If first impressions count, Grand Theft Auto V is in trouble. This is a miserable opening, breaking the series tradition of dropping you into a fast car in a beautiful city, instead kicking off in a snow-driven town in the American Midwest with a flashback heist. The first thing you do is hold up on the left analogue stick for two seconds before control is snatched away from you. Behind the wheel of a car, you spin out on icy roads. As a way of beginning a story it makes sense, but it’s a lacklustre way to open a videogame. Thankfully, within half an hour we’ve got one car stuck on a fire hydrant, flipped another over into the path of an oncoming train, and taken a third on a police chase out of the city and made our escape on a jetski. Normal service is resumed. And it just gets better from there.
We’ll start, even if Rockstar won’t, with the city. Los Santos borrows Red Dead Redemption’s dramatic skies and soft colour palette, lit with bloom and lens flare by day and gentle, fuzzy depth of field at night. It has almost no loading screens – borrowing Max Payne 3’s enforced slow walk to disguise cutscene loads – and runs at a consistent 30fps. It’s a remarkable recreation of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl, a stark contrast of poverty and the superficial veneer of immeasurable wealth. And like LA itself, it’s intimidatingly large at first, the whole world open from the start, the map filling in as you explore. Drive a few blocks from South Central’s street-corner gangbangers and you’ll find the primped boutiques of Vinewood. Head north and you’ll arrive at the hilltop mansions of the city’s monied elite; keep going and you’ll find desert and the verdant hills surrounding Mount Chiliad. Down south there’s a ramshackle beachfront, a pier (with working funfair) and the massive Los Santos International Airport. And around it all, a picture-postcard body of water that, for the first time in the series, is fully explorable.
And what water. Hop on a dinghy or a jetski and you’ll be flung about by a delightful physics model, ice-white surf spurting out from beneath your craft as you jump off the crest of a wave and crash back down onto the surface. Dive down below and you’ll find sealife and sunken treasures. There’s a whole world down here, yet it’s only used in a single story mission. You have to want to explore this new-look San Andreas, but the visual rewards for doing so are rarely less than stunning, and there are gameplay benefits too. Play tennis to increase your strength stat; ride a bike to up your stamina; visit a firing range to improve your aim.
Yet while the world has always played the starring role in 3D GTAs, here it’s just a setting, with the focus squarely on the game’s three protagonists. Franklin is the most traditional GTA antihero, brought up in poverty and working to escape it, ideally by honest means but knowing the reality will likely be different. Michael, the retired bank robber living in Los Santos under a new identity after faking his death at the climax of the opening flashback, is, by contrast, a character who could never anchor a GTA game by himself. His story – a faded hoodlum in therapy, whose wife cheats on him, whose kids hate him and who finds himself increasingly irrelevant in a city that prizes youth and beauty more than anywhere else on the planet – simply doesn’t fit the traditional GTA mission template. Yet his inclusion enriches the story and its setting, adding in modern Californian themes like therapy, infidelity, the emptiness of wealth and young America’s unquenchable yet unfussy thirst for fame. You can’t shoot your way round those. His story can be cutscene-heavy, but is so vividly realised and finely delivered that you won’t even notice, much less complain. And even if you do, there’s enough bombast elsewhere to make up for it.
Most of that bluster comes from Trevor. He’s brilliant, blessed with most of the best lines, an unstoppable ball of aggression, hate and pathological violence. He’s the sort of person who’d pick up a hooker then run her over and take his money back, or uppercut a hiker off the top of a mountain. The kind of guy who’d bring an RPG to a knife fight, and who’d wake up on a beach wearing only his underwear and spend a couple of days doing missions in his pants. If Franklin is the lens through which we have traditionally seen Grand Theft Auto and Michael is the story its creator has long wanted to tell, Trevor is the character who best embodies the way tens of millions of GTA fans actually play the game.
