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gta v 4

Placing in GOTY list: second, 2013|Watch a Cullen Plays LIVE live stream of Grand Theft Auto V (and Grand Theft Auto Online) right now here

There’s a sense that Grand Theft Auto IV was perhaps the turning point of the series after the somewhat OTT antics of GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas. Great games, of that there is no question, but GTA IV showed a more mature, meaningful side to it. No mowing down cop cars or shooting the joint up in tanks in this one. In truth, though, it wasn’t as big a turning point for the series as much as it was for Rockstar and how it would go about its storytelling in games from IV’s release. Just look at Red Dead Redemption (and perhaps too Max Payne 3) as proof.

But as much as I loved GTA IV and as much as I loved its main lead – my favourite in all the GTA games I’ve played – Niko Bellic, the cold, closed off Eastern European who came to Liberty City hounded by mistakes he made previously and in search of someone, was labeled by some series fans as too depressing and a hypocrite for not wanting to kill but doing so anyway.

But if anything, GTA IV’s development represented a time for Rockstar where morale was still low after getting a massive kicking from the US government over the Hot Coffee situation from San Andreas that embroiled the company and parent Take Two, ending in the recalling of copies of the game that had the original HC content included and shipping new copies of a modified edition that didn’t include it. In an interview earlier this year, Rockstar said the development of GTA IV, in the aftermath of what went down with Hot Coffee, was a reflection of its feelings at the time.

“GTA IV was dark times,” Rockstar North boss Leslie Benzies said earlier this past October as part of a studio profile to Develop. “We’d been Hot Coffee-d. We were thinking ‘We make video games, and [the US authorities are] doing this to us?!”

IV’s DLC – The Lost and Damned and the brilliant The Ballad of Gay Tony – lifted the mood and atmosphere of the game, with its second episode giving players who had complained of IV’s seriousness a sprinkling of the craziness of the old PS2 games. It showed a perked up Rockstar North after the dark days of GTA IV’s development.

If GTA IV represented a cold and depressed Rockstar North that eventually perked up with the released of its DLC, Grand Theft Auto V represented the Edinburgh-based studio in much happier times with its finest work in not just the series’ sixteen year history, but one of Rockstar’s finest in its now fifteen year history.

GTA V’s storytelling, headed up again by Dan Houser and his writing team, still had a sense of maturity to it but maintained the mix of maturity and humour that Gay Tony brought in, as well as maintaining the one thing GTA games have always done so well: lampoon and parody real-world events. The financial crisis just missed GTA IV’s boat by a few months, but V proves that Rockstar’s telling of real-world events are second-to-none, with themes of recession, racism and thensome also within.

IV and its DLC gave us a taste of what it was like to play three different characters within the same world, but those featured different character-based backdrops and tales, set in the same world with an intertwined story. GTA V was the first time the series had anything like it for a mainline game.

There was Michael, the former bank robber who – after a sweetheart deal with the FIB sees him go into the WPP – has retired but has hit his midlife crisis (probably reflected by listening to LS Rock Radio a lot) and with a family who hates him. Franklin, the street hustler who aspires to become something more despite being surrounded with people he feels are inferior to him.

And then? Trevor.

If you thought Niko was a hypocrite in having to kill people despite showing a reluctance in doing so, Trevor, the redneck lunatic psychopath and Michael’s best friend, more or less justified the player’s random antics and massive killing sprees in GTA V, from mowing people down whilst driving to just gunning down anyone on the path and going on cop chases (which could be happening just as you switch to Trevor when you switch from either Michael or Franklin).

The thought of having three main playables and have the choice to be able to switch them on the fly at any one time was an intriguing concept when first announced last year, but its execution works and definitely provides new ways to play the game depending on which character you play as and extends the amount of time with the game. Not to mention, it’s some of the best character development seen in a game released this generation.

Then again, Los Santos as a whole may have part to play in that longevity too. It’s a more fleshed out world than any world Rockstar has previously created, bigger than GTA IV, San Andreas and Red Dead Redemption combined.

I was a massive fan of the world built around Liberty City. It was a thriving world and seeing the people pass by on the phone or seeing cops give chase on foot to criminals and then lead them back to the cop car at gunpoint after being caught wow’ed my little 17 year-old brain at the time (shh, don’t tell anyone). But Los Santos is a massive step forward for world-building in an open-world game as citizens randomly pop up for various random things, similar to how it worked in Red Dead Redemption.

Los Santos also showed that Rockstar’s scope and ambition in creating a parody of Los Angeles and its outskirts, like with every open-world it does, is staggering. No one can even come close to what it does. The first few hours I invested into it when I got the game, I felt like I hadn’t even barely scratched in it. I didn’t have that feeling for GTA IV and Liberty City when I started Niko’s story.

But it wasn’t just the ambition of Los Santos, however, that left the feeling of overwhelment. The amount of side-stuff to do in GTA V is massive, like yoga, bounty hunting, actual hunting and a ton more. Even some of the sports stuff like tennis, triathlons and golf pretty much games in their own right akin to Rockstar Table Tennis.

All of that, however, is before you take into consideration Grand Theft Auto Online, which genuinely does feel like its own game rather than just GTA V’s multiplayer suite. After a rough start which saw the deletion of player-created personas and, with it, the player’s progress with that character plus their properties, GTA Online is the semi-realisation of the Grand Theft Auto MMO that was talked about as a pipedream.

It’s just incredibly fun to have a couple of friends with you just roaming around Los Santos in a car just shooting shit or just mow each other down in a helicopter (Note: this hasn’t been forgotten, Aoife Wilson). All while including the same side-activities that GTA V has and a tangible story six months before the main game.

If any of this dribble is to make a point, it’s this. Grand Theft Auto V feels like a greatest hits compilation of this generation from Rockstar. The connected story of Grand Theft Auto IV, the scope, ambition and depth of Red Dead Redemption’s world and the side-stuff you could do in Los Santos, some of which give reminders to Rockstar Table Tennis. And all that’s before mentioning V’s refined combat system that gives a tip of the hat to Max Payne 3.

The thing is, though, there’s still enough there in GTA V to make it the most fleshed out and complete game Rockstar has put out. The playable three main characters extend the longevity of the game, whilst Grand Theft Auto Online speaks for itself.

Fifteen years after it was formed, the biggest change is how much the company has shifted as a result of its transformation from its Mail/Jack Thompson-courting controversy days to telling more down to Earth mature stories.

The house Dan and Sam Houser built fifteen years ago (forgive the pun) still goes strong. Grand Theft Auto V is proof of that.

Highlight: Getting up to hijinx with friends on Grand Theft Auto Online

More Game of the Generation articles will be arriving throughout the day up until 9pm GMT with the Game of the Generation. Find the full list so far here, with special and honourable mentions going live on the list along with the GOTG at 9pm.

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