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In a week since it’s release the highest budgeted video game ever made has already become the fastest selling product in the history of entertainment. So without further ado, welcome to Los Santos…

A sprawling metropolis full of self-help gurus, starlets and fading celebrities struggling to stay afloat in an era of economic uncertainty and cheap cable TV. Amidst the turmoil, three very different criminals risk everything in a series of daring and dangerous heists that could set them up for life.

THIS IS GRAND THEFT AUTO V.

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Make no mistake, the introduction places you slap-bang into the thick of the action as you find yourself at the centre of a botched-up bank robbery, approximately 10 years prior to the main story. This initial tutorial allows you to quickly become accustomed to the improved shooting controls and the ‘all new’ character switching function. Thankfully the lock on system and ‘real time’ navigation of the weapons menu are infinite times better than that of those found in GTA IV. Another ticked box is the excellent cover system. Popping in and out of cover has never been so slick for a GTA title and again, makes this game feel light years beyond Rockstars previous efforts. I almost found myself trying to dodge the gun fire from the comfort of my own arm chair as I played out the opening scenes. Sadly, the hand-to-hand combat is still lacking, but the bulk of the controls do become second nature after the first hour or so.

Fast forward to the present day and our three main characters all reside in the beautifully realised fictional city of Los Santos, based very closely on Los Angeles. Michael, Franklin and Trevor each come from completely different walks of life. There is a link between the older characters of Michael and Trevor, but due to circumstances surrounding the failed robbery back in 2004, all ties had been severed. Once more Rockstar deliver a snappy, amusing and sometimes damn right disturbing narrative that closely follows the interwoven story of all three characters. Their mutual focus being ‘the pursuit of the mighty dollar‘, accumulating in multiple orgies of increasingly difficult – mission based – bank heists.

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Michael is probably the most refined protagonist of the three. Although that doesn’t amount to much when you consider his crime checkered past, dysfunctional family – complete with troubled teenage kids and cheating wife, expensive therapy sessions and a drink problem to boot. He’s the epitome of a once upon-a-time time successful gangster who’s now firmly grounded at the bottom of the mob tree, as his age and waistline have uncontrollably increased.
Franklin is the young, confident, ex-gangster struggling to make ends meet with his ‘crew’ on the tough streets of South Los Santos. He’s a smart talking street-wise guy, with a passion for fast cars and a burning desire to make it to the top. As the story unfolds Michael and Franklin strike up an unlikely friendship. Then we arrive at Trevor – the most unhinged, psychotic character witnessed in a video game for quite some time. Constantly high on a cocktail of drugs, he’s the sort of nut-job that would rather kill you than look at you. The ultimate creator of chaos who’s familiar with the cockpit of a plane.

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All three characters eventually become playable by a simple press of the D-pad, hidden by a smart loading screen. The camera pans out – as if viewed by satellite – then swiftly scans the map switching to your next guy. It’s a novel take on the tried and tested GTA formula of controlling one character who’s small ripples are making big waves within the criminal underworld. It keeps the game feeling fresh as you constantly adjust to, and see the game world from, three different perspectives.

And what a game world it is, the sheer scale of the map is simply frightening. From above the highest mountain, down to the depths of the deepest ocean, the level of detail is staggering. The game world genuinely feels alive as the population of Los Santos go about their daily business chatting away and rolling out one-liners as they pass you by. Wildlife will openly roam around in the luscious greens of the hills, as soaring birds cast ominous shadows on the heated sands below. All accomplished with some of the best visuals I have witnessed on the Xbox 360. The water effects are absolutely stunning, as are the sun sets and sun rises. During one mission I was left in awe by a distant lightening display as I drove through the barren desert at night.
With the level of detail that Rockstar have poured into the visuals (and the speed of which the game runs) I was surprised to witness little frame rate issues and only minor pop up. Considering the age of the hardware, GTA V is a technical achievement.

