Have you ever been to Los Angeles? Rockstar has - and it shows. Los Santos, the city that forms the backdrop to much of Grand Theft Auto V, takes the best and most extreme elements of the City of Angels and distils them down to their essence: the fake Roman columns, the manicured lawns, the towering billboards given pride of place on the skyline, and strip clubs shoulder to shoulder with movie premieres in a crowd of SUVs and sports cars. LA is a city with a seedy underbelly facing upwards as it rolls around in the dirt and Los Santos captures that.
It's probably Rockstar's best city to date, but it's much more than a few hundred densely detailed blocks; the game world also expands out over the mountains behind the mansions and the Vinewood sign into the county beyond, where there are huge peaks, arid deserts, fiercely protected prisons and military bases, and numerous little towns and other landmarks. The whole thing is open from the start of the game, filling in on your mini-map as you drive around.
Three Is The Magic Number
Opening the map from the start is not the only change to the classic GTA formula, either - now you're playing as three characters rather than one. Michael, Franklin and Trevor are three sides of the same die in many respects - Michael's a washed-up bank robber, Franklin's a hard-working kid struggling to escape his roots, and Trevor's a lunatic thrill-seeker with no regard for anyone's safety. You can switch between them at any time - if they're in different parts of the city then it takes a few seconds, but if they're in the same location it's instant, like single-player co-op.
Their adventures trace a fairly standard crime movie arc - would you believe, for instance, that their attempts to bring in big scores put them in hock to powerful people who want favours and that it all nearly blows up around them as they struggle to maintain control? I know, right? For me the story is at its best when it's breezy and spectacular, like when Trevor decides to hijack a plane mid-flight, and less convincing when it tries to be edgy and relevant, as with an ill-judged torture scene. Some of it's definitely not for the squeamish, and I'm not sure this is a story that earns the right to go there in the same way Game of Thrones does, for example. Your mileage may vary.
Mission In Action
One thing we will probably all agree on though is how good the missions are. There are train robberies, car transporter chases, innumerable specialised assassinations, kidnappings, and a whole range of multi-part heists, where the game is perhaps at its strongest. These involve casing a joint, drawing up a plan, hiring personnel and then executing the heist before retreating to the getaway cars and counting the score. The adrenaline pumps and the knowledge that you're angling for a huge pay-out - as opposed to GTA's often miserly end-of-level bonuses - is tantalising.
You'll need that money, too, because this is a world full of ways to spend it. Away from the story missions, Los Santos and the surrounding area is overflowing with distractions - golf, tennis, skydiving, hijacking, rampages, every kind of race scenario and hijacks, with plenty more besides. A lot of it is dynamic - you might encounter a drunk couple, for instance, and have to choose between driving them back to their motel or selling them to the cannibalistic cult that lives on top of a nearby mountain. Wherever you are, though, you can jump in a car, throw on one of the excellent radio stations and set off in any direction safe in the knowledge you'll find some fun.
The Devil's In The Details
Rockstar has done a fine job of improving the mechanical side of the game, too. The shooter and cover controls are still imperfect, but better than GTA IV, while driving physics are much closer to the GTA games of old than the last instalment, and there is now proper mission checkpointing, the option to skip tough missions (although I never needed to use it) and all manner of time-saving gizmos on your smartphone. Another nice touch is that any car (or, you know, tank) you buy will always be there at a garage or hangar, rather than being a one-use item. GTA V wants you to keep having fun playing it and for that fun not to be snatched away from you in a moment of minor error, which is a positive development for the series.
Overall, this is by far the best Grand Theft Auto game ever made, which puts it in range of being one of the best games ever made full stop. Rockstar hasn't quite managed to deliver the blockbuster story to match its execution everywhere else, but on the whole you can expect to spend many dozens of hours being wildly entertained by some of the best game makers in the world. Then on October 1st you can download GTA Online for free and the whole thing just gets better.
GAME's Verdict: 10/10
- Biggest and most interesting open world yet
- Incredible range of activities to enjoy
- The best mission design in the series' history
- Story tries too hard to be edgy
- Shooting mechanics still not best-in-class
- That's it!