After years of waiting for Rockstar to bring another Grand Theft Auto to consoles, the developer dropped its most ambitious and complex sequel into gamers' laps around the world this week. While the core of this entry is still very familiar, Grand Theft Auto V freshens the aging premise with a new narrative direction and a host of new features designed to redefine the franchise. Though there are still moments where Grand Theft Auto V stumbles a bit, Rockstar has once again proven when it comes to the sandbox genre, nobody does it better.

Rather than taking up the mantle of just one character, Grand Theft Auto V gives you three distinct lives to ruin run; Michael, a retired heist man; Franklin, the repo man with big dreams; and Trevor, Michael's former partner and current meth dealer. Each of the three characters' lives intertwine in ways only a carefully crafted narrative would allow, with outrageous circumstances and escalating stakes meeting the three leads every step of the way. As a whole, the story doesn't break much new ground, and there's a definite "been there, done that" vibe for many of the mission plots. However, what sets Grand Theft Auto V apart is the brilliant characterization.

There have been plenty of memorable characters in the growing GTA pantheon, but many of them were merely cleverly crafted caricatures who were more memorable for zany one-liners than they were for outstanding arcs. The mold was broken a bit in Grand Theft Auto IV, but in Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar completely shatters it. Now, Michael, Franklin and Trevor are fully realized men whose ups and downs create visible differences in attitude and personality throughout the story. As hard as it is to relate to the lives of criminals for many of us, Rockstar does an admirable job making these three gentlemen of opportunity compelling.

You can spend as much time with any of the characters as you want thanks to the new switching mechanic that drives much of Grand Theft Auto V's story. At any time (provided the story isn't locking out certain characters), you can swap from Michael to Franklin or Trevor with a simple press of a button. You'll be transported to wherever that particular character is in the world of San Andreas, and pick up living his life immediately. Sometimes you might find yourself throwing a biker off a bridge. Other times, you'll wake up from a nightmare-filled nap. Each of the three characters have lives they are living when you're not in control. It also furthers the illusion San Andreas really is a living, breathing place, where people continue to exist beyond the person whose shoes you are filling. However good the illusion is, it's still just an illusion though.

San Andreas is bigger and more realistic than any previous world has been in a Grand Theft Auto before, but it's a hollow existence. The computer-controlled inhabitants live lives predetermined by code, and there's no real life to the world beyond the characters you directly interact with. Despite being able to swap between Trevor, Michael and Franklin at any time, you never see the others out in the world when you're not controlling them. Like Red Dead Redemption, GTAV features random encounters like purse snatchers and people too drunk to drive on their own. You can choose to help them or not, but regardless of what you do, the world continues to revolve in its algorithmically planned pattern. Those drunks won't drive themselves home. They'll just continue to stand around until they disappear from your radar, waiting to spawn again sometime later in the game. San Andreas can never move forward unless you are the one behind the progression.

Like its predecessor GTAIV, this sequel offers plenty of distractions to keep you from progressing the story. The litany of optional activities includes yoga, golf, tennis, weapon smuggling, deep sea diving, racing and more. Where before these tasks were merely ways for you to kill time, in GTAV they actually help improve the individual characters. Each character is ranked in eight different categories (special, stamina, strength, shooting, flying driving, lung capacity and stealth), and you can improve areas Michael, Trevor or Franklin are weak in by completing challenges in any of the side quests. It's very easy to get lost in the minutia, not that it's necessarily a bad thing. At times however, there can be so many options for what to do, it's overwhelming. When you factor in other additional activities like trying to play the stock market, customizing cars and weapons, or hunting down all the jumps, flying challenges and other hidden objects in the world, suddenly living in San Andreas has become more complicated than living your own real life.

It's also increasingly easy to get lost wandering the massive map of San Andreas just to take in the beauty and scope of Grand Theft Auto V's world. Even though GTAV is running on the same engine as GTAIV, the two games couldn't look more different. In fact, GTAV shares more in common graphically with Red Dead Redemption than it does the previous entry. Character models are much improved, as is the lighting. Grand Theft Auto IV has not aged well visually, but that same issue shouldn't affect GTAV in the least. There's still some pop-in and the occasional blurry texture, but for the most part, San Andreas has never looked as impressive. The combat also borrows more from Red Dead than it does GTAIV, which is a good thing. The cover system is much more adequate, and the melee combat, while still not amazing, is leaps and bounds better than it was back in 2008. Driving is still a bit of a mess, but it is definitely better than it was five years ago. The various vehicles all have an actual weight to them, though flipping cars is still incredibly easy, and drifting around turns and flying through the air after hitting something in the road still happens way too often.

When you do finally sit down and decide to tackle the actual story missions, you'll find more of the same objectives you've been faced with throughout the years. Drive here, shoot this guy, drive back and collect your money. Wash, rinse, repeat. However, now sprinkled within these rote missions are new heists, which add a dynamic Grand Theft Auto didn't know it was missing. Heists are multi-stage missions, which involve you casing a location, putting together a plan of attack, and then hiring a team to get the job done. There are typically two ways to approach a given heist, and throughout the game you'll find more recruits as potential heist partners. These partners have specific skill sets in hacking, driving and shooting, and the better they are, the bigger the cut of the haul. Hiring someone on the cheap will almost always lead to them bungling some part of the job, so even if the higher-rated member of the gang needs a bigger cut, it's often best to hire them anyway.

Heists also offer the most variation during missions as you'll be able to swap between each of the three protagonists at will. This gameplay mechanic offers you the chance to skip lulls in gameplay by swapping from one character to another, and continuing the mission from the most action-intensive part. Thankfully, the checkpoint system from Red Dead Redemption has been applied here, and you won't have to start over from the beginning of many missions if you happen to botch a job. Heists are easily the most rewarding and engaging part of GTAV, and they offer the most interesting action sequences as well. Sure, there are moments throughout the game where you'll be on the edge of your seat. However, heists are where the money is (literally and figuratively), and will be the most talked about portion when recalling your adventures with friends.

The hype for Grand Theft Auto V was almost immeasurably high, but after playing the sequel for dozens of hours, it's plain to see Rockstar has met those expectations. There are still a few things GTA could do better, but the overall package is amazing. That said, it's getting harder and harder to continue to care about living the criminal life, and with the wealth of extra-curricular activities included this time around, you can almost sense Rockstar has greater ambition than being the best at bad guy games, too. Still, Grand Theft Auto V is an incredibly fun and immersive experience that shouldn't be missed. Rockstar has defined a genre so well this time around, it will almost be impossible to top. Then again, Rockstar has never shied away from outdoing itself before.

This review is based off a publisher provided copy of Grand Theft Auto V for the Xbox 360.


9.5 out of 10 arcade sushi rating