A console generation that's just about ready to turn things over to the next is getting its headliner this September. Originally scheduled for a May 2013 release, Grand Theft Auto V was postponed until the fall and is poised to be one of this generation's last blockbusters.
I recently got to visit Rockstar Games' offices here in New York for an extended gameplay demo and learned a great deal about the game's structure, scope, and more entertainingly, its characters.
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GTA V's cast is made up of three unique playable personas, which is unlike any other game in the series. Michael, Trevor, and Franklin each possesses individual special abilities and personalities that players will be able to take advantage of during the course of their time in the fictional city of Los Santos.
Michael is a former bank-robbing family man with an unquenchable taste for action, Franklin is a wheelman who gets things done, and Trevor -- well, Trevor is basically a sociopath who vaguely resembles a balding Johnny Knoxville.
When not playing a mission, players can warp in and out of control of each character at will, like something out of a Big Brother movie (think "Enemy of the State" surveillance satellite montages). The two other characters will go on with their lives until you drop back in on them. During the demo, we dropped in on Trevor, who was just waking up on the beach after an all-night bender.
While the three characters share the lead role, each operates independently within the world of Los Santos. That means that each has his own bank accounts, subplot lines, and abilities. GTA V shows off these attributes with a new HUD that pops up from the bottom-left corner when in control of Michael, Franklin, or Trevor. In an almost RPG fashion, here you'll find a list of parameters with meters that detail various skills. The more you play, the more these skills improve.
One of the main topics of conversation during my time seeing GTA V was that the whole experience is structurally different from other GTA games. New this time is the introduction of heists. Heists represent major milestones along the course of the campaign that will chart your progress. In between these heists you'll play as all three characters individually (as each has his own storyline), all together or paired up.
I got to see one of these heists go down and it felt like I was watching a scene out of "The Usual Suspects." The objective of this particular heist was to rob an armored car. But while I was only seeing the actual theft, I was told that all of the planning leading up to the crime was something players would take part in. Players will decide the plan of attack, from the location of the getaway car to what type of mask the trio will wear during the act. You can even hire and recruit a team of nonplayable characters to participate in the job, though keep in mind they'll be paid a cut of the take.
Once the armored car was breached, a quick police response led to an intense gunfight. The action here was off the charts. As soon as the firing ensued, I was able to see that the player would be able to place the three assailants in almost any location. From here, you can switch instantly to either of the three in real-time. Trevor had been placed on a scaffold with a rocket launcher. He fired a round and we were able to switch to Franklin before the explosion.
I noticed a fair amount of destructible environments during the chaos as well. The concrete divider that Michael was ducking behind began to chip away as more rounds pounded in. Cars exploded with gut-wrenching bass as debris flew across the screen.
If you liked the responsiveness of gunplay in games like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, it looks like GTA V shares similar styling. For example, an X will quickly replace the gun reticle when you've killed a target.
The scope of Los Santos is one of the most ambitious in any game I've come across, and players have access to the entire world right from the start. The playable map is five times the size of the world in Red Dead Redemption and it's filled with the more diverse environments than ever seen before in a GTA game. Want to go hiking in the forest? No problem. Maybe scuba diving? Sure.
A game world this enormous needs to be injected with life, so Los Santos is packed to the brim with interactivity and dynamic events. Players can enter a generous number of stores and buildings and uncover nonessential missions and side stories to explore. GTA V focuses a lot more on money than any GTA title before it. Earn enough and you can buy a business that will give you a steady cash flow to finance more debauchery.
So how does the game look? The demo I saw was being played with a PlayStation 3 on what had to be at least a 65-inch HDTV. For a console that's nearing its seventh birthday, GTA V looks as good as it possibly can. It's clear the game is really maxing out the capabilities of the current generation of consoles. Of course, the demo I saw is a work in progress, so things might improve between now and September 17.
Technically speaking, GTA has come a long way in the last decade. Imagine this: GTA V's Franklin is made up of more textures than all of the pedestrians in GTA: San Andreas combined. GTA V is also the first game in the series with an ambient score that actually adds a cinematic tone to the intensity of the heist I witnessed. But you'll still be able to change the radio station when driving.
Grand Theft Auto V is shaping up to be another defining moment in video games, and I think gamers should find great comfort and interest in knowing the franchise is moving forward and trying new things. If you've seen any of the trailers released by Rockstar Games, you'll notice there seems to be a more lighthearted approach for GTA V. The three characters possess the same chemistry you'd find in a comedic buddy-action flick, replete with the charisma that forces you to like the "bad guys."