Leigh Alexander has a lot of smart things to say about GTA V, but she ultimately gets sidetracked by the GTA-that-was and misses what's exhilarating about the GTA-that-is.
She's making a common mistake: the old GTA was a parody of modern society, but the joke's wearing thin. A lot of people think that means the series is on the downslope. They're wrong. It no longer needs to be about tearing through a satirical America as an amoral force of nature. The achievement of the GTA series, circa 2013, isn't the crime-movie storylines or the lousy, juvenile humor even the transgressive freedom it gives you. As Alexander notices, the game doesn't actually seem especially interested in giving the player complete, unrestricted freedom these days. Even its signature free-form crime-sprees are toned down: you can still behave like an abhorrent, murdering psychopath if you please, but the game actively works to guilt you out of it, and, for the first time ever, running from the police will trigger a heavier crackdown, a process which can pretty quickly spiral out of control (much like real life), meaning it really behooves aspiring bandits to keep a low profile unless they have some sort of express criminal objective (again, much like real life).
But that's all okay. Because what's notable about the modern-day Grand Theft Auto series is the really, really remarkable sense of place that it creates. Making a fake place seem real--particularly one that's as wide open as GTA's world--is something that's exceptionally difficult to do, but is also something that's easy to overlook if you don't play a lot of video games. The old GTAs were impressive in their time, but large chunks of them felt artificial--stuff wasn't laid out quite right, buildings were too close together, too small, too big, whatever. The world was impressive for a video game but it still felt like a video game. GTA V, more than any game I've ever played, almost certainly more than any game ever made, feels translated directly from the real world, a feat which is all the more impressive because its Los Santos is, at best, only an echo of a real city. It's an incredible display of observation and artistry, building something in two years out of a whole cloth that can be mistaken for a city built by millions of people over centuries.
People get fixated on the game aspect of the game and miss this. If GTA V's Los Santos were a sculpture, no one would mistake the staggering artistic achievement on display. But it is a sculpture, just one that exists in a conceptual space instead of a physical space. And it's more than a sculpture--it contains a multiplicity of systems, designed to emulate, as perfectly as possible, the real rhythms of modern life. Traffic flows. Pedestrians wander around, talk to each other. Yesterday I saw a traffic accident in the middle of an intersection; cars stopped and a few minutes later an ambulance arrived. And I saw it in the game, too.
The recreation goes beyond the visual or the tangible. GTA V simulates an entire social network. Everything that happens in the game is continually commented upon in the game's fake social networks; make someone angry and you can go read them tweeting about it. Where a normal narrative concerns itself only with the things that happen directly in the audience's view, GTA continually updates a web of optional interactions, ancillary to the main plotline, that do nothing but maintain the illusion of a real, invisible set of social relationships.
Consider: one of the game's main playable characters is Michael, a retired mobster attempting to salvage a rocky relationship with his children. Playing temporarily as one of Michael's younger criminal associates, on a whim, I called Michael's son, Jimmy. Jimmy confessed to me something he'd never say directly to his dad: that he was worried about his father, and was particularly worried about his reinititiation into the criminal fraternity.
Think about that: this is a completely optional, easily overlooked moment. There was no particular reason to call Jimmy at that moment, and there were a dozen other people I could have called instead. I bet 98% of GTA players never make that call, never find out that Jimmy cares more about his dad than he lets on, or that he feels more comfortable opening up to the younger gangster than his family. And there's no doubt a thousand other, similar interactions I've missed. They're out there; in some sense, they exist, even if I don't see or explore them, alongside the vast swathes of physical geography in the game that I'll probably never encounter.
So yeah, GTA V is a lot of things, but it's not disappointing. Compared to a lot of art in a lot of mediums, GTA V might fall short--but that's only because there's no good word for the medium it's still inventing.