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With so much for the player to digest within the first few hours of play Rockstar could’ve easily rested on their laurels and played it safe with the opening missions, but where would the fun be in that?  Once again, entertaining cut scenes proceed each mission and often produce some laugh-out-loud moments. This time the missions seem more multi-layered than ever before. No longer is it just a simple case of ‘drive there, steal this and get back to that’. From the word “Go” you’ll be tearing up the streets in super fast sports cars, battling with rival gangs and smashing vehicles through shop windows. In the next breath you’ll be pulling houses down, getting caught up in shoot outs and taking part in an armed carjack in the attempt to rescue Michael’s kidnapped son and beloved yacht – all of which never quite play out in the way you’d expect. However, it has to be said that the game tends to hold the players hand a little too tightly, as every detail is displayed in text indicating precisely what to do next.

Luckily though, GTA V is awash with an abundance of sub-missions, races, sports and events that just eat away at the hours. Right now I’m finding it increasing difficult to pass by a tennis court without stopping for a game or two. You can purchase homes and businesses, including an ‘herbal shop’ – strictly for medical reasons or take pilot lessons and practice your shooting on the target range. We have the obligatory strip bar to attend, fair ground rides to enjoy, tattoo parlours and barber shops – adding customisation to your characters. Base jumps, parachuting and much, much, more besides . Most sub-missions usually contain their own little plot that cleverly blend into the main story, adding contacts to your friends list that open up yet more mini-missions. It’s not as if these distractions are games within a game, as most of these activities reward your character by increasing your players stats (adding a neat RPG element to the overall experience).

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On top of everything GTA V does right, the vehicle handling has also received a major revamp. Back in GTA IV it felt like most vehicles were possessed by an evil hover craft demon from another dimension, but not anymore. Blasting down the freeway, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic is a pure white-knuckle rush. Yes, that’s right, the cars in GTA V are fun once more, hurrah! It’s just as well because the Los Santos Police Department do not let up. Like a dog with a bone, they will bring you down – the Police chases really are something else. The safest bet to evade the law is to enter stealth mode whilst on foot and hide like a yellow bellied chicken down some alley way or skip. In addition you can traverse by means of boats, planes (pilot lessons recommended) and helicopters. At long last the motorcycles handle surprisingly well and my newly found personal favourite – thanks to the mission ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ – the jet ski.

Of cause, storming down the boulevard or simply taking a leisurely drive into the countyside just wouldn’t be the same without a little music. Amazingly, GTA V manages to compact over 20 hours of soundtrack into the game, just for your audible pleasure. Covering every base from West Coast Rap to Punk Rock, 80′s Classics to Modern Pop – it’s all here. There’s always something new to discover in Los Santos, whether it be the quirky ‘Strangers and Freaks‘ missions or simply taking time to watch the TV at your safe house. A visit to the cinema (and one movie in particular) will leave you bemused as to what you’ve just witnessed!? And similarly with the Radio Stations – you’ll frequent new tracks and hilarious DJ conversations on a regular basis. On a personal vibe, I do feel that Rockstar Games hit the jackpot with GTA Vice City’s soundtrack, so maybe quantity doesn’t always better quality?

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But that’s exactly what GTA V is all about… Quantity. The development was immense, the story is brimming, the characters are heavy-weight and the controls are mega. The world is boundless, missions are packed and interaction is tremendous. Vehicles are thunderous and the soundtrack is monster. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, GTA V also contains quality… By the bucket load!

It’s fair to say that GTA V is the most complete Grand Theft Auto game Rockstar North have ever produced – and for that reason alone – rightfully guarantees itself a candidate for game of the year, and some would argue, game of this generation. And this is only the beginning of something truly special. GTA Online is scheduled to go live Tuesday, October 1.

Whatever you may find yourself doing in Los Santos, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be doing it with a smile on your face. Simply put, Grand Theft Auto V is nothing short of a masterpiece.