A violent sandbox lover's dream! The stakes are bigger, the land is bigger and the possibilities of doing what you want has been expanded. Let's get right into the beef of where you can go and what you can do.
Scope of the land
The first day of this game, I just cruised around checking out the inner-city landscape of Los Santos, which looks a lot like a cleaner version of Los Angeles. I spent time trying to find the nooks and crannies of the this entire place. This is even before I dove into the main story of the game. I found weird places, including a construction hole underneath a bridge, which I explored. I found some neat things deep inside the hole, and also got to explore the deep sewers of Los Santos. The exploration of this particular place became extremely useful on one of the heist, and helped me to find another way to elude the police. Why am I telling you this? Because when you start playing GTA V, you will have the opportunity to explore pretty much any place you see fit. Finding things that are out of the ordinary is a big portion of the charm with this title. Rockstar wants you to know this virtual city and everything that lies within it. Speaking of finding places, and we'll add 'eluding police' in there, when I was playing as Trevor and being chased by the police, I drove onto some train tracks to simply try and knock the cops off the elevated land. As I was pushing forward, I found myself going through an endless amount of train tracks through mountains, through tunnels and by a wonderful paper mill. Anyway, the cops got spooked while I was in the tunnels, so they backed off. I found several new spots that weren't on the HUD or map, and the land's expansion just simply kept going. That's one of the promises that Rockstar made and delivered with when it was describing GTA V earlier in the year. They wanted the gamer to feel like they could go places without limits and discover places along the way to keep the game fresh. It's impressive to say the least and keeps the game interesting. Think of Red Dead Redemption times 100, and you get the scope of this game.
Literally, it seems like you can go pretty much anywhere you want and spend useful hours exploring new places and finding new discoveries (which I won't get into because surprises are best left to the gamer).
Within the scope
Shifting gears, lets talk about what you can usefully accomplish on this gigantic scope. Along the way in the game, you come across several things on the HUD and also events simply cropping up around you. Taking a page from L.A. Noire, at any given moment you can bump into random events happening. Be it someone getting robbed, yelling for help or setting you up, you will find random people screaming on the side of the road at any given moment. You can choose to help them, but you don't have to do so. For example, I had a gentleman decide to take a woman's wallet and go on a run. This guy, who was bolting like he was in the Olympics on PEDs, had more stamina and speed than my main man Michael. Michael, who is sorta old and out of shape, couldn't keep up with him, so I decided to have Michael jack a car and run the man over. I mean, how in the world else am I supposed to retrieve a wallet? Death by car seems the obvious choice. After launching the man in the air, I was able to retrieve the stolen wallet, at which I had the option to keep it or return it. Wanting to redeem some sort of 'goodness' in this game that is lacking it severely (it is called Grand Theft Auto for a reason), I returned the wallet and almost got a sincere thank you from the victim. You find these sort of things all over Grand Theft Auto V, and sometimes it's not a good thing to be a great citizen. For example, a woman came out screaming that a man was beating the sh*t out of her girlfriend and that she needed help immediately. Being the good guy that I am in the game, I decided that it was time to practice some fist fighting in an abusive man's face region. What I found when I reached the site of the victim was four Mexican gang bangers waiting to rob me. Of course, I did the appropriate thing as I got shot, I jumped into my car and decided to permanently place them on the payment with my Dodge Charger-ish vehicle. It was violent, yet beautiful, and just another way to show what type of random events you can run into during GTA V.
Now, more story-based items in the game are labeled on the hub with letters (M = Michael, T=Trevor, etc.). These help to keep the gamer on track and provide direction when players need some guidance when they spend all day exploring, like I did. The above letters put gamers back 'on' the main story/mission when they're off. The great thing about this is that you never have to worry about remembering what the hell you're supposed to be doing. For example, after one portion of Michael's story, I found myself out at the Los Santos Pier. I could have gone on to the next part of the story, but then out in the ocean distance I saw a lovely sailboat. I wanted that sailboat so very badly, so in the theme of Grand Theft Auto, I acquired that sailboat after a lot of swimming. I sailed out on the ocean for about 30-40 minutes, just to see where I could go and how far I could take things. I went so very far that I soon forgot what the heck my next step was going to be. After getting back to the shore, and ramming the hell out of a police boat, I found my spot again on the map and got back seamlessly to where I needed to be next.
