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."
Just like the episodic development in these dramatic TV shows, GTA V uses missions to create an organic understanding of the type of people you're sharing this experience with -- whether it be a gangbanger looking to rise to the top, a retired thief who gets sucked back into the game, or a strung-out sociopath who winds up delivering some of the game's greatest lines. The voice-acting portrayals in the game are in a class by themselves, the kind of top-notch performances gamers are treated to maybe once or twice a year.
GTA V introduces a brand-new mechanic never before seen in the franchise: the ability to switch among either of the three characters at any time. It's worth noting that switching does have some of its own restrictions. For instance, you can't swap characters during specific missions, and sometimes one or more of the guys isn't readily available (mostly for narrative purposes). These technicalities aside, three-way switching is available for most of the time you're not involved in an active mission.
What's most impressive about this element of the game is how natural the balance tends to play out. When I crossed the 20-hour mark, I saw that my time between the three characters was split at about 7 hours each. Of course your mileage may vary, but there's a subtle encouragement the game steers you toward to even out the time you spend with each person. It takes about 15 to 20 seconds to warp from one to another regardless of where on the map he is. Speaking of the map, it's gigantic. Within it could fit all the play areas of GTA: San Andreas, GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption combined.
Much less frequent than regular missions, heists stand as the "mega-missions" that usually involve more than one playable character. Here you'll need to complete a series of submissions and then formulate your plan of attack. You'll choose who to work with, the strategy of the heist, and other specifics. Every decision comes with it an advantage or shortcoming -- it's all up to you and all because of you. Given their length, heists can be ultrarewarding or tragically depressing based on their outcomes. The best part, though, is learning from your mistakes.
It's no secret, a lot of the gameplay in GTA V involves driving, but there's so much diversity and exposition in each mission's setup that it helps incentivize what might wind up being a long drive. Aside from guessing where the story is going to go, it's equally as exciting to see the type of objectives you'll be forced to meet. It could be skydiving, hijacking, or racing a WaveRunner -- you'll rarely expect any of it coming.
In my preparation for my GTA V review I went back and spent a few hours with GTA IV. By doing so I was able to detect a significant improvement in the way vehicles handle. Driving and flying feels powerful, heavy, and at times even scary. The level of detail in these vehicles is staggering, from the tiny nicks and dents you'll collect on the cars you drive to the subtle rudder movements on those you'll fly.
The game's graphics seem as good as they can look on current generation systems. The visuals are not without a few imperfections, but the artistic design choices made heavily outweigh the occasional pop-ins, texture drops, and frame rate staggers. Nearly every gameplay session will net a handful of drool-worthy scenery, something I had originally feared would fall short the first time I saw the game in action earlier in the year.
Of course the elephant in the room has got to be the explicit material GTA V so proudly and unapologetically shoves in front of your face. Let's be honest, GTA V makes being a very evil person a hell of a lot of fun. It's the absolute closest thing you'll ever have to joining a gang or being a ruthless criminal. At times it encourages you to kill rampantly and there's plenty of drugs, sex, and nudity peppered throughout. It all adds up to the perfect smorgasbord of adult shenanigans, which are the only ones who should really be playing it as well.
Even if GTA V sounds like an intimidating and insurmountable behemoth to you, I encourage you to at the very least, watch someone else play. My wife, a woman who'd much rather be lost in a real-estate Web site than spectate any game without the word "BioShock" in the title, found herself occasionally glancing up at the screen. Maybe it was a song she knew on the radio or a ridiculous line shouted by a pedestrian that first caught her. But those glances stretched into stares and those stares turned into undivided attention. She wanted me to get tattooed, try on new clothes, enter a strip club, and, inevitably, try it out for herself.
Grand Theft Auto V sets a new standard for immersive entertainment and stands as one of the pinnacle achievements this generation of games has offered. Its remarkable combination of action, storytelling, and relevant commentary makes it an instant classic and easily the best value in gaming you're likely to find.
Say goodbye to productivity for the next great while.
The countless hours you're bound to spend roaming Los Santos doesn't include Grand Theft Auto Online, the game's perpetual interconnected world that launches on October 1. Best of all, Grand Theft Auto Online is free to play for owners of GTA V.
CNET verdict: Hands-down a must play. An instant classic.
Without a doubt, Grand Theft Auto V is one of, if not the most immersive video games ever created that completely transforms you into one of its three uniquely developed characters. Los Santos is an enormous, fully realized city with a distinct personality that represents a blunt, yet honest and absurd commentary on American life and culture.
For even more on GTA V, check out GameSpot's coverage.