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Polygon's Games of the Year 2013 #7: Grand Theft Auto 5

There's never been a virtual playground like the one in Grand Theft Auto 5.

If developer Rockstar North had set out to recreate Los Angeles and its environs in a video game, that would have been one thing — a herculean task, to be sure, but a concept simple enough to grasp. Instead, as in the previous Grand Theft Auto games, the Scottish studio used real-life locales not as blueprints, but as inspirations for a game world so vast and varied that it boggles the mind.

Pilot a helicopter northward from the Los Santos International Airport, and you'll see all the man-made and natural splendor the West Coast has to offer laid out below you. There's the bustling metropolis of Los Santos itself, an amalgam of neighborhoods segregated by race and class and criss-crossed by the concrete ribbons they call freeways. Colors beyond gray creep in as you head out of town through Vinewood Hills, pushing into the desolate lands before the dusty desert that signals your arrival in Blaine County.

San Andreas is so vast and varied that it boggles the mind

Continue northward, crossing the sparkling sea that sits between the sands behind you and the mountains to the north and west. The towering, sun-dappled peak of Mount Chiliad lies ahead, and you go around it, passing over a redwood forest on the way toward the ocean. The breathtaking trip ends in the unremarkable town of Paleto Bay, but as they say, it's the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Much of the state of San Andreas as it originally appeared in 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas felt like flyover country — a big world that merely served as something to traverse between missions. Meanwhile, a flight across the 2013 incarnation of San Andreas makes you want to leap out of your aircraft and deploy your parachute every few miles, just so you can dive down into whatever just caught your eye. Even at 30,000 feet, you can't help but look at the vast expanse below.

This is an incredible achievement in world-building. In Los Santos, Rockstar North nailed the look of a city; you can drive around and point out the alternate-reality versions of Los Angeles landmarks galore. In Blaine County, the studio captured the natural beauty of an entire U.S. region. These places combine to provide the player with a cohesive, tangible world that seems like it could conceivably exist somewhere on the earth, one that carries the ineffable, laid-back spirit of the West Coast.

heists showcase the best of what GTA 5 has to offer

San Andreas is so stunning as to paper over the less successful aspects of GTA 5. Many of the potshots that GTA 5 takes at targets such as materialism, celebrity worship and Silicon Valley fall flat, coming off more as tired, shallow cynicism than a clever send-up of the American experience. And while Rockstar North took a radical departure from its narrative formula with three playable protagonists, the game's story itself consists largely of the same 'drive to a place and shoot some people' missions that are typical of the open-world genre.

These mundane exploits are broken up by an exciting development in the mission structure: heists. Whether Franklin, Michael and Trevor are infiltrating federal government buildings or banks, the heists lend a sense of purpose to the planning missions that precede them, and the multi-stage operations themselves showcase the best of what GTA 5 has to offer: the massive world of San Andreas and the endless activities within. You might fly a helicopter across half the state, descend into the Pacific in a submarine and then shoot down enemy choppers on the way back — all in the span of one heist.

Of course, scripted missions can't compare to the freedom of an open world, and that's the beauty of GTA 5: Once you unlock all three characters, you can eschew the missions entirely and simply explore San Andreas. That alone will occupy you more than any side activities, plentiful though they are. Even after 50 hours of play time, you still may not have unfogged the entire map, let alone seen everything in the game. Unlike most other open-world titles, GTA 5 offers a never-ending sense of discovery.

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