Grand Theft Auto V has been a long time coming, as fans will be all too aware. The series, often better known as GTA for short, has become synonymous with ambition - developer Rockstar North creates huge worlds filled with memorable characters and epic challenges.
But that takes time to achieve, with GTA V arriving more than five years since the fourth title in the series. It also lands at a curious time: released for PS3, Xbox 360, just a matter of months before the gaming world is set to move on to the next-generation PS4 and Xbox One consoles.
GTA V brings the series back to the Southern California-inspired state of San Andreas, complete with the major city of Los Santos, which is modelled on LA. Not only is it the biggest game in the series by quite some way, it also introduces three main characters to the game, rather than just the one.
It’s certainly huge, but is GTA V as hugely impressive as many are expecting? It's the game that's so hyped we've more or less forgotten about next-gen for the time being. The best Grand Theft Auto yet? We've been playing through the game for as many hours as we've been able to stay awake to find out.
Grand Theft Auto V delivers an absolutely breathtaking interpretation of west coast America, but then again, we've come to expect such things from Rockstar North. The most interesting part of GTA V is its three character setup, because it really adds to the story and missions within the game.
These characters fit the traditional GTA mould, in as much as they're male criminals, but are all very different: Franklin is a young mechanic looking to make a fortune; Michael is a retired thief living under witness protection; and Trevor is, well, he's Trevor - a psychotic meth dealer living on a trailer park.
Each of the three characters are thoroughly compelling, thanks to great writing, voice acting and animation. In missions, you can switch between these characters, which adds a level of strategic depth and replayability not seen before in a GTA game. When this play dynamic was first announced we weren't totally sold on whether it would work or not, but Rockstar North has delivered the sauce here and it works a treat.
When not in a storyline-based mission you can also move between the three characters and witness what each of them is doing in day-to-day life. It really helps flesh-out each character's motives and back story (however messed up that can be at times).
Although it's not available right now, there will also be multiplayer content in the future, expected in October 2013. The timing works out well as you'll have weeks to dig into the solo player stuff before exploring the online world - something we're yet to see so can't comment on at this stage.
GTA V's missions are imaginative, bombastic, and most of all, fun. One moment you'll be rappelling out of a helicopter to extract a witness, the next you'll be sinking a boat and then using a submarine to search the wreckage. The GTA series has produced some incredible and memorable missions in the past, but GTA V is absolutely chock full of them. It's the best of the bunch so far.
The new heists are particularly successful, as they are multi-part missions where you plan and execute a robbery. As the leader of the heist, you need to procure the equipment, hire the team, and then pull off the job in a multi-mission series of events. The best people cost the most money, but the amateurs get better as you perform more heists. It puts you in control of your craft and acts as a great new addition to the series - definitely the source of plenty of the game's highlights.
GTA: San Andreas II?
It's a given that Rockstar North creates fantastically detailed worlds, but even judged against past examples, GTA V is on a whole different level. San Andreas is both massive and detailed, packed to the brim with things to see and do.
Fly over the main city of Los Santos for the first time, and suddenly the need for next-gen consoles becomes somewhat irrelevant. It's pushing current-gen to the max, there's no doubt, and some frame-rate drop is apparent on occasion, but it's no biggie to the thrill ride of playing the game as a whole.
Grand Theft Auto V's main story is expansive enough as it is, but the world provides near-endless possibilities of other things to entertain yourself with. Side missions include racing and shooting, sports such as running and cycling, or shooting ranges that improve your accuracy. You can also set up a property portfolio, become a vigilante against criminals you see on the street, or play the stock market, all of which help you earn extra cash.
You can also do stuff just for fun - take a cable car ride, go on a rollercoaster, or take Michael to the therapist. All of this is optional, and we suspect it will take you months to see everything and complete every challenge. We've not had months of play time, we've not even had weeks - but we look forward to digging in deep.
For all of GTA V’s successes, it's a game that still seems intent on shocking. Are we surprised? Not really, but it's a topic that needs to be covered and, undoubtedly, we'll be reading about at lengths from all sorts of points of view over the coming weeks. That's a discussion that needs to happen, for sure, but despite the nastiness found in parts there's still too much fun to otherwise have.
Trevor's behaviour is one of the major culprits. While often an entertaining character, there are occasions where he veers onto sadistic tendencies. There's a torture mission in particular, for example, where you have no choice but to inflict serious pain on someone to extract information. It feels like it's here to grab the headlines and not much else - we're not big fans of pulling teeth, and we don't mean that in the precise manner of a dentist either.
The treatment of women in the game also has the potential to offend. A lot of it could be passed off as "social commentary", but there are moments that feel infantile at times. Many GTA fans will be aware of exactly what to expect, but if you're not - or you're a parent reading with the intent of passing this game over to your son or daughter - then don't think for a moment that it's not 18+ adult material.
GTA V is the best Grand Theft Auto game to date. There, we said it. And we're dead sure of it too.
It's a technical marvel, pushing the boundaries of what's possible on the current generation of consoles. Load it up and you won't quite believe what Rockstar North has been able to do - it's truly squeezed every last ounce of graphical juice out of the can.
The three character setup is a triumph too, all thanks to excellent writing and acting, and the main missions are brilliantly executed, delivering moments that will stay with you for years to come.
If you want a wild ride of a game then Grand Theft Auto V is most certainly that. It'll charm, it'll amuse, it might even teeter on the offensive - but it'll keep you coming back for more and more. And it's so huge you'll be digging away at it for a long time to come.