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Grand Theft Auto is a title that everyone knows. It’s the name of a series of games that helped define a generation, and in the 12 years since the third core game in the series helped push gaming into a larger spotlight.

Gaming has changed though. It’s been five years since GTA IV burst onto the scene, and in that gap between major GTA sequels, the genre has evolved. GTA V proves that it has what it takes to not only still be relevant , but to take survival of the fittest to a new level. It’s the kind of game that knows it comes from an older generation. But instead of trying to recapture that youth, GTA V instead runs with it and embraces that theme of old dogs staying true to form and celebrating what makes the franchise so damn popular in the first place.

GTA V is the game that once again sets a new benchmark in excellence.

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Set back in sunny Los Santos, GTA V takes place across three distinct characters and storylines. Michael is your former career criminal who cut a deal to save his own skin and that of his family, living a high life of luxury that has brought him nothing but pain. His wife is banging anything with a pulse to get away from her husband, his kids hate him and his anger is barely kept in check.

Franklin is your thug from the hood, but a man with his eye on becoming more than just a dimebag-dealing hoodlum stuck in the ghettos amongst friends and family who embarrass him more than anything else.

And then there’s Trevor. Freakin’ Trevor.

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While Michael and Franklin are pretty much believable characters stuck in a rut in life, Trevor is an unstable force of nature with a quick temper, drug habit and sociopathic tendencies that would make Jack the Ripper look like a saint in comparison. And he’s pretty much the best character that Rockstar has ever unleashed in a game.

Trevor is brutal, unforgiving but honest to a fault. He’s the spirit of GTA V, Jack Thomson’s worst nightmare and the poster child for gratuitous violence and explicit sex in video games. And in GTA V, he’s perfect.

But moving on, what Rockstar has managed to do is to make three characters who are clearly distinctive personalities. You can see this when you do something as switch between them. Michael may be getting a crap cup of coffee, or Franklin may be walking his dog. Trevor will most likely be sleeping off a hangover of note and wondering why he just woke up wearing a skirt.

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And that switch between three characters forms a large part of the appeal and evolution of GTA V. Barring certain mission circumstances and consequences from completing them, you can switch at any time between the unholy trio of hell-raisers.

It’s a quick and intuitive process, that can be done anywhere and anytime. And while it’s a neat feature, it really comes in handy during missions. Switching between the three during shootouts, getaway drives and heists. It’s something that becomes second nature, and a welcome way to spice up combat.

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So what has really changed in the years between GTA IV and V. Well for starters, driving a car is now no longer a labour worthy of Hercules himself. Handling has been massively improved, but to a degree that tows a fine line between arcade physics and realism. It’s a welcome return to form that sits in the middle of the driving experience from GTA III and IV, with control and decent handling balancing some of the trickier aspects of outrunning cops.

Your three leads also have access to their own special abilities, which can be recharged and lengthened the more you play with them. Michael can enter a slow-mo bullet time, but minus the Max Payne dramatic dodges, in which he can precisely aim for a headshot and save his own skin.

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Franklin gets to drift around corners in slow motion in a manner usually reserved for Fast and Furious sequels, while Trevor can anger up his blood and halve the damage he receives while dishing out even more than usual. Pulling a page from the San Andreas book of gameplay, characters now have several stats, spread across stamina, shooting and other categories that will improve the more you partake in certain activities that are tailored towards them.

Sprint more, and you’ll up your stamina. Fly more often and you’ll avoid turbulence. Aircraft controls though, especially in helicopters,are still fiddly at best when compared to the vastly improved driving mechanics.

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Getting into a gunfight reveals some old school DNA in GTA V. You’ve got a weapon wheel and infinite pockets, but honestly, I loved the idea of having a dozen weapons on me at any given time. There’s some Max Payne influence in these segments, especially when playing as Michael, as characters move and react more realistically. Despite that pedigree though, combat can still be awkward at times, while the returning cover system still falls just short of hitting that sweet spot.

Weapon upgrades do help address this issue though, with the arsenal on offer feeling heavy, meaty and realistic. Plus the mini-gun finally makes a welcome return.

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Getting into mischief has also been slightly overhauled in GTA V. A wanted level of one star can easily escalate to two stars when the cops are after you, and you’ll need to not only outrun them, but successfuuly hide as well when they start searching for you.

The more destructive your crime spree, the more resources the fuzz will spend on tracking you down, using helicopters and multiple cop cars to sniff you out. Staying out of their cones of sight will become second nature to you as the game goes on, while the increased AI of law enforcement means that they’ll be far less forgiving and more than willing to use lethal force.

