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14th November 2013

Grand Theft Auto V

Tom Cottrell explores everything Los Santos has to offer in Rockstar’s latest ambitious offering.

If you’ve seen a bus, a billboard, watched TV, listened to the radio or ventured onto the internet at any time over the last month, you’ve noticed that this launch was big. And there is good reason for the fuss, GTA holds a special place among games. The series is as famous as Mario (even your gran knows that you can get your money back from hookers if you kill them afterwards), and infamous as proof that not all games are for kids.

But was the most expensive game ever made worth its $170 million budget? After the five year wait since GTA IV, fans might be barely able to wait another moment to dive back into this world of violence and mayhem. They will have to contain themselves a little longer, as the mandatory 8GB will delay them by around a quarter of an hour. It would be wise to use this time to load up on snacks to sustain you for the next few days because, once you get underway, you will be loath to put your controller down for any length of time.

Right off the bat two things become clear. Firstly, that Rockstar Games are still in the business of telling engaging, character driven and morally complex stories. Secondly, that this game is even more about freedom than previous titles. This freedom stems not only from the open world nature of the game that we have come to expect of the franchise, but also from the ability to switch between multiple playable characters. This mechanic is introduced very early on and is as intuitive and as well executed as you could hope and you will use it often. Sometimes, because the complicated and intertwined story that the characters are experiencing demands that you see events from a range of perspectives. Other times because in the middle of a mission you may find it useful to switch to another character to provide cover for the first. Occasionally, even because you have gotten carried away exploring the vast map and want to cause havoc in the city immediately without driving (or flying) all the way home.

Characters also have their own unique ability that can be activated for short periods to get you out of a tight spot. For instance, the streetwise Franklin finds himself able to turn sharp corners at 90 miles per hour to evade police, whereas the more professional Michael can use bullet time much like Max Payne. More reason why the ability to instantly switch characters improves the experience and the gameplay.

Freedom is also a key part of the events of the game. Rockstar have taken certain events from recent history to the extreme that you would expect of GTA to ask questions about the role of liberty in Western and, in particular, American society. The Los Santos setting lends immediate rise to Hollywood parallels, and fun is poked at the excesses and hypocrisies of people with the financial freedom to do more or less as they please. However there are other pertinent questions asked that aren’t a laughing matter. One scene in particular most would find distasteful, bordering on shocking. It pushes the envelope even for a game famous partly for its highly adult content (you’ll know that bit when you see it). All of which could leave the game as an overly gritty, self-serious affair if not for the important inclusion of some elements that are downright zany. The recently introduced right to smoke marijuana in parts of America makes an appearance in Los Santos, leading to some psychedelic side missions that are a light-hearted and funny diversion from the heavier plot material.

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We also see the return of a levelling mechanic, whereby each character begins with different starting stats (for instance Franklin is good at driving whereas Michael is better at shooting), which can then be improved fairly quickly through gunfights, driving, tennis or plain brawling. Given the estimated 100+ hours it takes to play the whole of the missions alone most can expect to see their character improve without any need for grinding. Missions have a degree of replay value for those perfectionists who want to not only complete every mission, but also achieve every sub-objective on offer. The mini-games are fun and accessible, and games like tennis and golf are much more substantial than just a 10 minute diversion. The old pastime of causing trouble until the police finally catch up to your maxed-out wanted level is still well suited to the world of Los Santos.

Rockstar have here constructed a complete, vibrant world that is richly populated and seems to exist when the player isn’t looking just as much as when they are. When changing to a new character we are given a glimpse of what the character was doing unsupervised before the change in control, there is a stock market running in the background and radio stations run as many stories that are nothing to do with your antics as ones that are. The world is also fleshed out by the addition of random encounters a la Red Dead Redemption, where an exploration of the city is met with the optional, welcome interruption of a small side mission that could offer anything from a gunfight to more character exposition.

GTA V is a culmination of Rockstar’s talents, the finer elements of their previous titles combined with fresh ideas that shake up the open-world format, and the game is all the better for it. They have proven here that they are the best at what they do, and what they do isn’t always very nice.

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