Dirty sunlight flashes from the bonnet of an ice-white muscle car as it screams along the burning asphalt, TuPac and Dre blasting from the radio like it’s 1995. Across the street a leather-clad hooker attempts to solicit a John who narrowly escapes a pistol-whipping from her Letterman-jacket wearing pimp, and a police helicopter swoops low overhead, chopping up the sky as it speeds off in pursuit of some desperate criminal, probably just trying to make a buck.
It was at this moment, as I stood on the side of the road in the shoes of Franklin Clinton, that Grand Theft Auto V got to me. Not the bloody escape from a botched bank robbery that forms the opening scene (as impressive as it undoubtedly is), but here at this precise moment, back in Los Santos, reminded of just how beautiful and broken Rockstar’s version of Los Angeles really is. The vastness of it all is more striking than when you first stepped out into San Andreas as gangbanger CJ, brimming with greater danger and wider opportunity than Liberty City was when Niko Bellic first alighted on the pier five years ago.
Those who know GTA will know what to expect, in broad terms, but Rockstar have refined a great deal of what we’ve come to anticipate about the franchise, using GTA IV as the raw material from which to hew the game-world, but chiselling and hammering away at it with tools they learned to use while creating Red Dead Redemption and, to a lesser extent, Max Payne 3. They have hand-picked the best mechanics from Marston’s Spaghetti Western opus and applied them to the weak points of Grand Theft Auto 4, essentially removing the bad while not only preserving the good, but making it bigger and better.
Without getting into spoiler territory, the basic plot focuses on three criminals attempting to make some money and hit the big time in the city of Los Santos. Retired bank robber Michael De Santa is living in a mansion in Rockford Hills with his spoiled daughter, lazy pothead son, and bored wife, attempting to live out his remaining days in the sun and out of trouble. The world goes on around him and he wants no part of it, but his lack of inaction has led to pent-up aggression, not helped by his dysfunctional family, leading to weekly visits with a condescending shrink. Then there’s Franklin, a young repo man who dreams of riches and glory but who would rather make an honest living than turn to the life of car-jacking and violence that plagues his neighbourhood. He’s youthful and impressionable, but an altercation with Michael leaves him jobless and disillusioned, and so the young opportunist and the weary bank robber form an unlikely master-and-pupil partnership, which is rocked considerably when Trevor Phillips enters the equation.
As Michael’s former partner and best friend, Trevor would be a great guy to have watching your back if he weren’t such a crazed, unpredictable psychopath. He and Michael are a Kane & Lynch-style duo, bouncing off one another and working together in a bubble of uneasy trust – which is understandable, given their chequered history. The characterisations are as strong as you’d expect from Rockstar, and the developers have taken risks with each of them. Trevor is the type of character no one would put front and centre, while Franklin has an inherent nobility that makes him an unlikely fit for the franchise. But Michael – part Ray Liotta, part George Clooney – adds real spark with his cast-iron belief that, no matter what he does for a living, he’s the good guy. That’s not to say that Trevor and Franklin aren’t great characters, it’s just that they feel like the supporting cast whenever they’re around Michael, and it’s his charisma and focus that gives the other two their centre.
Similarly to previous games in the series, story missions are activated by going to specific points on the map marked by the initials of the instigator. They might be given by supporting characters or triggered by visiting the protagonists’ homes or places of interest. All the missions are character specific, even if they involve the other two protagonists, so if you’re playing as Michael, you can’t select one of Trevor’s missions without first switching to Trevor.
Story missions, quite predictably, advance the plot, but Rockstar have introduced Red Dead Redemption’s Stranger system to add greater diversity and facilitate a more organic method of side-quest acquisition. Strangers and Freaks are identifiable by question marks on the map, and include a variety of colourful characters and side concerns. For example, there’s Anna Maria, a bitter divorcee (approachable as Michael) who hates men as much as she hates her own body, and vents her frustrations with excessive, aggressive exercise. Then there’s Hao, Franklin’s mechanic friend who organises late-night street races, or Tonya, a crack-addled prostitute who has Franklin use a tow truck to move abandoned cars on behalf of her junkie boyfriend JB.
Despite how much there is to do outside of the story, there’s a tighter focus than we’ve seen in the series before. No one does malleable narratives the way Rockstar do, and once again you’re free to move at your own pace. Similarly to Red Dead Redemption, 100% completion is reliant on clearing a check-list rather than actually doing everything (because so many activities are endless), and besides the story and Strangers there are random encounters like muggings and street fights that you can choose to interfere with or ignore.
