Grand Theft Auto V: It’s all in the Details
Above everything else, Grand Theft Auto V is a game about scope.
It’s more than just the sheer physical size of the environment. Sure, the land mass in GTA V is three-and-a-half times the size of Red Dead Redemption alone. In fact, it’s bigger than Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV and GTA: San Andreas combined. But there’s more to GTA V than square miles.
It’s more than Rockstar North’s ambitious new approach to the main narrative thread. Sure, managing a trio of co-leads rather than a single central character adds a considerable layer of complexity for the development team to navigate. But there’s more to GTA V than multiple main characters.
It’s more than the missions. It’s more than the mini-games. It’s more than the side activities. It’s more than the base jumping, or the hitchhikers, or the golf, or the ATM robberies, or the triathlons, or the hunting. It’s more than the yoga. It’s more than all of these things.
Or rather, it’s the sum of all these things. When you say GTA V is large, it’s large in every sense of the word. It’s enormous in size, it’s fat with content and it’s big in ambition.
As with GTA IV, it’s the marriage between incredible girth and granular detail that impresses first. With GTA V, however, there have been exponential improvements to both. The demo, as you may have already read, begins with Franklin – one of the game’s trinity of protagonists – perched on the skid of a helicopter thousands of feet above the rolling landscape of Los Santos’ surrounding countryside. Directly below, trees dot the undulating hills. To the right, a sprawling military base backs onto the Alamo Sea. A cargo plane is taking off from the airstrip, slowing clawing its way into the sky. In the distance ahead, tucked behind a slight rise and a soft haze, lies the city of Los Santos. The scale. It is immense. Everything else Rockstar has done is dwarfed by GTA V. But it’s more than just big. It is alive.
Franklin steps off the chopper, freefalling for a few moments before deploying his parachute. He’s now coasting a few hundred feet above Blaine County. A wild cat slinks along a ridge below as Franklin steers his ’chute down the slope before landing on a trail running parallel to a stream. Deer graze. A pair of hikers trudge by. Ahead sits an RV and a gaggle of fishermen. An ATV or three hum past on a nearby track. We’re just minutes in and the ways in which the excellent Red Dead Redemption has informed how Rockstar North tackles the challenge of making Los Santos’ surrounding countryside a living, nuanced environment are abundantly clear. The world beyond the Los Santos city limits may be a lot less dense but, like Red Dead Redemption, it’s overflowing with fastidious attention to detail and subtle signs of life everywhere you look.
The incredible detail doesn’t stop when the demo switches to the other characters, either. Off-mission you’ll be able to swap between characters more or less at will. After a Google Earth-style transition we find Trevor coming to on a deserted beach, far from Franklin and the forest. Wearing naught but underpants and a pair of hiking boots he’s surrounded by the bodies of several bikers; they’re members of The Lost MC. What went down is as unclear to us as it likely is to Trevor. He’s got blood smeared on his chest.
Boarding a rigid inflatable boat, or a Zodiac as they’re commonly dubbed, Trevor is quickly streaking across the ocean. It’s here Rockstar North’s completely new water systems are laid bare, and they’re really nothing short of amazing. Waves, large and small, roll under and around the boat; they’re capped with white froth as they slosh and curl. The larger ones become ramps for the nimble Zodiac, launching it above the spray to crash down into the next wave. After a spell, Trevor cuts the engine and brings the boat to a halt. Some boats in GTA V will come with SCUBA gear, so a few moments later Trevor is over the gunwale clad in a shiny black wetsuit. As Keza has described, the underwater environment is gorgeous. Swords of sunlight stab through the water’s surface. Fish shoal. There’s wreckage lining the ocean floor begging to be explored; a destroyed oil platform, perhaps. The speckled water darkens as you peer into it. A shiver of sharks quickly takes an interest in Trevor, however, and he surfaces to a clutch of dorsal fins knifing through the ripples.
Leaving Trevor to an uncertain fate it’s here we switch to Michael, the third and final character. We catch him leaving Vinewood’s Von Crastenburg Hotel. He emerges on a street perpendicular to Vinewood Boulevard. It’s at this point that Rockstar’s intense dedication to detail goes into overdrive.
