Relax – it was worth the wait, and then some. The sprawling, ingenious, hilarious Grand Theft Auto 5 is a contender for the best game of the current generation of consoles, and might just be the best game of all time.
It's certainly the most anticipated game of all time, with millions of pre-orders. The five years since GTA 4 has been excruciating, rising to unbearable as each spine-tingling detail has emerged in the months leading up to this. The fact that GTA 5 not so much meets those massive expectations as smashes them out of the park is quite incredible, and despite a misstep or two (and a whacking great dollop of immaturity), we urge you to drop what you're doing and buy it. Right now.
Grand Theft Auto V presents an incredibly detailed world that’s packed full of things to do, but that’s become par for the course for GTA. What actually turns out to be the most noteworthy and unexpected thing about GTA V is its three-character structure, which really changes up the game’s narrative and gameplay structure.
The three main characters are compelling in their own unique ways, and act with a distinct set of motives. Michael is a master thief who cashed out for a life of luxury, while Trevor is his one-time partner in crime, who’s now peddling meth in a trailer park. Franklin is the most traditional GTA-style lead - a small-time crook with big-time ambitions whom Michael takes under his wing.
The interplay between the three characters is what makes the game so compelling. Each has his own very different motivations, resulting in some excellent cut-scenes in the Hollywood-quality story. Switching characters during missions adds more variety to proceedings, not to mention more tactical possibilities and increased replay value. It's basically up to you whether you stick with one character throughout a mission, or play as Michael as he goes in guns blazing, then switch to Trevor so you can be the one driving the getaway car. Away from the missions, moving between characters reveals some brilliantly observed incidental details that offer a glimpse into the everyday life of each character.
What the hell am I doing living in LA?
While GTA IV’s Liberty City was impressive, the scale of GTA V’s world is on a whole other level. From a technical perspective, it encapsulates a space of land that’s supposedly bigger than GTA: San Andreas, GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption put together - we were still discovering new areas of the map 30 hours into the game. On an artistic level, San Andreas is even more astounding - from the gorgeous beaches to the trashy trailer parks, the level of detail in the world is nothing short of astonishing. The only downside is this ambition slightly exceeds previous-gen hardware, with a frame rate that can slow when you’re racing at speed through the populated streets. So the next-gen version is a worthy investment and the difference in price isn't much either.
The GTA series has provided some incredible moments, whether it’s Michael Jackson playing on the radio when you steal your first car in Vice City, getting into a jet and flying to an entirely new city in San Andreas, or performing a Heat-like bank robbery in GTA IV. GTA V delivers memorable moments like these over and over again. The assignments are wild, imaginative and incredibly varied - just when you’ve told yourself you’ve played the best mission yet, the game throws up another classic.
The new heists are particularly awesome: you have to find the tools, choose your squad, and execute the job across multiple missions. If, like us, you've always assumed that if you turned your bulging brain to crime you'd be completely amazing at it, now you can find out. But beware, like previous GTA games, some missions can be tough, although the generous checkpointing means you at least don’t have to replay long sections over and over.
GTA Online builds on the already huge single player game by adding 500 separate missions, the ability to buy your own cars and houses, and create a new GTA Online avatar - you choose your parents, lifestyle and preferences, and then upgrade your character from there. You'll partner up with friends and Rockstar crew members first, before your game is populated with people at the same skill level from your geographical location. The coolest feature? People can steal money from you, but you can put a bounty on their head for other players to collect.
GTA V is a massive game, with a huge world to explore, a long main story and a staggering number of side missions. Each character has specific missions that introduce them to new NPCs and extra cash - operating a tow truck as Franklin, or going on a killing spree as Trevor, for example. As you earn cash, there’s a Monopoly-style property game to play, allowing you to buy locations like strip clubs, bars and cinemas that will earn you an income each week (although they come with their own sets of missions - you’ll be called on to catch the thief if they happen to get robbed, for example). You can even get involved in the stock market and make money from the companies you’re ripping off throughout the game.
It’s a testament to the quality of these optional activities that, even though we were trying to complete the main story for review, we were constantly being distracted by other stuff to do. Our do-gooder Robin Hood fantasies meant we were especially drawn to the random vigilante missions - if you see someone being mugged on the street, you can chase down the crook and give the property back for a reward, or just keep the handbag/vehicle for yourself. The challenges, such as flying under every bridge in the game, are also compulsively addictive.
The sports games such as golf and tennis won’t challenge Tiger Woods or Top Spin, but they’re fun diversions that also improve your characters’ physical attributes. There’s also stuff to do in the world just for fun, such as riding a cable car or going on a rollercoaster. You don’t need to do any of this stuff, but it all breathes life to this incredible world. And it's obviously much more fun and much prettier than real life.
While previous GTA games have been amusing, GTA V is funnier than anything before it. It helps that there are plenty of modern trappings to satirise - the repetitive nature of first person shooters, the degrading nature of talent shows, the messianic status of tech companies – and GTA V really goes for the jugular on all these issues and more. The humour permeates every area of the game, from the TV shows, to the billboards, to the in-game version of the internet, there are loads of genuine laugh out loud moments. It’s also worth mentioning there are more radio stations than ever before, and the soundtrack is as excellent and diverse as ever. There’s even an original score for the first time in a GTA game, and it plays dynamically depending on what you’re doing - generally stealthing-it-up or blowing-it-up.
While most of the humour is satirical, there’s a nasty streak that runs through GTA V that will leave a bad taste in the mouth of some players. Trevor's the biggest problem – a cruel, foul-mouthed and ultra-violent psychopath who is introduced to the game in brutal fashion and becomes more grotesque from there. It’s clear that you’re supposed to laugh at his unhinged behaviour, but the game pushes the shock tactics a little too much. In one severely uncomfortable mission, you’re forced to use Trevor to water-board, electrocute and disembowel someone to extract information - not exactly subtle.
The game’s sexual politics are also a bit immature - female characters tend to be nothing more than broadly drawn caricatures that are either a burden to the main characters, something that needs to be saved, or something that can be leered over. Some players won't notice any of this, others won't care, but Rockstar should know better.
Grand Theft Auto 5 aims ridiculously high and despite those ethical missteps manages to deliver on all of its towering ambitions. Shooting straight to the top of our list of the best games you can play right now, it’s a game that pushes the boundaries not only of what’s possible in open world games, but what’s possible on the current generation of consoles. In GTA 5, the incredibly detailed world, compelling characters and varied missions combine to create an experience that will live on in your memory long after you've finished playing - and we expect you'll be playing for a long, long time.