It’s become almost clichéd to say it, but the huge, sprawling world of GTA V feels alive. When examined too closely, the wires become visible, but you’d have to be looking for faults to find them. Enough time spent in the world will reveal looped ambient dialogue and pedestrian AI that seems unable to stop, look and listen, but this is as close to a true simulation of our world as you’ve ever seen in a video game. You can’t ignore the usual leaps of logic or the demanded flexibility of belief, but these are things you choose to accept for the sake of this franchise. Why is there no APB out on Michael after a daylight, high-speed shoot-out with a yacht-towing truck? Because it’s a simulation, not a recreation, and it wouldn’t be half the fun if the storyline had you serving a six-year jail term. Grand Theft Auto V suggests that you don’t ask such questions, and in return gives you the biggest, prettiest playground you’ve ever run riot in.
You want to play golf? Play golf. You want to watch a movie, then play some tennis, go off-roading, then coordinate a six-man bank robbery in a single day? Hell, you can do that too; you can even go up into the wilderness and hunt some deer. GTA IV granted similar freedom on a smaller scale and suffered in terms of its actual gameplay, but GTA V fares better.
Where GTA has always given you that wonderful freedom outside of missions, the missions themselves have traditionally been rigid, scripted affairs. While that’s still true for most of GTA V, there’s refreshing choice to be found within the new Heist missions. The first example is when Michael and Franklin rob a jewelers store in downtown Los Santos after Michael pulls what can only be described as a “Lethal Weapon 2” on a stilted mansion in the Canyon, and must come up with 2.5 million dollars to pay back the crime boss owner. With the aid of uber-geek Lester, you must first case the store, taking pictures of the alarm system, the vents, the exits, while Lester formulates a plan. Once you’ve misappropriated the necessary vehicles and equipment, you plan the Heist, considering whether you you want to go in loud and brash or quiet and stealthy. Both options are equally viable, and both require picking the right crew.
Lester will present options for hiring trusted criminals, and you have two to choose from in each category. You need a driver, a hacker and a gunman, and you’ll get a choice between an experienced goon who’ll take a bigger cut and offer less risk of failure, or a newbie who takes half the pay but has greatly reduced stats. I picked an experienced hacker and driver, but as I went stealthy I decided to skimp on the gunman and went with a new guy. After a successful robbery, I lost him during the high-speed motorcycle getaway – along with the portion of the take he was carrying. The Heists are excellent, some more intricate than others but each one presenting optional routes to the cash with a wonderfully balanced risk/reward dynamic that makes you think about the choices you make. Every mission has the option to turn on the rather excellent cinematic camera (by pressing or holding B or Circle), which allows you to watch certain elements unfold like you’re watching one of the high-octane 80s action movies that Michael so idolises.
Thankfully, should everything go wrong and deteriorate into a frantic shootout, Grand Theft Auto V offers a much improved combat system. Again riffing off Red Dead Redemption, a tap of RB will see your character slide, roadie run, leap or slam into cover (depending on context), and the snap-to auto-aim increases the pace and flow of gunfights. Michael’s special skill allows for a short period of bullet-time during a battle, while Trevor’s increases his damage output and defence, tipping the balance of a stand-off. Partner AI has advanced from the headless chicken behaviour of the last game, but it’s still not incredibly sophisticated; your comrades will push forward and shout out instructions and enemy positions, but flanking and suppressive fire is left mostly to you. Gun combat never feels like it’s dragging on, but the melee system presents a tactile yet clunky alternative. Uppercutting a loudmouth gangbanger is always satisfying, but if you get involved in a lengthy fistfight the hand-to-hand system lacks the elegance and precision of the gunplay.
Vehicle handling is tighter than ever, and with more traffic on the roads, more obstacles, and a more tangled network of back alleys and side streets, it has to be. Different vehicles offer various pros and cons, but high speed chases are much easier to control thanks to more responsive driving. Issues remain with muscle cars and sports cars, particularly during street races when your foot is down and your adrenaline is up, and handling at high speeds is a nightmare without an understanding of the OTT drift physics. Franklin has a special ability that can slow down time when driving that makes things easier, but you can expect the occasional extreme collision. Stunt jumps and street races are scattered about the world, and the variety of vehicles and vehicle types is staggering. Once again you can steal any car you can see, whether occupied or otherwise, and store it in a garage. Everything can be customised with paint jobs and decals, performance boosts and armour upgrades, but – as in real life – everything costs money.
