2013 preview: Grand Theft Auto V
19th Dec 2012 | 11:04
There is almost too much to take in - that's the overriding response.
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?
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.
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
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."
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.
We'll also see how secondary characters react differently to the main protagonists: what happens when Trevor or Franklin stumble into Michael's mansion-lined district? Dan Houser says the story is really going to play on these fish-out-of water scenarios. It's also clear that the relationship between the three hoods is going to be central to the action.
Indeed, the whole sense of linearity is being broken down.
And here's an important thing; while Niko's story was about killing, GTA V is about cash, about greed and adrenaline, and that changes the tone and the mission design. Speaking to IGN, Dan Houser said these guys are focused much more on money and robbery.
"They can do the robberies in different kinds of ways and have a lot of choice over the things they do." Again, this is a glimpse at how game design is likely to mature, taking us away from the signposted corridors of
Verticality also seems to be much more important in this game. You've always been able to access rooftops and clamber up hillsides in GTA, but now, perhaps inspired by upstarts like Batman and Assassin's Creed, GTA V is more subtly layered than its predecessors.
The mission press have seen involves Michael being lowered from a chopper and rappelling down the side of a skyscraper for a raid on a government agency. And then we also have a mountain range, miles of sky to fly through and an explorable ocean. Will there be a submarine mission? It's unlikely Rockstar would have modelled the sea floor just so players could go scuba diving if they felt like it.
But then, doing things when you feel like it is a vital element of the GTA experience, and Rockstar knows it. Here you'll be able to play golf and tennis, ride quad-bikes, do a triathlon. Explore, live. "Games are very geographical," said Houser to The Guardian.
"They present space almost better than they present time, and we try to use that, to showcase variety between different landscapes. It's this idea of a digital holiday: being able to explore spaces that don't really exist is one of the things that's fascinating about open world games. It's not just about doing the activities we've set, there's also a sense of being there".
Quite possibly, hidden among all this talk about freedom are some subtle clues about the online modes in GTA V. With Red Dead, Rockstar introduced its concept of Free Roam multiplayer where players could get together in gangs and explore the whole environment. GTA V will surely build on this. It's almost certain we'll see co-op heists, maybe against other players as security guards.
We're sure there will be elements of EA's Auto- and Battlelog social systems, allowing players to make connections between each other's game worlds. But the big things are likely to be persistence and scope.
Next-gen games may move on from the limited Team Deathmatch format of current online modes; GTA V might suggest that, allowing small squads of players to engage in longer form quests and narrative adventures. Houser hinted at something in his Guardian profile: "This game, if we get it right, will be a step toward some kind of organic living soap opera." Perhaps that ambition will inform multiplayer too.
The next generation of gaming will be less about formula and structure and more about freedom and personalisation. GTA V is not there, of course, it's still sitting in this generation - even though its very possible that, as at least a new Xbox is due at the end of 2013, an updated edition may well be released.
Even if it isn't, with its emphasis on multiple characters, a less linear story, and a freer environment, it has things to say about the future. And what it says is this: the future of game design isn't about us, it's about you.