With a budget larger than Marvel's The Avengers and a map so substantial that it dwarfs past open-world games, it's natural to be overwhelmed by the excess of Grand Theft Auto V. However, it's not the size or ambition of Rockstar's newest open-world sandbox game that sticks with me, but rather how small and personal the experience is.
Now don't misunderstand, there's absolutely nothing small about San Andreas. This fictional state not only includes Los Santos -- a blatant parody of Los Angeles, complete with their own Hollywood sign -- but also several beach communities and a large mountain range. The state is so massive that Grand Theft Auto V offers two different maps to help keep you from getting lost. Whether by car, motorcycle, boat or airplane, I can't imagine anybody being disappointed in the size of this game.
But once you get past the overwhelming size of the map, the game leaves you with a story that is surprisingly small in scope when compared to past Grand Theft Auto games. This isn't anything like 2004's San Andreas, in which our hero goes on a fantastical journey across the state meeting new people and getting into big adventures. Instead we get a more focused story about three thieves looking to pull off the ultimate heist.
We are first introduced to Franklin Clinton, a street thug looking for a way out of the ghetto. He sees the gang violence around him and knows he needs a change of scenery, but his best friend Lamar is content to hustle and pull off shady jobs for cash. Franklin spends his time repossessing cars, which is where he meets the second star of Grand Theft Auto V -- Michael De Santa.
Unlike the 25-year-old Clinton, Michael is a middle-aged bank robber who is enjoying the finer elements of retirement. Instead of dodging cops and stealing money, the 45-year-old retiree is suffering in a loveless marriage with two misbehaving children. He has a nice house, an expensive ride and all the amenities he could possibly want, yet there's an emptiness quietly eating away at him.
Perhaps it's not emptiness that is keeping him up at night, but rather guilt. Years earlier, Michael was part of a botched heist in Canada that sends one person to the morgue and the other on the run down to San Andreas. Enter Trevor Philips, who is has spent the last decade believing Michael was dead. As you can imagine, things get sticky when Trevor realizes that he's been lied to and his former partner has been living the good life in Los Santos.
Finally we have Trevor, who is a mentally unstable psychopath, something of a cross between the Joker and Sam Kinison. He's unpredictable and just about anything will send him into a violent rage, making him the absolute worst person to be part of any team. Unfortunately, neither Michael nor Franklin has much choice in the matter.
Instead of using this jumping off point to weave an over-the-top story, the developers at Rockstar Games keep things grounded and relatively simple. With only a few exceptions, the story revolves around the fallout that came from that botched heist. We quickly learn that Michael is in deep with the Feds, to the point where he's forced to do their dirty work. And now that Trevor is back in town, things are about to get hairy for the retired thief.
When they're not dealing with the nastiest people in all of Los Santos, Michael, Franklin and Trevor will be setting up a series of heists. Things start out simple as our "heroes" rob a jewelry store, however it won't take long for the trio to set their sights for a much larger score. These three men are about to become multi-millionaires ... if they don't end up turning on each other first.
While certainly unorthodox, having three main characters to jump between allows for better storytelling. Gone are the days when one character is expected to do everything. Now the various types of missions can be divvied up between the different personalities. For example, Trevor's missions are often more violent and outrageous than what his colleagues are involved with. On the other hand, Franklin is a better driver; he ends up getting involved in races and missions that require speedy getaways.
These differences extend beyond their solo missions. Sometimes the full team (or two of its members) will take on a mission, forcing the player to swap between characters on the fly. This is easier than it sounds, and ends up breaking up a lot of the tediousness that was associated with past Grand Theft Auto games. In an aerial getaway, players are able to choose between flying the helicopter or manning the gun. On the ground, it's easy to switch to Trevor up high with a sniper rifle, Michael rushing in with his shotgun and Franklin out front making sure the police don't show up. And best of all, you can quickly switch players with a press of a button.
After playing so many squad-based action games this year (The Bureau, Payday 2, etc.), I can see how this three-man team could have gone very wrong. I'll admit, I was skeptical going in. But it doesn't take more than a few minutes with Grand Theft Auto V to realize that Rockstar Games made the right decision. This one change allows for improved level designs, better storytelling and funny conversational banter.
Outside of missions, players can freely swap between the three characters (unless one or two of them are laying low after a big heist). Each character has different side-missions to take on, as well as friends to visit. Grand Theft Auto V does a good job of giving off the illusion that each character is living a real life in San Andreas, even when you're not controlling them. You don't simply swap to another person; instead you watch a short vignette that shows what each character was doing before you took over. Michael will often be watching TV or playing video games with his son, while Trevor might wake up in the middle of nowhere sporting a woman's dress. With dozens of animations for each character, you won't run into many repeats as you make your way through the 40+ hour adventure.
It doesn't hurt that I genuinely like all three characters. Michael feels like a cross between Tommy Vercetti and the silent protagonist from Grand Theft Auto III. Franklin is level-headed and often the voice of reason. And Trevor is psychotic in all the right ways. Despite their many differences, these three work well together. They have good chemistry, which is not something you find in a lot of video games.