It's such a nice optional balance between exploration and story. Grand Theft Auto V gives you so much freedom to do what you need to do and, more importantly, do what you want to do.
Staying on the subject of balance, you also can seamlessly switch between your characters almost at any given time in the game. For example, the first heist that I did involved Michael and Franklin. During the heist, I could switch from Michael's hands-on approach during this mission and manually take control of Franklin, who had a different job. I don't want to give too much away, but the option to switch between characters in the story provides a unique dimension to the overall gameplay. If you can imagine this as three different stories that intersect at any given point then you will understand the large variety this option provides. Is it something new to gaming? No, but it certainly plays well within the GTA universe, and hopefully its an element that is carried on in future installments of the series. Having said that, the only time this switching doesn't work is when your character is carried a 'wanted level' (meaning you are being chased by the police). That would be rather unfair if you could do that, and I'm glad they put a restriction on it in that particular case.
Anyway, getting back to the meat of this game, the missions and narrative are impressive. The story that comes with the game revolves around three criminals: Michael (retired and bored), Franklin (up and coming) and Trevor (loose canon). All of their stories intertwine remarkably well and help elevate what would normally be a violence driven experience into something more mature, definitely more Hollywood action/thriller. Anytime you can make it more than just violence, it means that the developers put a lot of thought into the process. That thought process equals out to what I can only compare it to, which is Michael Mann's movie Heat. The stories are methodical, tense and well played by each actor and their respective parts. The beauty of this game lies within the heists, and those are the core gameplay moments of the game. And that's not to say that you don't get something out of the overall story, but the moments of planning and executing are freaking brilliant.
For example, the first heist that Michael and Franklin are involved in require certain elements before they can actually perform their heist. Michael has to acquire guns through backdoor means for the heist, so the guns they use during it can't be tracked down when it's all said and done. To acquire those, he has to take out a police SUV carrying them (and a fully armored team of police officers). Good luck with that when you hit it. You also have to scope out the place you're going to rob, which takes some skill and pictures. It's a very prices pre-planning phase for the heist, and a neat process to have to go through. Again, it reminds me a lot of Michael Mann's Heat, especially during its final robbery moment.
I don't want to get too much into the story, or what heists to expect, but GTA fans will definitely be satisfied with the end results. They're damn good.
Other than random events and story, you also get smaller missions to work on that are fun. On the map you'll find points labeled with '?' on them. If you go to those, you'll kind of break into a mini-mission of sorts to either cause havoc or add to the story just a bit. For example, as I was playing Trevor, I ran by one of these '?' on the map. What it turned out to be is Trevor starting a fight and having to dispose of 25 rednecks in a limited amount of time. I mean…just…awesome. I am now encouraged that I need to lay into more of the '?' every possible chance I can get. I'm still playing the hell out of the game, so there are more opportunities for psychotic fun waiting for me.
If the expected gameplay wasn't big enough for you, Rockstar threw in a very healthy monetary system to keep you math gamers involved. You can purchase property, businesses and even enter into the stock market in the game to make some extra dough. For example, I purchased an airstrip in the game, so people could smuggle things in and out. Each landing and drop off would make me $5000-7000. The airfield cost $150,000 up front, so over time I could make that back (and I will in time). Having the ability to use your money wisely in the game, adds another dimension entirely on what you should be doing. Making money to purchase more 'things' is another element of GTA V that will keep gamers glued to this title. It adds more flavor and certainly keeps it a bit more thrilling. God help us if they ever turn this into a 'free-to-play' series. We would all go broke.
