2013 preview: Grand Theft Auto V

Why Rockstar's sequel could be the first next-gen game - but powered by current-gen consoles

Find more forward-looking previews in CVG's best games of 2013 round-up.

There is almost too much to take in - that's the overriding response. GTA V is a game about three disparate career criminals taking on a series of heists in Los Santos. It is a game where you can switch at will between the three leads, you can go anywhere, seemingly do anything.

For the last month, gamers everywhere have been rifling through the available information, constructing for themselves what they hope the end result will be. Can a single title bear this much weight of expectations?

The huge world complements the variety of airborne vehicles

It can if it thinks about design in a new way. And that's what we reckon the latest GTA does. There's a chance this thing will hint at the coming era of interactive entertainment. There's a chance GTA V will be the first real next-generation game.

Big country

It is there in the sheer scale of the environment, of course. We've all heard the high concept pitch: GTA V is big enough to swallow GTA: San Andreas, GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption whole. But the key isn't the size, it's the variety and detail. Los Santos itself has become a sprawl of neighbourhoods, with the luxurious Rockford Hills leading into the dense downtown area, and on to the sun-baked Santa Maria beach, with its muscle men, beach babes and assorted weirdos.

Then the map extends outwards, taking in the diverse Southern Californian countryside; the mountains, the deserts, the weird Salton City, mostly abandoned in the 70s and a suitably messed up home for the game's most psychotic character, Trevor.

It's all explorable from the outset, and Rockstar North has learned a vital lesson from Red Dead Redemption; that an environment only works when it feels alive. Indeed, producer Leslie Benzies recently said: "We had a lot of the North team working on RDR and LA Noire, which allowed us to gain experience of other projects and how to solve problems and use them within the new game engine we've created for V."

"GTA V will tell us about how game stories are going to be told in the future"

Hence, it seems that both the ecosystem and the dynamic mission encounters have been bought over and evolved from that game. Players will encounter stranded motorists, hitchhikers and redneck misfits, spawning new side-quests on the fly.

Open world games have always hinted in this direction, but populating large worlds with fun things is going to be a key concern in the next-gen era. As gamers demand ever larger environments, developers will begin to rely upon procedural generated landscapes, in which maps are effectively designed by the computer, based on parameters and algorithms set by the coders and artists.

These places will need to be filled with smart AIs capable of reacting to player behaviours and generating insta-missions, without someone on the dev team having to write a script first.

Three Two One

On top of that, it looks very much as though GTA V is going to tell us about how game stories will be told in the future. Forget about one linear strand taking us through from beginning to middle to end. GTA V has three protagonists remember - retired bank robber, Michael, drug-addled psycho Trevor and young repo kid, Franklin - and their stories will intertwine as we progress.

"Here we have three protagonists interacting throughout the game," Benzies told IGN. "This is something we touched upon with the intersecting stories of Nico, Johnny and Luis in GTA IV, but we have now made this integral to the structure of the gameplay as well as the narrative."

The three main protagonists frequently have to work together

More interestingly, you're able to swap between these wise guys when you like, zooming out of one, into a sort of Google Maps view, then into another, taking up their story wherever they are. In this way, each player is going to effectively edit their own story, catching bits and pieces of the cut-scene action, becoming filmmakers. Benzies has said that the way each gamer makes these "tactical and organic choices" will really shape the game.

That's true in missions too; each characters has his own friends, his own skills - major tasks will usually involve at least two of them taking on different roles. In the raid on the government building that The Guardian was shown, Michael does the action, while Trevor flies the chopper and Franklin covers with a sniper rifle.

Weapons, like vehicles, will all be in the world from the start, but players will need cash and the right connections to build their arsenal and access the meatier stuff. This is a game about money - everything is for sale.

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