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There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that GTA V would be a mega-blockbuster farewell to the last generation. Rockstar’s open-world urban sandbox has become one of those key events that can be expected to send rippling shockwaves through an industry by raising the bar in at least one or two ways that have everyone wondering what they can do to beat it at its own game. This time, Rockstar have challenged themselves with a story split three ways and an ambitious online vision.

For anyone that has played the previous GTA games like IV, or San Andreas, or even Red Dead Redemption, the third-person action will feel familiar. For those who haven’t, GTA V is a criminal sandbox of where you’re free to steal whatever cars you see on the street, sell them, ride like the wind running over pedestrians and hikers, get into accidents without worrying about insurance, and lay waste to the police and FIB (GTA’s version of the FBI) while trying to make a buck. Unless they kill you first, then some of what you’ve made goes toward your hospital bill. It’s a guilty virtual trip.

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Above: Flying the friendly skies over Los Santos rewards you with some nice views. You can even land wherever you want, just watch out for palm trees — and the sunbathers.

Clothing stores, barber shops, and even an in-game online market provide spending outlets with a huge plethora of goodies ranging from swimwear to tanks delivered to your doorstep. There’s even a stock market where players can invest their stolen cash into to make big bucks in that is apparently driven by the web-based Social Club portion of Rockstar’s online infrastructure which doesn’t actually reflect how the real-world stock market works. It’s mostly by chance that I managed to make the money I did in Los Santos. That, and a few story missions.

Police can also tend to be quite sticky. Hiding out in alleys, behind buildings, parking decks, or tunnels, will get them off of your tail, but they’re relentless which isn’t helped by occasionally spawning where the game thinks you’re heading. It’s especially annoying in the air when choppers poof in out of nowhere when you’re at a three or higher (up to five) wanted star rating. But it isn’t impossible to fight the law and get away in this game as long as you can avoid getting mobbed by it.

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Fortunately, Los Santos and the surrounding wilderness make up one of the most extensively realized open-world settings for any game in recent years but this isn’t a game too grounded in realism when you can drive cars up mountains and tumble them into gorges without too much worry.

Driving down the streets, I was hard pressed to find cloned store-fronts or office buildings. Everything has a unique look based off of real-life Los Angeles with mock-ups of famous landmarks, including a movie studio, all bundled together into one seamless world. Functional highway systems, back roads, trails, a working subway system, trains, planes that come in and leave at the airport – all of those moving parts make GTA V’s virtual world a living, breathing place on the surface.

Pushing away from the city-centric world of GTA IV, the wide open space of GTA V includes a desert, mountain range, and even a few small towns. That also means air power is back. Jets and helicopters can be found at the airport – or the military base of you’re feeling particularly trigger happy – and a host of off-road vehicles are also ready to be borrowed. If you’ve played GTA: San Andreas, welcome back to the next-gen version.

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Above: In Los Santos, negotiating for a new car takes as much time as it does to cock your pistol.

RPG-lite growth elements make a return though the combat system is still essentially the same from IV with a few tweaks. All three of the main characters, and your multiplayer toon, can improve their strength, stealthiness, driving ability, and even flight skill through repeated activities that slowly increment them over time.

As far as making an actual difference in gameplay for as much effort that is put into improving them, especially online, it almost seems like something of a waste for most with exceptions for driving and flying. Aiming your chosen weapon and flicking through targets still makes churning through mobs of thugs or Los Santos’ corrupted best easy to do. If that’s not enough of a challenge, you can also turn the auto aiming off and do everything yourself.

As for the skills that seem to have a much more visible impact, a higher driving skill translates into what feels to be better control over cars with improved flying resulting in more stability in the air with whatever you’re flying with the possible exception of helicopters which seem to be permanently drunk.

Strength doesn’t seem to do anything worth working towards other than raising your stamina for how long you can run. Beating someone down as a lazy slob seems to be the same experience for when after you’ve become a tri-athlete. And stealth is pretty useless everywhere in the game, online or off. As for holding your breath underwater, that doesn’t get a lot of actual play in the game. For a better experience in diving wrecks and salvage, you might be better served with AC4: Black Flag instead. Also, if you still miss visiting the Cobra Marital Arts Gym to learn new moves in San Andreas, you won’t find it here.