Grand Theft Auto V is, as expected, a best-of compilation of everything that Rockstar has achieved to date in game design. With the dynamic nature of Red Dead, Max Payne 3’s sharp combat, the feeling of scale from San Andreas and the relentless detail of Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, it’s a generous package wrapped around the most impressive of sandbox environments.
The biggest sea change for GTA V is of course its three interchangeable main characters, Michael, Franklin and Trevor, all of whom are a little lighter to be in the company of than GTA IV’s frequently tortured Niko Bellic. While Michael is the most interesting of the group, essentially a retired Tommy Vercetti in witness protection who even dwells relentlessly on the Eighties while struggling to bond with his family, Franklin is a sympathetic wannabe master criminal who realises he has to make his opportunities in life. Trevor, on the other hand, is an all-consuming loose cannon, representing that space of GTA characters that simply fly off the handle and perform appalling acts for chuckles.
The best thing about the story is that it doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as GTA IV – that approach certainly had a place and marked an interesting tonal departure for the Rockstar of five years ago, yet this lighter storyline puts it much more in the ballpark of Vice City; some pathos, but otherwise played for comedy. Controlling the three of them, on the other hand, is a new experience, and at any moment the player finds themselves wandering around the open world with nothing to do, they can jump into the shoes of the others to see what they’re up to in about ten seconds or under, depending how far away they are.
This means some course-correction has been done with regards to the pacing of GTA V – no longer do we have to wait for different parts of the world to open up, it’s entirely open from the start, with the slightly-later introduction of Trevor also providing quick access to aircraft. To balance that out, it always feels like it takes a bit longer to get anywhere in the context of the storyline when you’re playing as three characters at once, and while one of the intentions of having three characters may have been to minimise downtime, there are still plenty of quiet moments in which to absorb the open world.
To make that high concept even sweeter, driving, shooting and flying mechanics have all received a significant overhaul for ease of use. As mentioned, the cover-based shooting obviously feels like it uses Max Payne 3 as its foundation, while driving is more responsive and less rigid than it was in GTA IV, meaning that it’s not quite as easy to fall foul during a chase as it used to be. These two tweaked features alone bring the difficulty down a notch. Flying is still a bit unwieldy, but easy enough to learn – and naturally, getting airborne across these immense landscapes is still a breathtaking highlight as it always has been in GTA.
It’s gratifying, then, with these basic revamps in mind, that the backdrop to any titting about in Grand Theft Auto V just happens to be the most creatively and technically accomplished open world ever created. Los Santos – but it really is just a next-gen San Andreas, minus San Fierro and Las Venturas – absolutely offers the sense of place that the final GTA on PS2 accomplished but against a far grander backdrop, that feeling that the surrounding world changes as Michael or Franklin move outside of the city, going from urban decay to beautiful countryside, all realised with the kind of remarkable visual detail that we haven’t seen anywhere else during this generation.
Los Santos itself is to Los Angeles what Liberty City is to New York, a truncated replica that perfectly captures the spirit of what that American city represents. In this case, it’s vanity, showbiz and perverse wealth existing alongside overwhelming poverty. Los Santos captures the decaying glory of the city with gusto, to the point where we found ourselves driving under a bridge we had to walk under to get to E3 earlier this year, or walking past the hotel where we interviewed Peter Molyneux (it’s under construction).
Everything is where it’s supposed to be, in a condensed but eerily accurate way – even if your perception of Los Angeles is formed from movies and TV, you’ll see something you recognise, like the beautiful LAPD building from LA Confidential (and indeed, LA Noire), or the famous Hollywood theatre where Jon Favreau got blown up at the start of Iron Man 3. It’s as much informed by popular culture as it is reality, such is Rockstar’s approach to building cities in GTA, and a kind of nauseous celebrity culture manifests itself very well in the story, radio stations and even just NPC dialogue.
Then, on the other side of the world in dry mountainous landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in Fallout, another environment entirely transforms the GTA experience. The world is gigantic, and while Los Santos is certainly the most densely detailed part of it, the remote landscapes where you initially pick the game up with Trevor is the other crucial half of GTA V’s locale. Driving from the sticks to Los Santos is an immensely pleasurable journey that rivals John Marston’s landmark sojourn into Mexico, and no matter how many times you make that trip, no matter how you get there or at what time of day you’re travelling, it’s quite unlike anything else. This world has everything a seasoned GTA fan will be looking for after the more reserved scale of GTA IV – and existing consoles are able to handle it just fine, minus the occasional pop up.