The trio doesn’t just solve GTA’s thematic niggles but some of its pacing problems, too. Press and hold down on the D-pad and you can switch between the three at will. Traditionally, if a mission ended with you out in the sticks, you’d have to make the trek back to civilisation. Now, you’re a button press away from warping back into the thick of things. Rockstar uses it to gracefully nudge you towards this vast world’s many activities, too – Michael, for instance, might be parked up outside a tennis court, or stuck in traffic near his shrink’s office. You’ll find yourself naturally switching every few missions, and playing the game in character, choosing vehicles, activities and radio stations based on who’s under your control. You soon realise that, rather than the gangster flicks of GTAs past, you’re now playing an episodic TV show. It’s a construct that’s as well suited to lost Los Santos weekends as it is the sporadic two-hour sessions of the time-poor, one that doesn’t just keep up the pace during downtime but also drives the best set of missions the series has ever seen.
The heists are the focal point. The promise of choice may have been overstated, with Lester, the crew’s tech wizard, giving you two options that rarely stray from a decision between being smart or going in loud. But each is so much more than just a binary choice affecting a single mission. Take the smart option in the opening heist on a jewellery store and it sets in motion a series of preparatory tasks in which you case the joint, find an alternative entry point at the opposite end of the block, steal a van and uniforms from a pest control firm, then a truck carrying nerve gas. The heists only become more intricate from there, their complexity rising in proportion to payouts, with the prep work alone for one heist halfway through the game taking us four hours to complete – although we’ll admit to being distracted along the way. This is GTA, after all.
The Strangers & Freaks side missions, meanwhile, are character-specific but make up for the absence of switching by filling out the richness of the world with a supporting cast that typifies modern California in all its vapidity. In town you’ll find paparazzi, celeb stalkers, fitness freaks and adrenaline junkies; out in the sticks lie Minutemen, and rednecks shooting critters for kicks. All are shot through with Rockstar’s signature dry wit, and introduce you to locations and distractions you might otherwise miss – a triathlon across Vespucci Beach, perhaps, or a BMX race down Mount Chiliad.
There are wrinkles, but none so serious as to prove ruinous. The game’s treatment of women – every female in the game exists solely to be sneered, leered or laughed at – is a real concern until you realise that it applies to the male characters as well. As Trevor, there’s a forced torture scene that will make you thoroughly uncomfortable until five minutes later when, back on the road, you misjudge a corner, kill a handful of pedestrians and laugh out loud, and it becomes apparent that Rockstar has made quite a powerful point, one that will later be acknowledged by one of the protagonists. We are all despicable people.
These issues fade into insignificance not only in the context of the scale and coherence of Grand Theft Auto V’s world, but also the way in which Rockstar has acknowledged criticisms of the series and fixed them one by one. Checkpoints are frequent. You can save anywhere. You can still hang out with friends, but it’s always your decision: if the phone rings it’s because the story requires it. No longer do we have to forgive a colossal open-world’s mechanical shortcomings as we wrestle with cumbersome controls: this is Max Payne’s weighty gunplay, Midnight Club’s vehicle handling and Red Dead’s animation. LA Noire’s facial tech hasn’t made it in, but that game might just have had the most powerful influence of all. Fail an action sequence three times and alongside Retry and Quit appears a new option: Skip. How many of those tens of millions of GTAs sold have been put away unfinished because of a seemingly unassailable difficulty spike?
No one makes worlds like Rockstar, but at last it has produced one without compromise. Everything works. It has mechanics good enough to anchor games of their own, and a story that is not only what GTA has always wanted to tell but also fits the way people have always played it. It’s a remarkable achievement, a peerless marriage of world design, storytelling and mechanics that pushes these ageing consoles to the limit and makes it all look easy. As we stand on the brink of a new generation, GTAV sends an intimidating message to the rest of the industry. Beat that.
Grand Theft Auto V is released on September 17 for PS3 and Xbox 360. 360 version tested.
GTAV joins the elite group of groundbreaking videogames to be awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.