Despite originally launching on Xbox 360 and PS3 in September 2013, Grand Theft Auto V has never been bigger. Constant evolution in the console space has all been a lead up to the PC release, which is indisputably the pinnacle achievement of Rockstar’s current generation of game design. Grand Theft Auto V is a wildly ambitious game; huge in scope, wild in variety, and - importantly - the best GTA game the developer has made since Vice City.
Chances are you already know this. You’ve probably played the game on last-generation consoles, if not the improved PS4/Xbox One editions. So is it worth returning to Los Santos for potentially the third time? Just how much further does the PC edition of Grand Theft Auto V go?
When you first load up Grand Theft Auto V, set your sights accordingly. It’s easy to believe that the game is going to blow you utterly out of your chair thanks to the hype and some very beautiful trailers, but as the camera settles over the shoulder of protagonist Michael for the opening bank job, it’s immediately obvious that the core of the game was made to run on an Xbox 360. Clothing textures look a little muddy and hair seems a bit stiff. Don’t be surprised if you’re initially underwhelmed. But don’t worry; that won’t last. GTA V is gorgeous. It just takes a while to show it.
Baggy shirts ripple in the Californian breeze, and the branches of trees gently swing. Waves froth at the tips, and the individual gritstones of tarmac driveways glisten in the baking sun. As you take your first stroll through Los Santos, it gradually becomes clearer and clearer the amount of work that’s gone into this PC redux. Foliage is dense, lush, and full of texture. Walls look rough to the touch. Cats have fur you just want to brush your fingers through. Metallic paint jobs glisten under lamps with a high-gloss reflection. The difference between the original console version and the PC edition is how I imagine it looks like for a short-sighted person to put on their glasses. After they’ve had their eyeballs replaced with UHD bionics.
But playing the best version of the game will cost you. I’ve been playing on a rig that sports an i7 3770k clocked at 3.5ghz, with 16GB RAM and an ATI Radeon HD 7970 GPU with 3GB video memory. To maintain a mostly steady 60fps, I’ve been playing the game with almost everything turned up to max, at a resolution of 1920x1200. Textures, shadows and the like are all at their highest settings, with FXAA turned on and MSAA set to 2x. It’s MSAA that seems to be the kicker; notching it up to 4x slices the framerate down to around 35fps. To help you judge how much of an impact you're having with setting tweaks, a handy little meter in the graphics settings displays how much VRAM your chosen settings will eat up. The further into the red danger zone the meter fills, the heavier the expected impact on performance.
On a relatively common, two-year-old setup then, Grand Theft Auto V runs wonderfully. I’ve played the Xbox 360 version for around 40 hours, and you can immediately feel the difference that 60fps makes. Cars are faster and smoother, allowing minute adjustments to steering and a feeling of more control. It also stops the game from looking ‘cinematic’; and that’s an astonishingly good thing. Playing at 30fps makes it feel like you’re interacting with a movie. At 60fps, the barrier between you and Los Santos is shattered, and you feel far closer to being there.
I know that sounds wanky, but it’s the key reason why I’ve found that GTA V on PC feels like the quintessential version. And it’s not wholly down to 60fps; first-person mode is equally vital. Walking around Los Santos’s streets in first-person genuinely feels like exploring a real urban sprawl. There are few first person games out there that have mapped realistic cities at the correct scale, and so this experience feels astonishingly fresh. If you can drive, you’ll find getting into and driving cars in first person is weirdly accurate to the task in reality. Smaller cars feel cramped and claustrophobic, whilst trucks and vans truly feel vast inside the cockpit. Opening a car’s electric roof in first-person genuinely feels amusingly exciting. And there’s joyous details in the instruments, with their accurate moving needles and dashboard lights. Even the radios display the correct stations.
Unfortunately first-person starts to flake a little when it comes to shooting. Weapons seem to offer little feedback, denying them punch, and taking cover in first-person feels a little clumsy. But being in first person intensifies the violence, perhaps even a little too much. I was driving down a sideroad at low speed, and suddenly the door was wrenched open, I was pulled into the street, and thwacked in the face by a burly gangster. In third-person you’d see the guy chasing after your car. In first person it’s an unforeseen shock, and suddenly I know what it must feel like to be an NPC getting their car jacked. Terrifying.
Grand Theft Auto is now a game of two halves: the sprawling campaign and an MMO-inspired GTA Online. It’s a multiplayer mode with the whole of Los Santos to explore, from the beach right across the city, and all the way to the peak of Mount Chiliad and beyond. Peppered around the streets are a huge selection of different games. Many are multiplayer staples re-tooled for the GTA experience. Deathmatches do exactly what they say on the tin, but you’ll be able to achieve a kill by firing an uzi from the back of a motorbike. Races are of the fast and furious variety, and mix up between long-distance endurances and short, tight laps.
Then there’s the more eccentric modes that could only come out of Rockstar. Parachuting is most notable, where a bunch of players are booted out of helicopters and have to race to the ground whilst navigating through hoops in the sky. Another mode sees players thunder through the skies in fighter jets, seeking out ground targets to obliterate with military hardware. The range is impressive; there’s always something to suit your mood.
But it’s GTA Online’s missions where the true joy lies. Multiplayer variants of distinctly campaign-feeling set-pieces, this is where you’ll be engaging in absurd car chases, epic shoot-outs, and cat-and-mouse antics. There’s a huge variety, from stealing an RV loaded with a portable meth lab, to pegging it across the city with a bag of evidence that both criminals and crooked cops want custody of. And to make matters more chaotic, the NPC officers of the Los Santos Police Force are likely to get involved too.
