A touch of a button and the camera swoops after Franklin as he falls from a chopper beating its way along the San Andreas coastline. Rockstar has learned a lot from Red Dead. Learned how better to illustrate landscapes at huge scales and vast draw distances. To the east is the city of Los Santos: a wide scattering of low-rise suburbia whose downtown skyscrapers needle from a haze all-too-familiar to anyone who’s flown into LA.
Franklin’s descent is many miles from there. Nothing below him is man-built. Just the occasional stand of trees, rocks, scraggy bushes that pepper the scrub. A herd of deer is attempting to evade the parachute’s shadow as Franklin comes a finger’s width from scudding the crest of a hill. He drops into a valley cut through by a river running parallel to a wide dirt track where ATVs stir up wedding trains of dry dirt.
Franklin sets down with a grace that contrasts the gangsta gait he adopts thereafter: an exaggerated swing of arm and hip. There are a couple of people fishing here whose precarious placement on the riverbank offers a compelling temptation to give them a little shove.
Instead, we bring up a segmented character wheel and select a new face. The camera tilts up over Franklin’s head and freezes to a black-and-white still. Another shot, high above his head, and higher like an old camera with an automated shutter: click-click-click. Miles above, we traverse the map, then experience the process in reverse, the final shot close above the head of… who is this now? A junkie tramp is passed out on the beach.
Not without his charms, Trevor is a trailer-trash sociopath entrenched in a world of bike gangs and crystal meth. He’s naked from the waist up and, as he gets to his feet, shows us his blotchy, track-marked skin. Something bad has gone down. Dead bikers litter the beach. Patches identify them as Lost (last seen in The Lost & The Damned). It’s apparent neither who did what to whom nor why. No time for questions, so we waste none putting distance between Trevor and whatever the hell this was.
A speedboat is parked close to shore. Full-throttle, we fishtail her out into the surf. The water is in another league to that seen in GTA IV. Waves roll, break on the shore, white sea foam webs the surface. It’s translucent, showing us a distorted view of the world beneath.
Some boats, like this Zodiac RIB, come equipped for SCUBA. Trevor – the unlikeliest-looking SCUBA diver we’ve ever seen – gears up, perches himself on the gunwale and tips himself into the water. Before our time with GTA V, we were aware that SCUBA was an available pastime; what we didn’t realise is that we can do it anywhere in the game world (water and boat permitting). The underwater world is rendered in deep blues, light refracting through surface disturbances.
GTA V is scored, musically speaking. When characters are engaged in specific activities – skydiving, SCUBA, heists, others – an appropriately cinematic instrumental enhances the mood. In the heists, which we’ll talk about shortly, that’s something like a clockwork orchestra wound too tight; layers of tick-tock drums and pulsing strings. Here, as well as the hiss of Trevor’s regulator, the opposite is true. A muted soundscape of bubbles and slopping water is accompanied by notes long, slow and subtle.
There’s a wreck here. Looks like it used to be a fishing boat: stubby hull, jutting shelter deck. Other divers enjoy a variety of marine flora and fauna, including a couple of bull sharks alongside whom few would feel comfortable. Trevor doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who cares and, as he resurfaces, is oblivious to the dorsal fins that breach in circles about him.
The camera tips up again and that’s where we leave Trevor. It answers a question that hasn’t occurred to us to ask: When we’re controlling one character, do the others take care of themselves? Sure. Even bobbing about like drug-addled shark bait.
Los Santos now. It’s night time and Michael is leaving the Von Crastenberg Hotel. Michael’s a retired bank robber, now in witness protection thanks to influential friends in the FIB. Rich, successful; a family man with a wife and two kids. He’s got it made. So why does he hate his life so goddamn much?
He’s bored. Bored of his marriage, disconnected from his kids. Bored of drinking. Bored of the old Vinewood movies that once obsessed him. Bored with his mansion in Rockford Hills, his tennis courts and his swimming pool. More than anything, Michael’s bored of not robbing banks, and no amount of yoga or psychotherapy is going to change that.
On Vinewood Boulevard, Los Santos has a lot more going on than Liberty City. The standard pedestrian set are punctuated by eccentrics and weirdos with more to say. Pamela Drake was a star once. Now she hangs out by her sidewalk star and tells her story to anyone who’ll listen.
