Grand Theft Auto V: Everything is bigger and better

A detailed look at the world, missions, combat, and the three main characters

Rockstar Games primary goal with Grand Theft Auto V was to create the ultimate open world game. They’re putting everything they’ve learned from their history with developing open world experiences, and have created their biggest sandbox to date.

Everything is bigger and better with GTA V. The mission structure is completely different from past titles, the world is huge with a ton of things to do, and you now control three playable characters that are all looking to roll around in millions of dollars of other people’s hard earned cash.

Grand Theft Auto V (PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release: September 17, 2013 (Worldwide)

The entire map is completely explorable right from the start

Let’s start with Los Santos, the biggest world Rockstar has ever created. In terms of land mass, the Los Angeles-like world is 3.5 times the size of Red Dead Redemption’s, or 5 times the size if you factor in the new underwater environments. To put that in even greater perspective, GTA V’s world is bigger than Grand Theft Auto: San Andres, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Read Dead Redemption combined. Wow.

Los Santos is divided into two major areas, the city itself and the countryside of Blaine County. Within all this you’ll be exploring very diverse areas such as mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans, military bases, beaches, oceans, farmland, deserts, dense urban environments, forests, and more. The biggest thing here is that the entire world is explorable right from the start. No more having the military called upon you for simply swimming to that other island too early.

There’s a variety of life you will come across in these different environments too. South Los Santos is considered the ganglands, the Hollywood-like Vinewood sees the tourists and celebrities, the crazies living off the grid can be found in the forest, and meth dealers and biker gangs inhabit the deserts.

Plus there’s wild animals all about. Yes, actual animals in a Grand Theft Auto game. The presentation Rockstar gave me started with one of the main protagonists, Franklin, somewhere a mile above Blaine County. Franklin jumps out, free falls for a few seconds, and then pops open his parachute. From here, Franklin soars through the sky, and far below on the ground, I saw a mountain lion roaming about with deer grazing in the hills nearby. Like real life, the animals won’t be contained just in the wild. Later in the demo, I saw a deer almost get run over in the hills of Vinewood.

It’s one thing to be told how big the game world is, but it’s another thing to see it with your own eyes. While flying through the sky, I could see the skyscrappers of Los Santos downtown in what seemed like all the way on the other side of the map. I was blown away by the draw distance while there was still so much attention to detail all around you.

Even more exciting was the underwater areas that you can explore. Whereas flying vehicles will always gives players a parachute, boats will always give you a scuba gear. Best of all, you can stay underwater indefinitely as there is no air limit with the scuba tank. There will be reasons to go into the water, but there’s also dangers like sharks that will attack you. The swimming physics looked pretty simple to control from what I could tell too.

You play as three different and unique characters

When Game Informer revealed their Grand Theft Auto V cover story, I was excited about all the possibilities except one thing: Controlling three main characters. You’re simultaneously playing three intertwined sides of one overarching story, which gives off a feeling of that of a long form narrative TV show where you’re following multiple characters. Think Game of Thrones and the like.

I was worried that switching between the three characters would be convoluted and that managing all of them would be an annoying chore. All my worries completely vanished seeing it in person. At almost any point in time, you can jump in and control either Franklin, Trevor, or Michael, the main characters of the game. Pressing a button on the controller will pop up a little character select prompt on the HUD, and you’ll simply flick your stick to the character you desire to control. From there, the camera will zoom out to give you an overhead perspective of the entire world, and then zooms back down as you jump into your character. It takes a few seconds to switch characters if they’re far away from each other, but it’s nearly instantaneous while they’re all together.

There are some restrictions to character switching, such as how you can’t abandon a character while you have a Wanted Level. Lose the heat first! The character selection meter will let you know when you can swap out. There are also moments where the game will automatically make the player switches for you, which I’ve detailed below in the mission structure section.

It’s important to note that the gameplay never stops while you’re switching characters. You’ll jump into whoever you’ve selected even if they’re in the middle of driving a vehicle. A perfect example of this is when we jumped into Trevor, who just woke up passed out on a beach. He’s in his underwear, has blood all over his chest, and bodies of the west coast chapter of The Lost biker gang spread across in front of him. Obviously Trevor had quite the wild night.

Who exactly are Franklin, Trevor, or Michael?

Here’s Rockstar’s description of each of the playable characters:

Franklin – Young, smart and ambitious, Franklin is comfortable working on either side of the law. Franklin works with his friend, Lamar repossessing cars for an unscrupulous Armenian car dealer by the name of Simeon Yetarian. His work there brings him into a chance encounter with Michael. Franklin is a very able driver and loves his cars. Franklin lives in South Los Santos.

