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Review: Grand Theft Auto V achieves the extraordinary

By Andy Kelly on Monday 16th Sep 2013 at 2:00 PM UTC

Los Santos, San Andreas. A sprawling metropolis, and a city of contrasts, from the golden sands of Vespucci Beach and palatial homes of Rockford Hills, to the the crime-ridden, graffiti-covered suburbs of Davis and Rancho. At night, looking across it from the Vinewood Hills, it seems to go on forever; an endless sea of lights, teeming with traffic and buzzing with helicopters. It's the most dense, intricate Grand Theft Auto city yet and, amazingly, only makes up a quarter of the map.

Head north, past the famous Vinewood sign, and the urban sprawl gives way to rolling hills, yawning canyons, and winding rivers. Keep going and the green turns to sepia as you hit the Grand Senora Desert and the town of Sandy Shores, which rests on the banks of the Alamo Sea; a great expanse of water at the foot of the colossal Mt. Chiliad. Climb the dusty trails to its peak and you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Santos far in the distance, rising out of the fog. Below, the forests of Blaine County and the sleepy rural town of Paleto Bay. The scale is dizzying.

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It's insanely detailed too. Gangs loitering on street corners, cracked roads, foreclosure notices, and police searchlights cutting through the night sky give the poor areas of the city a tangible layer of grime. In Vinewood, sports cars glint in the sun, tourists snap pictures with their phones, and obnoxious starlets bray into their phones about movie auditions. Wander through the countryside and you'll see backpackers, cyclists, and people walking their dogs. Extras in rubber alien costumes take smoke breaks on studio lots, and bikers cruise the desert highways. The world feels alive.

It's also a sharp reflection of the worst of contemporary pop culture. Whether it's privacy-violating social networks, overpriced rapper-endorsed headphones, TV talent shows, celebrity worship, or yearly military FPS sequels, nothing is safe from Rockstar's merciless satire. Their love of parody goes beyond radio adverts and billboards too, informing some of the game's best, and funniest, missions. These include a visit to the offices of Facebook spoof Lifeinvader, a stint as a paparazzo, and joining a religious cult. Few, if any, open worlds are this rich, diverse, and vibrant.

But for the three main characters, Los Santos is Hell. Retired criminal Michael is living in the lap of luxury with his family in Rockford Hills, yet has become bored of his sedate, uneventful lifestyle. He spends his days drinking, watching old movies, and arguing with his wife and kids, yearning for the thrills of the 'good' old days. Previous Grand Theft Autos have charted their anti-hero's ascent from street hustler to master criminal, but here we see the sad hangover of that success.

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"It's the most dense, intricate Grand Theft Auto city yet, and it's only a quarter of the map"

Franklin is a streetwise repo man from South Los Santos who's trying, and frequently failing, to make something of himself. He has a steady job with a shady car dealership, but finds himself drawn into a life of crime by his friend Lamar. Eager to escape the hood, a chance encounter with Michael gives him the break he needs, as well as an unlikely mentor. Of the three, Franklin's story is the most familiar; a young, relatively inexperienced criminal at the beginning of his career.

Then there's Trevor, a terrifying, crazy-eyed psychopath, and one of the most outrageous, immoral characters we've ever seen in a Grand Theft Auto game - and that's saying something. He lives in a filthy trailer in the desert, cooking crystal meth and working as a bounty hunter, but eventually ends up in Los Santos, or the "city of shitheads" as he calls it. Trevor is the source of much of the game's humour, as well as a lot of stress for his more reserved partners in crime. They're wildly different characters, but a shared desire to make money holds their relationship together.

At almost any time you can hold down on the D-pad and switch between them. Where they are, and what they're doing, is completely random, but dictated by their personalities. Michael will be sitting by the pool, arguing with his wife, or cycling on Vespucci Beach. Franklin will be washing his car, flirting with a girl, or walking his dog, Chop. Trevor will wake up drunk at the top of a mountain wearing a dress, or be in the middle of a police chase in the desert. Remarkably, we didn't see a single repeat of these little vignettes until about 40 hours in - and even then, new ones still crop up.

Each character has their own separate set of personal stats - things like stamina, driving, flying, shooting, lung capacity, and strength - which increase as you play. Take flying lessons at the airport and planes will be easier to control; complete a triathlon and you'll be able to sprint for longer; fire off a few rounds at the shooting range and your aim will be steadier. This means that even when you're not on a mission, you're still making progress. Hiking to the top of Mt. Chiliad, playing a few games of tennis, or going for a joyride in a supercar isn't just fun, but also actively improves your character.

