Two helicopters swoop down over the city, zigzagging between looming skyscrapers. They are searching for a third chopper, and they find it, hovering beside an anonymous government building. Quickly, the craft glides away from its pursuers while a gunman leans out and fires back.
This is an aerial shoot-out, hundreds of feet above the densely crowded streets, a breathtaking action set-piece, befitting the most vainglorious Hollywood blockbuster. But you are in control; it’s your movie. And as shots ring out, one chopper spirals out of the sky, black smoke billowing from its shattered tail. In the background, a neon pink sunset detonates across the sky.
This is Grand Theft Auto V, the latest title in a series that has dragged video games kicking and screaming onto the cultural agenda. Developed at Rockstar’s Edinburgh studio, with input from several of the publisher’s other developers around the globe, GTA V is another darkly humorous crime adventure, crammed with sleazy gangsters, corrupt politicos and dodgy cops. While GTA IV took place in Rockstar’s cold, shadowy version of New York the ironically titled Liberty City the latest title heads cross-country to Los Santos, a monstrous, sprawling pastiche of Los Angeles.
Here we meet lead character Michael, an ageing bank robber who fulfils that most fecund of crime-fiction archetypes: a crook who’s made good, retired to a fancy house, but now misses the excitement of the old days. In the demo Rockstar shows us, he starts out sunbathing by the pool like Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast, the city shimmering in the distance beyond his landscaped gardens. The player is able to get up and explore the bleached stucco mansion, passing the tennis court (you can play a match if you like), then bumping into Michael’s bored wife as she clambers into a sports car on the front drive. “If you want to know where I am, read your credit card statement,” she yells as tyres squeal. “I’m feeling lucky, I’ll check the hospitals!” he calls back. And slowly but surely, his previous career begins to beckon.
The game is structured around a series of five or six mega-heists which take place throughout the game, and which other missions lead up to. The idea is to get gamers into big set-piece thrill-fests like GTA IV’s Three Leaf Clover much more quickly.
Some of the artwork Rockstar has released shows the characters jumping out of a van with gas masks, overalls and machine guns, bringing to mind Michael Mann’s movie Heat. Like that film, this seems to be a game about professional criminals and the weird working relationships they maintain amid the testosterone and violence.
You forget how important music is in this game and then you watch the GTA V demo and see Trevor leaping into a battered old truck and screaming off into the desert playing Radar Love, and it all comes back. It will be interesting to see how a score competes.
Meanwhile, there’s another reason why there are three lead characters: GTA V is too geographically immense for a lone protagonist to explore. This is the largest environment Rockstar has built, big enough.
Like LA itself, Los Santos is a patchwork of neighbourhoods with a downtown area, a gang-infested southern district, and the prosperous areas in the hills. But the game world extends out into the fictitious state of San Andreas, Rockstar’s interpretation of southern California. Importantly, the whole map is open from the start. Players can take a chopper and fly out over the hills, parachuting down onto the peak of Mount Chiliad. They can jet-ski, mountain bike, play golf, exercise. They don’t have to, they just can.
Out in the sticks, beyond the city limits, the feel is more Red Dead Redemption, with dynamic encounters amid the wilderness; Game Informer’s recent feature on the game mentions hitchhikers and broken down cars; all potential traps for unwary explorers.
“Environment is important,” says Houser. “It’s not just about doing the activities we’ve set, there’s also a sense of being there. If we’ve done a good job, the shoot-outs are fun but so is cruising through the world in a car you really like, listening to music if these elements feel somehow consistent with each other, then we’re on the right path to something cool”.
And, yes, the shoot-outs do look like fun. In the mission we’re shown, Michael, Trevor and Franklin have been employed by a covert agency, the FIB, to swipe a prisoner from another set of government operatives. It involves piloting a helicopter to a downtown building, rappelling down a rope, smashing in through the windows, and getting back into the craft with your confused and terrified hostage.
Michael is the one doing the smash and grab, while Trevor pilots the helicopter and Franklin lurks on a nearby rooftop with a sniper rifle, picking off enemy targets. Again, you can keep swapping between them, grabbing different aspects of the action, or you can stick with one protagonist, concentrating on your own key skills. It’s exciting stuff, it’s what we’ve always loved GTA for that sense of freedom, of anarchy, in a functioning world. The sense that extraordinary things will happen.
GTA has always been about possibilities. That is why it is so exciting to see the series return, amid the indie titles it has inspired, and the Triple A titles that have grown up in its shadow. Grand Theft Auto has always sought to push at what game worlds are, it is inarguably ambitious. Yet sometimes it just wants to blow up helicopters above the streets of downtown Los Santos. And that, in the end, is absolutely fine.
Guardian News and Media 2012