Preview: GTA V’s ambitious scope is more Sopranos than Scarface

Grand Theft Auto V: Masked Men

Lesson number one of being a master criminal: Plans never go according to plan. The more it seems like they are, the bigger the disaster  that awaits when they inevitably come unhinged. There’s an inherent tension to the fiction of planning and executing on a heist. You never know when the other shoe will drop, you just know that when it does, it’s going to leave a hell of a footprint.

In Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar North applies its sky-high narrative ambitions to a series of multi-stage heists. There’s a larger story at play that intertwines the fates of main characters Franklin, Michael, and Trevor, but the trio of sociopaths will need to make some scratch in order to survive. The most effective way to do that in GTA V is pulling off capital-H Heists.

Best laid plans…

If your mind immediately turned to GTA IV‘s series of missions that led up to the “Three Leaf Clover” bank robbery, you’re not far off. The difference in the upcoming game is structure. The handful of Heists in GTA V – five or so – are spread out over multiple missions, the particulars of which are often left in players’ hands. This is a much more structured mechanic than you saw in GTA IV‘s bank robbery lead-up.

The game explicitly invites you to explore and discover its secrets; absolutely everything is open to players from moment one.

Rockstar reps described the process during a recent eyes-on preview appointment at the developer’s New York City headquarters. Heists in GTA V begin with a planning session that sees our three stars gathering together in a room to work out the logistics. Players will have a range of options to work with: points of entry, equipment requirements, assigned roles, and, for the bigger jobs, hired hands.

Various specialists will be available on a for-hire basis, and you get what you pay for in this regard. Cheap out on a safecracker, for example, and you’ll give the fuzz that much more time to respond when an alarm is inevitably sounded. An income screen at the end of each Heist shows you how much the gross take for the job is, and how much the net is after you’ve paid off any expenses. There’s incentive to keep these jobs in your dysfunctional family of three, but that isn’t always an option.

Grand-Theft-Auto-V-heist-plans

Fortunately, loyalty to your hired help is rewarded. Specialists improve over time as you bring them on more jobs; the cost to hire them goes up as well, but that goes back to getting what you pay for. There’s incentive to look after your own too, since permadeath can claim even the most talented specialists. Franklin, Michael, and Trevor must live, but if a hired hand doesn’t pull through, you’ve got to go back to the pool and find someone new for future jobs.

Then again, as Heath Ledger’s Joker taught us in The Dark Knight, there’s something to be said for purging yourself of extra mouths once they’ve outlived their usefulness. The possibilities here are intriguing.

Be the best sociopath that you can be

Paid lackeys aren’t the only ones in GTA V that improve over time. Franklin, Michael, and Trevor all have a set of skill bars that increase over time, with repetition. So, for example, the more you drive like a maniac, the higher your driving skill will get. Starting out, each of the three characters has his own particular strengths, but players won’t be bound to that; over time, you’ll be able to max out skills in every category: Stamina, Shooting, Stealth, Flying, Driving, Mechanic, Lung Capacity, and Special.

Each of the main characters has a unique skill that defines him.

That last one, Special, is yet another new element in GTA V. Each of the main characters has a unique skill that defines him. What it essentially boils down to is being able to slow down time in specific situations. Franklin is a born wheelman, so using his special allows you to more effectively weave through traffic for a limited time. Michael can pull off a similar “bullet-time” effect during gunfights. Trevor is the odd duck as the team’s certifiable nutjob; his Rage special increases his damage output and damage resistance while also giving him a unique melee attack.

As you amass wealth over the course of the game – in bank accounts that are specific to each of the characters, mind you – a number of opportunities to spend your hard-earned money present themselves. Customization is a big focus in GTA V, and it extends to both player-owned vehicles and weapons. If you’ve played Midnight Club: Los Angeles then you already have a sense of what the vehicle upgrade tools look like. Weapons work the same way, with a variety of attachments and cosmetic enhancements available for a price.

You’ll also be able to spend money on real estate, including safe houses, garages, aircraft hangars, and businesses. Businesses earn you income, but they also bring other rewards. A cab company, for example, means you can play your boss card for free cab rides. In addition to all of that, there’s also the usual assortment of character customization features: clothing, tattoos, and haircuts can all be tailored to your specific tastes.

Open world is open

The world of Los Santos and its surrounding region is massive. Our demo opens with the camera peering over Franklin’s shoulder as he prepares to skydive out of a hovering helicopter. His slow descent creates a great opportunity to take in the open space outside the city. The wilderness of Blaine County is a multi-faceted landscape that has an ecosystem for every type of weather. You’ve got mountains and deserts, rivers and beaches.

Sharks circle hapless swimmers, deer run freely through forests, and a lone mountain lion stalks its prey.

What stands out most as Franklin descends is the impressive sense of scale. The distant city of Los Santos cuts a beautiful skyline across the horizon. A bustling airport on the outskirts occupies a believable swath of real estate as well. Then there’s the rest of rural Blaine County stretching out in every direction. A later section featuring Trevor gives us a peek underwater as well, and the seascape is similarly dense with content.

All of it teems with wildlife; sharks circle hapless swimmers, deer run freely through forests, and a lone mountain lion stalks its prey at various points during our demo. It is probably scripted on some level in this particular showing for the benefit of the attending press, but you get a sense of the technical ambition here. Rockstar wants to up its game in this intricately crafted living world. The game explicitly invites you to explore and discover its secrets; absolutely everything is open to players from moment one.

Character switching plays a key role here, both in and out of missions. During a mission, changing perspectives – sometimes forced, but often player-dictated – effectively keeps you right in the center of the action, whatever form it might be taking. Outside of missions, the three characters have their own homes and daily schedules.

Grand-Theft-Auto-V-landscape

Franklin, the resident adrenaline junkie, is preparing to skydive when we meet him. Trevor wakes up on a beach in his tighty whities with an empty whiskey bottle in his hand and the corpses of dead bikers from The Lost gang strewn about. It’s not clear what happened here, but the bloody handprints on the lunatic’s bare chest and back say enough. Michael is just finishing dinner in Vinewood at his favorite Italian restaurant.

As he strolls past GTA‘s equivalent of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a question mark on the minimap beckons him over to a mini-mission, one of many subplot-driven events in the game, inspired by Red Dead Redemption‘s own question-mark missions. This one involves driving local celebutard Lacey Jonas to her posh home while keeping scooter-riding paparazzi photographers at a distance. The in-mission dialogue is immediately familiar; none of the patter present in the previous games is absent here.

TV on the video game console

Rockstar isn’t ready to say anything specific about the larger story, and likely won’t be prior to GTA V‘s September release. The big picture goal was inspired heavily by the narrative discoveries in GTA IV‘s release and post-release content. The so-called Episodes from Liberty City presented unique perspectives on the world that players might have missed during Niko Bellic’s adventure, while also wrapping everything into a larger narrative that tied it all together.

Grand-Theft-Auto-V-bandana

The same approach is being taken in GTA V, only here it’s in the context of a single game. Not every mission focuses on all three characters. Each anti-hero protagonist is established in his own corner of the world when the story opens; finer details emerge over time as players take on individual missions and dig deeper into who these characters are and what makes them tick. The hoped-for result is a broadened narrative scope, something that falls closer to The Sopranos than it does to Scarface.

That’s the top-line pitch, at any rate. We’ll have to wait and see how it all comes together this September. You can see quickly enough as the game plays out in front of you that this is 100 percent a Grand Theft Auto game, but there are some new ideas in the mix – and some tweaked older ones – that absolutely promise to shake things up. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks, but GTA fanfolk can rest easy for now.

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