Trevor — A sociopathic ex-army pilot who’s not without some charm. Trevor and Michael worked together on criminal jobs prior to the events of the game, but that was a long time ago. Trevor now lives in a trailer amongst the meth dealers and biker gangs out by the Alamo Sea, in Blaine County.

Michael – Once one of the most wanted men in America thanks to his reputation as a highly skilled bank robber, Michael is long retired, living in an informal witness protection program afforded to him by his powerful contacts inside federal agencies. Despite his success, Michael is miserable: he’s in a loveless marriage to his wife Amanda and he’s disconnected from his two spoiled children, Tracey and Jimmy. On the surface, Michael appears to have everything, but instead he’s bored, frustrated and seething. Michael’s only outlets are spending his days drinking whiskey, watching old Vinewood action movies, the occasional visit to his therapist – and ultimately, returning to the life of crime that brought him to this position in the first place. Michael lives in a well-appointed mansion, complete with swimming pool and tennis court in the upscale neighborhood of Rockford Hills.

All three characters have their own lives, own circle of friends, enemies, associates, and hobbies and they’ll be living out their life while not in the player’s control. When off mission, you can play as any of these characters or even just focus on one the entire time. It’s up to you, but you’ll want to play as all three if you want to experience everything possible as there will be things that only certain characters can do.

Los Santos is huge, and there are hundreds of activities spread all throughout the world that you can engage in. Some of the side stuff includes base jumping, off-road races, hunting, ATM robberies, picking up hitchhikers, and hijacking security vans. You can also go play golf, tennis, compete in triathlons, do yoga, perform stunt jumps, complete flying challenges, and so on.

You’ll have a lot of money spend over the course of the game that you can use to customize your characters. Get haircuts, tattoos, purchasing an assortment of clothing, etc. You can spend your money on picking up properties too, like a helipad attachment to one of your homes. You can also pick up businesses, which will generate money for you on a regular basis and give you perks, such as free taxi rides if you purchase a cab company.

Plus, there are Strangers side missions that you can do. Remember that from Red Dead Redemption? These were sidequests represented by a question mark on the map HUD and they’re featured in GTA V. One example of this saw Michael coming across celebrity Lacey Jonas hiding in an alley from photographers. She asks for your help to get away from the paparazzi, which sees you on a high speed chase trying to shake the pursuing photographers before dropping her off at her house. This won’t be the last time you see Lacey, and you’ll be developing relationships with the people you discover in this side missions.

Each character has a special gameplay ability

As you play GTA V, you’ll slowly be leveling up your character’s various stats which are: stamina, shooting, strength, stealth, flying, driving, mechanic, and lung capacity. There’s also a stat called Special, which gives each of the characters a very unique ability.

Michael has the ability to slow down time while in a gunfight, Franklin can slow down time while driving, and Trevor will deal out extra damage, take less damage, and can perform a unique melee attack when you’ve activated the special meter. The meter will drain as you use it, and slowly replenishes when not in use. 

I never got to see these special abilities in action, but from the sounds of it it’s going to be similar to Read Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye mechanic. I’m excited to see how it works with Franklin most of all, as being able to make tight turns and weave in and out of heavy traffic while going at high speeds sounds fun.

It’s all about the heists

I’ve talked long enough about the world and characters, so let’s dive into how missions work. There’s a major structural change to the way missions play out, as the overall narrative is now focused on five or six major heists. So rather than a linear progression towards an epic grand finale, there will now be multiple game peaks scattered all throughout the story. It’s going to take a lot of work to accomplish these heists, however.

You have to build up to heists, as you need to plan out and prepare before you can execute these missions that will ultimately score you millions of dollars.You have to acquire the right weapons, vehicles, equipment, and whatever else before a heist to stand a chance. You also have to decide how you’ll approach a heist, as your choice will dictate the contents of the mission. Do you us stealth or pure brute force?

Plus heists can’t be done just with Michael, Trevor, and Franklin. You’ll need to bring in a crew with you, and these additional characters will be able to specialize in different areas such as wheelman, gunman, technician, and so on. The higher skilled your goon is, the bigger cut they’ll demand from the heist. You can hire cheaper guys that will take smaller cuts, but they’ll lower your chances of success. Additionally, using the same crew member across several heists will improve their skills; that is if they survive missions with you.

For the demo, Rockstar showed me the mission called “Blitz Play”. It’s not a main heist mission, but it shares some core elements of what we can expect out of these big events. The mission is simple: take down an armored security truck and steal the cash and bonds inside of it. You can see glimpses of this mission in Michael’s character trailer.

