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Grand Theft Auto 5: Plenty of promise(s)

Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Grand Theft Auto 4 was a draining experience.

The game set new standards for graphics, open-world environments and storytelling in games, but after spending 60 hours in the overcast, New York City-inspired Liberty City, some folks felt like they needed a vacation.

Grand Theft Auto 5 feels like that vacation.

At an event in their New York City headquarters, Rockstar representatives took us on a 30-minute tour of a different world. A world of sunshine, beaches and mountain hikes. A world of scuba diving, of seedy celebritantes and extravagance. A brighter world, certainly, but one still tinged with Rockstar's sardonic take on American culture. Brighter, maybe, but not better. Just different.

The change in venue means some big changes for the GTA formula, including multiple characters players can instantly shift to, a new heist-driven structure for the main campaign and a handful of new activities to keep you busy in this brand-new world.

This is the world of Los Santos, Grand Theft Auto 5's major metropolis, and the surrounding area of Blaine County. If it sounds a lot like Los Angeles and its surrounding landscape, that's because it basically is. But Los Santos was first introduced to players in 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So what has changed in the last nine years?

Wide-Open Spaces

For one thing, scale. According to reps for the game, the map in Grand Theft Auto 5 is three times bigger than that of the entire map of Red Dead Redemption, which is especially impressive when you remember just how flat and barren most of that map was. Unlike in previous GTA games, the entire map will be open from the get-go, and won't require you to progress through the story to see all the sights.

We were able to get a sense of this massive landscape within the first few seconds of the hands-off demo, which began in the back of a plane, hundreds of feet in the air, with a lead character's toes dangling over into nothingness. Seconds later he took a step and started falling, fast, towards his inevitable doom. Thankfully his plummet was halted by a rainbow-colored parachute that opened, letting him glide high above rivers and canyons far below. From there it was just a matter of enjoying the scenery. Because of the mix of rural and metropolitan environments, there will be a wide range of potential locales, from military bases to deserts to farmland to mountains and dense, downtown city blocks.

The friendly skies

There were large chunks of this GTA 5 demo that were undeniably gorgeous, even though it was running on current-gen PS3 hardware. Swelling rivers cut their way through mountainous passes as campers fish for trout alongside their banks. At other times, though, the current-gen tech behind the game started to show its age. High up in the air, with the landscape spreading out for miles, it's hard not to notice some low-resolution textures and models popping in the distance. Some jaggies here, some blurriness there. Especially as next-generation game demos start making the rounds, Grand Theft Auto isn't the graphical jaw-dropper it once was. The hardware just doesn't seem to be up to the ambitious task that Rockstar seems to be attempting.

These technical issues may not be abundantly clear while watching the latest released trailers for the game. You may notice the lower-resolution ground textures at certain points throughout the trailers, but they're subtle and required a trained eye. What you'll undoubtedly notice are the facial animations, which are gorgeously detailed. They're also a far cry from what we saw in the actual, playable demo, where facial animations were a major step down in terms of detail and realism. It might be that trailers are being captured off of the latest builds of the game, whereas a playable demo could sometimes be months behind, but it's hard to know what the game will look like when it's released.

Video Preview

The Three Amigos

The demo introduced us to the game's three main characters: Franklin (the aforementioned skydiving daredevil), Trevor (the military-trained madman) and Michael (the former-bank-robber-turned-family-man). Each of these characters starts out in his own portion of the world, thus letting you get familiar with smaller slices before being introduced to the whole. For example, Michael's neighborhood of Vinewood, inspired by Hollywood, is a mix of lavish hillside mansions, thumping clubs and drugged-out has-beens. Franklin is in South Los Santos, which pulls from modern day South Central, Los Angeles. Trevor lives out in the boonies of Blaine County, preferring to spend his time getting blitzed with biker gangs. Given his mental state, this is probably for the best.

While outside of a mission, players are free to switch to any one of the three characters at any given time, even if they're dozens of miles apart from one another. One minute you might be stuck in traffic, the next you might be hopping into the middle of a gun fight. How this switching mechanic works and what exactly occurs to the characters when you switch away from them is still not entirely clear, but at the very least it acts as a pretty handy alternative to taxis.

Monkey calls shotgun

Outside of having unique backstories, the three playable characters have extremely different skill sets. For the first time since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, characters will have skills that they can increase through use. For example, sprinting a lot might increase your agility with a specific character. Franklin, who steals cars for a living as a repo man, has a natural predilection for driving, so his skills behind the wheel will start out higher and increase faster than the other two protagonists, while Michael is more adept at firing guns, and will get better at that much faster. But if you're dedicated enough to one character, you can focus your efforts and make Trevor the best driver in the bunch. It'll just take a lot longer and doesn't take into account the new active skills system.

Each of the three characters has a unique active skill. Michael is able to slow down time in combat to become more accurate, Franklin can slow down time while driving to ensure a risky turn doesn't go wrong and Trevor has some sort of crazy rage mode that he can activate when he wants to mess guys up at close range. Each of these active skills is on a cooldown meter and, like other stats, the effectiveness will increase the more you use them.

Feeling the Pulse

Rockstar North, the original developer behind the Grand Theft Auto series, has always excelled with these demo slices, filling each block of its imaginary cities with enough detail and character to make every square inch worthy of exploration. It's hard to say whether that same level of attention has been afforded to this new, enormous landscape, but the portions we were shown certainly achieved those high standards. After just a half hour, we felt the pulse of Los Santos, almost as if we had been living there for years.

