Grand Theft Auto V: inside Rockstar’s next epic

Forget the new Grand Theft Auto V trailers – last week Rockstar invited select press to its London offices to lay eyes on the game. And before we go any further, let’s put one thing to bed: this is definitely a current-gen game, played with a DualShock 3 on a debug PlayStation 3.

That the platform that powered Tuesday’s trailers was even up for discussion shows that this is a huge step forward from Grand Theft Auto IV, and not just visually. It’s a mechanical refinement of the GTA formula, too, and it’s clear that Rockstar has learned something valuable from every game it has made in the four-and-a-half years since GTA IV’s release. You can see Red Dead’s influence in the beautiful Blaine County sky, and its countryside, too. Max Payne 3′s legacy is apparent in GTA V’s vastly improved cover shooting, and there’s even a hint of LA Noire – though not its tech – in the game’s improved facial animation. There’s much, much more insight, analysis, exclusive artwork and screenshots from our time with Grand Theft Auto V in Edge 254, on sale May 9.

The protagonists

Grand Theft Auto V’s playable trio – retired heist mastermind Michael, car-loving adrenaline junkie Franklin and the unhinged Trevor – have their own lives, and tastes too. Switch from one to the other when off-mission (by pressing down on the D-pad to bring up the character wheel) and they could be doing one of any number of things. Franklin kicks off our demo 1000 feet up in the Blaine County sky, ready to jump out of a helicopter. Michael is stepping out of the Von Crastenburg hotel in Vinewood in the early evening. Trevor, meanwhile, is just waking up on a remote beach, blood-spattered with bottle of whisky in hand, wearing only his underwear.

In other words, they don’t just hang around waiting to be summoned, and time will often pass between transitions. All this means Rockstar can subtly nudge time and story forward during downtime, and it’s a smart way of surfacing certain activities, side-missions or even TV shows that players might otherwise miss.

Waterworld

From the moment Trevor gets in a motorised dinghy and sets off up the coast it’s clear that we’re not in Vice City any more. The dinghy, buffeted about by waves powered by overhauled water physics, comes to a rest just offshore, and Trevor hides his socks-and-pants modesty by donning a set of scuba gear he finds on board.

He dives off the side and the Blaine County sun does its best to follow him down, its rays refracted by the water’s surface. Rounding the bow of a sunken ship we swim right into the path of a couple of sharks – dangerous enough to warrant their own icons on the radar, but tamed for the purposes of our demo. The sea is as alive as the land, then, and just as well. GTA V’s landmass is three-and-a-half times the size of Red Dead Redemption‘s; include the sea and the world is five times as big – and this time, the whole thing is fully explorable from the word go.

Heists and crew management

These are the beating heart of GTA V. They’re woven into its narrative, spread across multiple missions and requiring planning and prep work. The demo mission begins with Michael, Trevor and Franklin convening at a suburban truck stop, donning disguises and driving a garbage truck into town, which Michael uses to block a road, forcing a security van to come to a halt. Franklin rams the van with a tow truck, turning it on its side and blowing its doors off with a sticky bomb. We steal its cargo just as the police show up, and the shooting begins.

It won’t just be the three of you going out on heists, either. For the bigger jobs, you’ll need to hire a crew, and split the takings between those who survive. There’ll be a fine balance of risk and reward: do you hire in numbers and take a smaller cut of the payout, or try and pull a more lucrative heist with a bare-bones crew?

Skills and special moves

Like Skyrim, each of the protagonists’ skills in certain disciplines – shooting, driving, flying and so on – improves the more they are used. So while Franklin will start the game as the most accomplished driver and Trevor’s time in the military means he’s the best pilot, you’ll be able to redress the balance simply by playing the game. Stamina, lung capacity, strength and stealth are also tracked, and Rockstar says new tools and boosts will be unlocked as you improve.

Each of the three characters also has a unique special move, use of which is limited by a meter under the minimap. Michael can slow down time in combat in a refined version of Max Payne 3′s bullet time; Franklin can do likewise from behind the wheel of a vehicle, comfortably taking tight turns at high speed. Trevor, fittingly, has a Rage mode of sorts, doling out double damage and taking less himself until the meter is spent.

Modern warfare

Here’s your headline: the gunplay is Max Payne 3′s, broadly speaking, right down to the turning circle and the kill-confirming reticule X. This is no copy-paste from Rockstar’s 2012 shooter, though: there’s a new evasive roll, and a ‘combat jog’ that lets you move at speed with your weapon drawn, but not raised.

Again, the three-character setup proves its worth: no longer are you sat behind cover popping off heads until all the red dots are gone from the radar. Franklin stays behind a chunky concrete bollard for the most part, taking potshots and calling out enemy targets to his allies. This is hardly Michael’s first rodeo, so he’s more mobile, running and gunning from cover to cover. Trevor has the most fun, switching to a sniper rifle to dispatch an enemy team setting up across the street, and taking out an RPG to dispose of a police chopper and squad car.

The mechanics are the first thing you notice, but it’s the pacing that makes the stronger impression. The constant character switching ensures the action doesn’t let up until the shooting stops, while regenerating health, another series first, encourages ballsy play. The trio of protagonists doesn’t solely mean Rockstar gets to tell three stories at once; there are genuine gameplay benefits to the system, too.

There’s more exclusive Grand Theft Auto V insight, analysis, artwork and screengrabs in Edge 254, on sale from May 9; click here to subscribe and have the print edition delivered to your door. You can also subscribe to our award-winning interactive iPad edition on Apple Newsstand and through Zinio and Google Play.

You can also find twenty new Grand Theft Auto V screenshots in our gallery.