It’s navigating the winding roads of Blaine County, your attention split between weaving intently through traffic and desperately flipping between radio stations to find a song you caught a whisper of at the last set of traffic lights. It’s the first time you approach Los Santos from afar, the skyline ablaze with neon, San Andreas’ decadence forgotten as you bask in its warm glow. It’s at these moments that it all sinks in: the grandeur, the scope, and the scale. You come to realise Grand Theft Auto V encompasses, for better or worse, everything that’s come to define this console generation. The violence, the scale, the raw ambition and the missed opportunities – it’s all there in the shining city. This contemplative state doesn’t last long. Once Stevie Wonder’s Skeletons starts blazing out of the speakers, we are gone. Off to commit as many hit-and-runs as we can in five minutes.
GTA is still, after all, a series which delights in tooling you up and pointing you in the direction of the closest heavily populated area for fleeting moments of murderous carnage. If you’re familiar with the act of standing on a rooftop, gleefully taking down police choppers with well placed sniper rounds, or derailing a legion of virtual citizens’ mornings as you career a bulldozer into rush hour traffic then you’re going to fall in love with GTA all over again.
Let’s get this out of the way now: this is one of the best open world games ever created and there won’t likely be one to rival it until Rockstar decides to adopt next-gen development kits. Across this generation, we’ve seen other games take and pare down the formula established by GTA into entertaining bite-sized chunks: Crackdown recreated the expansive city; Saints Row took the irrelevant mayhem; Test Drive Unlimited embraced the countless distractions, but none have come close to attaining the astonishing level of detail that GTA V harnesses on a minute-by-minute basis.
Rockstar is slowly evolving the formula that has served it so well for over a decade; it no longer exists solely for the joy of channeling destruction. Sure, the freedom to havoc your way across Downtown Los Santos in nothing but a dress, equipped with a nightstick – as you inevitably shall do – is still there, but you’re no longer inherently compelled to torture the souls of this fair city. If anything, its greatest achievement is how effortlessly the player is eased into a living, breathing world, and not just a sandbox adorned with death and disaster.
It’s achieved through the characters. GTA V presents Michael, Franklin and Trevor as the three central characters – children of different times and perspectives. Each is chasing an impossible goal of their own: a normal life, recognition and their version of the American Dream. But every single one of them is searching for greener pastures that barely exist in the land of the free. The state of financial and political disarray isn’t as obvious as it was in GTA IV, but it’s there, hiding in the hills of Vinewood.
Viewing the world through the lens of the three characterrs brings new clarity to the world. They make up the unholy trinity of crime caper archetypes: you have the mentor (Michael), the young gun (Franklin) and of course, the wild card (Trevor) and while they play largely the same, it’s their personas, their nuances that will make you approach situations differently depending on whose virtual skin you’re inhabiting. Michael, for example, has a swagger straight out of Vice City. We found ourselves approaching situations with a cautious bravado – though once controlling Trevor, we appropriated carnage with an unhinged obsession.
Each character is, for the majority of the time, but a button press away: the camera zooms out into a bird’s eye view of the city and snaps down onto one of the others after anything from ten seconds to a minute, letting you pick-up whatever activity they are currently involved in. We are still trying to work out why, when we jumped into Trevor’s shoes, we found him drunk, without clothes and slumped against a rock near the peak of Mount Chiliad. It was a party we wish we were invited to.
You’ll quickly choose your favourite, though switching between the trio regularly is advised. It takes you out further and further into the stunningly realised city – folks getting high in alleyways chasing after their sanity, gangs planning raids, people conversing on phones, drinking coffee, washing windows, stealing purses – the citizens of San Andreas don’t feel like NPCs designed to dent the bonnet of the car you just jacked, it feels like a real city filled with real people and reactions. It’s impressive, GTA V is clearly pushing the absolute limits of the Xbox 360 and we aren’t just talking about the boosted draw distance or stupidly detailed graphics. It’s exhilarating to witness a random crime or happenstance, the citizens of this world are no better than the three protagonists in many ways, it seems everybody is out to revel in the insanity of a Rockstar world. While some areas aren’t quite as bustling as those of Liberty City, make no mistake, GTA V improves on its predecessor in almost every conceivable way.
What really blew our minds though, was the discovery that there’s just as much depth in the winding narrative as there is in the city itself. The entirety of the game world is open from the outset, so Rockstar is no longer beholden to dripping story missions in between hours of exposition to unlock a bridge or tunnel to a new area. While the lens tends to focus on Michael, each character has their own plotlines to follow and immerse yourself in. It breeds variety – which in itself brings both positives and negatives.
