Grand Theft Auto 5 takes an unblinking look at the dark side of American culture while returning Rockstar's open-world series to its Bacchanalian roots
'Grand Theft Auto' isn't just a video game franchise. It's shorthand for an entire genre of games. Any title that contains a vast, sprawling map in which players tool about using firearms and vehicles to make mischief - such as Saints Row 4 and Sleeping Dogs to the upcoming Watch Dogs - is tagged as 'GTA-esque'.
So when a series looms so large over the gaming medium, how has the developer gone about keeping it fresh while giving fans the experience they crave and expect from Grand Theft Auto 5?
Grand Theft Auto 5: Gameplay
GTA 5's first innovative step is to plonk players in the shoes of not one, but three protagonists, which they can then switch between on the fly. In missions that involve all three, players are given a tactical edge, as they're effectively given three vantage points to view the action through.
Can't target an enemy with a clear shot with one character? Simply switch over to a second character that just happens to be situated in a raised position with a sniper rifle.
In some missions, GTA V's multi-pronged interface offers different ways of playing the same mission. In one instance, players can cover one character with a sniper rifle as they sneak onto a boat, or they can play the character on the boat and transform the experience from a shooter to stealth mission.
The quick-change mechanic also keeps the action moving at a pace. Finished a mission but don't fancy the lengthy drive to the next one, which just happens to be on the other side of the map? Simply switch characters and get stuck right back into the action.
Every mission has a rating – ranging from Bronze up to Gold – and a list of mini-activities players need to clock in order to score a 100 per cent completion. For the first time in this series, players now have the option of going back and replaying any mission they've attempted at any point in the game they choose.
The missions themselves vary from tried and tested templates familiar to GTA fans to some truly imaginative action-packed shenanigans we won't spoil for you here. The centrepieces of GTA 5, however, are the Heist missions.
Grand Theft Auto 5: Heists
At certain points during GTA 5's narrative, players will be given a target to take down. In the past, this sort of activity would simply take the form of a self-contained mission, but here, players have two approaches in how they tackle a score. They're initially briefed on their options and are able to pick out crew members to assist on the job.
Each member will want a percentage of the take and usually their percentage reflects how skilled they are at what they do. Crew members also improve with each score, but their percentage doesn't, so it's possible to level a rubbish hacker, for example, up to the point where he's rather good at his job, but he'll still only ask for 4 per cent of the score.
Once the method and crew are selected, players may find they have to scour the city for some equipment – like high-grade military tech for a bank job or a fast car stashed in a parking lot for a getaway. Once all the equipment is assembled, the heist commences and, without giving too much away – because really, they house some of the best moments in the game – it's some of the best game design Rockstar has pumped out into the world in ages.
All the GTA playbook is brought to bear – driving, gunplay, precise timing and the ability to outrun the cops with a four-star wanted level – as the Heist turns from nail-shredding tension into a high-octane action set piece.
Not only are the Heists immense fun to play, they feel like a natural evolution in the GTA series. Best of all, a lot of this mayhem has an immediate pay off in the form of cash – once all the crew has taken their cut, naturally.
Grand Theft Auto 5: Features
And there are tons of things players can spend their cash on. Weapons, armour, clothes, masks, car upgrades, custom jobs and properties and businesses are all up for grabs. As was the case with GTA 4, GTA 5 is set on a sprawling map filled with activities to occupy players for ages.
Los Santos is Rockstar's cracked version of Los Angeles and anyone who has been to the City of Angels will crack a wry smile at the recognisable landmarks and neighbourhoods it contains.
The city is simply bursting with events and mini-games. Players can take part in a round of golf, a game of tennis or even attempt a triathlon. They can improve their aim at a firing range, transport contraband via land or air or engage in a spot of skydiving. Incidentally, each time you use one of the three characters in the game in some sort of activity, you level up their abilities.
If you play a lot of tennis, your stamina will go up. Spend some time at a firing range and your skill in firearms will increase. No activity is a waste and God knows, there's enough of them to keep players engaged for hours.
The map of Los Santos also feels looser, less claustrophobic than GTA 4's Liberty City. While we at T3 love 2008's Rockstar flagship release, we have to confess that the constraints of the Liberty City gridlock prompted us to drop a small fortune on cabs.
