We're perched on the leg of a helicopter hovering high above GTAV's west coast, the sprawling countryside that is Blaine County. Rockstar momentarily hold off on commencing the leisurely skydive that'll wind us through the mountain ranges as part of the introductory tour of their new vision.
Instead, they pan the camera over dirt roads that riddle the hills below, the huge body of water that reflects the day's sun, and point out the outline of the city of Los Santos and its skyscrapers shimmering in the far distance. As they finally take the leap into the blue, we spot a massive jet just taking off from a military base to our right.
The thought that we could no longer be dazzled by draw distance or scale this generation is dashed in this punchy snapshot. We glance below the TV to confirm that yes, this is running on a PS3, not PC. Not next-gen. Yet the console's managing to trot out a vast landscape without so much as a twinge in its frame rate or a drop in detail. As we already feel the urge to go exploring, a brief but compelling list of features of what lies out there amongst the horizon is rattled off to further entice us: all of it tailored towards extreme diversity, both geographic and cultural.
For Los Santos and Blaine County, that means everything between campers fishing in bubbling streams on a sun-kissed woodland, to ex-actors selling their descent into vice to any willing ear on the corner of Vinewood Boulevard. We spot wild cats haunting the mountain passes, hear about biker gangs patrolling the inner-city streets. You'll find a new sin or distraction down every street, around every corner, and as a first for the series, everything's open from the very start of the game. Go see, explore, experience what you want. Rockstar may have built the world, but we'll be the ones living in it.
But all that we'll get to. First we get a guided tour to what's changed for GTAV as the parachute is deployed mid-jump and Rockstar steer the first of the game's three protagonists, repo man Franklin, over the mountain ranges on a sightseeing tour. The game will be built round the trio of very different personalities: Franklin will be joined by retired criminal Michael and his ex-occasional partner in crime Trevor.
The narrative will play out akin to a TV series, with individual plot lines interweaving at certain points as story dictates. But at any point during the game, you can bring up a character selection wheel and flip between any of the three anti-heroes. Each will carry on their day regardless of whether you're wearing their skin or not. Off-mission, it means you can transplanting into places and situations that'll surprise. Mid-mission - well, we'll get to that too.
The switch system's fast and slick: a quick tap and we pull out to a overhead map; there's a quick pan and zoom and - boom - we're in someone else's shoes.
The idea is to give you a better overview of the different livelihoods, perspectives and - there's that word again - diversity of the sprawl. In today's demo we get a glimpse of those lives - skydiving with Franklin, wandering the city streets with Michael, waking up near-naked on a corpse-covered beach with Trevor, who needs to make a swift exit by boat (the ex-army pilot's already becoming a favourite in our eyes).
Across all three's lives and the world they live in lies the shadow of a cowboy. The impact of Red Dead Redemption is felt throughout GTAV. The 2010 western is referenced repeatedly during the walkthrough, lessons learnt from it implemented in a modern day setting. Los Santos residents now share space with the local wildlife and its thriving ecosystem. On his way to landing Franklin skims over the head of a mountain cat prowling through the woods. Shortly after, while we're driving through the hills surrounding Los Santos with Michael, we watch the car in front slam into a spooked deer that's dashed out onto the road.
We're driving through the area as the behest of a local celebrity, who sits passenger side and gabbles fearfully as we outrace paparazzi who'd cornered her just off Boulevard. Playing the white knight in shining armour and coming to her rescue is just one of the dynamic missions in the game, popping up as a Question Mark icon on the map when you're nearby and offering optional missions alongside the main story. Her disbelieving chatter at Michael's obliviousness to her fame mid-flight is fantastically delivered: even as GTA V stretches itself to delivering the most realistic sandbox world this generation's seen, it still hasn't lost the humour that's another franchise trademark.
Neither has GTA lost its love of bullet ballets.
Rockstar pay reference to GTAIV's Three Leaf Clover mission, how feedback from that prompted them to examine the setup and carry over aspects from it for Grand Theft Auto V. Heists - and pay attention to that capital 'H' - sound like the showstoppers of the game. Multi-part missions that are big on action and pre-heist planning, that will, for the most part at least, be evenly spread across the game.
