Grand Theft Auto V: we take a spin, a skydive and a swim in the sprawling Blaine County

GTAV

Rockstar hasn’t put out a full Grand Theft Auto game in five years, but as we lay our eyes on the fifth in the series, it’s clear that the company has never really stopped thinking about how to follow GTA IV. Last year’s Max Payne 3, as pure a thirdperson shooter as they come, has had an obvious impact on the evolution of Grand Theft Auto’s gunplay. From Western epic Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar learned how to make sparse rural areas as interesting to explore as they are to behold, a skill that will be vital in crafting the biggest world the company has ever attempted and one that’s apparent in the opening moments of our demo. GTA IV’s two DLC packs, meanwhile, showed how shifting focus beyond a single protagonist could enrich the experience, laying the foundations for GTA V’s three playable characters.

Players can switch between the trio – notionally retired heist mastermind Michael, adrenaline junkie and car lover Franklin, and Trevor, an unhinged headcase with a taste for an altogether different kind of buzz – at any time when off-mission, but these are people with their own lives. They don’t simply hang around waiting to be summoned, and could be up to any number of things when you switch to them. We open with Franklin, who’s about to jump out of a helicopter 1,000 feet up in the hazy Blaine County sky. When we switch to Trevor, he’s waking up on a beach in the middle of nowhere, but he’s blood-spattered, bottle in hand, and in his underwear. Michael is just stepping out of the Von Crastenburg hotel in Vinewood at dusk – time will sometimes pass when you switch, allowing Rockstar to subtly nudge the story forward during downtime. Transitions are handled by satellite: press down on the D-pad to call up the character wheel, make your choice, and a grainy camera pulls up and out to the heavens, panning across to your chosen protagonist’s location and zooming back in at speed.

Each of the three has their own interests, and it seems that GTA V’s vast array of activities and minigames will be divvied up between them according to their individual tastes. They’ll each stick, broadly speaking, to one area of the map, helping players move about the humongous world at speed – a welcome option, given that this sprawling, varied landscape will be completely open for you to explore from the word go.

Back up in the sky, Franklin jumps, tugs on his parachute cord and begins a descent that will take a full three minutes. There’s barely a building in sight, and no vehicles until a couple of ATVs come into view farther down. We’re in Red Dead country, then, with the soporific rhythm of hooves on dirt replaced by the whistle of wind through silk and a new, dynamic musical score. It’s another series first and here means a soft synth that could have been lifted straight from the Drive soundtrack. Closer to Earth, we see Red Dead’s foliage, and Red Dead’s wildlife, but not its water. The lake at whose edge we eventually touch down looks remarkable, crystal clear and shimmering in the morning sun, good enough to dive into. Soon enough, we will.

Trevor’s not alone when he reawakens – he’s surrounded by conked-out members of The Lost, the Liberty City biker gang from GTA IV’s first DLC expansion. “Last one standing – again,” he growls, and for a minute you’re not sure whether he’s talking about fighting or drinking. After another look at his scrunched, manic face, you figure it’s probably both. He walks to the water’s edge, jumps in a motorised dinghy and sets off up the coast, his vessel buffeted by overhauled water physics. Trevor dons some scuba gear stashed in the boat, and dives below the surface. We’re not sure what purpose underwater sections will serve in the full game, but it sure is pretty down here. Shafts of sunlight refracted by the waves above illuminate a seabed that’s teeming with life. We swim round the bow of a sunken ship right into a couple of circling sharks – dangerous enough to warrant their own icons on the radar, but tamed for demo purposes. The point, it seems, is that the sea is now as alive and dangerous as the land. The days when contact with GTA’s water meant instant death suddenly seem a long time ago.

What we’ve seen so far is clearly designed to showcase the extent to which GTA has moved on from San Andreas’s barren sprawl and Vice City’s lifeless, fatal water. But what we – and the tens of millions who will buy a new Grand Theft Auto game on sight come September – are really here for is the city. Yet as Michael steps out of the Von Crastenburg hotel and walks up the street, it’s not his surroundings our eyes are drawn to, but his gait. One look at Michael’s walk and you know he’s a tough guy, albeit one who’s getting on a bit. And when he breaks into a sprint – or what passes for one, at least – it’s clear he’s been taking it easy during retirement.

