A MASTERPIECE made in Scotland, refined and reinvented thanks to some inspired additions.
Grand Theft Auto V
Platform: Xbox One (reviewed) / Playstation 4
IF ever there was a game that had no need for a recondition to mark its first anniversary, Rockstar North’s tour de force is surely the outstanding candidate. Upon its release last autumn its bravado, ambition and technical mastery seemed to defy the limitations of decade old hardware, depicting Grand Theft Auto at its majestic, manifold best. A year on, the Edinburgh developers have revisited their most celebrated game to date for its debut on the new generation of consoles, with a PC version to follow in the new year. The firm’s customary secrecy led many to suppose it would be a shiny if somewhat gratuitous recondition in line with the Game of the Year trend. In actual fact, it turns out to be the progressive overhaul of the series in nearly 15 years.
Save for a few little additions, the thrust of the main campaign is the same as before. The passing of 12 months has not robbed the game’s primary mechanic - the ability to switch between three mechanics - of its ingenuity. Revisiting Los Santos and weaving from one character to another is a vital experience, where the scale of vast, hyperactive missions and heists are punctuated by fun, flighty distractions and side quests, the number of which is bolstered in this new version. As always, the greatest pleasure is simply to drift off course and explore the world for yourself. The much heralded online component, now working well after some initial teething problems, also feels more eventful thanks to 30 players being allowed to simultaneously wreak havoc.
Graphically, improvements are subtler than expected but improve a world already rich in detail
Aesthetically, the improvements are more subtle than you might expect. The lighting system feels that bit more dynamic, the depth of field is noticeably better, and incidental environmental details are richer and rounded. For the most part, the cityscape is busier, too, although occasional moments reveal how this is a game that has been largely reskinned as opposed to rebuilt - only one pedestrian came into view while surveying the streets using the telescope in Weazel Plaza’s penthouse. Such quibbles though, are few and far between. Taken in isolation, the graphical changes do not have a significant impact but cumulatively, serve to buff and sheen a world already rich in detail, while reminding you of the sterling work that went into the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 titles.
But the most compelling change to the formula is the one Rockstar kept closest to their chest - the new first person mode. It is easy to underplay just how radical an addition this is to the GTA template. It may be a widely utilised viewpoint familiar to players the world over, but translated into this urban playground, with its frenetic and diverse smorgasbord of ideas, it lends proceedings an urgency and chaotic glee. Veering away from mission objectives to go on a destructive spree - standard fare in GTA titles since time immemorial - or hotfooting it from the police during the apex of a fraught heist feels newly eviscerating. Getting up close and personal in a fist fight is no longer an idle distraction, but a fraught affair. Similarly, the new animation rolled out when you are hurled head over heels across the handlebars of a motorbike is imbued with peril.
The new first person perspective introduces a welcome new combat system
The freshness of this perspective is backed up by a refined control system that does not slavishly emulate other FPS titles. Running, for example, can be uneasy, as your player gambols forward while rolling from one side the other (a so-called ‘head bobbing’ option can be disabled) that is frustrating at first but is gradually appreciated for the realism it brings. Playing the game in first person also demonstrated a taut, responsive alternative to the third person combat system, which has never been GTA’s strongest suit. Indeed, the heightened sense of agency means that, in spite of being a remodelled version of a year old game, the title feels like the most revolutionary iteration of GTA since 2001, when it memorably made the bold leap into 3D.
Grand Theft Auto V is an intoxicating tapestry of a game which shines more brightly than ever. Now, the onus is on Rockstar North to make good on its promise to deliver substantive online improvements. The prospect of new co-operative heists is an enticing one, but having been pencilled in to arrive in spring of this year, the mode has been subject to one too many delays. The advent of GTA V on the next gen, however, should salve those frustrated by the piecemeal nature of the DLC to date. Some elementary yet devastating effective changes breath new life into a franchise 17 years old this autumn and demonstrate how a developer can not only refine, but reinvent, given enough enough time, talent and patience.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
Tinker around with the new camera options. While in cover during a firefight, first person mode may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is possible to set up an automatic switch to a third person perspective.
If you are the materialistic sort - in which case you will fit in well into Los Santos - be sure to save Lester’s optional missions for the end of the game, when you can invest heavily in stocks impacted by your actions.
Lastly, but not least, set aside a day where you forget about the icons, the prompts and the telephone calls. Get in a car, drive out to the boondocks and see where the game takes you. It’s what GTA is best at.