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It’s also all part of the new stealth system, which may not be Metal Gear or Splinter Cell in execution, but is capable enough for several missions. That being said though, cops seem to react a little too quickly to events. Punching a hobo by accident earned me three squad cars on my ass and a shotgun to the face, while trying to cause some destruction in a remote location had all manner of hell descend upon me from the thin blue line.

Missions are also now graded as players work their way through them. Finishing a level without hitting any of the goals available will earn you a bronze medal, while going back to get those extra headshots and timely exits nets you silver and gold medals. It’s a great way to keep players coming back, to tackle those challenges. Challenges which Rockstar is even kind enough to allow you to choose to skip, should you fail over and over again.

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Los Santos is a massive slice of America. Divided up into three distinct sections, players will spend a lot of time cruising the streets of Vinewood, exploring in the forests surrounding the state or causing anarchy in the desert in the border regions beyond civilisation and marriages between people that aren’t related to one another.

There’s several landmarks present here, all stolen from with glee from Los Angeles and Santa Monica, that people who have been there will easily recognise. Vinewood boulevard, the Los Santos beach and the Route 66 pier are just a few of the real world locations that have been rendered into GTA V.

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It’s a beautiful region to explore, and the Metropolitan areas feel more alive than ever, as cops chase down people other than you for once. There’s also new events that will pop up out of nowhere, where players can retrieve some stolen property, or get lured into an ambush. Events that are separate from the main storyline that is unfolding.

And what a story it is. It’s no longer the soul-crushingly depressing narrative from the GTA IV days that unravels itself here. Sure, there are plenty of serious moments as GTA V spins a yarn, but its done in a manner that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet still manages to throw in oddball miscreants and criminals. By the time you’re done reaching at least one of the multiple endings though, you’ll be left satisfied with how the story has reached its conclusion.

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Special mention needs to go to the voice actors present for GTA V. Rockstar has done an outstanding job casting their three leads, from Michael, Franklin and Trevor through to random strangers and the other dozens of voices present.

They’re all believable characters, even Trevor with various mental problems on show, and I think it says something of the quality present here when someone walks past my room and wants to know what film I’m watching.

Graphically, GTA V is pushing it.The game looks fantastic, and for the most part, is firing on all cylinders. Facial ticks, animation, consistently smooth frame rates and some phenomenal environmental effects are all present and pushing the PS3 and Xbox 360 to their limits.

It’s not without a few concessions though, as you’ll occasionally find the odd muddy texture popping up or find a background object failing to load. But for one of the last great big hurrahs of this console generation, it’s a game that is firing a massive salvo of graphical might before the rest of the competition arrives.

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The other big addition to the game arrives in the form of heists. There’s only a handful of them present in GTA V, but they’re varied and lengthy enough when it comes to substance. As a former bank robber, Michael quickly gets roped back into his old career, with Franklin and Trevor joining him for the ride.

You’ll need proper preparation and planning for these heists though, as they escalate from a jewellery store robbery through to a mission that can only be described in Baysplosions. Along with your core crew, you’ll also need to recruit a capable extra pair of hands. The more skilled your hired gun, the larger the cut they’ll take when a mission is pulled off successfully.

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These heists also require extra equipment, which ranges from stealing insecticide gas through to acquiring some janitorial uniforms. You’ll also get the option to tackle these heists by being smart and sneaky, or by being loud and armed to the teeth. Crew members also get a chance to level up and increase their skills during heists, but the handful of these missions available gives them scant opportunity to do so, making it a wasted effort to keep a cheap underling alive.

And yet, there’s still more content in GTA V. Trevor gets to perform all manner of hate crimes as he guns down everyone from Mexican gangbanger to drunk rednecks in the return of Rampage missions, property can be bought and interacted with in order to earn extra coin, characters can be customised and the list just goes on.

By the time I started writing this game review, I’d clocked almost 30 hours so far in the game. And I’ve only just scratched the surface. And that’s not even including the fact that GTA V goes online from October 1. I’ve dabbled in hanging out with my friends, got beyond drunk with Trevor and found so much more just by exploring Los Santos between missions.

Despite all these accomplishments and additions though, GTA V isn’t a huge leap forward for Rockstar. Instead, it’s an evolution of all their previous work, all combined into one sandbox experience on a massive scale. But it’s a satisfying path that the franchise has taken, kicking other genre games off the throne that it helped build.

Last Updated: September 25, 2013

Love it or hate it, GTA is back and here to stay. The old dog may have some new tricks up its sleeves, but it doesn't stray too far from its roots and is more than well aware of this, creating an experience that both celebrates and pokes fun at its legacy.
GTA V was reviewed on Xbox 360
97 / 100

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