Having three characters occupying this immense world isn’t as a big a difference overall as we thought it might be – it’s more meaningful in missions, where you can perform multiple roles at once, sometimes at the behest of the game, and other times at your own discretion. Indeed, missions involving the three characters are usually the best, and the heists, which require a certain amount of preparation and allow players the freedom to plan how things will go down, are among the highlights of a very strong set of story levels that harbour greater ambition than we’ve seen in the series to date.
More notable, actually, is the way missions take advantage of the sandbox – stealth and action-based approaches are both on the cards in a lot of scenarios, and the missions of this nature are fairly open-ended in the way the player can kill their way to the finish line. The kind of scenarios we ordinarily had to wait until the final third for in previous GTA installments, those involving aircraft, insane firearms and continuous chaos, are prevalent throughout Grand Theft Auto V.
Yet at the risk of peaking early, Grand Theft Auto V changes pace often and finds compelling ways to draw us into the different parts of the world. The result of this structure is a heightened sense of place, three protagonists offering different snapshots of life in Los Santos through their interactions with other characters. It may not feel particularly new, but the character switching has a novelty than never really wears off, while the progression system attached to skills gives adequate incentive to play as all three.
For us, it was Michael we gravitated towards the most and spent the majority of time with, his interactions with his ungrateful but emotionally undernourished family marking an early highlight of the story. Indeed, if we wanted to isolate the greatness of GTA V’s systems and the dynamic stories that it permits into a microcosm, we returned home to Michael’s plush home one day and looked in every room for his family members: his witless and overconfident gamer son Jimmy, his wayward daughter Tracey and his mistreated wife Amanda. Every interaction with each of them yields some funny moments, but since none of them were home, we instead got high on Jimmy’s bong, staggered back into Michael’s bedroom and had him try on every suit in his wardrobe before giving up and passing out on the bed. It’s a small instance that reminded us that we both care about these pre-defined characters and had the agency to express ourselves within the world, and whether on a micro or macro level, GTA V never disappoints in allowing us to do almost anything we’d want to with this rich backdrop.
As for the smaller details and activities of the world, many of them are best left as surprises to be found – stranger missions return in an increased capacity, some of which are quite rote in mission design by GTA V’s overall standards, but nonetheless embellishing the world through its different NPC viewpoints. The radio stations clearly telegraph the post-recession context of the setting – which perhaps feels a couple of years out of date in channelling the direct outrage of ordinary people towards the banking top brass that ruined millions of lives – and it’s helped by Rockstar’s funniest scriptwriting since GTA III’s Chatterbox radio station. Some of this content can be hit and miss, but there’s something subtly pleasing about Lazlow and a couple of his radio rivals being among the few surviving elements of 2001 GTA to present day. Hardcore fans who remember Lazlow being educated about martial arts combined with eating fresh vegetables are bound to appreciate these touches.
Radio stations have a remarkable level of variety, and although enjoyment of them is bound to be subjective depending on your musical tastes, an active effort is made to include something for everyone, even if, say, your music preferences involve vaguely embarrassing late Nineties/Noughties pop. Amazingly, some stations are regional, too – drive over the hills out of Los Santos and you’ll lose the signal of one and pick up another. Television returns in an even more elaborate, sharply satirical fashion. Who are these details for? GTA V is so giving, and with so many ancillary activities available outside of the main story, you will quite seriously invest Skyrim levels of time in getting the most out of it.
Sam Houser compared the making of Rockstar’s epic to the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and in some ways the same result has been met: a product that represents the peak of the blockbuster triple-A form, that realises grand ambition without visible compromise. It’s likely you’re reading this review with the intention of already buying Grand Theft Auto V – indeed, its release is a deserved cultural event, and while this sequel may not be remembered for showing us anything strictly new, this represents the pinnacle of Rockstar’s design ingenuity across every single discipline, a game that absolutely everyone will feel richer for playing.