"Missions range from car chases to elaborate James Bond-style stunts"

There are missions where the characters work alone. Michael dealing with his unruly kids, Franklin repossessing cars, or Trevor clashing with rival drug dealers. But it's when they team up that the character-switching system comes into its own. If you're assaulting a group of enemies, Trevor could rush in head-on while Michael lays down sniper cover from a nearby hill. Then, taking advantage of the distraction, Franklin can sneak in through a side entrance with a silenced pistol. But that's just one arbitrary example; there are countless combinations, and half the fun is experimenting. As you flick from character to character, the AI controls the others in your stead.

Some missions are more scripted, with specific roles assigned to the team. In one, Trevor pilots a helicopter and Michael fires at pursuing enemies from the back seat, while Franklin covers them both with a rifle from the roof of a nearby skyscraper. To give the characters some distinction, they each have limited-use special abilities that are activated by clicking both sticks. Franklin slows time while driving, allowing him to regain control after skidding out or weave between cars, Michael slows time in combat for more precise headshots, and Trevor can go into a rage, soaking up, and dishing out, more damage. Franklin's is the most consistently useful, especially on traffic-clogged freeways.

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One of the biggest improvements over previous games is mission design. There's no 'drive character X from A to B' filler here; each one feels unique, with bespoke mechanics like spying on people with a police helicopter's on-board camera, hacking traffic lights to guide a getaway car through downtown Los Santos, or using a smartphone app to track someone. Missions range from traditional car chases and shootouts to elaborate James Bond-style stunts, and a few surreal moments that wouldn't feel out of place in a Saints Row game. Heists are the showcase missions: big, dramatic, and open-ended, with multiple ways to pull them off. How they play out, and how much money you make, depends on your approach, and the crew you pick.

"Heists are the showcase missions: big, dramatic, and open-ended"

It's the most forgiving game in the series, with generous checkpoints and AI that can take care of itself. This will be music to the ears of anyone who watched a bumbling Phil Bell repeatedly die in IV's 'Catch the Wave'. It never feels unfair, and if you fail, it's usually your fault - like the race we lost by instinctively swerving to avoid a deer that darted out in front of our car. The real challenge lies in earning gold medals by finishing missions in a certain way: not taking damage, making a perfect landing in a plane, killing a set number of goons, etc. If you don't score gold the first time, completed missions can be replayed at any time from the pause menu.

Vehicle handling lies somewhere between the sticky arcade controls of the GTA III-era games, and the weighty, physics-driven cars of IV. They're grippier and easier to handle, but not so much that it feels unrealistic or simplistic. There's still a marked difference between vehicle classes; trucks feel weighty, muscle cars roar satisfyingly as you tear down the streets, and supercars are light and responsive. The driving is simply more fun, and you'll spend less time flipped over on your roof. Aircraft are simple to fly, although compensating for turbulence wobble takes some getting used to.

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Combat is better, with a snappy cover system. Cars and weapons can be customised. You can give the characters haircuts and beards. You can invest in properties with your hard-earned money, or play the stock market, assassinating CEOs to affect their company's stock price. Snap a picture with your phone and you can share it on Facebook. Franklin's dog can be trained and taken on missions. There's just so much stuff, and none of it feels lazy or half-baked. The golf mini-game is a pretty decent golf game. Same with tennis. Open world games are notorious for shameless padding, but Rockstar has managed to avoid this, besides a few optional 'collect X things' missions.

We've said enough. Part of Grand Theft Auto V's magic is discovery, and enjoying the thrilling, unpredictable ride the story takes you on. Whether you're in the thick of a bank heist or exploring the wilderness listening to Johnny Cash on the country station, it always feels tight, refined, and polished. The world is breathtaking, the script is funny, the music is superb (both the licensed tracks and the atmospheric original score), and, most of all, it's really, really fun.

The verdict

Sprawling, thrilling, and beautiful. The best Grand Theft Auto yet.

  • A vast, varied world filled with things to do
  • Funny, well-acted script
  • Character-switching works brilliantly
10
Format
PlayStation 3
Developer
Rockstar
Publisher
Rockstar
Genre
Action, Shoot 'em Up, Adventure

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