which is how amazing the game looks. When I played GTA IV I thought the graphics were incredible, but GTA V, despite being on the same console, blows it right out of the water. The characters have a smooth design that has this semi-realistic comic feel to them, one that is consistent with the rest of their surroundings such as animals, trees and cars. Of course, given how incredibly large the world in this game is — it’s literally an entire city with bridges, tunnels, beaches, oceans and buildings you can walk into — it’s unreasonable to expect the detail to be as spectacular or as intricate as some of the best-looking games on the PS3 such as say God of War III, but everything that needs to be there is there. Put it this way — the in-game graphics are every bit as good as the cut scenes.

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The other thing that immediately jumped out at me was the game’s cinematic presentation. The camera angles — whether during cut scenes, normal gameplay or specific missions — all have a cinematic edge to them, almost like you are watching a great film unfold. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into where the cameras are situated and how they can be used to capture the best angles. The way the camera angles chop and change is also very crafty, and I even noticed handheld camera techniques in some of the cut scenes. These are not things you would usually think about, but when they are done this well you tend to notice them.

Multiple playable characters

One of the main additions to GTA V is the introduction of multiple playable characters. As far as I know, in past renditions of the game you only get one character to play, which can sometimes get a little boring. This time, you get to play three very different characters. There’s Michael, the smooth, seasoned middle-age criminal with a dysfunctional family. There’s Franklin, a young gansta from the hood trying to work his way up the food chain. And there’s my favourite, Trevor, the psychopathic, sadistic hillbilly with anger management issues and a stubborn loyalty for his buddies.

Usually you can choose which character you want to play — you just need to press a couple of buttons and the camera pans to whoever you choose, wherever they are in the city  — but sometimes a specific mission might require a specific character, in which case the computer will designate him for you to use. Often there are also core missions where the three guys will team up, and you have to switch between them to accomplish different objectives. For example, Michael might be in charge of stealing computer data, while Trevor will protect him with a sniper rifle from afar, and Franklin will be in charge of the getaway vehicle.

The multiple character idea is a stroke of genius, but what is even more impressive is how well these vastly different characters are written and developed. Each one of them have their own personalities and quirks, and they are as well rounded as any criminal you might see in a critically acclaimed movie. The voice acting also does a great job of bringing them to life.

GTAV

In addition to the team missions, each character will have their own story arc and specific missions that only involve them. And because they are so different, you’ll tend to find that the missions are also very varied. Michael’s missions, for example, will often involve cleaning up after his dropkick son or skanky daughter. Franklin’s missions might involve a lot of driving and muscle work, while Trevor’s are usually about pissing people off and going on killing rampages. It provides wonderful balance and keeps the game fresh and unrepetitive, while also adding an extra layer of strategy to the team missions. Each character also has their own “special ability”, which can come in handy during certain missions.

Improved gameplay

The gameplay in GTA IV was already quite mature, but Rockstar still found ways to improve the gameplay in GTA V. One of the big additions is the shoot-and-cover element which I had already experienced in the excellent Sleeping Dogs last year. As this is a crime game, there are naturally a lot of shootouts, and during these scenes characters can find objects to help them take cover from enemy fire, but also quickly come out of cover to take their own shots. I really enjoy the shotoouts as they can get really epic, and often survival is contingent upon finding the right objects and locations to help you take cover from surrounding enemies.

Another addition that makes the game more physical is that in addition to running, climbing and swimming, players can propel themselves over objects when running, kind of like Parkour. Similar to an RPG game, characters can also improve their physical abilities, like running speed, stamina, ability to hold their breath under water, and shooting accuracy.

Immersive missions

The missions, in my opinion, are the biggest improvement in GTA V. In previous editions of the game, the missions usually had a singular objective, such as drive from point A to B, or kill person X, and when you achieve that the mission is over. They start off fun, but after a while they become really repetitive and almost blend into one another. The missions in GTA V are completely different. For starters, each mission has a story behind it and feels almost like a mini-movie. They are immersive, and they feel like they have a purpose. Secondly, rarely are the missions single-faceted. Most of them have multiple objectives that need to be achieved one after the other and you rarely feel like you are doing the same thing. Even the side missions (that don’t need to be completed to finish the game), which are called “strangers and freaks”, are a lot more well thought out than side missions in previous GTA games.

