[Note: The following article contains no spoilers for Grand Theft Auto V]
Open world, redefined.
Earthquakes are a peculiar phenomenon. As a natural disaster, their strength can almost always be directly paralleled with their frequency. Either they occur so often that they barely register on the Richter scale, or, after amassing a significant reserve of kinetic energy, they strike once in a generation with intense, pent-up force. In a sense, this tectonic activity can be correlated with the video games industry and its varying release schedule. Annualised franchises such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, for instance, can become nondescript due to their regular recurrence. Like echoes reverberating around a cave, their impact and significance are almost undermined – particularly with the latter series, with Ubisoft’s open-world title proliferating onto umpteen platforms recently.
On the other end of the Richter scale, though, Rockstar Games have operated under their own uncompromising development cycle since the first Grand Theft Auto in 1997. Originally titled ‘Race & Chase’, the studio had paved the foundations of an open world franchise that would go on to reinvent the genre as we know it. After sixteen years and fourteen unique iterations across different console generations, we arrive at the fifth numerical entry in the series: Grand Theft Auto V. Spending four years in development and tethered with a reported budget of $265 million, Rockstar’s latest, and arguably greatest entry into the billion-dollar franchise arrived early last week to seemingly unanimous approval.
The criminal tale of Michael, Trevor and Franklin – who serve as the game’s playable personas – has undoubtedly been one of the most anticipated games of the year. In fact, since its release, GTA V has gone on to become the fastest selling title in UK history with close to 1.57 million sales. Not only that, in terms of worldwide retail figures, Rockstar’s crime opus amassed $800 million during its first day on the market. To put that into perspective, Grand Theft Auto V earned a greater sum of money in 24 hours than Iron Man 3 managed during its entire theatrical run. It’s clear, then, that the launch of a new Grand Theft Auto game is an event in and of itself; one with enough seismic activity to validate the five year hiatus since Grand Theft Auto IV.
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Breaking new ground is part and parcel of the studio’s DNA. For example, that record-scratching moment back in 2001 when GTA III introduced the gaming community to a truly immersive 3D environment is emblematic of Rockstar’s trailblazing M.O. And though the evolution of the series hasn’t been as radical since that transition to three dimensions twelve years ago, Grand Theft Auto continues to push the envelope in terms of game design; a feat that is utterly apparent with Grand Theft Auto V.
If the franchise is, at its core, an open-world experience, then GTA V takes the already successful framework to dizzying new heights. Truthfully, much digital ink has been spilled regarding the immense scale of the satirised San Andreas – and deservedly so. The area of Los Santos and Blaine County has been rendered with a precision and level of quality that would only be possible in the twilight years of the current-gen consoles. The hyper-saturated sunsets, the photo-realistic water effects, even the facial animations – which have witnessed a marked improvement since its predecessor – all imbue Grand Theft Auto V with an unparalleled sense of realism. It’s one thing to create to expand the horizons and create a colossal, open-ended world, but to populate that space with interactive NPC’s, random encounters and realistic wildlife is an entirely different feat. Of course, this sense of permanence is a trope that the series has become known for. From the property management in Vice City to the RPG-lite elements of San Andreas, Rockstar have a habit of creating addictively flexible open worlds. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, though, the studio have doubled down on the granular detail so that every available pixel is put to good use.
Grand Theft Auto V isn’t just huge; it’s alive. So much so, that it feels as though the metropolis of Los Santos and the arid outback of Blaine County have existed long before you started your journey, and will continue to subsist long after you turn off your system. Even as you transition from one character to the next, you would often take control slap-bang in the middle of a situation – or in Trevor’s case, at the bottom of a ditch – which again emphasises that believable, dynamic undertone inherent in GTA V’s world. Its rich depth captures your imagination in such as way that when an in-game mechanic – a phone call, for example – interrupts your progress to direct you towards a mission, it’s almost surprising to realise that this world is – whisper it – a fabrication. Mind you, it’s an overwhelming virtual realm and surveying the world from the peak of Mount Chiliad to the depths of the Pacific Ocean left me with a deep-seated sense of wonder on par with my first experience with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on the N64 all those years ago.
An instance that typified this sense of wonder for me was during my exploration of the immense Blaine County. With a rusty BF Injection as my vehicle of choice, I was intent on traversing the rich environment and discovering every available nook and cranny. Given the eccentric nature of GTA, though, I knew this wasn’t going to be your average road trip. Weaving my way along the mountain path, I encountered a group of bikers approaching my dune-buggy at high speed. Granted, there may have been no malicious intent at first, but after clipping one of the motorbikes it wasn’t long before the tranquil wilderness was interrupted with the sound of gunshots. While a spare of the moment clash isn’t exactly remarkable in and of itself, what made it so absorbing was the vivacity of the surrounding environment. A crop-dusting plane gliding overhead, a herd of timid deer skittering from the beaten track towards cover all added a sense of dramatic weight to the impromptu gunfight. It was seamless; an unscripted moment that, for me, perfectly encapsulated the compelling nature of the fictional Los Santos.
