It's someway through the story (but by count of the overall play time, still early on in the game) when a laughing, crazed GTAV figuratively beats the snot out of its dour predecessor.
It's a reaffirmation of the message that been evident from the start of the game. We're all in sun-kissed Los Santos for one reason: to have a good time. And Rockstar makes sure good times are had. GTAV is the life of the sandbox party, a celebration of everything that can be done right with the genre.
It's fun, entertaining. Dazzling with inventiveness and spectacle. Bloody hilarious at points. Even the darker sections are veined with humour. Grand Theft Auto V is the finest game Rockstar have ever produced and is one of best experiences this console generation. What started as a joke months ago has proven to be a serious point: the game's good argument against the need to transfer to next-gen.
We've been living in Los Santos for almost a week now, and every night we're going to bed late buzzing from what we've experienced and sporting a huge grin on our face at what we've seen. The game has refused to be uninteresting. Whether we're freely exploring the world or lining up one escalating mission after another, it's just a blast to play. Everything's been engineered to be as enjoyable as possible, and polished to near-perfection.
We need to talk visuals, because that's the first thing that'll make your jaw drop (and won't be the last). We're playing our review copy on Xbox 360 (full disclosure - a Slim model) and the studio continually surprise at what it can do with ageing hardware, to the extent you'll question what a next generation version could possibly do better.
Whether we're cannoning through Los Santos downtown in a sports car at excessive speeds, or flying over mountain stretches by plane or helicopter, a highly-detailed sprawl rolls out as far as the eye can see. Streets are dense with vehicles, NPCs. The countryside's a maze of farms, factories, villas. Hit ocean or lake, and the water ebbs and rolls, waves jostle your boat or jet-ski realistically. Duck underwater and see fish dart between reefs. Not once does the game chug, nor screen tear. There's the ever-so-rare frame rate drop, and look close and you can spot some buildings or mountains loading in their detail as you draw close, even with the game installed onto the HD. Yet even with these blips, what Rockstar are achieving is damn near miraculous.
There's lots to see, lots to do.
The creators remind us there's an art to crafting sandbox worlds. GTAV's is fascinating in its design; we've been to Los Angeles a couple of times over the years, and the reproduction of its areas creates an odd sense of deja-vu (we stumbled on a replica of a burger joint we ate at, and a stretch of street that echoed a regular morning coffee haunt of ours). It's not photorealistic, but it is evocative of what's there. The city and its surrounding countryside is as much a character as the people you play.
There's beauty even in the smaller details. Rockstar plays with colour and light to great effect. There's a vividness and richness to the sky and city that'll force you to pull over mid-mission just to appreciate yet another sunrise or make a detour to a cliffside observatory just so you can look over the city as it glitters in the night. One optional race had us pass the finishing line by a beach just as the sun was setting. The sunset demands you stop and soak it in. Wait until you experience your first thunderstorm...
They've pulled together so many references, yet there's a cheeky casualness in that detail. There's a thousand different road signs and graffiti you may never see or read - you may never drive through that side-street, nor pan the camera just right in that pedestrian area - but they're there. That's even true of under the waves. There's a whole other sandbox world underwater that you may never explore. Yet Rockstar are meticulous. The boast of the biggest, most interesting sandbox world proves true.
You see this world through three different sets of eyes (a fourth will be added come October, as Rockstar introduce GTA Online and your custom character continues the story), three very different types of criminal. Retired thief Michael, repo man Franklin and the ex-pilot / full-time nut job that is Trevor.
Their presence allows Rockstar to show a cross-section of the city and its surrounding country - different clothing, cars, livelihoods, class divides - at the touch of a button. Unless story points dictate otherwise, outside missions you're free to flick between all three characters. The transition, with a camera pull out and up, and a drop down to where the other character, is measured in the seconds. The illusion that these characters are still living their lives outside your direct influence is well done, as we drop in on a variety of situations that are just drawing to a close.
GTAV's character switch may be its greatest asset. Each character has, at any one time, a handful of missions - main story or otherwise - and a bundle of side pursuits. Other than Franklin's penchant for tow truck missions early on, individual arcs fire out interesting, and varied, gameplay objectives right from the off, with missions tailored to particular character traits.
We find ourselves wanting to try everything on the strength of dialogue alone, but optional objectives are inventive as well. In one lengthier stretch as Trevor, we dropped off a drunk, not at his home as we promised, but a cult's mountain retreat (just for laughs). We stumbled across the epilogue of a cartel shoot-out and were pursued by latecomers when we stole the leftover cash (ending in a freeway shootout halfway round the island). Shortly after we were racing to a hospital to get another criminal who'd been involved in a car crash medical attention. (We failed, and spent the next fifteen minutes driving around with a corpse in the passenger seat).
