From resolving global conflicts to slowly batting a little white blob back and forth (how often do you actually do that in real life?), all videogames exist as a form of escapism. But those that offer it most overtly aren’t actually the ones that allow us to save the world single-handedly or let us control a cartload of chimpanzees with our mind (which, incidentally, sounds awesome). It’s those like GTA 5 that offer a rough simulacrum of reality and provide us with the freedom to interact with it as we wish – including, not ignoring, the mundanities of life – that are the most compelling virtual holidays.
That’s always been one of the key appeals of Grand Theft Auto: regular guy makes good in (semi) regular world. And okay, he may make good in the most violent and psychopathic way possible, but no amount of squashed pedestrians can run over the games’ aspirational nature. And it is here that GTA 5’s greatest triumph lies. The scathing social commentary is, of course, present and correct.
The scale and sense of freedom is
so staggering that the initial wave
of amazement never wears off
Likewise the eccentric cast of misfits and oddballs we’ve come to expect. And, now far more than ever, the ambitious, cinematic missions involving all kinds of spectacular carnage. But standing above all this is the fact that no other virtual world in all of gaming is as fully realised and alluring as what’s on offer here. This is a glorious and jubilant reminder of the fact that – at their heart – games are supposed to be about having fun, and few, if any, experiences during this entire console generation provide as much pure joy.
Such is the frequency with which remarkable moments occur that no longer can they be called highlights: the game’s standard operating mode is to have your mouth agape in amazement. Backflipping a motorbike over an airport terminal. Parachuting out of a cargo helicopter into a fully manned military base. Causing a 20-car pile-up on a freeway during rush hour by sniping a truck driver from half a mile away. Oh, and the stuff you’re tasked with during missions isn’t too shoddy, either.
The scale and sense of freedom is so staggering that the initial wave of amazement never wears off – every now and then you’re hit with a whole new sense of ‘wow’ as you realise just how much is on offer to you at any one moment. This is not only the biggest world in Grand Theft Auto history, incorporating both the city of Los Santos and the sprawling countryside of Blaine County to the north, it’s also by far the most richly populated when it comes to activities, asides, and locations just begging to be explored.
So luxurious is the level of design that vast structures that would be the environmental highlights of entire games are included without any overt purpose beyond enhancing the sense that this a real place. For instance, at one point I rode a dirt bike off the beaten track and discovered an enormous, Hoover-esque dam. Surely some secret is hidden up here? Or perhaps it’ll come into play as a set-piece during a later mission? Nope, it just… is. The game never directed me there, and I never came back. I simply leapt from the top to my death, a suicide made gleeful by the incredible care taken in constructing this virtual world.
And all of this is open to you from the very start of the game – there’s no waiting for bridges to be made passable or areas to be freed from lockdown. Any location can be visited in any order and in any vehicle, right from the minute you first set eyes on sun-drenched San Andreas. It’s partly the nature of this setting, in addition to the tech that’s been used to create it, that makes it such a pleasure to inhabit. The wide streets, verdant hills and shimmering ocean are in stark contrast to the fog-shrouded greys of Liberty City – riding down faux Sunset Boulevard in a faux soft-top Mercedes feels like a far more appealing version of the American dream than hopping aboard the decrepit LC subway ever did.
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