Once Upon a Time in the West

Yeah, this time you can pretty much believe the hype.

Yeah, this time you can pretty much believe the hype. But just this once.

I’ve mentioned before that I stopped doing reviews several years ago, for various reasons. Chief among these reasons is the fact that I came to the slow but persistent realization that jumping up and down like an idiot monkey while pointing and laughing at someone else’s productive output was a repulsive way to spend my time. It makes no difference whether my cowardly, self-congratulatory schtick came with a paycheck, or was flung into the world gratis, Multiple Miggs-style; anyone who gets his jollies by wanking all over someone else’s work is a cockwallet of Brobdingnagian proportions.

While I have absolutely no desire to once again become that particular brand of billfold, every once in a while a game comes along that demands attention and deserves to be noted, not for its eye-gouging awfulness, but for its brilliance. BioShock and its Infinite successor come galloping to mind, along with the oft-mentioned Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as games that defy the commentary embargo only because not writing about them might be mistaken for indifference. If there was ever a game that has generated less indifference over the last…well, ever, it’s Grand Theft Auto V.

Right away, it’s important to note that GTA V has earned more money in a shorter time than any entertainment property in the history of entertainment properties. Coming as it has at the end of the current console generation, it met a combined worldwide installed base of almost 160 million Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 systems, with more than ten percent of that number (20.4 million as of September 28) purchasing the game within the first eleven days of its release. In the world of accounting and finance, that’s known as a hard crapload.

Of course popularity is not a reliable indicator of quality; if it were, McDonald’s would be haute cuisine and The Voice and Dancing with the Stars would be even hauter, dragging in 28 million viewers between them this week. Plenty of good TV shows are cancelled within the first 15 minutes of their pilot, and plenty of great games sell in disappointing, studio-closing numbers, but GTA V represents a convergence of quality with sky-scorching popularity that’s never been seen in gaming before; not only is it in the top-two of all Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games on Metacritic, it’s also on pace to become the best-selling game of this generation. So hey, as it turns out, quality is actually the best indicator of quality, and that’s not necessarily a tautology when dealing with a hive-minded consumer culture.

Blah

Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. But dusting crops is just like dusting crops, and it actually looks this good. No, I don’t know how they did it either.

GTA V doesn’t succeed because of its mission structure, which is similar to that of the previous games in the series (drive, shoot, repeat), or because of its ribald humor and wry social commentary (ditto), but because it’s easily the most accurate reproduction of reality that I’ve ever seen in a game. The level of detail is so finely wrought that it frequently breaks the immersion; to notice swaying power lines, or accumulating puddles, or NPCs running for cover when it starts to rain immediately reminds me that I’ve never seen such things in a game before, which in turn reminds me that I’m playing a game. This is not a criticism, as the attention to detail, along with the stutter-free frame rate and unmatched graphical fidelity (including lighting that would put Vermeer to shame) evoke a response from me that I rarely experience these days; namely, how the hell did they do that?

I’m playing the game on the Xbox 360, which is eight years old. It has 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM — exactly half that of the iPhone sitting beside my keyboard — but I’ve yet to experience an in-game load screen or any noticeable slowdown, even in heavy traffic and at high speeds. There are no artifacts, no tearing, very little aliasing, and no texture pop-in once I installed the Play disc to a 16 GB flash drive. Unlike previous games in the series, the entire map is accessible from the very beginning, enabling the player to drive (or walk, if you’re scarily compulsive) from one side of San Andreas to the other and back without ever seeing the words “please wait.” In this way, and it is a big way,  GTA V is more respectful of my time than any other game that I’ve played.

Where many other graphically impressive games demonstrate supreme technical skill to depict images of decay amidst a landscape of destruction, GTA V uses an even higher level of skill to depict a world as it is and as it relates to ours; sure, there are images of squalor and decomposition to be found in Los Santos, but they are the exceptional result of honest naturalism, as opposed to a pervasive malevolent Romanticism; I never get the impression that Los Santos was fashioned from someone’s vision of the world as it ought to be (that is, destroyed), the way that I do from games that wear their parallax mapping and ambient occlusion like a sewer inspector sporting an Armani raincoat. The same skill that is used to illustrate the crumbled and the tattered in GTA V is used to illustrate the polished and the sublime, from the reflections on a new coat of automotive paint to sunsets that make me wish that I could stand to be outside. And it’s all accomplished on a machine that is, by the standards of the computer industry, an antique. Suck it, Moore.

The fact that GTA V has scored high, sold higher, and deserved both, emphasizes the essence of my appreciation for it; it’s not that it’s a “murder simulator” or that its main characters are criminals, or any of the many, many reasons that the ignorant supply as justification for their biases, but that it is an absolutely amazing technological achievement, in which execution and design converge in a seamlessly integrated creative standard; Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t merely push the limits of its hardware, it picks them up and permanently relocates them, and in the process shows you things that you never knew you’d never seen before.

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