I don’t read as much as I used to, at least not books; smartphones and tablets tend to take over of an evening or a lazy Sunday morning in bed, for catching up on social media, forums, or just swiping away at a game. Thank heavens for periods of WiFi absence, on holiday or in villages with limited mobile signal. A friend recommended Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London a few years back, but I only just got around to it, and it’s absolutely terrific; I ploughed through three more of the series within a week, and have the fifth queued up ready to go, but paused for a bit to prolong the enjoyment.
The cover quote sums it up neatly: “What would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the fuzz?” Trainee Police Constable Peter Grant stumbles across a ghost, learns about magic, and his life, in the words of Oscar Wilde, gets flipped-turned upside down. Melding police procedural (the depiction of the workings of the Metropolitan Police rings completely true) with the fantastical, Harry Potter meets The Bill would be one convenient shorthand, but firmly rooted in London and with a strong thread of humour throughout I’d perhaps opt for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell meets Hot Fuzz. There’s crime, magic, jazz, geek culture nods (including a mention of System Shock 2), hints of a Weird War II a la the Bitter Seeds trilogy; I’m not really doing them justice, but I’d heartily recommend checking them out.
Perhaps part of the reason I got so involved in a great story with likeable characters is that I’d just finished playing through Grand Theft Auto V (only two years after the original console release…) Game-wise, it’s absolutely top notch; graphically superb, with a well-realised city sandbox to play with including stacks of activities. Back in the 90s, a golf simulator was a worthy full price game in itself; in GTA V a fully wander-around-and-playable golf course is just one of myriad diversions around the place, and if you get bored of hitting balls with a stick halfway around you can always leap into a golf kart for low-speed plaid-trousered drive-bys, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t an option in Links 386.
Story-wise, though, it’s an absolute mess. It starts well enough, with Franklin, a kid trying to get out of the ghetto, meeting Michael, a retired bank robber having trouble adjusting to family life. Once the third character, Trevor, appears, it starts to fall apart. The story bogs down in a morass of spoof versions of government agencies making random demands while one or more of the central characters says “we do this then we’re out”, only to get dragged back in on the very next mission like some sort of criminal hokey-cokey. Trevor’s going to kill Michael, but he doesn’t, but he might, but he doesn’t, but he could… Individuals and groups turn up and are promptly forgotten, until the very final mission, which gives the impression of being sellotaped on to the end of the game after a QA report said “You remember this, and this, and this happened?”, and the writers went “Oh yeah… all right, well, if we add a mission where you kill this guy, this guy and this guy then that solves everything, the end, there we go.” Everyone is horrible; your characters are horrible, their families are horrible, the people on the radio are horrible… GTA’s skewed take on reality, things like the double entendre company names and spoof adverts, still raises a smile here and there, but overall it’s hard to like or even care about anybody. It helps if you’re at least rooting slightly more for “you” than the other side; Franklin probably got the closest, but his deeply emotional central character arc appears to consist of moving to a nice house.
The highlights of the game are the heists that you periodically pull off, multi-part missions involving reconnaissance, planning, preparation and execution; at their best they’re like playing through a classic crime caper, ruing the lack of Get A Bloomin’ Move On on one of the radio stations. Having three point-of-view characters didn’t help the already messy story, but in mechanical terms it works well, allowing you to switch between different roles during the preparation and execution of the heists. I’m sure they’d be great fun in GTA Online with a group of like-minded friends, maybe that’s the real strength of GTA V, but in single player it’s a shame that the strengths of the engine and gameplay aren’t complemented by a decent, involving story.