In Defence of GTA V’s Driving Mechanics
The Internet has been aflame with chatter about GTA V since long before the game was released. A big part of the discussion currently seems to be centered on the driving and vehicle destruction in the game. GTA IV’s handling was a big point of contention when it released in 2008 too. Cars drove realistically and suspension acted like real suspension, with the cars rocking back and forth as you navigated the streets, alleys and overpasses of Liberty City. Many players were turned off by this and added it to the pool of complaints about GTA IV being too gritty and realistic. Five years later, GTA V has, in the eyes of many, committed sacrilege by making cars much easier to control. Almost all cars turn much easier with much more grip on the roads, and a lot of people are upset by this.
In GTA IV, acceleration was pretty slow across the board and vehicles like vans and trucks took ages to build up to a decent speed. However, once people got used to the driving many of them were total converts, praising the ‘holy handbrake’ and learning how to drift around the city in even the most sluggish people-carriers, without crashing or losing momentum. A big crash would do a huge amount of damage to your car and those that you hit. It made chases and getaways a real challenge where you had to think about how you were going to approach each intersection, corner and narrow alley. Playing GTA IV, I once went rocketing down the road underneath a bridge. I saw that there was a wall up ahead with three or four homeless people standing around, so I slammed the handbrake on and pulled the car to the right. My car rotated 90 degrees but continued on its previous course with pretty much the same amount of speed. My momentum led to me slamming full on into the homeless people with the broadside of my car, crushing them against the wall and presumably liquefying their insides. My windows were smashed, a door fell off and the car was covered in blood. As macabre as it sounds, it was brilliant.
In GTA V that same scenario would play out very differently. The car would still slide but for nowhere near as long, gripping the road surface much more readily and allowing me to slide around the corner with considerably greater ease. Playing as Franklin and using his special ability would have made the turn absolutely trivial. Even if the collision had happened it is unlikely that as much damage would have been taken. A lot of people think that this is a very bad thing. I personally think that the driving in GTA V fits perfectly with the rest of the game, though I do miss a couple of things about the old mechanics.
GTA IV was a gritty game set in a (relatively) gritty world with gritty characters and a fairly deep, depressing story. The driving fit the theme and atmosphere. GTA V has a much brighter world with much of what goes on being altogether larger than life. The Vinewood influence is everywhere in Los Santos and the game borrows a huge amount from the language of film to realise its vision. It’s a land of fakery and lies hidden behind a shiny veneer, with authenticity in short supply. Michael cruising around in his rip-off Audi S4 with racing suspension and and all the performance upgrades feels perfect – it feels like he is in control – the star of his own movie. In GTA IV Niko was new to the town and had very little choice about the direction his life went in. The driving made you feel like you were constantly wrestling for control, just like Niko was throughout the game. This sense of control and movie-like flashiness extends to Michael and Franklin’s special abilities, allowing them to slow down time – an extremely unrealistic mechanic. But it works.
The world is also much, much larger than that of GTA IV. This makes the changes to vehicle handling in GTA V desirable and, in my opinion, necessary. I don’t believe that cruising around downtown Los Santos would have felt right if cars handled like they did in GTA IV – the relentless realism would have made getting around much slower and more difficult and would have made the characters seem considerably less like bad-ass action stars. The police response to your actions has also been ramped up – cops are much more accurate, deadly, intelligent and aggressive than in GTA IV, where they were generally imbeciles in uniform. The increased responsiveness of vehicle handling means that you still have a chance against the police, though I personally find myself surviving chases significantly less frequently than in GTA IV. The old driving mechanics combined with the improved police would have left you with almost no hope of escape from even a 3 star wanted level.
Interestingly, heavier cars are relatively unchanged from GTA IV, meaning that Trevor’s adventures in Blaine County retain some of that wild lack of control. However, mentions of the countryside bring me to my biggest gripe with GTA V’s driving – off-roading. It is incredibly fun, but it is just a little too easy. I don’t think you should be able to drive a sports car up the side of Mount Chilliad without off-road tyres and high suspension, if at all. It takes a bit too much to much to fall off of dirt-bikes and mountain bikes and players can take ridiculous falls with nothing but front suspension and their crotches to cushion the blow. It is fun, bit maybe it’s just a little too wacky for its own good.
My other gripe is about the damage. The extent to which vehicles deform is actually a little improved upon from GTA IV in my opinion, but it takes too much to cause that damage. This is most notable with head-on collisions, especially when you T-bone another vehicle at high speeds. Chances are your bumper will fall off and maybe one of their doors will cave in or drop off, but that’s about the extent of the damage. If you hit someone at an angle then things are better, but driving away almost unscathed from a 100 MPH collision with an SUV feels a bit silly and damages immersion.
Overall though, I am happy to defend what Rockstar has done with the driving – ultimately because it is just huge amounts of fun, and the fundamental mechanics are relatively unchanged from GTA IV. It enables anyone to have Hollywood chases even if they couldn’t stop driving into lamp-posts in GTA IV, making one of the most fun parts of GTA accessible to a wider audience. There is still a lot of skill involved in smoothly navigating San Andreas and room for advanced players to pull off some incredible maneuvers, but the driving no longer isolates less skilled gamers. After all, games are supposed to be fun, and you would be hard pressed to find a game as fun as GTA V.