Prior to the mission, players would have had to secure a tow truck, garbage truck, and place a getaway car in an isolated location where the player will also blow up the garbage truck to destroy any evidence. Plus, the player needs to acquire outfits and masks in which you’ll be able to assign who wears whatever mask you pickup.

Once all that is secured, the heist can begin. As Franklin, you’ll drive up to the meetup spot where an in-game cutscene will kick in. Character switching happens during cutscenes too, and you’ll switch characters automatically as the plan is being detailed. The cutscenes play out similarly to that of Max Payne 3‘s, as you’ll fluidly transition back to gameplay once the scene is over.

From here players jump into Michael who has to take the garbage truck, and once in place the game automatically jumps you into Trevor who’s on lookout high above the target zone. Once you spot the armored car incoming, you’ll jump into Franklin as he’s already barreling down a road in the tow truck. The armored car is forced to stop due to the garbage truck blocking the road, thus allowing the player to ram the truck dead on and forcing it to flip over on its side.

Franklin and Michael blow the backdoor of the truck and take what they’ve come after. The guards have informed you that the cops are on the way, and the three amigos have to make a stand before they can safely get away.

Combat has been refined and expanded upon

Combat, like damn near everything else, has been refined to offer a better experience. You can either free aim, soft lock, or hard lock on targets, and the reticule will now flash a tiny X to indicated a target has been killed. The reticule also switches from white to red to identify an ally or enemy. There’s smoother transitions when moving in and out of cover, a new combat roll to evade attacks or move around swiftly, the camera offers a better field of vision when you zoom in with the gun, and you have the ability to fire from the hip while still running with total control over the reticule still.

And of course, let’s not forget that you can jump between three characters at will during combat. Each character has their respective roles, such as how Michael and Franklin are focusing on two different areas on the ground as the cops surround them while Trevor is up in his tower sniping targets and taking down a helicopter with a rocket launcher. It was pretty cool to see the player shoot off the rocket as Trevor, and then switch down to Michael just as the rocket hit its target.

You’re going to want to switch between characters to take advantage of their skills as the enemy AI has greatly improved. Cops will try to flank you, get to higher ground, and communicate with one another, all in an effort to make for a fun challenge. Your characters can take care of themselves, but you will still want to pay attention to them as they can die. There will be visual and audio alerts from your other characters so you’re not completely caught off guard in case things get hairy. From what I could tell the friendly AI was doing a pretty good job, but in the worse case, checkpoints have been made more friendly so it’s shouldn’t be a total chore to replay missions. Hopefully.

But wait, there’s more!

I have to mention the music. No, not the radio stuff. There’s an actual original score now that you’ll hear in missions and other activities that immerse you into the experience like never before. There was an absolutely peaceful musical score playing while flying through the sky in the parachute, and then a different one while we were underwater.

Missions like Blitz Play also offer a dynamic score that changes to match with whatever is happening on the screen, like in Max Payne 3. I’m sure the radio stations will be filled with amazing things like before, but I’m actually more excited for these original scores that adds so much more to what you’re doing.

There’s so much more to say still. You can take pictures with your iFruit phone that you can then upload to Rockstar’s Social Club. The in-game internet can be accessed via the phone too now. The Republican Space Ranger TV show is back. Ammu-Nation still exists, and offers the largest selection of weapons ever. Plus guns are fully customizable letting you add silencers, scopes, extended mags, laser sights, and more.

GTA V has the largest selection of vehicles, from boats, cars, bikes, air vehicles and more. Cars can be completely customized from their outside appearance to even their handling and performance now at Los Santos Customs, the replacement to Pay N’ Sprays. Car handling has been improved, and feels more like a racing game from what I was told.

You can also rob gas stations, convenience stores, and more to increase your cash flow in between big heist missions whenever you want. Citizens will react to what you do, and if they see you robbing someone they could alert the police, film you, or even try to take you down themselves. They won’t all just run away anymore.

And of course, there’s multiplayer, but Rockstar is saving that reveal for another day. Which is fine, because I’ve said so much already.

Rockstar’s goal with Grand Theft Auto V was to create the ultimate open world experience. I’ve only seen a fraction of what the game will have to offer, yet I believe they’ve already succeeded with what I could see from this small taste. Everything has been overhauled for the better, and the story looks to capture the less serious, more lighthearted nature of classic GTA titles. Most importantly of all, the three playable characters at once thing will actually be fun, which is a huge relief for me.

Rockstar Games has easily raised the bar yet again.

Hamza Aziz