Preview: Grand Theft Auto 5

On the rare occasions that Asian journalists like myself get the opportunity to preview a high profile game, chances are that the version of the game we see has already been seen and written about by journalists in the West months earlier. So by the time we check it out for ourselves, we’ve already read all about it and know pretty much what to expect. It can, and in most cases does, put a damper on your experience because it takes away the element of surprise. Not in the case of Grand Theft Auto 5 though.

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With the city of Los Santos and the Blaine County countryside, GTA5 is like a Rockstar open-world greatest hits package, incorporating the best of the GTA games with Red Dead Redemption. The result is a game that is massive in scale but still possesses incredible depth and variety. My 40-minute preview of the game was over far too soon, but that brief glimpse left me with more talking points than I can cover in this preview.

The draw distances are impressive, even showing the urban landscape Los Santos in the distance in some detail.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, GTA5 features three protagonists, each of whom you can switch to on-the-fly. They’re contrasting personalities, and our preview began with a Rockstar representative introducing us to each of them. Franklin was first, standing at the door of a plane high in the sky above the hills and tree cover of Blaine County. The draw distances are impressive, even showing the urban landscape of Los Santos in the distance in some detail. Franklin leaps off the plane and descends into a rapid skydive before pulling the cord to deploy his parachute. You then have complete control over the chute, which works more like a glider, allowing you turn, ascend and descend, which means you can stay in the air for far longer than you’d expect.

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This is where one of GTA5’s small, but important new features kicks in – background music. The serene tune that plays as Franklin glides over the tree line isn’t in-your-face, but only serves to accompany the sounds of the wind as Franklin glides over the forest. Background music won’t be present all the time, but will kick in on occasion, like when scuba diving or during a tense mission. As Franklin lands on a dirt road, you see NPCs fishing in a nearby stream. NPCs in GTA5 are busier than ever. While some will have stories to tell you, should you want to stick around to listen to them, you’ll find others occupied in some activity or the other, like pulling out a camera to take photos of a popular landmark. GTA4 did a fine job of creating a living, breathing world, but GTA5’s is even more busy and dense.

The character animations are phenomenal and change realistically based on the terrain and ascend/decline.

It was time to move to the second character using the on-screen switching menu. A short cutscene followed and we soon found ourselves in the shoes of Trevor, bloody and passed out on a beach with a bunch of members of The Lost, whom you might remember from GTA4’s The Lost and Damned episodic DLC. Trevor staggers to his feet and a few more new little touches appear. The character animations are phenomenal and change realistically based on the terrain and ascend/decline. Niko’s weird slanted walk is nowhere to be seen. Trevor also leaves footprints on the sand as he walks around; attention to detail you wouldn’t usually expect from a current-gen open-world game.

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After finding his bearings, Trevor hobbles over to a speedboat and heads towards a marker on the mini-map. Here again, the water physics are amazing as the boat bobs over the rippling water and is even occasionally tossed in the air over larger waves. Boats are often equipped with scuba gear and once Trevor reaches the marker, it’s time to venture underwater. The sea is teeming with marine life of all kinds, shapes and sizes. There are wrecked ships and treasures to be found, but there’s no marker leading you to them; it’s all about exploration. Trevor soon finds himself in a spot of bother and surrounded by sharks. That’s his cue to get back to the surface, but before we’re able to see how this situation unfolds, it’s time to move on to the third character.

Once you move away from a character, he goes on about his life and can find his way even if you’ve left him in the middle of nowhere. So even though we left Trevor surrounded by sharks, he would manoeuvre himself out of the situation. Had we left him in the middle of a shark attack, however, he might have been killed and (I assume) would then respawn at the nearby hospital.

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When we switched to the third character – Michael, it was night time (the three segments were scripted so it wasn’t a continuation from where we left Trevor) and we were in the busy streets of Hollywood, or Vinewood as it is called in GTA. I was in Los Angeles for the first time recently for E3 and having been to this preview before that, it was amazing how many of the buildings and landmarks from GTA5 I could spot on Hollywood Blvd. From the Chinese Theatre, to the El Capitain Theatre, to even people dressed as Master Chief and Spider-man on the sidewalk, it was like I had been there before. You’ll often see musicians offering you their CDs (seemingly for free) and then asking for money if you accept it. Rockstar even managed to get that into the game.

The way cars shifted weight and momentum and behaved over bumps looked quite realistic.

