Previews

Preview: GTA V rewrites the open-world rulebook... again

Insane ambition meets supreme confidence in Rockstar's latest

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Switching to the tow truck, we accelerate out of the alley we've been hiding in, and smash into the side of the security van, toppling it instantly. Michael places plastic explosive on the rear doors, they explode open, and two shaken security men stumble out of the back. As they shuffle around, dazed and confused, Michael grabs the security bonds - but there's some bad news. There was a panic button inside the van - and they hit it before exiting. The Los Santos PD are on their way.

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While 'Blitz Play' is certainly reminiscent of missions from GTA past, the character-switching gives it a markedly different slant, as you zip between Michael and Franklin on the ground - holding off waves of LSPD - and Trevor up on the rooftops, taking care of SWAT teams as they try to get a bead on the other two. (And then - with a flourish - Trevor also destroys a chopper, thanks to a handily-placed rocket launcher.) When you switch is largely up to you, although the game gives you a steer, through dialogue, at vital points: when Michael and Franklin are being overwhelmed by snipers, for example, Michael might ask for Trevor's help; or when Franklin is being advanced upon by cops - out of sight, behind him and to the side - Michael will tell him.

Small but notable combat mechanics have improved firefights as well: a combat roll gives you a faster route between cover, you now have a better view of oncoming targets thanks to a wider, Gears of War-styled field of vision, and you can run and gun - in third person - while still maintaining control of the reticule. (Which has also seen a couple of tweaks: it switches from white to red to identify an enemy now, and a tiny 'X' flashes over it when an enemy is dead.)

In fact, it's often in the smallest details that GTA V shines. Like when Michael machine-guns an LSPD squad car, it goes up in flames, and then a cop stumbles out of the burning interior - on fire - and rolls around on the floor, screaming. Still on fire. And trying to put himself out. It's a fantastic moment for everyone but that poor policeman; a tiny, incidental second or two in a sprawling five-minute shootout, that shows to what level of refinement this game is operating. Then finally, after the three men eventually make their getaway, the screen goes black and the demo is over.

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GRAND THEFT AUTO MORE

And yet there's still more to tell. Afterwards, as we quiz Rockstar, the game's biology emerges further. Pay N Sprays now double up as mod shops, and your cars can be given paint jobs, new wheels, window tints, grilles, spoilers, plus you can upgrade suspensions, engine and brakes - handy if you've pinpointed, say, an Infernus that you think could be a useful getaway vehicle.

You can customise weapons too, adding laser sights, scopes, silencers, and high capacity magazines. This is particularly relevant during the prep stage: you might find one weapon is good for clearing rooms, or another better for stealth, and as you earn more cash, you can develop and improve that weapon so that - by the time you head into the key heists - you have best, most specced-up firearm available for the job. Oh, and just to round things off, you can customise yourself as well, with haircuts and new clothes, or by dropping into a tattoo parlour between missions. (We spotted one on Vinewood Boulevard, close to the Chinese Theatre.)

It doesn't stop there. You can pick up hitchikers, do stunt jumps and flying challenges, take part in yoga, golf, tennis or bike races, and - despite Rockstar being coy on this up until now - buy property too. Houses, garages and businesses can all be snapped up, providing a useful, additional revenue source that drip-feeds cash over time. Rather neatly, there seemed to be the suggestion that the men would remain true to their characters too: twentysomething Franklin will like the idea of buying a nightclub more than Michael, who might fancy investing in a marina.

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In truth, it's hard to see where it ends. Rockstar promised a land mass three and a half times the size of Red Dead Redemption, a play area five times as big - equal to the size of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, GTA IV and RDR combined - the largest selection of vehicles it had ever committed to the series, and the most amount of weapons. It promised the entire map - rivers, lakes, mountains, military bases, farmland, city, desert and ocean - would be open from the start. It assured us there would be hundred of activities and side missions, it talked in vague terms about customisation, it avoided any chatter about property acquisition at all - and yet everything's here. Plainly, we only got a sniff in our thirty-minute demo (we'll have to wait for another day to complete that in-game triathlon), but we saw enough: even for GTA, a series hellbent on bigger, better, more, this is a game of unprecedented, borderline-insane ambition. But, like the hero in one of Michael's Vinewood action movies, Rockstar might just be crazy enough to pull it off.

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