Vinewood has clearly been prepared for our arrival. We’re introduced to a new character, a weedy superhero called Impotent Rage, who’s loitering in full costume outside a building. A few yards away is a Republican Space Ranger, confirming the return of GTA IV’s cartoon satire on neoconservative imperialism. The city’s not that busy at the moment, but that will come. It’s not surprising that we don’t lay eyes on more than a dozen vehicles at once, but it’s already a Rockstar city. The idle chatter of passersby; the blue-eyed ’80s soul pumping from the speakers of a passing car; a drunken demand for attention from a faded Vinewood actress teetering in her stilettos on a street corner. There’s the odd glimpse, too, of the local business names and advertising slogans that have long raised the suspicion Rockstar must employ people solely to come up with puns. The world may not be dense with cars and people just yet, but it’s rich in detail. In colour, too: there’s nothing quite like neon at nighttime, and there’s a dramatic use of light and shadow that recalls the ENB graphics mod that has kept Grand Theft Auto IV looking remarkable to this day.

We spot a question-mark icon on the map that denotes a Red Dead-style dynamic event. Michael jogs down an alley to find a starlet cowering behind a truck, hiding from some paparazzi. As we discover after he’s fetched her car and collected her, they are rather aggressive. They give chase, and this first glimpse of GTA V’s vehicle handling suggests it’s more forgiving than the exacting system its predecessor employed. With our tail lost, we drop our passenger at her home and are paid for our troubles – a miserly $150.

For the real money, we’ll need to gather a crew for a heist. Grand Theft Auto V is built around these big jobs, and they’re the real reason, we suspect, for the three switchable protagonists. Heists lend a brisker feel to the standard GTA mission structure and pacing. They’ll require planning and preparation – and not just a brief to and fro to gather the requisite equipment. You’ll hire and manage a supporting crew, and you’ll have to split the takings with those who survive.

There is freedom here, but Rockstar tightens its hold on the reins when it comes to character switching. You’ll only be able to change at will when a menu overlay appears in the bottom corner, and a lot of the transitions are made automatically. The alternative, a text prompt telling you to switch to a character you knew you’d have to switch to anyway, would be needless friction, but we’re keen to see just how freely we’ll be allowed to approach the big jobs in the final game.

The mission that concludes our demo is one of the smaller heists, with no crew involved and the prep work already done. Convening at a truck stop out of town, the trio run through the plan on Michael’s smartphone, don masks – a skeleton, an ice hockey goalie, and a monkey smoking a cigar – and set off. Reaching our destination, Trevor and Franklin take up their positions while we, as Michael, block the road with a refuse truck. When our target, a Gruppe 6 security van (“Putting the U in secure”), comes to a stop, we switch to Franklin; we’re behind the wheel of another vehicle and approaching at speed. In firstperson view, we ram the security van onto its side and through a wall, blow the back door off with a sticky bomb and take its cargo just as the police, tipped off by silent alarm, arrive in droves.

The shooting begins, and the most immediate comparison is Max Payne 3. It’s certainly Payne’s turning circle instead of Niko Bellic’s, and his kill-confirming reticule X, too. There’s constant chatter between the three protagonists – Franklin sticking behind cover with self-preservation his only apparent goal, Michael running and gunning like an old pro, and Trevor up above on overwatch – with the action switching as required. Trevor has the most fun, sniping an enemy team setting up across the street before switching to an RPG to take out police choppers and cars, and barely taking a scratch. Michael, though, is taking more than his fair share of hits as he moves from cover to cover, and it’s here, as that dynamic score hits its throbbing Krautrock peak, that we suddenly realise that this is the first Grand Theft Auto game with regenerating health. This, as much as any of the more conspicuous changes and additions, shows how the series has moved on. For all the detail of its remarkable world, some of GTA IV’s foibles felt like hangovers from the PS2 era, but it’s clear that Rockstar’s work in the sequel leaves few stones unturned.

Grand Theft Auto V’s world is vast, but Rockstar’s mission isn’t to make its biggest-ever landmass, but the ultimate open-world game; that means it needs mechanics as refined as its world, and distractions worthy of those mechanics. First impressions are dazzling, but the real measure of GTA V’s success will lie in how its disparate elements – these three characters with their different tastes and skills; the heists; the air, land and sea – work together. Because that’s a lot to fit into a coherent whole, no matter how large the world map that contains it.