GTAV's missions are stuff you'll be talking about with friends long after. We're not going to spoil them. You'll never be able to second-guess what Rockstar will throw at you next, but you'll be laughing in amazement when they deliver time and time again, and how they keep introducing one-off new mechanics to fit with the mission type. Few developers could make even a Yoga mini-game interesting and difficult.
Every mission has multiple mini-objectives that you're scored on, their existence not flagged until afterwards. They usually point out a particular way of completion you hadn't even thought possible. At any point you're free to reload missions and go for gold without the backtrack messing with your current progress.
Individually the three perspectives work well. But separate stories gradually start overlapping and when two, or even three of the protagonists come together for missions, Rockstar make sure to make best use of the character switch.
Heists, which were an early preview headline, aren't quite as free-form as you'd expect, giving you the choice of a few options (such as stealth or violent) during planning stages that you then carry out to the letter. Letting you source outfits and pick up essentials as part of the planning stages however, play out as missions in their own right, and make you feel like you're building towards something larger.
Character switches are sometimes enforced, or at least heavily suggested, during joint missions. But Rockstar are only pulling you towards where the action is, or the main thrust of that particular story line. You learn to trust the developers to always put you in the eye of the bullet storm.
Each character has a list of varying stats, all of which can be improved through activities during the game. The initial percentages are based around each character's particular skill set. Franklin for instance is the better driver, but if you continue to race with the other two they'll gradually earn XP - and you can eventually feel the difference in the car handling.
The trio also have unique skills, accessible by clicking in the two thumb sticks and usage measured by a rapidly-depleting on-screen bar. Franklin's initiates slow-mo while driving, letting him make sharp turns and steer through tight corridors. Michael's slow-mo kicks in while shooting, letting him score precision shots. Trevor's skill lets him take less damage yet deal out double during firefights. The trio's jobs during missions to make best use of these specials (though Rockstar enjoy mixing it up so things aren't too easy for you) which are slowly recharged during normal play.
Gunplay mechanics are solid in GTAV. Rockstar have continued to evolve their cover system this gen, and joined by a (optional) over-the-shoulder camera option, great gun FX and a fantastic original score, firefights become something to enjoy rather than fear in Los Santos. While intense when they break out, their difficulty veers towards the easy most times (there are mid-mission difficulty spikes though). Repeated mission failure is never due to control, but because of your sheer bloody cockiness. Ammu-Nation stores are littered throughout the city and sell armour as well as weapon upgrades, while Customs garages let you outfit your rides with bullet-proof tyres.
You need to chew up a lot of road to get to mission checkpoints. Luckily then that car handling is simply sublime in GTAV. Zipping through traffic in a sports car or bike feels as intoxicating as some proper racing titles, with the merest touch of the stick twitching your ride out of harms way. With long highways, winding country roads and small city streets, we were happily driving for the sheer enjoyment of it, zooming miles past our intended destination.
Rockstar digs just deep enough across all aspects of the game. There's car (street and off-road) and jet-ski racing, a fully-fledged tennis game that's a rough approximation of Virtua Tennis. Eighteen holes at the nearest golf course. The studio didn't need to put these mini-games in, but they did, and they're not tossed in to fill the map: they're good. You can buy properties, or play in the stock market. Even if none of that interests, there's still plenty to keep your attention.
They say it's the most expensive game ever made, and you can see every Los Santos dollar up there on screen. This is a huge game, a beautiful game. Your jaw will drop as far in the twentieth hour as it did the second at what you see. You'll laugh with these guys at their jokes, and get their predicaments - the cast is well-written, and well-acted. (Special mention must go to Trevor, who comes across as Hunter S. Thompson if the writer decided to take up crime instead). You want to see how things pan out for them.
Every percentage closer to that 100% completion is somewhat a torture because we know it'll be over. See everything, and you'll be well past thirty hours of gameplay. Yet we know as soon as we finish, we'll start again, try and squeeze in another play through before GTA Online kicks in come October. We wish we could play it like its the first time again.
Even as we type this our foot's tapping to wrap up so we can jump back in; go dirt bike riding across the mountains. Steal a cargo plane and go skydiving. Hunt deer in the forest, try and track down the perfect motorcycle. Even just park our car near the beach and toggle through the radio stations.
We'll see you in Los Santos - because why would you want to be anywhere else right now?
10 / 10
+ fantastic car control
+ diverse missions
+ great story, likeable cast
+ character switches keep you in the action
- tow truck missions
- it's got to end at some point
- original score audio too quiet