“Los Santos” Recreation of Los Angeles an “Aesthetic Marvel”; Grand Theft Auto V Reviewed

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Brent Gordon is a research immunologist, he’s a friend of KCRW (volunteering during our current pledge drive), and he’s an avid gamer who DnA relies on for insights about video game artistry. Between adult responsibilities he’s managed to fit in a few hours of playing the new Grand Theft Auto V and he is reeling from this experience. Here’s his take on the mechanics and the visuals:

Unaware people think of Grand Theft Auto as, “Ugh…sign of our times. This game sells so well because you can do all that shooting and stealing cars and shooting prostitutes.” Really though, while its prurient delights and freedom are part of the fun, that’s hardly what drives so much of the enthusiasm and interest this time out.  In a world of cynical game journalists, tired and unimpressed by much, I haven’t heard or read this kind of sheer giddiness, fun, and wonder from commentators in a very long time.

I was there for one of the midnight releases and even got one of the limited collector’s edition – that I over-played and will have little use for its collectibles.

Like the aforementioned oft-bored writers – I LOVE it.  This really is a technical and aesthetic marvel.  I have BARELY scratched the surface of the game…being busy at work and the drive – trying to get one or two hours in at 1 or 2AM; the night I picked it up – I effortlessly melted away two hours until 3:30 am…and am just barely getting into the world — so I’ll just leave it at – it’s HUGE and awesome.

GTA, Cash and Carry

In many ways it’s getting the attention that it is because it is delivering on the “promise” of the GTA brand following the hopes that were letdown in GTA IV.  That was introduced at the beginning of this console generation, and the technological advancements made everyone thrilled and excited at possibilities.  Unfortunately, there was a muddling of the fun – disconnects between the dour nature of the story, the morality of the protagonist you played, versus the murderous or bloody carnage you could commit, and the mechanics and repetitive aspects of an “open-world” game more in name than in actuality.

Rockstar has taken everything they learned from it and their subsequent franchises (the well-received “Red Dead Redemption” amongst others) and distilled all of it into the amazing execution.

Again I’ve barely scratched the surface in only six or seven hours of gameplay so far.

So have I explored as much of “Los Santos” as others – no, but I have yet to find something un-authentic to Los Angeles.  (The creative team behind GTA V is mostly British, and located far from LA at Rockstar North in Edinburgh, Scotland; the Art director is Aaron Garbut, interviewed about the recreation of Los Angeles in this Buzzfeed article). I could bring in the giant map that comes with the game.  It is HUGE…one of the biggest games ever.  It’s immediately apparent how different this game looks from GTA IV…set in “Liberty City” the analogue to New York.  That was often drab and grey, surrounded by high tall buildings, except when you got into the other boroughs or Central Park.  This is all big sky, neon lights (or complete dark in the vast wilderness in the game), short buildings except for downtown.

The afternoons are a gray and orange haze as the smog captures the long sunsets in the city and the long purple twilights.  It’s a condensed version of the city, but the accuracy or its representation and curves of the road are so accurate, I’ve used real-world awareness to escape chases or navigate shortcuts effectively.


The continually renovated downtown adjacent to the garment district is distinct from Vinewood, as is the Bakersfield-like desert area are dingy and run-down, as are the barred windows in the Crenshaw-like areas.  The Hollywood Bowl is represented accurately in size and scale, as is the Greek theatre. It’s not just tourist locales either.  The people you encounter on the street in Mirror Park (Echo Park) say, behave, and look like hipster-caricatures, and if you go up to Wine country, you encounter vineyard owners with effete mannerisms set-against non-English speaking migrant workers.  As usual – the every race and culture is parodied and stereotype; everyone is a target and satirized so no one can cry foul.  Heck, it even skewers video games, its own audience, and itself within the game.

Along with improved mechanics, it succeeds the disconnect of GTA IV, by putting the player in control of three characters that far enough into the game, can be switched between at any moment.   I could elaborate on their differences in gameplay and character, but in summation each one’s existence in the world can satisfy the varied and disparate styles of play with which people approach GTA, from sheer destructive carnage, to particular criminal code-of-honor, to up-and-coming hustler.  It solves much of the problem of player freedom vs story that was jarring in the last game.

I haven’t even spoken of the amazing and audacious cinematic heists that make up the main story, the scores of hours of radio station content, and satirical movie and television content; you can watch whole films in the cineplexes if so inclined.

In a market quickly paralleling Hollywood and bifurcating into studio products churning out money-makers and small indie novel projects, this is the unique result of a self-publishing studio that has the time and resources to release a product on their own schedules and has the time and money to make it as perfect as they like, which is incredibly rare now.

Obviously it has its share of controversies – its cultural and racial stereotyping, the sexual themes (even though it’s blatantly an M-rated game and I have to show my ID to purchase it that night), it has a controversial torture scene, and – like most all GTA games – there isn’t a single likeable or empathetic character anywhere in the game or it’s supporting cast.

By Brent Gordon

Here is also a link to clips of some things showcased in a two-hour live play through of the game.  I regret the sophomoric drivel of the reviewers, and even still, many of these clips only showcase the violent (though technically awesome) thrills of the game.  Still it gives you a glimpse of the scale and immersion of the world if you check a few out.


NOTE: DnA host Frances Anderton, who hales from England, notes that the GTA team is mostly British and works in Edinburgh, a gray and rainy Scottish city, and wonders if they overlay a fantasy of Los Angeles — and a fantasy of gun violence — onto their depiction of Southern California (just as the team who produced Rockstar’s LA Noire, also featuring an astounding recreation of Los Angeles, was mostly British and Australian).