There are times when I look at Los Santos and think 'why would you even think to build that?' This is, appropriately, a thought that I often have about Los Angeles. In GTA 5's case, the tone is different: baffled wonderment as opposed to baffled, y'know, despair. Rockstar have created one of the most extraordinary game environments you will ever visit. I look at it and I wonder at the vast expense of effort required to render every trash bag in every back alley just so. I marvel at the care evident in San Andreas' gorgeous sunsets, in the way that sunglasses subtly alter the colour balance of the world, in the artfully-chosen selection of licensed music designed to accompany your experience. Everything about Los Santos demonstrates the extraordinary amount of thought and love poured into it by hundreds of developers over many years. The abiding irony of Grand Theft Auto 5 is that everybody who actually lives in Los Santos hates it there.
This is the most beautiful, expansive and generous GTA game and also, by some distance, the nastiest and most nihilistic. Rockstar went through a phase, in Bully, Grand Theft Auto IV and the sadly console-bound Red Dead Redemption, of framing their protagonists as anti-heroes. GTA 4's Niko Bellic did some terrible things, but he had a downtrodden charm that helped you like him as you piloted him through the underworld. He was surrounded by people who were larger-than-life but ultimately, beneath the surface, people. Among those people were some of Rockstar's better female characters—Kate McReary, Mallorie Bardas, The Lost and Damned's Ash Butler.
Grand Theft Auto 5 does away with all of that, deliberately but to its detriment. Its trio of protagonists occupy a city full of vapid, two-dimensional caricatures, and they flirt with that boundary themselves. Michael is a middle-aged former bankrobber, unhappily married and on the edge of a breakdown. Franklin is a young hood, purportedly principled but willing to do almost anything for money. Trevor is a desert-dwelling, meth-dealing psychopath with a homebrew morality that sits uneasily alongside his capacity for violent cruelty and sexual aggression. The campaign explores their relationship through a series of heists and misadventures as they clash with every L.A. stereotype you might imagine—the bored Beverly Hills housewife, the corrupt fed, the bottom-rung fraudster, the smug technology exec, and so on.
As it is this is a very long game with a lot of filler. There's much driving from A to B, a lot of conversations in cars, a lot of gunfights with hordes of goons who show up just to run into your gunsights over and over. It's far richer in set-piece moments than its predecessor—drug trips, aerial heists, dramatic chases—and many of these look incredible even if they're light on actual interaction. In the best examples, you soak in the atmosphere and happily ignore the fact that you're only really being asked to follow the on-screen instructions. In the worst examples—insta-fail stealth sequences, sniper missions and so on—it's harder to ignore the shackles that are placed on the player in order to preserve the game's cinematic look and feel.
I spent a lot of my time with the campaign frustrated along these lines, bored of the same mission templates that I've been playing through since GTA III and making the most of the scant opportunities to play my own way, like Franklin's refreshingly open assassination missions. Then, inevitably, I'd be doing one of those rote activities—a heavily scripted freeway chase, perhaps—when the magic of that extraordinary world would creep up on me again. It'd hit me: I'm doing 150 km/h along the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset. The rock station is playing 30 Days In The Hole by Humble Pie. It feels incredible, a collision of pop-culture, atmosphere, music and play that is unique to GTA.