Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is set in present day Los Santos, a fictitious city in the fictitious state of San Andreas. Los Santos looks very much like the real-world city of Los Angeles (as if real-world and LA can be used in the same sentence) and occupies as much land as the maps of San Andreas, GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption combined. It's a big, big city and it's your job to bring mayhem to every corner. And bring mayhem you will – armed or unarmed, on foot, motorcycle, ATV, boat, jet ski, or in a car, it is damn fun to spread chaos throughout the city and its environs.
In GTA V, Rockstar expands the story from one central character to encompass three individuals, each with their own personality and perspective. The player can switch between characters on the fly. This makes for some interesting situations, such as sending yourself to go help yourself when you're in a bind. Or, my personal favourite: Driving two characters directly towards each other and switching back and forth until the inevitable loss of control takes place. I take a bizarre amount of glee watching my "other" body fly through the windshield in front of me.
Three broken dreams
Everyone in Los Santos has, or at least had, a dream. Most of the people I've met are living in the remnants of their shattered dreams – assuming they can even remember them. Your first character, Michael, is a retired bank robber living the life in a big house with a garage full of fast cars, a pool, and a home cinema. Unfortunately, he's also living there with his cheating wife, sex-and-drug-addicted daughter, and his stoned video game playing doughboy of a son. Michael is not a happy man.
Your second character is Franklin, an ex-gang banger turned repo man who dreams of making it big and moving out of the 'hood. But Franklin is continuously getting pulled down by his "friends" and sucked back into a life of crime. He's not enjoying living with his new-age aunty, nor is he enjoying running errands for his crackhead buddies.
And finally there's Trevor, who used to have a working relationship with Michael. He's an unpredictable and violent criminal who now runs a series of meth labs and a distribution network just outside the city. I'm not going to tell you how Trevor gets involved because that'll take us into spoiler territory.
Prepare to be offended
Cultural and racial stereotypes abound. African-American Franklin and his gangsters are all about the "n" and "f" words. They live hard, drive hard, play harder, and die young. They've all been in prison or are about to be in prison. They're judged by the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the crimes they commit. They live in a neighbourhood full of junkies, pimps, and dealers. Across town, Michael is living the life in his mansion, lounging at the pool with a scotch on the rocks or heading to the club for a round of golf or a set of tennis. The racial stereotypes may be offensive to some, but it's worth noting that the Grand Theft Auto series has always been filled with edgy satire, and that's no doubt what the intention is here, too.
There is a narrative to the game, but it is also really, really fun to drive around and commit random acts of cruelty such as car-jackings and muggings. There are also random occurrences around you, such as a purse snatching, that you can choose to get involved in (or not). Hey, running down a thief and splattering his brains all over the pavement will not only earn you a reward (hopefully), but it's also legal, isn't it?
And then there are the heist missions, which are not just violence but also require a strong eye for detail: Jewellery stores need to be cased, poison gas needs to be stolen, and a plan needs to be made and memorised. Pulling off a complex heist is both rewarding and satisfying.
Shooting and driving
The controls for shooting and driving have been spruced up since the last game. The driving experience is a lot more satisfying, and most of the cars are quick, nimble and responsive. Should you decide to keep a car, it can be tweaked and tuned at one of many garages around the city. New to GTA V is the ability to flip a car that has turned over, which can be very helpful when you're on the run and nearing the end of a mission.
Shooting has an auto-target system that can be invoked by pulling the L2 trigger to bring up the targeting reticule and then snapping the right thumbstick towards a target. This is great for taking down a group in general – but you'll want to use manual targeting to go for the full gratification provided by a head shot.
Every bit of GTA V is an improvement over earlier games. Sights, sounds, animations, voiceovers, radio stations, sun rises, sunsets – anything you can think of – are well conceived and executed. I stole a yacht and as I was riding off into the sunset I was mesmerised by the shimmering light on the waves and the reflections of buildings in the water. As always, Rockstar Games delivers a killer GTA soundtrack, one that contains a mix of oldies, rap, pop, and hip hop. The soundtrack is unreal; this could be the only aspect of any video game that I've ever seen amuse an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old.
Niggles? The iFruit app – which allows you to customise your cars and train your dog on your real-world smartphone – is only available on iOS thus far. We've been promised that the Android version is on its way, but it hasn’t made an appearance yet, which is frustrating for Android fans. The online side of GTA V also suffered from a rocky launch, but matters appear to have settled down somewhat now, and Rockstar is offering a big in-game cash bonus to players to help smooth things over.