The ability to plan every detail of a Heist before kick-off, as well as recruit crews for these jobs, and worry about the split in profit after, would be any other developer's whole game. Here they're just one bullet point of many. The mission we see today is only a heist - lower case 'h' - but gives a teaser as to what we'd should expect from the big league missions.
Cue cutscene and we watch the three divide up jobs with the intention of robbing a security truck. Michael drives a garbage van to a prearranged point to block both lanes of a quiet road, and in a nearby alley Franklin sits ready in another truck. Up on a rooftop close by, Trevor keeps watch with binoculars...and an assortment of weaponry. All are decked out in dirty overalls and ski masks. Van, truck, disguises and, as we'll soon see, escape route - all need to be sorted and sourced before the mission begins proper.
During the build-up to the robbery, as well as amidst the hell on earth that erupts after when the police descend into the area, a dynamic score plays out, paced and pitched in time with events on-screen. Fifteen minutes earlier when we were floating through the sky, this wholly-original score is tranquil, peaceful. As the robbery plans start to unfold, there's a faster-paced but subtle beat that has us tapping our toe in anticipation. There may have been one during the ensuing firefight, but our ears are too deafened by gunfire to pick up on it.
The score's range is amazing, and so consistently perfect with exactly what's going on that moment that we can't help but fall in love with it immediately. It's an idea welcomed from RDR, and like the western, the score will only erupt in your ears when needed.
During the heist (small 'h'), we cut between the characters, first at the game's behest, to set the scene and to also give us an understanding of the space we'll be operating in for the next short while.
We get to play the important beats of the story - Michael driving to the hit point and pulling the van in place, Franklin roaring down the adjacent alley and into the side of the security truck that's just been stopped by our makeshift barricade - but as wailing police sirens come closer and we transfer into a street gunfight, it's up to us who we want to play and when. Michael and Franklin jump behind nearby barricades, and it's cue battle royale with the police.
Switch-outs mid-mission are instantaneous, and purposefully not only give you a better view of the unfolding chaos but grant you a tactical edge in battle. The idea is that there'll never be a dull moment. AI will handle your companions fine, but you'll want to switch from Franklin's frontline defence to Michael charging officers sweeping round from a side alley. Or providing covering fire as Trevor, cutting down police on-foot with a sniper rifle, or downing a chopper with a rocket launcher.
The escape, you - Rockstar in this case - planned earlier. They follow a pre-planned route on the map GPS to dump the truck under a freeway bridge, torch it and jump into a sports car planted nearby earlier to clear the area. As it is with them, so it'll be with you: you choose the what and where of your getaway.
This is just a small sampling of what's to come, but the pre-planning is a canny move. Not only does it give you more personal investment in the story, but it gently directs, and rewards, players for exploring their city for potential blind spots, vehicles, disguises and more. Given the size of the game - bigger than San Andreas, Liberty City and RDR combined - that's a lot of ground to cover.
But then, there's plenty to see, watch and do. Trevor's split of the game demo pre-heist has Rockstar dropping anchor somewhere in the ocean and pitching him over the side for some scuba-diving. They swim past the remains of a huge oil ship, broken and decaying on the ocean floor, as well as other divers...and sharks. Cue a quick trip back up to the surface, and we leave Trevor bobbing on the waves with fins cutting the water around him.
You'll be able to keep in touch with contacts, browse the internet and social feeds through your mobile, back at the bottom right of the screen, but the new device has a few modern day adjustments, such as being able to snap photos and upload them to Social Club.
Even if you're not feeling social there's plenty going on. You can see in the day or night with TV shows, go to yoga, play golf, tennis. Customise your ride, your guns, yourself.
Character stats are back, and each protagonist will have their own special ability: Franklin can slow time will driving, Michael the same during gunfights. Given he's more eager to use a fist as a full stop to a conversation, it makes sense Trevor's ability is to deal out more damage during fights, while curbing the damage he'd normally be dealt in response.
It all tots up to a staggeringly impressive first impression... with one potential problem: Rockstar's working hard in offering the most diverse, open-ended, wide-ranging sandbox world of this or any other generation. It's a welcoming premise that we've already got itchy feet for the wish to explore it. Going in and experiencing it isn't the problem: leaving it any time soon may be.
Take it from us: you may want to leave the schedule clear between September and the end of the year. What year? We'll tell you when we finally leave Los Santos. (It may be some time).
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