Over the past few years I've put many MANY hours into Grand Theft Auto V, but staggeringly few of those hours had been spent playing the story mode. It's funny but the "main" mode was never really why I bought the game to begin with. Nope. For me it was like a little vacation from my day. For me Grand Theft Auto wasn't even about violence or strip clubs or stealing cars. I mean maybe a little bit of those things, but mostly it was about exploration.
Los Santos has become my go-to open world for killing time in a modern setting. Sort of like if I want to put myself in a sort of D&D flavored world, pick a direction and just start walking, I fire up Skyrim. But if I want to see a cityscape, then GTA5 is my immediate pick. I had dabbled in the story mode a bit in the past, but gave up on it not long after being introduced to the third character, Trevor. The story just didn't hold my interest the way that "doing nothing" did.
My past experiences with Grand Theft Auto V were better than scripted stories - they were spontaneous ones. They were little travel anecdotes that I couldn't necessarily recreate. There was the time that I saw an NPC at the beach who looked just like my wife so I followed her from the boardwalk up through the city to see where she was going. I guess I wanted to see if each NPC had a home, or just find out what she might do next but unfortunately she brought us through a bad part of town and we got caught in the middle of a shootout.
These kinds of little stories are what GTA5 was always about. I had no clear goal. I earned no achievements. It was merely a way to relax.
But recently I got the itch to do something altogether different in Los Santos. See, for the years since the games release I've been fascinated by all the UFO stuff in the game. If you're not really aware there's all kinds of hidden alien hunting to be done in this game. My goal was to make an itinerary and go on a trek to sight-see all of these UFO events. I pictured myself as some kind of Anthony Bourdain travel show host, except with aliens instead of food. However, almost all of the UFO stuff is only available after you've gotten a 100% completion. This means not only completing all of the story missions (and assassinations) but also doing lots of other side stuff. The short version is that I wanted to be able to do some X-Filing without actually having to earn that 100% myself.
I'll be honest here, my first instinct was to cheat. The thought of running through the full story mode and everything else that I'd have to do just to get to a point of being able to START even looking for the UFO stuff just was just so unsavory to me. But here's the problem: apparently cheating in GTA5 isn't so easy - at least not on Xbox One. I assumed I'd be able to just download a 100% save file, load it up and be on my way. It turns out you can't do that. So I figured I'd resort to some kind of God Mode that could be achieved via the cellphone cheats, but most of the cheats I tried didn't even work. And to be honest, I was starting to feel like I was putting in too much effort.
So then I decided I'd research which of the UFO events could be discovered WITHOUT completing the game. I figured I could at least start there and see what happens. So the first thing I did was one of my favorite things to do in this game: climb Mount Chiliad. There's some cave-drawing-y looking thing up there that was basically the origin of all the UFO hunting in the game.
From there I was determined to see the one alien craft that you can see without the 100%, which was a wreckage off the coast of Blaine County. So first I tried to do the obvious thing, but it turns out swimming is no dice. It's way too deep and there's too many sharks out there. So what now? Well, it turns out I would need to get myself a submarine, which in turn meant I'd have to play through some of the story. And so off I went.
Along the way there was the lone "alien encounter" of the story mode. There's a part where Michael gets slipped some serious hallucinogens and thinks he's being abducted by a UFO. A whole cut scene plays out in which rather Xenomorph-inspired aliens operate on you and then drop you and you're able to plummet back to the streets of Los Santos in slow motion. It's actually one of my favorite moments of the story mode as it is so awesomely out of place and unexpected. Plus the skyfall is rather beautiful.
Not long after that I found myself involved in a sizeable heist. Once the heist was over it was finally time... I went and purchased the sonar dock; boarded my newly acquired submarine and set my navigation system to where I believed the alien wreckage would be. It took me a little while to get there, and of course the coordinates aren't precise so I just had to kind of snoop around the general area. And then suddenly I spotted it. Right below me a large circular structure started to take shape. I immediately knew that this was no natural structure. I got out and swam around the ship. It was quiet and serene and borderline creepy.
While not technically an actual close encounter, I couldn't help but snap a screenshot at the movie studio lot. After finishing up a mission, I noticed an odd green shape walking in the background. It sure looked to me like one of the aliens that I had seen in Michael's crazy drug trip earlier. So I followed him and yup, it was an alien... costume. Apparently they're shooting some kind of horror movie on this lot. I still managed to get a pic of the actor before he took the mask off. I also tried to follow him for a while when he left the lot but he got annoyed with me and started a fight and the cops showed up. It was a whole big thing.
A while later I stumbled upon the so-called "Beam Me Up Rock," which is a formation of rocks in a hippy commune that has some alien drawings on it. Apparently some of the end-game UFO sightings are here as well.
Around this point I realized that I was fifty-something missions deep into the story mode. Since there were sixty-nine (oh, Rockstar) total I decided to make a real effort to blast through to the end. And oddly I found myself quite enjoying the story the more I played it. I mean it's crass and stupid and over-the-top. But there's some good writing to be found here. And there was actually a fair amount of complexity to these characters even as cliche as they might be.
In the final mission(s) you're tasked with the option to kill one of your two mentors, but I just couldn't do it. I don't know if keeping all three protagonists alive is a more difficult way to do it, but I just couldn't let any of them die. And it seemed as if the characters actually cared about each other, even when they were written to mask that.
So now that I've completed the main storyline I'll be taking a break from GTA5 for a while. I'm not exactly burned out, but I definitely need a break. At least I know that when I'm ready to go off exploring again and just doing "nothing," I can be aiming for something. All those silly little side quests and tasks to complete will form a checklist for me now.
I will say that as much as I did end up loving the story, one of the most interesting experiences I've had in Los Santos came with the doing nothing. My sister and her husband were visiting from California and he was asking me about Xbox One. So I turned it on for him and loaded up GTA5 since that's what disc was in there. As it happened Franklin was sitting on what was basically the PCH at the time and my brother-in-law was like "oh my God. This is right near where we live."
He then took the controller and started giving me a tour of their neighborhood. Off of the PCH he noticed an overpass and was in awe of how it looked so exact. So he got off the bike and started walking up and over it. He says "this is exact. Over to the left is the little park we take [their son] to." He went over to a fence and pointed out that they had shown me photos of the same view of the ocean.
He said that the Venice pier must be "this way, right?" and I nodded, "yeah but it's Vespucci." So he stole a car and headed that way. He was explaining what we'd see before we saw it. "at the end down here will be Bubba Gump Shrimp Company," just as he pulled up to Pearl's Seafood. "Different name, but same building." He then set a waypoint to the airport and was blown away by the condensed accuracy of everything from the beach to the airport. "I was just right here a week ago," he said in amazement.