Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

GTA 5 review: The best in the Grand Theft Auto series

After some four years in development, it’s finally here, writes Simon Rice

The Grand Theft Auto V billboard at Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles
The Grand Theft Auto V billboard at Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles
Grand Theft Auto V feels 'so different and instantly better' compared to the last version
One of Grand Theft Auto's three leading characters, Trevor, driving a quad bike
Grand Theft Auto 5 was released on 17 September
A screen shot from the video game Grand Theft Auto V

After numerous teasing trailers, various launch date delays and enough ‘leaks’ to create a tide of frenzy among gamers - finally it’s here. And the 25 million expected to purchase GTA V over the next 12 months will find it’s been worth the wait.

The latest release in the franchise is set in a parody of California called Los Santos, and much of the pre-release talk has focused on the pure expanse of the game - something that only became a bigger issue when the map was leaked last week.

There have been claims that the world is bigger than GTA IV, GTA: San Andreas and Red Dead Redemption combined - and it has been the promise of this new playground that has whetted the appetite of fans more than anything.

Upon starting the game, this new world is free to roam - no locked out areas as has been the case on previous incarnations of GTA - and the size is as incredible as it is imaginative.

Trucks clog the freeways as you pass through the industrial district while deer jump out at you in the countryside. Taking a quad bike up to the mountain tops means avoiding the hikers who are also enjoying the terrain, while sharks can be found sharing the water if you go for a dip at the beach.

It’s a world that feels genuinely alive, more so than any of the previous games. It’s as if you’ve just popped in to visit - and of course to cause a bit of mayhem. Such an ambitious setting threatened to be unwieldy with drives across town becoming timely and tedious.

However, the pure richness in detail make roaming Los Santos almost as rewarding as any structured mission.

Gamers will at first find themselves introduced to Michael - a retired criminal going straight. Unsurprisingly, he’s quickly drawn back into the underworld, the circumstances of which are hilarious.

However, the likeable Michael - who in a nod to the Sopranos spends time visiting a shrink - is not the only character available. In a new development for the GTA series, gamers control three intertwined characters simultaneously, with the ability to flip between them as and when one chooses.

Franklin, a low-level criminal with big ambitions and Trevor, perhaps the most insanely violent character ever created. It’s a fine development, creating a more layered storyline and greater variation in how players progress through the game.

That progress is still centred on undertaking missions which vary from the mundane - such as towing an abandoned car - to the incredibly imaginative.

Without wanting to spoil anything, think combinations of boats, heists, getaways, planes, drugs, women, motorbikes, revenge and recklessness and whatever you dream up will probably be in there.

A welcome advancement sees users involved in the planning, as well as the execution of missions.

Gamers will have to decide whether to undertake a well-planned heist or go in all guns blazing, and then decide who to hire for the job, weighing up the size of your cut against the ability of the criminal.

The process of deciding these elements is quick and simple, ensuring it doesn’t detract from actually playing the game but creates a more customised experience.

The gameplay will be extremely familiar to those who have played the previous incarnations. Shooting, driving and controlling your character has the same feel and fluidity that have made the series so playable since it went 3D.

Other elements are also identical to what has gone before. The stars that reflect your ‘wanted’ level by the police, the ability to perfect your aim at the shooting range at Ammu-Nation, and yes, if you so wish, the option to pick up prostitutes.

Perhaps mindful of pushing new boundaries in the series, there are more in-game activities available to your characters than ever before.

Gamers can take Michael for a round of golf, play tennis with Franklin and his wonderfully inept friend Lamar and even try their luck at a triathlon.

While this feature of the game is entertaining - the activities on offer are not sufficiently complex and challenging for prolonged enjoyment.

This particular gamer made it through two holes before the golf club was used for hitting something other than a ball. They may come into their own when the online element of the game is launched on October 1, but having been prominently featured in the official trailers for the game, they were a disappointment.

Despite all the violence, the humour in GTA has given the series a unique charm - and the most recent instalment excels in this area. Among some highlights are Franklin’s dog Chops being distracted during a mission to go and copulate with a stray, watching an oddly familiar English accented judge on the TV show Fame and Shame and taking a visit to the offices of social media company ‘Lifeinvader’ - complete with posters on the wall with slogans such as ‘Keep calm and carry on sharing’.

GTA V has all the elements that stood the series apart from rival titles. From the humour to the gameplay and the soundtrack to the imaginative missions. When set against the incredible backdrop of Los Santos – a flawless experience ensues. Where previous titles in the series have been labelled ‘game changers’, this feels more like GTA doing what it does best. More risks could have been taken by the developers - a female lead character perhaps - but that aside, it is the finest game in arguably the greatest series ever made.

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