Set mostly within the glitzily superficial city of Los Santos, a warped mirror of Los Angeles, GTA V is a sprawling tale of criminal maniacs self-destructing on a blood-splattered career trajectory to hell. Michael is the middle-aged thug, obsessed with movies, who pulled a witness protection deal with the feds after a failed heist many years ago. When his old partner Trevor, a sociopath who bakes meth out in the desert, turns up in town, the two join forces with a young black kid, Franklin, who’s set on leaving his gang-infested neighbourhood behind. The aim is a few final high-paying jobs, but there’s a festering resentment between Trev and Michael that goes back a long way, a fizzing fuse that trails all the way through the carnage.
This three-character format emancipates the narrative, jettisoning the awkward requirement for one protagonist to be everywhere, witnessing everything in this vast world. Switching between the characters can be done at any time while off mission, and all three have their own little pet projects to get involved with, adding variety and a few amusing surprises: switching to Trevor usually involves some bodily function or weird violent episode, while Michael has his dysfunctional family to manage. And overlaying all this is a huge plot about warring government agencies and corrupt billionaires.
The result is a freewheeling joyride through genre cinema and literature: there are psychopathic mafia bosses, insane motorcycle gangs, xenophobically sketched triads, corrupt secret agents and cynical movie producers – their stories twist and interconnect, slithering around the lives of our protagonists. It’s dizzying at times, but also daftly compelling, and the influence of multi-strand dramas such as The Wire is obvious.
GTA veterans will still recognise how the game underneath it all works. There is a backbone of narrative missions that gamers must complete in order to progress, but beyond them is a vast range of dynamic encounters, side-quests and money-making ventures, from buying property to managing clubs and playing the stock exchange (which cleverly reacts to in-game events, allowing you to make extra cash by buying the right shares at the right time). Most story tasks are variations on one theme – drive somewhere, shoot something, drive back – but as with all video game feedback loops, the joy of the system is in the execution. And boy does GTA V execute.
To say much more would be to ruin the fun of discovery, but rest assured there are insane stunts, there is massive destruction, there is military-grade weaponry, and you will be required to jump out of planes. And helicopters. Combining the sheer scale of the environment with the excellent physics engine, these escapades throw everything at you, from rural bank-heists to jet-ski chases, to operating huge industrial machinery. The bigger heists require mini-preparatory missions (hiding getaway cars, picking novelty masks) which help build the tension, and subtly add to the feeling that what we’re all doing here is acting in our own version of Michael Mann’s film Heat. While certain ideas are repackaged and chucked straight back at you several times, you’re carried along on a rush of euphoric action and shock – mostly because the world looks and behaves as though all this makes sense.
Indeed, Rockstar North has built an extraordinary universe that functions not only as an exciting, diverse setting but also as a pulverising, nihilistic satire on western society. Reality TV, celebrity magazines, social media, plastic surgery, pop psychology books – all get savaged via the often hilarious commercials on the game’s many radio and TV stations. Even games themselves get hit: an advert for Righteous Slaughter 7 promises “the realistic art of contemporary killing”.
This isn’t just confined to extraneous detail, it slides into the narrative. At one point we see the offices of a giant social network, Lifeinvader, a spot-on amalgam of Facebook, Apple and Google. The staff all wear cargo shorts, whine on about organic lactose-free dairy products and treat their CEO with religious deference. We also get corrupt FBI and CIA agents (called FiB and IAA in the game), trading drugs and manufacturing terrorist threats to keep their budgets topped up. Everyone is on the make, everyone is dangerous, and the game delights in thrusting us into the middle of it as a willing participant.
Gunfights, meanwhile, are furious, visceral ballets, fuelled by regular visits to the well-stocked Ammu-Nation stores. while GTA has learned a lot about organic environments from Red Dead Redemption (the rural areas of San Andreas are abuzz with wildlife), it has learned its game systems from Max Payne. The combat is ultra-smooth with a variety of decent, functional aiming options and a cover mechanic that works almost imperceptibly – the greatest compliment you can pay to this concept. Limited more by the player’s imagination than by ability, most set-piece encounters are not overwhelmingly challenging, but they are spectacular – and this is the point. You have to understand that Grand Theft Auto V is not really a game about story or mechanics, even if it wants to be – it is a game about spectacle and experience.