It’s night in Vinewood, GTA V’s gaudy proxy for Hollywood. Stars line the sidewalk. A blue and yellow cab, synonymous with LA’s Checker Cab Co. taxis, hooks a U-turn in front of us. Car stereos thump. A former celebrity – Pamela Drake is her name, we’re told – is standing at the intersection, desperate to tell her story to anyone who’ll listen. Everything’s lit by the glow of the coloured lights illuminating the signs protruding from the low-rise buildings and stores lining the street.
If LA Noire was a time machine to transport you back to a Los Angeles long lost to progress, GTA V is a window into a slightly-twisted parallel world. Like its real-world inspiration, Los Santos’ Vinewood is a glossy, bustling, but thoroughly lived-in place. Rockstar North has stocked it to the brim with eye-catching stuff from every angle but has made equally sure to coat everything with that layer of grit and grime no city can shake.
The details don’t stop. A tourist minibus sits idling on the kerb; you know the kind, they’re like little human aquariums on wheels. We’re told Michael could hop aboard and take a Los Santos star tour, complete with an earful of pithy, GTA-style commentary on the area’s resident celebrities. Michael ambles past a tattoo parlour where we’re told he could get ink if players were inclined. Avatar customisation is back. Clothing can be changed, obviously, but you can also get haircuts.
Michael eventually pauses amongst a handful of cosplayers milling around a popular Los Santos tourist trap. He takes a snapshot of one, dressed as a Republican Space Ranger, with his phone. Mobile phones have come quite a way since 2008′s GTA IV; Michael’s new ‘iFruit’ reflects that progress. It doesn’t just have a touchscreen – you’ll be able to access the in-game internet from it, utilise the game’s social network features and more.
What speaks volumes about the depth of the world Rockstar North has created here is that there are few other games that could be demonstrated in the same fashion. The demo’s heist, described here, hasn’t happened yet. In fact, very little has happened. A walk. A swim. That’s it, really. But GTA V’s world is so vivid, simply being in it is enough to be engrossed. You get an instant appreciation for the potential of a world as fertile as this. The whole place feels like a coiled spring, just waiting to explode as soon as you begin interfering.
Surprising is the wrong word for Rockstar North’s dedication to minutiae. There didn’t need to be butterflies hovering around the bushes in the front yard of a Hollywood starlet’s Vinewood Hills luxury home; it’s unlikely anyone would’ve mourned their absence. But they are there, and it’s not surprising. Rockstar’s commitment to layers upon layers of detail in the games it publishes is widely known and well-documented.
Admirable, perhaps, is more apt. It’s admirable that, in spite of the vast increase in proportions, there don’t appear to have been any concessions when it comes to that granular detail that defines a Rockstar Games world.
What’s more is that this attention to detail that defines the very DNA of GTA V is about more than what you can see. It’s about what you can hear, do, and feel.
The subtle use of an original music score in the background while out of a vehicle, or at dramatic moments during the game’s missions, smacks of Rockstar’s hugely-successful Western. Combined with the usual in-game radio content, GTA V’s aural offering could be something truly special.
Vehicle customisation, last seen in GTA: San Andreas, is returning after being honed by Rockstar’s own Midnight Club: Los Angeles. That extends beyond simply visual options like paintjobs, wheels, tints, grills and spoilers too; performance upgrades will significantly improve your car’s power and handling characteristics.
For improvements to the game’s shooting, Rockstar has looked no further than Max Payne 3. Cover shooting is improved, and the reticule will now switch from white to red to identify enemies (a small cross will flash over it when your targeted enemy is killed, also). There even a new evasive roll, the ability to run-and-gun from the hip while maintaining complete aiming control and what Rockstar is describing as a ‘combat jog’ (which will allow you to move at speed with a weapon drawn, but not raised).
I single these out to illustrate that GTA V has not evolved in a bubble. Rather, inside of GTA V awaits a Voltron of proven components from its quality stable mates. Combined with its sheer size and the smorgasbord of gameplay, this is what I mean when I talk about scope. This is the kind of scope you get from years of gestation. You get a game that doesn’t feel like it cares about boundaries.
Grand Theft Auto V stands in stark contrast to an industry increasingly focused on carefully rationed experiences released once every 12 months, and for that I am extremely grateful.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN AU. You can find him on IGN here or on Twitter @MrLukeReilly, or chat with him and the rest of the Australian team by joining the IGN Australia Facebook community.
By Luke Reilly