Further along, past an open-top, Vinewood tour bus ( which Michael could ride if he’s in the mood for some sleazy celebrity gossip) there’s a man dressed as Impotent Rage: a superhero with his own in-game TV show. Alongside him is a member of the Republican Space Rangers, whose resemblance to a certain armour-clad Spartan is unmistakable.
Michael pulls out his smartphone. It’s a significant upgrade from the call-and-text basics of GTA IV. With its camera app he takes a picture. Rockstar’s usual lampooning of both social media and the internet as a whole are set to feature, the latter accessed without need of any Tw@s.
Dynamic events appear on your mini-map as they occur. Paparazzi have cornered a young Vinewood starlet in an alley. She’s shouting for help. Not that Michael would know it, but her name is Lacey Jonas. At her request, he gets behind the wheel of her car (provoking angry shouts from the paps staking it out). She gets in and they’re away.
“This is a disaster,” she says. “I’m so f***ing fat! God, they cannot get a shot of me. How’s my hair, do I look cute?” Even when all you can see is the back of the car, Michael’s apathy seeps through.
“So who are you, anyway?” he asks to her astonishment.
She just wants to go home, and when they arrive, she gives Michael 150 bucks. Money’s still the primary resource here, and dynamic events are good for a little chump change. But the real money is in heists.
Michael is the mastermind, and when Franklin and Trevor arrive, it’s time to go one last time over the finer points. “Under normal circumstances,” Rockstar explains, “several smaller missions lead to the heist itself.” These comprise things like obtaining masks and finding a spot to park a second vehicle after torching the first. Choices that affect how the heist plays out.
“Listen up, here’s the plan,” Michael says. “Trevor, I want you in this position up here. You’re on lookout. Give me a heads-up when the armoured car comes by, Okay? I’m gonna be right here in a garbage truck blocking the roadway. Franklin, you’re in the alley, in the tow truck. Hope is, they pull right up in front of you. When they do, you come at ‘em hard. Bam!”
“Shit, here’s hoping,” Franklin says with no hope at all, then some of the ways things could go south are fired back and forth. The masks come out: a monkey with a cigarette in its mouth, a clown, a Jason Voorhees hockey mask. There are grumbles all round.
GTA V’s incidental score begins in earnest. A monotone rhythm plucked on electric guitar and idiophone percussion that plinks and plonks a bitonal accompaniment: ting-ting, ting ting, ting-ting-ting. Thus, the flavour of the Hollywood heist movie is delivered with disarming ease.
There are three ways to switch control between Franklin, Michael and Trevor. The first is automatic, the reasoning contextual. The second is found only in cutscenes: you arrive as one character, leave as another. The third is also the most common: player-controlled and freeform.
We get a visual on the target and, in control of Michael, drive the dumpster to block the alley as all the ting-ting mans up with butch strings. Now Franklin, and we’re foot-to-floor up an alley T-boned by the halted security van. We plough into it, barrel it onto its side and take out the opposing wall in the process. Franklin jumps out to plant the sticky bomb on the back doors. Ting, ting-ting, ting ting…
Sirens. The cops are on their way and the guards in the van know it.
“They’ve got a panic button alright,” Trevor shouts, and there’s another upshift in tempo. Michael barks his battle orders at the other two; tells Franklin to get up on the roof and snipe, Trevor to use the dumpsters as cover. What follows is a massacre. Wave after wave of police running, shooting, dying in the kill-zone bottlenecks created by their teamwork.
It didn’t have to be this way. In many heists, other approaches are available: some come off without a hitch, some defined by stealth.
Stealth is a character statistic. You may remember, once upon a time, that Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson had a bunch. The stats are back in GTA V and determine how apt each character is to perform a certain task. Choosing the right man for the right job determines its potential for success, though it should be noted that all three have the capacity to max out every stat, should you have a month or two to give to obsessive compulsion.
In addition to stats, each character has a special ability. Michael can slow time during gunfights, Rockstar demonstrating the very specific prowess it honed during development of Max Payne 3. Franklin can do the same while driving, delivering a high yield of shit-that-was-close driving moments, while Trevor, as well as a unique melee attack, deals more damage while taking less. If you need a tank, he’s your guy.
We blink. Because that was that. Forty-five minutes (or thereabouts) of Grand Theft Auto V. We check our watch to be certain it wasn’t five. It dawns on us just what a life-absorber this is set to be. How good is it? Very. It’s also a technical masterpiece, and not because of the material we saw, but because of the seams we didn’t.