Golfing and strip clubs don’t come cheap – but then neither do tattoos, haircuts, new clothes and property investment. Sub-mechanics are unlocked in increments, and within the first six to ten hours you’ll be able to shop for new threads, play tennis, visit the fairground, rent jet-skis and play the stock market. Buying up property is a great way to make money, but businesses need managing – certain properties even require you to complete missions relevant to their upkeep. Los Santos is what you make it, and you can even turn off your iFruit smartphone if you want the story and characters to leave you alone for a while. The number of random phonecalls and invites to waste time has been greatly reduced, but your phone is much more than that. You can access your emails, text messages, and the internet all with a press of the D-pad – or you can call secondary characters for “hang-outs” and potential jobs. You can even customise your phone’s background, colour theme and ring-tone.
Grand Theft Auto V is huge, and provides arguably the most complete and feature-packed game-world I’ve ever seen. Pressing down on the D-pad will show your character selection wheel, and – providing you’re not locked into a specific character for a mission – you can switch between your protagonists in real time via a nifty satellite surveillance-style loading screen. Dropping in on them mid-fight or finding them in strip clubs, arguing with pedestrians, playing golf or simply cruising the streets adds a great sense of realism and causality.
Given the size of the world, it’s not surprising that there are minor complaints. Sometimes you’ll sleep to save the game, for example, and even though the world advances several hours, you’ll find the other members of your household (Franklin’s aunt and Michael’s family) doing exactly what they were doing or standing exactly where they were when you went to sleep. Graphically, the environments are astonishing – the level of detail is off the scale and the draw distance is a thing of true beauty – but the character models don’t fare so well. Up close they’re adequate but lack the smoothness and grace of fully mo-capped characters that you might expect but, again, it’s a point of small concern when you’re standing on a rooftop watching the distant sunset paint the sky in oily tones of blood-red and amber, or taking a twilight drive in the pouring rain just for the sheer hell of it.
The soundtrack, too, is exceptional. The catalogue of tracks plucked from the last three decades is simply colossal and flicking between the radio stations offers something for every taste and every mood from Phil Collins to Snoop Dogg, and the radio chat shows, tongue-in-cheek commercials and satirical news reports bring not only welcome comedy but impressive depth, as newsreaders report on your recent activities and offer handy summaries of the effects your actions are having on the city. The voice-acting and script are terrific; indeed, GTA V glories in its “crime epic” hamminess and its overblown characters, dropping references left and right to other games (even mentioning an “Eastern European who was making moves in Liberty City a while back”). Rockstar really have thought of almost everything, even recording alternate lines of dialogue so that your repeated failure in a mission won’t see your ears bombarded with the same speech every time you land back at a checkpoint.
Given the noise in the games press about Grand Theft Auto V being the most expensive game ever made, I went in hoping to be stunned and expecting to be disappointed, but Rockstar’s big budget crime blockbuster is breathtaking. Stripping out the loose cover mechanic and vehicle handling of GTA IV, toning down that ringing phone, and dialling everything else up way past 100 has paid dividends. It’s a shame that Grand Theft Auto V Online wasn’t available to test at the time of writing, but rest assured we’ll bring you a full, in-depth review once it launches.
VERDICT: Los Santos feels like a city, just as GTA V feels like a glorious action movie in which you are the star. You can pick fault with certain looped and scripted elements (as faults are indeed there to be found), but this is a game that is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s not the size that impresses, but the amount of content that it fits into the world. Nothing feels like filler, and you play at your own pace. You can blast through the story as fast as you choose, or turn off that damn phone and start living the life you always dreamed of living, playing golf in the East Coast sunshine, cruising the streets in an £80,000 car, or jet-skiing sapphire waves until the moon comes up. Hell, you can even commit a crime or two if the mood takes you.
The legacy of the franchise is such that almost everyone who plays this will have some history with the universe, and Rockstar capitalise on that right from the off. Make no mistake: this game is beyond heavyweight. In many ways, Grand Theft Auto V is a culmination of the current generation; it’s a summation of everything we’ve seen in the last eight years, a love letter, if you like, to the 360 and the PS3. Who knows if a next-gen edition will follow, but as it stands this is the perfect swan-song for this console generation.
INCREDIBLE. This is the pinnacle of our scoring spectrum, reserved for games that truly affect us, that capture our imagination so completely that they affect the standard by which we measure future games. 10/10 is not a declaration of perfection, but an assurance that the game in question is of amazingly high quality and has exceeded our expectations.