This hasn't been the case in Los Santos; it's possible to navigate the streets, highways, back roads and off-road routes without taking your foot off the gas and given the beauty and attention to detail of the world around you, driving for extended periods never feels like a chore.
In truth GTA 5 harkens back to the Bacchanalian sense of chaotic freedom that existed in the earliest third-person GTA games (III, Vice City and San Andreas). In Los Santos, you're restricted only by a lack of attention and your lack of imagination. This is a town where you can enjoy a rollercoaster ride, race down the side of a mountain on a bicycle or buy a parachute, nick a dirt bike and then head off into the hills for a spot of motorised base jumping.
Grand Theft Auto 5: Plot
There's also a rather decent story underpinning all of this action – even though it will strike fans of the gritty GTA 4 as somewhat more hyper and more deranged. Rockstar North has always presented GTA as a twisted satire on American culture, but given the extreme turn politics and media in the USA have taken in recent years, GTA 5's satirical edge is sharp enough to sever bone.
The three protagonists at the centre of GTA 5 are all pretty unsympathetic characters, although it's a testament to how well written they are that they're not bad company for the 26+ hours it'll take players to blaze through the main story mode.
Franklin is a hustler from a rundown area of Los Santos who has grown tired of boosting cars for a repo business and is looking to make his mark as a professional criminal. His job causes him to cross paths with Michael, a retired heist man who is being driven slowly insane by his selfish family.
Franklin's looking for a mentor. Michael, even though he initially doesn't know it, is looking for a protégé and, most importantly, a way to end the mind-numbing tedium of his day-to-day routine. It's not long before their activities bring them to the attention of Trevor, a violent former partner of Michael's from back in the day. Once he's added to the mix everything goes sideways.
Grand Theft Auto 5: Characters
This trio of characters are pretty hard work initially. Franklin is arguably the most likable of the three, but since he's a criminal on the make, he's hard to root for. Michael, in his own words, is a great thief, but he's pretty much rubbish at everything else; imagine Neil McCauley from the movie Heat stuck in a never-ending episode of The Osbornes and you'll get a clear picture of his existence.
As bad as the pair of them are, however, they're almost angelic when compared to Trevor, who is probably the darkest anti-hero ever created in the gaming medium. A raging psychotic driven by equal parts speed and hatred, Trevor comes across more of a force of nature than an actual person.
He's erudite and intelligent, but wholly nihilistic and completely unpredictable. He's the sort of bloke you'd cross the street to avoid. Trevor is as likely to slit your throat as he is to defecate on your carpet as he is to offer you a lift to work – all depending on how badly hungover he is.
GTA 5 reads like a black mirror to 2008's GTA 4. In that release, the over-arching theme was the promise of the American Dream, wherein the game's protagonist, Niko Bellic came to the States hoping to find success and a clean slate.
Due to the fact that Niko excelled at hurting and killing other people, he achieved the former, but not the latter. GTA 4 seemed to be saying the American Dream is still possible for those with exceptional ability – no matter how questionable – but violence begets violence and success through violence comes with a cost.
GTA 5 is a rough ride through the American Nightmare. Here, all three protagonists are homegrown and all three are motivated solely by money and their primal desires. Franklin wants to make his paper and boost his rep. Michael wants the buzz he experiences during heists to alleviate the crushing boredom of domestic life. Trevor wants whatever he wants whenever he wants it. If any of their desires conflict with the survival of anyone in their vicinity, well then, that's just too bad.
Los Santos is the perfect backdrop to the sociopathic desires of the protagonists. The city itself is a bastion to unbridled consumerism and physical self-obsession. The outlying areas feel like a land that time forgot and the desert regions of the map are filled with meth-labs and nutcases and feel closer to Mad Max than LA. Most of the characters in the game are relentlessly hateful and the game's story, while engaging, can wear on the player, given how negative it all feels.
Grand Theft Auto 5: Verdict
But maybe that's the point. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a lot like its forebears in how it unblinkingly satirises American culture and perhaps the extreme nature of where the States are at present simply makes Rockstar's piss-take seem more dystopian than ever. You know you're in trouble when Weasel News on GTA sounds almost like an actual Fox News broadcast.
GTA 5 is gleefully misanthropic, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun to play and it's a staggering technical achievement to boot. It's easily one of 2013's essential titles and one of the best games released all year. And there's still GTA Online to look forward to…
Grand Theft Auto release date: 17 September 2013
Grand Theft Auto price: £39.99