Poor old Xbox One and PlayStation 4 - they're looking a bit unnecessary right now. Sure, you can get your protractor and slide rule out to gripe that Grand Theft Auto V is only 720p and the textures are a bit mucky on 360 and PS3, but Rockstar's latest open world ode to chaos does things we could never have imagined the outgoing console generation was capable of. It's an incredible accomplishment in scope and scale. (See also: Xbox One vs PS4 games console comparison review.)
The game is not, however, particularly big on surprises. Sure, there's an innumerable collection of activities to pursue, secret references to find and madcap ways to kill or be killed, but this is essentially GTA being GTA on a greater scale than before. It does this so well that surprises are entirely unncessary: it makes itself better rather than different. That means cars and guns and gangsters and broad misanthropy in a painstakingly-recreated yet also fictionalised American city and its environs, and anyover-familiarity is kept at bay by dramatic efforts to maintain visual variety and to make most every mission bigger and more cinematic than ever before.
Affections towards its initially lauded predecessor, GTA IV, have cooled over time, as the shallowness of its optional pastimes (e.g. bowling with your cousin), the oft-routine chase missions and the muddled plotting didn't stand the test of time. GTA V's response is to go bigger, to throw some dramatic curveball into the micro crime capers that make up its 70-odd core missions that makes them each feel distinct. So you'll find yourself chasing a stolen yacht down a highway while your partner battles the thieves aboard it, or using a towtruck to wrench a hilltop mansion down to ground, or operating a dockyard crane the size of a castle or, best of all, arranging a carefully-coordinated heist which entails switching between multiple characters.
GTA V review: a major step forward
This latter is the major step forward for GTA V. No longer do you control just a single protagonist on the series' characteristic Scarface-aping rise, fall and rise crime boss arc, but instead a triumvirate of misanthropes. Each of these is based loosely on former 'hero' archetypes of GTA past - the smarmy ex-con of Vice City, the boy from the hood of San Andreas, the outright psychopath of GTAs 1&3 - but more fleshed out, especially (and most problematically) the latter. For most of the game's enormous length, you're able to switch between the three at will, when not already engaged on the mission.
Each has their own storyline, side quests and even frippery such as property purchases and haircuts, and on occasion all three meet up for a big, dramatic caper which has you repeatedly jumping between them. These moments are superb, offering multiple ways to contain a situation and saving harder missions from becoming unforgiving shooting-or driving-based repetition in the way many of GTA V's predecessors often did.
It's a great way of both staving off boredom and mixing up the tone of the game. World-weary Tony Soprano-type Michael brings snark and big money antics to GTA V's satirised Calififornian setting, a far cry from the dusty poverty and gang culture of up and coming, in theory good-hearted criminal Franklin. Switching between the two feels like switching to a different game, or leaping from glamorous Vice City to rundown San Andreas.
Then there's Trevor, a bitter, ex-military psychopath whose violence and debauchery goes far beyond the others. He's capable of being hilarious, and this extends to offering the game's most madcap missions and absurd cutscenes, but also its most chilling, indefensible misanthropy and sadism. Perhaps the truly awful things he does - an interactive torture scene designed to lampoon Gitmo policy, but frankly too outright nasty to retain any satire, is already making headlines - are to stop us feeling he's simply a comedy character, a pastiche of every tabloid story about GTA, but whatever the intent it does make him harder to enjoy than his steady stream of gags would suggest was desired.
There's also the nagging feeling that some of his activities, particularly the aforementioned torture moment, are knowingly designed to attract the kind of mainstream controversy that first made GTA's name back in the 90s, but which it hasn't seen too much of in recent years. There's a sense of trying too hard to be outrageous, to get itself on FOX News (inevitably lampooned in the game, as is the likes of Apple and Facebook) and thus ensure more and more attention, at the expense of real wit and narrative inguenity.
GTA V review: overall humour
The game's overall humour - which there's a lot of - also suffers from a tired reliance on back-of-the-class sniggering at cheap innuendo, simplistic references to current pop culture and especially a boringly constant stream of f-bombs. Decent gags are drowned out by the constant, lazy swearing, and characters and one-liners alike just aren't given any room to breathe by the game's total dependence on drunken football fan levels of profanity. Again, that sense of trying too hard - of someone middle-aged trying to pass off as young, the writing equivalent of putting on a baseball cap backwards. It's telling that Trevor's at his most hilarious when he demonstrates unexpected mastery of the dictionary - neat, witty sentences free from the dull splutter of his usual abuse.
GTA's usual magpie-pilfering of visual film references is losing its edge too, and the multiple protagonist approach means V feels even more like a collection of random scenes stitched together. Of course, the game doesn't intend for anything to be taken seriously, but there is an undercurrent that examinations the nature of male friendships and fatherhood, denied the opportunity to blossom because the game's too busy looking for the next big movie scene or ostentatious outrage. See The 5 best gaming PCs: What's the best gaming PC?
Of course, you can handily ignore most of this and just go in search of adventure, scenery and no-rules chaos in the series' biggest environment yet. In fairness it doesn't actually feel much bigger than previous games, which is partly because V is slicker than before at enabling rapid travel from pole to pole and partly because half of it is basically a desert, but nonetheless it's a playground that once would have seemed impossible on 360/PS3.
The density of the detail is incredible - a circus of the ugly billboards and blocky architecture which characterises the ugly otherworld of real-life LA, fading out into dusty deserts filled with hick towns, dirt-track airports, enormous military bases and startlingly gigantic satellite dishes. Beyond that, the mountains, and the angry wildlife which lives there. As a place to explore, in a vast collection of land, sea and air vehicles, it's incomparable - at least in terms of there actually being stuff to see and do almost everywhere. It'll take a long, long time to mine GTA V of all its distractions and secrets.
Even minigames you might expect to feel bitty and gimmicky prove to be surprisingly fleshed out - there's a tennis game that could probably be a standalone title if it so wished, or the option to spend a half hour performing a remarkably engrossing triathlon, or full-length TV shows to watch. Sure, GTA IV did similar on paper, but V works hard and succeeds at making most of these genuinely worthwhile activities rather than fleeting boredom-killers. There's even a worryingly compulsive in-game stock market which rewards paying close attention to the background babble of radio stations and a faux-internet. 'Gigantic' is the only appropriate summation, and there is no plane of reality in which you could argue that this game is not value for money. That it's all accomplished without many loading screens or noticeable stuttering on such aged technology is almost unbelievable.
It's hard not to miss the relative innocence and more cartoonish nature (not to mention the mercifully mute lead characters) of the early GTAs, but it's harder still to justify an argument that this isn't the series at the height of its powers. What a world it offers, and what an unparalled technical achievement it is. If only there was a little more restraint - or even heart - in its dialogue and characters, so it could be the game of chaos unbound for everyone, rather than just the angry boy's club it so unwaveringly courts.