What about the looks and feel? If you haven't guessed it yet, Grand Theft Auto V looks about as gorgeous as it feels huge (there's a joke in there somewhere -- find it!). It's one of the more beautiful, most detailed games for this generation, and it probably was pulled back a bit to accommodate older systems, which is damn scary. There is little to no pop-up when you're moving through the landscape, and this applies to about everywhere you go. The details are there in vehicles, houses, buildings, mountains, streets, the ocean and even dusty towns that have no business garnishing anything remotely pretty to look at. The actual downer of the presentation in GTA V is the character models, which remind you that better things are coming with PS4 and XB1. The only other caveat to this gorgeousness is the initial load time for the game. It takes about 1-2 minutes to actually load the gameplay up, but you never see that loading screen again until you turn off/on your console. It's long, but it's worth the wait.
Another huge plus in the presentation category is how the voice overs are implemented. Stay with me because it's impressive. There are times during the game where characters are going through the motions in their dialogue. If you fail at a mission, the dialogue will repeat itself. For example, and I'm not explaining the story (you'll just have to see), I had a character wanting me to shoot a guy then shoot out the lights above the body, so that no one will see the body. When I failed the mission, I decided to shoot the lights out before he asked, and before there was a body. When the moment came that the character was asking for the lights to be shot out, my character responded with, "I've already done that." That's impressive, and the non-linear dialogue is all over this game. You probably won't hear the same thing over and over again, if you don't do the same thing over and over again. The dialogue rolls with your actions, which I'm not sure has happened before in a video game recently.
Staying with audio, the sound effects in the game are exquisite (rarely do reviewers compliment this category, so stay with me). For example, when you ride your vehicle on the wooden planks of a pier, the sounds shifts to tires hitting wood (probably another joke there). When you go from the dusty mountains to the pavement of the road, you hear the difference it makes. It's quite impressive that these little details were attended to in the game. Even down to the freaking music in the game, which allows you to listen to a variety of different genres when you're in the car. Michael has the best with the 80s.
With all this goodness at your fingertips, where lies the bad? The controls need some tightening, just a bit, or possibly some re-organizing. There's a lot going on when you're trying to figure out what you should be doing at particular times. I've faced the worst of the worst when it comes to controls in some games (Final Fantasy XIV was very complicated on a PS3 remote), and this isn't even close to that, but there were times where I simply couldn't figure out on the fly how to do things, and that's after hours of playing it. For example, ducking behind cover was the worst of the bunch. Blame it on my FPS tendencies to run out in the midst of a gunfight and try to smoke everyone, but it was just one of those things where I had to stop, think and remember what to push. Again, you could probably blame that on me, but once you look at the control layout and see what functions you need to remember, you may forget the name of your kids or family when trying retain all that information. I have learned through many hours of playing that 'R1' is the button to push for ducking (yeah, again, it's probably me). It does get a bit frustrating when your'e trying to do something via muscle memory and it ends up being incorrect.
Controls aside, I wish there was just a bit more consequence to actions in GTA V. I know, I know, that sounds incredibly ridiculous considering the game is basically built around criminals, but having stiffer penalties for the characters for crimes they commit would be more inline with the real world. And the game is trying to bring that real world, underground atmosphere to the player, so it makes sense within the scope of things. Why would Rockstar make a drastic change like this? Well, look how it worked out for Red Dead Redemption. If you wanted to go hardcore on everyone you could find, there would be consequences to your actions. Getting through the game would be incredibly difficult if you decided to ride into town and kill everything. if you haven't tried it then you should see what it feels like to do it, and see what happens because of it. Also, don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to make GTA into some morally acceptable game, that's not my argument. I just think that if players go into town, jack a car, kill the driver and then get caught by the police, there should be more than just a $300 fine waiting for them at the end of the day. There should be time lost, a huge fine and possibly loss of game. I'm sure the complaint will fall on deaf ears (because the formula so far has worked out for Rockstar), but it's worth mentioning that this sort of formula has worked before in other Rockstar games.
So is Grand Theft Auto V everything they said it was? God, yes. It's definitely leading for 'game of the year' in my opinion, as its depth, story and endless sandbox play is simply unrivaled. It sets a new bar in the series in every possible way, and ensures that the next generation version of GTA is going to be massive. If you were looking for a great way to end this generation of consoles then look no further than GTA V. It's the game you've been waiting for and wanting. Rockstar did not disappoint in the delivery of it.