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This permanence seeps between Grand Theft Auto V‘s three-tier character system, too. For example, after I escaped the gang of bikers and customised the aforementioned BF Injection to my heart’s desire – slick paint job, chrome alloys…you know, the usual – I decided to switch characters. Satisfied with my playtime with the balding lunatic, I hopped into Franklin’s aspiring shoes in south Los Santos to go about my business. However, a few minutes later, sirens pierced the urban lull like a pin to a balloon and a very familiar looking BF Injection roared past my street pursued by half a dozen police cars. It took me a while to catch up to the modified dune-buggy, but it was in fact Trevor Philips in the driving seat, simply going about his extravagant hobby of antagonising the local police force. It was an unexpected continuity that I couldn’t help but smile at, and it’s this attention to detail that is instrumental in Rockstar’s world-building process; a verisimilitude that positions the studio alongside the likes of Bethesda in crafting open world experiences.
The trifecta of Michael, Trevor and Franklin exists in a persistent, dynamic world; the kind that elicits moments of awe such as these on a regular basis. Though many would argue that the graphical advancement since GTA IV isn’t as ground-breaking as Rockstar would have you believe, for me, it’s the technical minutia that really enforces the level of engagement within Grand Theft Auto V. The devil, as they say, is in the details. From the enhanced driving to the game’s extensive draw distance – which is a marvel in and of itself, with blimps casting shadows on the ground from 20,000 feet – the latest entry in the blockbuster franchise feels like a true advancement in every sense and, ultimately, the product of a philosophy which spans half a decade.
Rockstar’s in-house game engine RAGE – which the studio have been utilising since their departure from Criterion’s RenderWare in 2006 – has evolved from its focus on the Midnight Club series at Rockstar San Diego to become the developer’s flagship engine. Outside of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, RAGE has been responsible for games such as Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, which were developed and published by Rockstar in 2010 and 2012, respectively. What many GTA fans don’t realise, however, is the profound influence that each of these titles had on the studio’s latest property. From the precise shooting mechanics of Max Payne 3 to Red Dead Redemption’s dynamic score – which would permeate any given scenario on the American frontier to crank up the tension – Rockstar have harnessed the finest components from their catalogue of games and assembled them under Grand Theft Auto V’s glossy aesthetic.
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The interactive stock market, the diverse, well rounded characters coupled with the intricate heist missions – which require a series of smaller research missions to establish – bestow the game with a particular personality. Sure, much can be said about the purported budget for Grand Theft Auto V, one which positions it as the most expensive game ever created, but Rockstar’s latest title is much more than the sum of its parts. The continuing hype from last week’s release qualifies the studio’s intermittent production cycle alone. After all, five years is a lifetime in the video games industry. Since GTA IV, Call of Duty has grown into a seemingly immovable juggernaut, the Saints Row series has diversified from a mere GTA clone and put its own ludicrous stamp on the genre and, crucially, the prospect of open world itself isn’t as head turning as it used to be.
A case in point is the palpable push by studios to incorporate the trope into a wide range of next-gen titles. From Destiny to The Division, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to The Crew, there’s an array of upcoming titles using the open world as their game design stencil – drawing upon the suitably huge success of Skyrim, no doubt. Open world is in vogue. As developers harness the power of the next-gen hardware, the boundaries of in-game worlds will be expanded immensely to dovetail with the social connectivity synonymous with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. And though it’s arrived at the latter years of the current generation, Grand Theft Auto V mirrors a lot of these next-gen principles. Everything from the open-ended exploration to the unparalleled degree of player agency is tailored to present the best gameplay experience possible. So much so that anytime I’m not playing the game, I’m planning what I want to do in my next playthrough; from honing Franklin’s shooting skills to exploring the gargantuan outback through Trevor’s bloodshot eyes, the pursuit of the American Dream has never been so compelling.
Naturally, there were other elements of the game that left me flabbergasted – the seamless transition between characters during the story, the well-written, at times hilarious dialogue – but in the interest of retaining the plot, I’ll leave them for you to discover in your own time. One thing’s for sure, though, Rockstar have shaken the serious tone associated with Niko’s odyssey for GTA V and recaptured some of the fun gameplay that fell by the wayside following San Andreas – expansion packs for GTA IV notwithstanding – as evidenced by the hilarious Grass Roots arc within the Strangers and Freaks missions. On the topic of additional content, it’ll be interesting to see whether Rockstar roll out DLC for the game; after all, given the depth of the surrounding environment, the possibilities for further storylines are endless.
Without question, the expectations and level of investment surrounding the game were incredible. From the pre-order figures to the staggering cost of production, but with Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games haven’t just delivered their own magnum opus, the prestigious studio may have produced one of the greatest games ever made.Previous