And that pulse is very, very different from the one in Liberty City. Los Santos seems livelier and more fun-loving. While Grand Theft Auto 4 seemed mired in tragedy, there's a lightheartedness to Grand Theft Auto 5, akin to what you'd see in a Michael Bay action movie (you know, one of the good ones). Where 4 opted for realism, 5 seems more focused on just having a good time.

Wet suiting up

To that end, Rockstar plans on having a metric ton of activities to keep you busy outside of the main story. One of the issues folks had with GTA 4 was that many of the side missions in the game were buried in the cell phone menu. And while the cell phone returns in GTA 5, side missions will now be plainly visible on the map itself. Unfortunately we weren't able to see too many of those side missions, but you can safely assume that skydiving will be included in some way (as it was in The Ballad of Gay Tony). Also mentioned more traditional GTA side missions, like Arms Trafficking, as well as stranger inclusions, like yoga.

Rockstar reps also showed off scuba diving, which will allow you to plumb the depths of the sea for underwater loot. Like skydiving, scuba diving is easily accessed so long as your vehicle has the right equipment. Certain boats, like the inflatable motor boat Trevor commanded in the demo, will have scuba gear onboard, letting you hop into the water at any moment. And the underwater landscape is surprisingly diverse and beautiful, filled with sunken wrecks and native sea life. Yes, even sharks. To give you an idea of how much additional space we're talking about, the overall world goes from three times to five times larger than the Red Dead Redemption map, if you factor in the explorable underwater locations.

Staying Busy

Once you're done messing around with side activities, you may want to start delving into the game's story. It's here that the three main characters' lives begin to intersect and we're introduced to the game's campaign. As usual, Rockstar is hesitant to give any information regarding the overall storyline of Grand Theft Auto 5. All the company will say is that the campaign will revolve around a series of heists, which act as climactic set pieces. The idea is to make you feel like you're constantly working toward major moments throughout the story, rather than just doing mission after mission without getting a sense of progression. Each heist is a big deal, akin to the bank robbery in the middle of GTA 4 that opened up the final island.

In the demo we were shown a relatively straightforward heist where Michael plans a robbery with Franklin and Trevor. Their plan involved stealing from an armored car by blocking its usual route with a dump truck, then planting explosives and blowing the back doors off before stealing off into the night in a getaway car parked nearby. All told, it was pretty typical for a GTA mission, with the notable difference of being able to see the action from three different perspectives. At times the game would force us to see things from a certain character's point of view, whereas other times would give players the freedom to select whomever they want to play as. So, for example, if you're being assaulted by cops on at the ground floor of an office building, you could switch to a sniper planted across the way to give your buddies some cover.

The best-laid plans ...

We were able to see some of this character switching in action, but one of the more interesting components of heists, the planning stage, was not on display in this demo. According to reps, players will be able to plan heists, selecting all sorts of different parameters, which will then affect how the heist plays out. Examples given included choosing the entry point for where the mission starts, or hiring AI squad mates to help you out in combat. More skilled squaddies will cost more, but limit the amount of risk you're liable to face if a heist goes bad.

A successful heist means a boatload of cash, and we've been assured that money will play a much larger role in Grand Theft Auto 5. Purchasing property will allow you to earn rent while also unlocking special bonuses, like getting free cab rides around the city. Higher-end guns and vehicles (like a fighter jet, for example) will also be insanely expensive, so you'll actually have to think about how best to spend your take, rather than having a seemingly infinite supply of dough. Unfortunately all of these different ways to spend money were missing from the demo, so we can't really say just how much of the game will revolve around cash, outside of what we've been told by Rockstar reps.



Throughout the nearly two-hour appointment, we heard about plenty of features that Grand Theft Auto 5 will include, but weren't shown:

More Customization

Players will be able to add tattoos and change the hairstyles of their characters. Weapons can be customized with different attachments. Vehicles can be improved for better handling and overall performance.

Improvements to the Combat

The feel of targeting, firing and entering cover has been completely reworked and should feel closer to that of Max Payne 3.

Citizens on Patrol

If pedestrians see you commit a crime, they'll whip out a cell phone and call the cops or take pictures with their camera phone.

Other Activities

In addition to yoga, skydiving and scuba diving, players will also be able participate in the following activities, according to reps: golf, tennis triathlons, bike races, picking up hitchhikers, base jumping and ATM robberies.

Telling Not Showing

If it seems like there are a lot of assumptions going on in this write-up of Grand Theft Auto 5, that's because there are. While Rockstar representatives spent about 40 minutes after the demo answering any questions we had about the game, without seeing a lot of these mechanics or playing the game for ourselves, we're still left guessing. How does the game feel? Are the combat mechanics improved? What sort of online features will there be? A lot of questions remain, and are likely to remain for a few months until we're able to go hands-on ourselves. Until then, we're left sitting and wondering whether Grand Theft Auto can continue to rule the open-world roost or whether usurpers like Arkham City, Just Cause and Saints Row one-upped the Rockstar giant while it was sleeping.

Correction: This story original misidentified Michael's special ability. While he can slow down time while shooting, he won't be able to pull off the Max Payne "shoot dodge."

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