Walking around, we stumbled onto an optional side-mission that involved helping out a celebrity stranded in an alley and being hounded by the paparazzi. The task here was to get the celeb’s car, pick her and up and give the persistent paparazzi the slip to get her home. It’s the sort of escort mission GTA games have had since forever, but it was a chance for us to see the game’s driving model in action, which was certainly impressive. The way cars shifted weight and momentum and behaved over bumps looked realistic, but since this was a hands-off preview, it’s hard to tell how difficult cars will be to handle.

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The pursuing paparazzi were way more aggressive than even some of the cops you’d have encountered during chases in past GTA games, and while they wouldn’t make much contact, they used every opportunity to obstruct or get alongside you and unleash a barrage of camera flashes in pursuit of the perfect picture. This little car ride was also good example of the satire and humour GTA games are famous for. The teenage celebrity would go on and on about how famous and important she was (complete with the valley girl accent) while Michael, a middle-aged man completely out of touch with pop culture, was totally oblivious, much to her annoyance.

The couple of car sequences in this demo did include radio stations. I didn’t recognise the teeny pop song playing during Michael’s escort mission, but fellow Westcoast hip-hop fans will be pleased to know that MC Eiht’s Straight Up Menace did play during Franklin’s part of the demo. The Rockstar reps did say, however, that those tracks weren’t final, but I’m hoping it makes it into the final game.

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The last part of the demo was a heist mission. Heists form the central theme of GTA5 and its why these three characters form this unlikely alliance. Rockstar says the campaign will be punctuated by several heists missions of massive scale, which will also require lots of planning and ground work before you actually execute it. You’ll be able to recruit people to participate in your heist and if they make it out alive, they’ll be levelled up when you call on them for your next heist. The heist we were shown wasn’t one of those big ones, but was still pretty elaborate.

Heists form the central theme of GTA5 and its why these three characters form this unlikely alliance.

Each character has a role to play in the planning. Here, one had to steal a garbage truck (the name on the side of it read ‘Little Pricks’), another had to procure masks for them to wear, while the third brought the weapons. The heist involved intercepting a van carrying cash as it passed through an alley. Franklin parked the truck in the middle of the road and hid nearby, as did Michael. Trevor took a sniper rifle and found a high vantage point. Once the van was intercepted and the cash stolen, the trio had to contend with an onslaught of cops. This is where we first saw the game’s gun combat, cover system and on-the-fly character switching features put to use.

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Michael is the most adept at fire fights, with the ability to run and gun and move from cover to cover better than his partners. Franklin’s specialty is his driving, and in combat, he’s more hands-on, preferring close range weapons like shotguns and not afraid to use his fists. Trevor likes his explosives as well as picking off enemies in a distance.

Like Max Payne’s bullet time, all three characters here have their own special abilities.

The cover system in GTA5 is reminiscent of Max Payne 3, in that it’s fluid and doesn’t get in your way. Like Max Payne’s bullet time, all three characters here have their own special abilities. Michael can slow down time during gun battles, Franklin can slow down time while driving, while Trevor can dish out more damage while at the same time taking less damage himself. Each special ability has a cool down time though, and aside from that, each character will level up across several parameters over the course of the game. These parameters include stamina (for running), lung capacity (for swimming), shooting, strength, flying, driving, etc. While all characters will improve across all parameters over time, they will each have their strengths. For example, Franklin will always have a superior driving level, Michael will be better with guns, while Trevor will be better at flying.

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The intense gun battle during the heist demonstrated how quickly you can switch from one character to the next. While you can switch characters whenever you want instantly, you’ll also often hear another call out to you from if he finds himself in a spot of bother. This acts as a hint for you to switch characters in the event that you get too caught up with one of them.

The mission ended with Franklin having to ditch the garbage truck at a secluded location and destroying it, thus also bringing to a conclusion our demo. Despite all the new details that were revealed, there’s so much that we were told about the game that we still haven’t had the chance to see, such as the economy system – an area where GTA IV suffered – from learning skills and turning them into a business, to purchasing and upgrading property.

What we saw in this 40-minute demo was just the tip of the iceberg.

But that’s what Rockstar has been talking about ever since they announced GTA5 – this is the largest and most ambitious game it has ever made, and what we saw in that 40-minute demo was just the tip of the iceberg. Certain doubts still remain, such as whether the game will feel disjointed due to the presence of three protagonists, and whether current gen consoles can hold up to the game’s immense scale and depth. But if there’s one thing that Rockstar has proven over the last few years with games like Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3 and LA Noire, it’s that when they lay down a plan, they will execute it. So as you patiently wait for the next three months to go by, remove all doubt, and just be excited. Be very excited.

Grand Theft Auto 5 will release on 17th September for Xbox 360 and PS3. This preview is based on a hands-off demo played by a Rockstar developer on PS3.

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