Editors' Note, November 17, 2014: Grand Theft Auto V was released on new-generation consoles on November 18, 2014. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 version of the game features improved resolution and visuals, a first-person mode and more. Be sure to check out our quick take on the update version of the game.
I'm trying to put into words how difficult a situation it is attempting to summarize my thoughts on a game that I've been playing for only two weeks when I know in the back of my mind Rockstar Games has been hard at work on Grand Theft Auto V for more than four years.
With such a lengthy development cycle comes a proportional amount of hype and expectation, and I'm not sure there has been a title with so much of a single medium's weight resting upon its shoulders.
If there's one thing you need to know going into Grand Theft Auto V, it's that the game not only lives up to the over-inflated hype, but simultaneously sets a new bar for immersion in open-world gaming. If there's any hesitation one should have about GTA V, it's the daunting task of managing a personal life around playing. This is a game that will lay its hooks into you and not let go. Think of it as some kind of bizarro "Inception" world. Time will pass quicker than it's supposed to in real life, and your neck will tighten up if you don't occasionally stretch. You'll start up a session around 6 at night and before you know it, the sun is threatening to rise.
I did not expect to play a game that made me laugh as much as GTA V did. I didn't expect I would fall in love with a cast of characters so quickly, but I did. I didn't imagine my mouth would be agape in awe the first time I took off in a small plane, but it was. Grand Theft Auto V is an experience that any adult gamer with a pulse needs to be exposed to. Every trailer, demo, or commercial you may have seen fails to do it justice.
So how can one video game be so good?
It's not a cut and dry answer. GTA V has a petri dish's worth of little organisms all working together in concert to pull off a living, breathing virtual environment replete with various terrains like city streets, arid desert, lush forest, and treacherous mountains. It's so smartly designed that half of the magic that unravels before your eyes will probably go unnoticed the first few hours spent playing.
It's only until you realize that you are directly affecting the world around you do you gain a sense of belonging. It's when seemingly trivial details from your past come back to haunt you (or reward you) do you begin to appreciate the intricate web that's been woven for you to do with it what you will.
Perhaps that's what separates Los Santos, the gigantic setting for GTA V that's heavily based on Los Angeles, from other virtual playgrounds. Simply put: it feels too real. Packed in are sounds you'd never imagine someone would take the time to record. Faint echoes of distant trucks barreling down a highway, the kick-up from flip flops walking on pavement, and the eerie creaking of a docked boat are just a small sample of the kinds of painstaking detail Los Santos is brimming with.
Every animation is nearly true-to-life, from the glance out the rear window your character does when backing up a car to the focused posture and gaze he has on his face when browsing a mobile device. The game has its own fluctuating stock market, Internet, economy, and celebrities, all of which can be interacted with.
GTA V strips away the sugar-coated exterior of American pop culture and exposes it for what it sometimes is: absurd and ugly. Nearly all facets of everyday life are represented in some capacity within Los Santos, whether it be your iFruit mobile phone, Life Invader social network, right down to the design of the car you drive. The franchise staple selection of radio stations are back in GTA V, too, filled with hundreds of classic and modern hits along with smattering of insane talk show hosts, news, and advertisements.
Los Santos is undoubtedly the star of GTA V, but coming in at a close second are the three characters you'll assume the role of throughout the game, Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. GTA V tells a story that's as meticulously crafted as the driving narrative in series like "Sons of Anarchy" or "Breaking Bad." More often than not I'd find myself pressing on just to see what would transpire next. There aren't any cliffhangers if you keep playing! There's a desire to continue for the sake of pure fun, but becoming emotionally attached to these people has such a greater sense of importance for me. Sure, these are not admirable people. In fact, they're mostly awful. But so was Tony Soprano.
Whether it's alone, with a partner, or as a group of three, each mission serves a deliberate purpose either designed to introduce new gameplay mechanics, further develop a character, or to progress the overarching storyline. Players are even treated to moments that stand out as beautiful sequences of cinematic art, not unlike scenes from classic cult triumphs like "The Big Lebowski."