It starts with a drop. Franklin - street hustler, getaway driver, repo man - is in the exit hatch of a helicopter, thousands of feet above the mountain ridges that divide Los Santos from the countryside of Blaine County.
As he jockeys in the doorway, we grab our first glimpse of GTA V: forested hillsides, roads and trails snaking across open land, a river glinting in the sunlight, and, in the distance - immediately giving the world a vast sense of scale - the grey-blue haze of the city. It's basically the juiciest invitation you'll get all year: all of this is yours to explore - and all you've got to do is jump.
So we jump. The freefall opens up our field of view: the game world is an island, hemmed in by an ocean beyond the city, and by a massive stretch of water - the Alamo Sea - behind us, to the north. Immediately to our right, on the west of the island, is a military base. Onscreen, there's an altimeter, giving us an idea of elevation, and three bars in the corner: green, blue and yellow. These are for your health, body armour and 'specials'. We'll talk more about that last one later on.
Straight off the bat, it's hard not to be impressed. Incidental detail is king here: what looks like a cargo plane arcs up into the sky in the distance, having taken off from the military base; a mountain lion scutters for cover in the hillsides of Mount Josiah (in a GTA first, Chilliad is no longer the only peak in the series); a quad bike moves along one of the countless mud trails, and cars along the mountain roads; and, gradually, the river edges closer, shimmering in the sunlight, and we can see two people fishing on its banks, a Winnebago parked next to them. Laid across it all (again, for the first time in a GTA game) is evidence of one of the game's dynamic scores, a soft, ambient track that perfectly captures the serene nature of the descent.
Moments later, we land next to the Winnebago, and we get a close-up look at Franklin. We'll admit, guiding one third of the game's criminal triumverate into the tranquil beauty of an Elder Scrolls-like valley wasn't how we imagined our time with GTA V would start - but it makes sense. Rockstar claims its goal, from day one, was to create the ultimate open world, and what better way to show off the scale and geographical diversity of their achievements than by jumping out of a chopper? Descent over, our demoer tells us it's time to go and see what Trevor is up to.
ZOOM WITH A VIEW
The transition between characters is slick: you ascend into the skies, Google Earth-style, the screen fills with static (although you can still see the outline of your location) and then you zoom across the city, zeroing in on the character of your choosing. The closer, geographically, Franklin, Trevor and Michael are to one another, the quicker the transition; when you're using all three in a mission, for example, the change will be instantaneous. When they're miles apart, at separate ends of the map, the swap takes longer. It's a clever way to mask loading times.
Before we make the leap, though, there are a couple of other things worth pointing out. The first is that each character is rated in a series of skill categories, viewable from the pause screen: Special, Stamina, Shooting, Strength, Stealth, Flying, Driving, Mechanic, Lung Capacity.
Each characters' Special will be different, and unique to them. Franklin, an adrenalin junkie, has the ability to slow down time while driving. (Rockstar didn't expand on this, but it's a fair bet it'll come in handy when you're being pursued by cops and, say, need to take a last-minute, super-sharp corner to lose them.) Trevor, the game's crazy-eyed nutjob, has a frenzy mode, where he's able to do double damage, while taking only half in return. As a bonus, he also has a unique melee attack, yet to be revealed. And, finally, Michael - the career criminal - turns all Max Payne with his own version of bullet time. Special meters drain after use, and recharge slowly in the aftermath - but while activated, they're often the difference between success and failure.
The other skill categories all the characters share, and through missions, side missions, activities and more, their stats can gradually be improved. No matter how much flying Franklin and Michael do, they'll never be as good as trained pilot Trevor, but you can - over time - improve them, so they become easier to control mid-air, and more successful in getting from A to B (and, in grand GTA tradition, presumably destroying C on the way). The same will be true with, say, Franklin, the game's best driver. Michael and Trevor won't match him, but through iteration they'll come close.
Perhaps the most interesting category, though, is Stealth, suggesting the game will play heavily on multiple approaches to missions, and in particular the main heists. Again, Rockstar wasn't ready to talk, but it did say you'd have to weigh up the best route to the end goal. To what level stealth will be implemented remains unclear, but it provides a potentially exciting new route for players who don't want to end up with a five-star Wanted level and the entire LSPD on their tail.