Grand Theft Auto V is, without question, the most involving, top-to-bottom, start-to-finish, out-of-body experience ever presented in a video game. Every time you venture into its massive, fully realized universe, a searing, often hilarious satirization of everything that’s senseless and broken with the Western world, you can’t help but lose touch with your own current reality. The town you inhabit, the room you’re in, the piece of furniture you’re playing on, they all disappear as soon as you load a save file. This is virtually unrestricted, extremist escapism at its finest, a secondary form of our planet that you can visit whenever you want, letting loose both your buried wild side and the fervent desire to pursue a unique manifestation of American aspirations and skewed social justice through the eyes of three very different, oddly sympathetic individuals. Not only is it the best game of the landmark series, but one of the greatest games ever made.
Grand Theft Auto IV was a momentous achievement, no doubt, but GTA V eclipses it in nearly every way imaginable. All aspects of control have been refined for the better, but that’s a given. Whereas the alienated tale of Niko Bellic allowed players to view and take in the treacheries of Liberty City via the perspective of an outsider coming in, GTA V essentially offers the complete inverse. Set in the state of San Andreas (a fictionalization of Southern California) in the Los Angeles-inspired city of Los Santos (where the upper class freely meets the criminal underground), the game is explicitly designed to make the player feel totally and seamlessly integrated into its kaleidoscopic perspective of the good ’ol U.S. of A. Within only a few hours of diligent play, the immediate need to glance at the mini-map for handicapped direction began to subside. I knew where I was, and it felt as if I had been there all along. This is one of GTA V’s most noteworthy masterstrokes: No matter how thoroughly insane the spiraling action becomes, or how erratically certain characters behave, everything comes off as bizarrely true to life, authentic, and utterly believable. I never found myself asking, “Why the hell did they do that?” or “How is this possible?” The script, by Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries, and Michael Unsworth, is as epic in its scope as the game itself, steadily painting a vivid picture of a multicultural society where toxic materialism overrides everything, and the pursuit of ultimate happiness runs directly alongside the easily corruptible quest for self-realization and the decisive vanquishing of long-lingering inner demons.
GTA V marks the first occasion where a trio of central protagonists is playable instead of just one, a sequential and gameplay decision that could have resulted in a rather muddled undertaking, yet Rockstar has handled this triple-threat approach to its storyline with the same spotless attention to detail as the rest of the game. Michael De Santa, a fortysomething former criminal now living in the witness protection program, is despised and neglected by his family: His wife cheats on him, his son is a spoiled slacker whose sad existence consists predominantly of eating junk food and playing violent video games, and his daughter is the typical stuck-up Hollywood-hills daddy’s girl. By fate, Michael meets Franklin Clinton, a young gang-banger with the intelligence and ambitions to become something more, but without the means to break free of the tightening grip of Los Santos. The two make a terrifically odd couple, as the discontent of Michael’s midlife crisis matches extraordinarily well with Franklin’s earthy, low-on-the-totem-pole pragmatism. Then there’s Trevor Philips, Michael’s former partner in crime: a madcap, ticking time bomb who seems to be a melting pot of every controversial idea Rockstar previously deemed too ridiculous to affix to a main character. Even as an obvious degree of stereotyping bubbles to the surface, these characters make up three parts of an illuminating whole, creating a triptych of separate attitudes that mirror their surrounding environments. When the three ultimately come together, as serendipity would have it, GTA V becomes a new breed of beast entirely; the story reaches an unparalleled level of caustic bliss, and the missions embody an enunciated dynamism that warrants numerous replays, acquiring similar goals with intuitively varying tactics.
Switching between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor can be performed without any extended halt in the established flow (astoundingly, the entire game appears to be relatively devoid of debilitating glitches), and is key to development outside the core campaign. As with any post-PS2 Grand Theft Auto installment, there’s plenty of things to keep you busy when you require a break from the narrative, but here, more so than before, taking part in these extracurricular activities is expertly incentivized. Not only do these pastimes—shooting ranges, tennis courts, golfing greens, yoga lessons, mountain-bike routes, boardwalks, and more—increase the stats of your character, but they’re remarkably fun to boot. Adding to the perpetual realism that these leisure hobbies provide is the stunning geographic capacity at the ready for roaming, sans annoying loading screens, available in GTA V. Exploring every inch of the map is an endeavor that takes ages, but pace yourself, as the journey is an eccentrically beautiful one that’s meant to be savored. From Michael’s polished Vinewood hilltop digs and Franklin’s modest ghetto-land abode to Trevor’s rusty, dusty trailer camped out in the desert, these safehouses and their encircling regions set a fresh standard for digital atmospheric flourishes. The game’s San Andreas is, unarguably, the closest any game has come to creating a living, breathing macrocosm replete with endless interactivity packed away within every nook and cranny.
GTA V bulldozes perceived limitations like no game ever has. It thrusts the PS3’s graphical facility to the point where one must wonder what Rockstar will be capable of on the forthcoming PS4. It pokes and prods the “Mature” rating to the very edge of its specifications; every fourth word is an emphatic swear, and the paramount motivation for any given exploit is a scorching mixture of unrestrained brutality, sexual mania, drug use, and countless other vices. Above all else, though, the game, quickly and without reservation, shoves the player out of the mortal shell they reside in and into the alternate cosmos of San Andreas, an empire of literally infinite possibilities, where dozens of tangibly zestful lifetimes can be spent in a matter of days.