Some of the missions are more successfully designed than others. The very first mission requires two teams to war over that aforementioned bag of evidence, and it can become a drawn out exercise of frustration. Both teams will converge on the bag, resulting in an astonishing shootout. As players die, they respawn in cars, and simply drive back into the fray. Before long there’s a forty car pile up, and somewhere in the middle is the bag. When a player finally gets it, they have to drive it across the map to their base. But often the player will be almost home when a rival will kill them and steal it back. The rival then drives to the other side of the city, only to get sniped by the enemy, and the back-and-forth starts again. It means the mission is infinite in length, remaining in stalemate indefinitely.
Most missions don't seem to have such flaws though, and often a mission timer or kill count will keep matches at the perfect length. Teamwork makes them fly by, and the GTA community seems to be very much embracing working together. A lot of players are making the most of the games in-game chat, and the general friendliness of it more than makes up for the odd trash-talkers.
Before you get into missions and matches there is a frustrating amount of faffing around in menus. There’s a lobby menu and then a second set of menus as you set up your character ready for the game, meaning jumping from match to match isn’t exactly seamless. It’s especially annoying if you drop from a match and have to go through the whole thing again, but thankfully the servers seem very stable, and so this isn’t all too frequent. Loading times are also much longer in multiplayer compared to the campaign, with a very lengthy initial load time.
The stars of GTA Online’s show are Heists. They’ve long been awaited, only recently making it into the console versions, and it’s understandable why they’ve been surrounded by so much anticipation. Like the singleplayer heists, each job is made up of multiple stages of preparation and the final bust itself. There are five heists in total, and they escalate in complexity and difficulty. The first requires just two players and two preparation missions, but later Heists see larger groups take on better defended banks. Each player takes on a different role assigned by the Heist leader; getaway drivers, hackers, drillers, and the like. With such roles it soon becomes clear that voice chat is vital: not only does each heist require close collaboration, but even suggesting what role you’re good for is instrumental. I ended up playing hacker in one mission, and took so long trying to play the hacking mini-game (a frustrating game similar to Snake) that my crew eventually became impatient and abandoned the game.
When it all comes together though, Heists are the most beautiful examples of co-op gaming I’ve ever seen. Everyone has their part to play, there’s tension in the air thanks to the limited lives you’re allowed, and the dollars at stake are exceptionally high value. Players can be split far and wide across Los Santos, and have to patiently wait for their part to come into action, but keeping the getaway car ticking over whilst your teammates shoot up a bank has never felt so thrilling. And when they’re bundled in the back of the car, it’s time to slam down the accelerator and prove you’re as vital to the operation as they are.
Capping off the PC Grand Theft Auto V experience is the Rockstar Editor, a remarkably powerful video editing suite that’s exclusive to the PC. At any time during your adventures in single or multiplayer you can tap the F1 key to start recording gameplay. When you’ve captured all the footage you need for your tribute to Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese, you can head into the Editor to start splicing it up and spinning a narrative.
The editing suite itself is simple to use, with quick key shortcuts that make cuts and camera changes exceptionally easy. Filters can be added to the images to create that perfect Hollywood gloss (or Instagram-levels of saturation), and time can be sped up or slowed down to create intense action sequences. In just fifteen minutes I was able to create the mini-masterpiece “Michael Shoots a Man”. It’s quite awful, but stands as testament that something watchable can be made even by the most talentless of directors.
For the more ambitious filmmaker, Director Mode allows a deeper editing experience. It can be activated at any time during the campaign, and allows you to play as a broad range of characters so you can film a variety of characters in action. You’ll unlock more characters as you meet them in the singleplayer campaign, so for huge casts you’ll need to complete the game. Director Mode then allows you to teleport to any area around Los Santos, set the weather, and start filming. You can even set silly effects in motion, such as explosive punches or altered gravity, should your picture require them. With the action captured, just head back into the Editor to stitch it together.
It’s not yet clear how well modding will work with GTA V; Rockstar have been skirting around the issue alot. But if modding is off the table, the Editor will become the biggest contribution to the GTA community. It’s absolutely guaranteed that YouTube is about to see a massive tide of incredible videos produced in GTA, and it’s going to keep us amused and wowed for some time.
If you’re the creative type, then the Rockstar Editor is the keystone to GTA V on PC. You need it in your life, and you’re going to buy the PC version for it, regardless of how many times you’ve played it before. If you’re just in it for the story and online, then you need to assess how much disposable income you have. Grand Theft Auto V is an expensive game, and whilst it is the definitive version with a mountain of new graphical effects and that silky smooth 60fps on decent machines, only you can decide if you want to play through the game again. The deciding factor here may be Heists; they’ve only recently been added to the console versions, and if you’ve not played them yet they are a must. If your friends are on PC, this is the place you ideally want to play.
For those coming fresh to the experience, you’re about to play one of the best games ever made. It’s still very much the Grand Theft Auto you’ve known and loved since the series transitioned to 3D open worlds in GTA3, but it has been enhanced and improved to dizzying heights. At campaign level you’ll be playing as three distinctly different characters in an astonishingly detailed and accurate recreation of Los Angeles, engaging in missions that tips hats to the best in crime cinema. A GTA world has never been as populated with things to do, be that hurling yourself out of helicopters whilst riding an ATV, or seeking out bounty hunt targets for big cash rewards. Los Santos is a world full of amusement and excitement, although these days Rockstar’s satire is starting to wear a little thin and the jokes don’t always hit the right mark. Online, it’s the same experience, but all the other gangsters are real people. And you can engage in a car chase with a rival player whilst Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone plays on the radio. If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
Grand Theft Auto V is the best Grand Theft Auto has ever been. And it’s even better on PC.