Gunfire erupts from my right, I've been flanked and Trevor's armour takes a hit. I return fire and punch Trevor's special ability into action. He rages and now dishes out more damage whilst taking significantly less. In a few blood-soaked bullet-hose seconds Trevor's out of cover and turning the battle into a charnel house.
It's over quickly and I have that big third-person shooter grin I get from Saints Row 3 on my face, only this is so much smoother and more satisfying than gun combat in any open world game – even Red Dead.
I loot the bodies for weapons/ammo and get in the truck. Mission Accomplished...
Melee is satisfying too, with a greater range of moves, counters and combos it feels fluid and action-movie like. Not as deep as Sleeping Dogs, but so much better than Red Dead and GTA IV. Box ticked!
Special abilities add to the action, with Michael being able to slow down time in gun combat, Trevor's rage and Franklin's slow-mo driving ability (useful in car combat – which is still one of the weaker aspects of the game in terms of shooting from a moving vehicle whilst driving).
Your special bar can be filled by doing stunts and driving like a madman in cars, shooting precisely as Michael and taking damage as Trevor.
Talking of driving, that's another aspect of the game that's been tuned to near-perfection. The vehicle controls are much tighter and more responsive with extra time taken on motorbikes so they're no longer a chore to ride. The driving is fluid and smooth with a big emphasis on control and precision, once you get used to the new system you'll be doing 360s, donuts and 180 J-Turns with the best of them.
Flying mechanics have been smoothed out and it's possible to take off, perform stunts in a plane and get that plane on the ground with a little practise. Same with Helicopters – so if you add in boats, underwater exploration via mini-sub (a joy to control) and all of this – Rockstar has polished the handling mechanics on every aspect of vehicular control in the game.
Relationship mechanics are no longer a big thing, there's no score to keep track of to find out if someone likes you enough. The interactions feel real and not forced at all, and with the living world out there the characters all have their own things to do and lives to lead when you're not controlling the other 2.
Every activity in the game (and there are a lot, from triathalons, base-jumping, extreme sports and tennis to name a few) feels polished and reactive. It's a staggering gameplay achievement and soaks up so much time there aren't enough hours in the day to devote to GTA V.
All of this activity/leisure time feeds back into the various gameplay loops, since the characters have core skills. Flying, driving, shooting, stamina, strength, stealth and so on. Each time you shoot a gun, drive a car, fly a plane and sneak around (left stick clicked in) you'll be increasing one of these stats and improving it which leads to better control of a gun, more ammo, better handling in cars and so on.
The game has so many other systems purring away under the hood too, like the iFruit phone which has all the important apps and menus, giving you access to the internet from the phone and allowing you to browse a plethora of real time updated things including a working community action driven Stockmarket (BAWSAQ) that responds to actions in the game's many side missions and world. If the Vapid motor company loses a CEO for example thanks to community assassinations, it drives the share price down.
Time to buy low, and SELL high!
The game reflects your actions in the world, so you can create opportunity for wise investment and make some extra cash on the side.
The phone also lets you quick-save when you're not on mission. This quick-save is a proper save too; it saves your game-world state at the time. Parked up on a layby enjoying a thunderstorm? That's where you'll start from – at long last – you won't be thrown back to your safe house.
Rockstar are brilliant at detail and ambient life, and there are so many ambient life systems across all levels of the game it's hard to pick out just one. They all flow into each other and you can stand on any street corner watching the world come alive from pedestrian's lives/jobs to sudden random events you can be involved in, and more. These are also locale specific so there are tons of things to see and do when exploring, in the big city or the wilderness/mountains that surround Blaine County and so on.
I was able to get involved in a cop shootout between gang members and the Blaine County Sheriffs Department – they let me blaze away at the cartel gangers, before telling me they had it under control and I could leave the scene now. They wanted the money – I was tempted as Franklin to steal it...but I thought better.
This little bit of random gameplay was more natural and amazing than any big blockbuster franchise that's come before it. It sucked me in and I wanted to help, I could have let the cops and criminals shoot each other and picked off the weaker link had I wanted to.
There are moments like this throughout the game and the locale-specific nature of these events really helps to sell the living world.
Then there's the off-mission character switching, which is Google-maps style and thoroughly engrossing. The characters all lead their own lives and you'll see slices of them as you switch back and forth, the game's attention to detail never wavers and you can actively stalk your friends if you want (or hang out with them).
I was driving around Los Santos as Franklin; I'd just delivered a guy to his house in a moment of Good Samaritan behaviour when Michael's car rounded the corner. He was out and about doing his own thing and he spotted me. He got out, walked over, said a few things and reminded me we'd been planning a job and we were close to kicking off. He got back in his car and drove away.
I was kind of stunned by this, and delighted.
So I decided to test the living world a bit. I switched to Michael, sent him around to Franklin's house and had him explore a bit. Then I switched to Franklin and went back home, came in via the downstairs patio window, came upstairs and found Michael in the living room. Rather than being a static character moment, Michael and Franklin exchanged greetings and the game gave me an opportunity to hang out.
It let me choose where and I was thoroughly delighted again.
No more: HEY NIKO, it's me – your COUSIN!
When you switch to Trevor don't be surprised by what you find, expect anything.
The world really is alive and there are thousands of NPCs all doing their own thing, and at any time you can be part of that as you explore Los Santos and its massive surrounding area by land, sea, road, underwater and more.