V for victory: Grand Theft Auto rides again

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Rockstar’s latest city-building, car-stealing, record-breaking instalment is finally on the horizon. Matt Hill nabbed a behind-the-scenes live demo of Grand Theft Auto V, the hottest game of the year…

[Originally published at T3.com]

Grand Theft Auto V is unarguably the most anticipated game of the year. With front-page exclusives, multi-storey murals and millions of web clicks for the slenderest of cut-scene-encrusted trailers, Rockstar Games’ September-set new sandbox is the hottest of gaming properties. Indeed, GTA V’s delay from spring to autumn suddenly feels all the crueler now that spring is actually in the air and not just a word printed on a schedule. It’s so close our joypad-calloused hands can almost touch it.

We say “almost” with a heavier heart than most, too, because T3 has had an up-close, behind-closed-doors live demo of its inner workings, the gameplay behind the cinematic trailers; our eyes have gorged on Los Santos’s spectacularly detailed locales and multifaceted heist potential, yet said hands stayed firmly controller-less the whole time. “Almost.”

Yet what we’ve seen has our mitts itching undeniably for a joypad or two, as Rockstar has rethought the mechanics of GTA more than the overly familiar, wise-cracking trailers suggest. The new three-pronged structure has you jumping between Henry Hill-esque bank robber-turned-witness protection case Michael, car repo man Franklin and war-vet trailer-dweller Trevor with a push of a button, a character wheel jumping up at the bottom right.

This split-personality disorder doesn’t just act as a quick way round when exploring the frankly intimidatingly sized city (three and a half times the land mass of Red Dead Redemption, reads the post-show fact sheet). It’s also used as a strategic device throughout missions, to, say, cover all vantage points or execute actions in different locations simultaneously.

In fact, there are three different types of switch options at play: auto, as some individual missions require completion by a certain character; cut-scene, in which you’re prompted to change persona to advance the central plot; and free choice, where you can use any character you wish, dependent on personal taste. We’re told there will be plenty of all three.

Interestingly, we notice the character wheel has four divisions, not three, the last one greyed out suggestively. Naturally, we ask why, and are told it’s to do with multiplayer, which isn’t being discussed. We can but hypothesise that a co-op campaign with a mate helping you out in heists would be all kinds of ace. Like the second Kane & Lynch’s Fragile Alliance multiplayer, but, y’know, good. Well, that’s the dream.

In fact, we have a hunch co-operative heists are going to spawn a whole new genre of brag video on YouTube this year. We realise we keep saying heists a lot, and that’s because GTA V has taken its predecessor’s much-loved Three-Leaf Clover mission not just for its action set-pieces but much of its narrative.

Sure, there’s loads of other stuff to do on your own, as ever. One side mission sees Michael outrun the paparazzi to rescue an A-lister from their prying zooms (was the $150 tip necessary, though? Doesn’t she know who I am?). There are even self-contained hunting and base jumping mini-games, among others, and we spied a Blazing Tattoos, ink fans. Yet the story is pushed forward by these bringing togethers of the three protagonists.

We’re promised the full Reservoir Dogs routine: hiring goons by skill set (up to 12 a team), location scouting, escape planning, getaway car stealing and costume sourcing (bagsy the Ex Presidents masks), even Joe Cabot’s ageing whiteboard. Do you pick an all-round strong team, or select a talented weakling who can crack a safe but get offed in gun fire so you can make off with a heftier cut? In our mind we’re planning a devilish Dark Knight-esque scheme of last-man standing, but Rockstar won’t confirm if this will be possible. Go on, you know it makes sense.

Our interest is certainly piqued at this strategic, Football Manager-esque take on the crime underworld, the return of San Andreas’ upgradeable stat system adding another layer of RPG-esque depth and mission ownership underneath the action (a brief foray into scuba-diving shipwrecks amid sharks explaining why you would ever max out “lung capacity”). But unsurprisingly it’s action our eyeballs are given.

We’re thrust straight into the heat of one particular heist, straight out of, er, Heat (the old “block the road with a big van and ram them with another big van” routine), weapons of choice some dust trucks, boiler suits and a set of horror-film masks. Apparently it’s a “Blitz Play”, not an actual “Heist” – they are differentiated in- game by the amount of planning required and the size of the payoff – but it looks like one.

Rather than played for japes as the cut-scenes suggest, though, the tension builds like a scene from Drive, all pulsing bass lines and light blurs, an atmospheric ’80s-esque soundtrack rising and falling contextually. We can only guess how affecting it will be when you’re not only controlling it, but have personally planned all aspects of the heist you’re executing.

With the security van blown and goods commandeered, it’s into a police stand-off. Michael has scarpered with the package, so the remaining two fight off the fuzz from in and around industrial estate architecture, environments exploding around them. The use of the character-switch button becomes apparent immediately, the player skipping between their perspectives smoothly to first fend off and eventually corner enemies, effectively controlling both team-mates at once. The toggled-off character turns to AI support act when not controlled, hiding and firing in cover in self-preservation.

Noticeable firefight refinements show a wider field of vision when lining up a mark over your shoulder, a handy Max Payne 3-esque combat roll for evading an onslaught, and an even handier little ‘X’ appearing over the reticule to signify a dead enemy. Any clarification we can get in the heat of battle is gratefully received, thank you very much.

Just when we think the police may be taking control, the player switches to Michael, now miles away with a very good quality sniper scope in his possession, and takes out the remaining coppers. For a finishing touch, the old-reliable rocket launcher comes out to destroy the chopper overhead. It’s a classic GTA moment re-imagined, and it’s exhaustingly good entertainment, even as a viewer.

Throughout our hour-long demo, Los Santos feels truly alive, whether you’re paragliding above dirt tracks coursing with ATVs as adrenaline junkie Franklin, grabbing an abandoned speedboat, Far Cry 3-style, as Trevor after waking amidst a passed-out throng of familiar biker gang The Lost, or just being over-run by night-walking weirdos on Vinewood Boulevard. These feel like lives being lived; over-the-top, occasionally homicidal lives, but lives all the same.

Unusually, the entire city is available from the start, rather than held back for you to unlock, showing confidence in its confines, a want for it to be explored and enjoyed as a realistic space. Similarly, your smartphone is again the natural hub of much of your non-action activity, but this too is ramped up. Your iFruit (ho ho) can now access the internet directly and take photos, popping up organically on-screen for a snap that can be shared on Rockstar’s Social Club instantly as you would any real-life social-networking app (take that, PS4 Share button).

Sure, we’re inevitably thrust back into “game” world with talk of “special abilities” that can be built up for each character, but even these have a touch of heightened reality about them. War vet Trevor can dish out and take more damage than anyone (fair dues), speed demon Franklin can slow time when in cars for last-minute U-turns (makes sense), while Michael indulges in a familiar bit of a bullet time gunfire-dodging (because, well, he looks a lot like Max Payne).

While you expect depth from a developer who’s made creating sprawling virtual cities its living, GTA 5 hints at more. Not just in sheer size, but in interaction, the random residents and oddballs that send you off on sub- mission tangents less scripted diversions, more part of the ebb and flow, each of the three-amigo protagonists’ lives moving on dramatically while you’re choosing to control another.

Yet these are still just hints, small tasters of what Rockstar has under the hood, and all our strained peepers can garner in a 60-minute sitting. Hopefully in the coming months our hands will be able to join in the fun and we can judge whether the most anticipated game of the year is on its way to being the best. But our eyeballs say it’s looking good.

Grand Theft Auto V is out September 17 on Xbox 360 and PS3; rockstargames.com

Read original article with full picture gallery and video trailers at T3.com

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