We’ve assassinated corrupt businessmen; skydived out of an imploding cargo plane; and driven a dirt bike across a moving train – but then we’ve also been forced to spend a day-in-the-life of a no doubt depressed dock worker, tow cars halfway across Los Santos and spend an afternoon doing yoga with an instructor we wanted to enlighten with the back of a pistol. Those missions are still a chore, and as the GTA franchise evolves from simply riffing on transparent stereotypes who exist only to spark another fire fight and into the production and values of a top-end television series, then we can’t help but think those types of missions have had their day. Then again, we can’t really complain about completing remedial tasks when we have the opportunity to spend hours expanding our meth distribution circles by taking on incestual families of farmers and renegade bikers.
When GTA V hits its stride, the missions act like they’ve come straight out of a Vinewood set, they are pure spectacle in the best sense of the word. It had largely been assumed that GTA V would keep its focus on heists, building from the successful Three Leaf Clover scenario in GTA IV, though this is only party true. The heists that you do partake in certainly make Kane & Lynch’s attempts look woeful, though they often aren’t as open-ended or eventful as those found in PayDay 2. In fact, aside from setting up heists in one of two pre-determined ways (do you want to use sleeping gas to knock out everyone in the jewellery store, or do you want to run in all guns blazing, for example), they lack the fluidity of GTA IV’s best missions. Once the plans are set in stone there is no deviating from the path, the thrill of improvisation is missing. Sure, a heist needs to be meticulously planned to be effective, but it’s GTA’s oversight of human intervention or even the opportunity to let a plan go awry that disappoints. Considering how open and free the rest of the game is, being stuck in linear missions feels like hangover from an old generation. Some of the story and side missions represent the plateau of videogaming – while others will make you wish you could quit out, jack a car and just drive out towards the horizon.
In a way, GTA V is really going back to basics. It seems to ignore and avoid the overcomplicated multi-part missions of the Xbox original’s San Andreas, in favour of a shorter, more concise structure. Of course a few of the hallmark GTA designs make their way into this iteration, car conversations full of profanity and obscene banter, lengthy (and compulsory) drives to scout out locations and an abundance of fetch and retrieve objectives are littered throughout. Despite this, it’s immensely fun to do anything and everything in GTA. There are elements of GTA V that are clear iterations and improvements on several previous Rockstar games. Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption (among others) all play their part in improving the core systems and mechanics of GTA, and turn the moment-to-moment gameplay into something that is actually very special.
Maybe you’re drifting around sun-soaked corners in your personally customised Cheetah as Franklin, appreciating the nuanced and insanely satisfying handling of GTA V’s vehicles while utilising Franklin’s special ability to temporarily slow down time to assist with crazy driving manoeuvres ala Midnight Clubs’ ’Zone’ ability. Perhaps you’re cinematically swinging into cover, choosing your firearm from a weapon wheel, ripped straight from Red Dead Redemption while utilising Michael’s ability to harness bullet time, effortlessly pulling off headshots and moving as fluidly as a certain disgraced cop from Max Payne 3. Everything about the weapon systems, in particular, feels like a marked improvement over anything we’ve seen in a GTA game before. When you begin to feel these familiar systems working together in tandem, without even the slightest sign of frame-rate stuttering or technical misgiving, you begin to appreciate how heavily honed this patchwork system really is.
Enemy AI is yet another evolutionary step forward for Rockstar. The gangsters, the gangbangers, the cops and the disgruntled husbands will always try to flank and overwhelm you in an attempt to get that all important bullet between your eyes. Your fragility under fire means you’ll need to approach situations smartly if you want to stay alive. It’s not that GTA V is necessarily difficult, but Rockstar seem to be aware that players have become lazy – and the lesson and advantages of using cover in an open world game are soon drilled into your head.
Outside of the main and side missions, there is plenty of horseplay to occupy your time in GTA V. In fact, half the fun will be exploring it with your own eyes. There’s Mount Chiliad to conquer with a BMX, there are underwater depths to explore with a submarine, there are businesses to run and stocks to be traded. The sheer amount of things to occupy your time with is stunning. Most of the mini-games are more than competent, tennis and golf in particular will make any Top Spin and Links fans reminiscing about old times. From managing shares in companies by listening out for relevant forecasting news bulletins – these are the kinds of things that only Rockstar would be, and is, ballsy enough to attempt.
GTA V undoubtedly represents a progression for the series, though it’s clear it is straddling the limits of the 360. In many ways, GTA V transcends the clichés of the genre that Rockstar first established, and even adjusts the sombre tone of GTA IV – not abandoning it completely, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it either. GTA V is funny, genuinely laugh out loud funny – and not in a ’shoving a ten-inch purple dildo up your arse’ funny – the humour is told through situation, through incredibly clever writing and wonderful sense of place. Really, that says everything you need to know about GTA V. Rockstar has spent five years, and an insane amount of money, building a game that is not only bold enough to step away from expectation, but brave enough to revel in its combined history as well.