The core missions, in particular, are incredible and can take a significant amount of time to complete. Every now and then there will also be an opportunity to carry out a heist that can earn you a lot of money. But before you commence a heist, you need to do a lot of preparatory work, such as scoping out the scene, preparing vehicles and weapons, and selecting your crew. The better the crew members, the bigger the cut of the loot you have to hand over. It’s a lower risk, lower reward situation. Moreover, you usually have two choices of how to go about the heist. For example, one might involve stealth, and the other could be to shoot your way in. The best part about the heists is that they always involve all three characters who each have different tasks, so you have to keep interchanging between them to make sure you not only grab the loot but also get out alive.

During missions there are also lots of little things you might have to do, such as learn how to pilot of plane or helicopter, or drive a submarine or crane, or abseil down the side of the building. These all add to variations in the gameplay and prevent the missions from becoming repetitive.

Expansive world

Los Santos is so huge that it blows my mind. It’s a genuine metropolis that features all the same major regions and landmarks as Los Angeles. You can ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier, take a stroll along Venice Beach, go shopping at Rodeo Drive, take a drive into the Hollywood Hills or visit the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The missions will take you all around the city, where you can find a lot of cool stuff to check out if you have the time to spare. You can actually go and play a full 5-set game of tennis or go for 18 holes on a golf course, and the amazing thing is that these mini-games are really fun. If you want to do something more constructive, you can go to the shooting range at the weapon store and practice your shots. Shop for clothes, get tattoos, practice your piloting skills, steal cars and store them at a garage, see your therapist, pick up a hooker off the street, or even drive a taxi to earn fares. Go to the cinemas to watch a movie or go get a private dance from a strip club. If you want to build an empire, start buying real estate and earn rent, but sometimes there could be problems you’ll have to go deal with in person. There are a zillion things to do, and even if you don’t play any of the core missions you can still spend weeks or even months exploring the world of GTA V.

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Attention to detail

The makers of GTA V have, like they’ve always done, paid a lot of attention to detail, and I don’t mean just the graphics and the designs of the characters or their environment.  Each of your players has a smartphone which can be used to receive emails and text messages. You can also call people in your phone book to “hang out” or use the built-in camera to take photos, even selfies! Franklin also has a dog, which you can train to help you do things. They’ve even created a real-life iPhone/iPad app(it’s called “iFruit”) for you to train the dog and then sync it with the game. I haven’t had the time to do any of this but it’s fun knowing that they exist.

Things are always going on around you in Los Santos. The people on the street are a lot more interactive than they were in past games, and running into them can cause them to run their mouths, run off, or start a street fight. GTA V has also included some daily occurrences you can stumble upon — such as a robbery — and it’s up to you whether you do something about it. If you help someone chase down a pickpocket, you can choose to return the wallet for a reward or keep the wallet’s contents for yourself. Occasionally you might stumble onto someone apparently in need of help, only to find out that you’re being hustled.

I haven’t found many yet, but apparently there are also bucketloads of Easter Eggs to be discovered throughout the city, like a Walking Dead-style zombie, the Thelma and Loiuse car and a tribute to High Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. There are hippie cults, weed farms and nude colonies. Again, these are probably only things people with a lot of time on their hands will care about, but the thought and effort the makers have put into the game is undoubtedly impressive.

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Summary

GTA V is by far the best-looking, most interactive, compelling and playable game of the franchise to date. The size of the Los Santos map in the game is apparently twice the size of real-life Manhattan. Just imagine how much effort went into creating every building, every car type and every minor character in a world of this size, and then to bring it all to life with great protagonists (and great interaction between the protagonists), an engaging script, exhilarating missions and hilarious dialogue.

Last night, for example, I played as Michael on a home invasion mission where I had to fend off multiple attackers to protect my family. Not long after that my cell phone rings and I have to decide whether I want to go rescue my son after he is kidnapped by people he trolled on the internet. As I chase off his kidnappers and drive him home, he tries to explain to me what “trolling” means. It’s genuinely funny stuff.

The GTA franchise has always very much been a very adult-oriented one, and it’s primary selling point is offering players the chance to be a reckless criminal without having to worry about the consequences. It’s escapist fun, and that’s all it is, so I don’t really understand all the criticism being leveled against the game. Yes, it is over-the-top violent but it’s not done in a realistic way, so it’s not at all confronting. Yes, the female characters are portrayed badly, but then again, the male characters are too, so why is the game misogynistic? The game actually provides some very interesting  and witty satirical insights into Western culture, pop culture and politics, and you just need to approach it with the right frame of mind to see them.

On the whole, GTA V is as close to a modern masterpiece as you can get on a console. It may lack that jaw-dropping “wow” power of some of the PS3’s most visually spectacular games, but whether it is in terms of storytelling, gameplay or lasting power, GTA V ticks all the boxes. Pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute of gameplay, it’s hard to find a game that’s better.

10/10

 
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