Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V boxGrand Theft Auto V has only officially been a part of the public video game ecosystem for a few days now, and it has already completely sucked the air out of the room for the rest of the industry. Reports of a staggering $800-million take for day one sales of the newest member of the Rockstar Games franchise are almost otherworldly, and the attention the title has gotten this last week in both traditional and new media sources is unprecedented for a video game.

Well, unprecedented save for the response to the last Grand Theft Auto... That title received just as many accolades as GTA V is almost certain to pile up over the coming months and year. The plaudits will stack up next to the letters of outrage this edge-of-decency series has engendered.

F-bombs and N-bombs almost never cease to serve as verbal punctuation for a script that is among the best written in the digital genre, despite a Tarantino-esque deepness to its blue hue. A liberal sprinkling of T&A (strip clubs with strippers that, you know, take their clothes off), and drug and alcohol consumption complement a randomly violent world to mix a cocktail straight from Hollywood's well-worn recipe.

That Hollywood bit is critical, we think. This is a grown-up video game, meant entirely to be played by adults, not children; just as many of the movies in theaters across the world are better suited for one demographic or another. Take umbrage with a society that values this kind of imaginary world to the tune of billions of dollars, if you must, but don't foist kindergarten standards on a marketplace populated in the majority by grownups.

Now, give us a second to climb down off of this soapbox so we can talk about cars.

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Cars and driving still represent the center of gravity in Grand Theft Auto V.

As the title indicates and past players of the franchise will realize, despite the shooting, blowing stuff up, smoking and drinking and making it rain on occasion, cars and driving still represent the center of gravity in Grand Theft Auto V. So, while it's almost shameful to review what is arguably one of the top games of the last five years in partiality, we're going to stick to talking mostly about the cars and vehicles that populate the game.

Look at it this way: you can dial up a hundred or more full-game reviews of GTA with just microseconds of Google's time. Being that this is Autoblog (and not "VideogameBlog" as many of you cheerfully remind your author, given half a chance), we thought it would be worthwhile to see if the game stands up as a title for the racing-minded player. In other words: is GTA worth playing for the cars?

The most concise answer to that is a simple, "yes."

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Driving cars, trucks and motorcycles over, under and through the fictional state of San Andreas with Los Santos (a Los Angeles doppelgänger) as your starting point, is the lifeblood of this game. The open-world landscape is simply gargantuan in relative scale, and so finely detailed that exploring the whole of it feels like a one-percent-user activity. The confines of the driving landscape are defined in a static sense by roadways and geographical features (San Andreas has the advantage of just about every terrain type you could imagine), and dynamically by the near-constant traffic of civilian vehicles, law enforcement, biker gangs, pedestrians, the occasional coyote... you name it. "Racing" in GTA almost never involves a closed course; shucking and jiving your way to a personal land speed record inside a cityscape is more of the norm. Think C'était un rendez-vous, but with, you know, a bunch of meth in the trunk.

Think C'était un rendez-vous, but with, you know, a bunch of meth in the trunk.

Rockstar has overhauled the physics behind all of the vehicles in its game, with its goal being a higher level of reality and greater differentiation from one machine to the next. The results seem mixed on this update. On one hand, each vehicle-type we drove did have pretty pronounced characteristics to set it apart – more so than we remember from GTA IV, too. So, broadly, rear-wheel-drive sedans handled as you'd expect them too, with oversteer on tap and fairly fluid handling; mid-engined sports cars were some of the best balanced, though often ticklish at the limit; front-driver compacts feature nippy turn-in and easy-to-modulate understeer.

Of course, within one of those classes of vehicle – let's talk about rear-drivers, there are a lot of those – the handling experience is a lot less varied. Now, the modified Bravado Buffalo (re: Dodge Charger SRT8) that Franklin (one of our heroes) starts the game with is easily discernible from the Imponte Ruiner (re: Camaro IROC-Z); it has a lot more power and wider, grippier rubber. But the fundamentals of how that pair will handle are far less subtle than they'd need to be in a laboratory setting like Forza or Gran Turismo.

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Going off-road in a dune buggy or a pickup, you may break from the laws of Earth physics fairly often.

Overall, the handling experience for each vehicle is, it's fair to say, an order of magnitude less precise than in those top-level simulators, too. However, that isn't to say that the physics aren't well suited to the game world. Quite the opposite. Executing tail-out, handbrake turns is a lot less dramatic than it would be in a racing game – recovery from horrible maneuvers being relatively simple – but it works because that kind of driving has to be the norm, not the exception, when you're dodging downtown traffic at 90 or 100 miles per hour. Going off-road in a dune buggy or a pickup, you may break from the laws of Earth physics fairly often, but in the GTA world that environment still harshly penalizes game cars with no ground clearance or knobby tires.

To summarize: vehicles and the physics ruling them all work fluidly and rationally within the game world, even if they feel not much like a simulation of reality. That might turn off the driving simulator crowd, but it's the very formula that the entire genre of "arcade-style" racing games have worked successfully for decades.

The level of detail on the in-game vehicles is pretty high though, considering the sheer volume of them that exist and are playable. Developers lavished as many intricacies on the cars as they did on the rest of the seemingly unending Los Santos landscape, including crafty animations like convertible tops going up and down. See the video below for a demo.

Grand Theft Auto V Convertible Top Demo

What's amazing about GTA V, however, is that it offers a selection of vehicles that is more like what would be found in a sim driving game, and with the added flavor of a whole load of vehicles that aren't cars at all. We don't have an official tally of every conveyance in the game, but the numbers being compiled by players and gaming sites in the early going look something like this: 187 cars and trucks; 16 motorcycles; 7 bicycles; 23 helicopters, planes, jets and blimps (!); 11 watercraft including some kind of submersible; and just scads of things in the "other" category. ATVs, tractors, earthmovers of all stripes, tanks... you get the idea. All-in, 300+ might be a good guess for the total number of things your can ride or drive.

The automotive experience is enhanced by a really detailed customization and modification system, too.

And, to be frank, as of this writing we've only piloted a small fraction of the vehicles we've seen or know to exist in this epic game. Enough to be wildly impressed with the sticky handling and acceleration of the Tesla Roadster-aping Coil Votic (with unlimited range, as far as we've seen), and to be just a little disappointed by the twitchiness of the Obey 9F née Audi R8. In terms of cutting a graceful line through the cityscape, its safe to say the motorcycles offer the nippiest route, though they carry the downside of near-instant death if you hit something too hard and too fast. Which makes sense, obviously. Flying planes and helicopters is challenging and, frankly, a bit dull (we haven't gotten into the jets yet), while we found the watercraft to be universally giggle-inducing.

The automotive experience is enhanced by a really detailed customization and modification system, too. Steer your ride into any of the many hand Los Santos Customs shops, and you'll have the ability to fix damage, select any one of dozens of paint hues (just the thing for fooling the fuzz) as well as adding parts like more aggressive turbos, roll cages, transmissions and a whole lot more. Ride along to the custom shop in our quick video below.

Grand Theft Auto V Los Santos Customs Demo

After countless hours crammed into a few days with GTA V, we can honestly report that those millions of day one buyers had the right idea. The tried and true formula of extraordinarily varied gameplay, near-perfect dialog, rounded and interesting lead characters, stunning visual presentation and some of the best in-game music we've ever had the pleasure of not turning off, all make this simply one of the best games of this console generation.

The cars and driving experience add mightily to the totality of the brutally raunchy world too, and should be enough of a lure to bring the autos-interested gamer into the hypnotic Grand Theft Auto V world. Just make sure you boot it up after the kids are in bed.