For a lot of people the grounded story and memorable cast of characters comes second to the world itself. This is, after all, a sandbox game. For many people, Grand Theft Auto is all about exploring the large open world and causing havoc. Players will not be disappointed with the diversity of San Andreas. From the quiet beach communities in the north to the sprawling urban landscape of Los Santos in the south, there's something for just about everybody in Grand Theft Auto V.
I don't say that lightly, as you can make a day out of hiking up Mount Chiliad, looking for water in the Grand Senora Desert, diving for sunken treasure in the Alamo Sea, sightseeing in the Vinewood Hills, white water rafting down Lago Zancudo river, biking down Mount Josiah, getting lost in the Banham Canyons, searching for bigfoot in the San Chianski Mountain Range, taking flying lessons at the Los Santos International Airport and trying to figure out where the small town of Grapeseed got its name. And this doesn't even begin to describe the variety of locations in downtown Los Santos.
San Andreas is also home to quite a few different activities, including clothes shopping, strip clubs, movie theaters and competitive races. It doesn't stop there, as Grand Theft Auto V also adds a number of sports, such as golfing, tennis and darts. Still not enough? Perhaps it's time to relax with yoga or a triathlon. And best of all, these various activities are a lot of fun. I was especially impressed with the sports, which were much deeper than I was expecting.
Back at the secret hideout, Michael, Trevor and Franklin are busy setting up a heist. This is one of the biggest changes to the tried and true Grand Theft Auto formula. Instead of simply watching the plan come together, the player finally has some say in how it will all go down. From casing the target to choosing the right people to deciding how to perform the heist, there's a lot riding on the choices the player makes.
Most plans boil down to one of two options, usually involving a sneaky method or a violent one. In the case of the jewelry store, players can storm in and then shoot their way out after they've collected the valuables. Or, if you want to be discrete, you can steal a gas bomb that will put everybody in the store to sleep and allow for a silent getaway.
The six heists are the highlight of Grand Theft Auto V. These are the moments when all three characters are working as a cohesive unit. These situations are tense and full of harrowing moments you'll never forget. Best of all, they are as varied as the San Andreas landscape. Not only are the three thieves going after a different score with each heist, but the way they pull them off is constantly changing. And as plans become more elaborate, our heroes will be forced to track down all the parts needed to pull off a successful hit.
A few fundamental changes to the gameplay will help players pull off the perfect heist. The biggest change has to be the shooting mechanic, which seems to be influenced by last year's Max Payne 3. Pulling the left trigger will snap the cursor to the nearest baddie, while flicking the analog stick will cycle the target from one enemy to the next. This may be the first time where the Grand Theft Auto gunplay is too forgiving.
The vehicle handling has also been improved since Grand Theft Auto IV. Gone is the squirrelly handling that was the bane of every Liberty City motorist. In its place are much more accessible car controls, which felt more like a Burnout-style arcade racing game than a traditional Grand Theft Auto sequel. Unfortunately, the helicopters are still frustratingly difficult to handle.
Even before Franklin gets into his first gun fight, players will notice how good Grand Theft Auto V looks. It's hard to believe that this is a current generation game and not some fancy Xbox One or PlayStation 4 release. The amount of detail in every frame is astounding. It's not just the fully realized world that looks great, it's also the characters. Everybody in the game looks incredibly lifelike, complete with realistic facial expressions and dramatic animations.
Make no mistake, this Grand Theft Auto sequel still has some of the roughness that plagues all open-world sandbox games. You'll see the occasional garbage can pop-in and the animation doesn't always run at a consistent speed. The good news is that I found Grand Theft Auto V to be far more stable than the typical Rockstar release. I ran into no game-breaking glitches and the long-awaited sequel never once froze on me. Even the pop-ins are minor when compared to Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire.
There is an inherent problem with reviewing a game as vast as Grand Theft Auto V. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to cover everything the game has to offer. I'm 2,000 words in and I have yet to talk about the mesmerizing water effects (complete with an underwater seabed to explore), the radio stations (with more than a dozen stations and over 200 songs), stock market trading (which you can manipulate) and so much more. And let's not forget about Grand Theft Auto Online, an ambitious 16-player mode that launches in October.
At its core, Grand Theft Auto V is a commentary on the best and worst in society. Rockstar has something to say about reality TV shows, violent video games, endless war, the bankers tanking the economy, legalized marijuana and even torture. This is a vicious indictment of the Californian way of life. It isn't afraid to go after the right, left, rich, poor, white, black, gay, straight and everything in between. It's both funny and thought-provoking, occasionally pushing the bar to make its point.
Even if you couldn't care less about the political messages the game is making, Grand Theft Auto V offers a compelling story about three bank robbers on a mission to get rich and break free of the past. It also offers a giant world to explore, complete with dozens of worthwhile activities and the promise of an ever-changing online experience. There's flying, boating, driving, hiking, swimming, skydiving and so much more to see and do in San Andreas. Grand Theft Auto V is Rockstar Games at their most confident.