Anticipation can be a powerful thing, especially when it comes to popular videogame franchises. I can still remember waiting for Grand Theft Auto IV's release, all those years ago, as I sat day after day at my desk unable to imagine the game's leap from one console generation to the next. The same can be said of Rockstar's much hyped latest instalment, the absolutely massive Grand Theft Auto V. Before it hit shelves, I already knew that the map was going to be massive, that the player would be able to control at least three characters, and that it would be set in the same state as Grand Theft Auto San Andreas which, while it had its critics, remains my favourite of all the GTA games. But is the game worthy of the PR machine that's been driving it for the best part of two years? Unfortunately, that's not so easy to answer.

 photo gta-v-01_zpsb1259bcb.jpgWhile it's never traditionally been the main strength of the series, GTA V's story is ambitious for an open world game. The player shifts between three protagonists: Franklin, an African American disenfranchised with the hood and everything it has to offer who refuses to follow the path of the cardboard cut-out 'gang banger' popularised by (what felt like) every film telling the story of growing up young and black in the 90s; Michael, the retired professional criminal who seems to have fallen out of love with his family and his daily routine lazing around beside the pool or watching mindless television in his 'money can't buy class mansion'; and Franklin, a certified lunatic with an itchy trigger finger, an over-inflated sense of self importance, and a disjointed sense of morality that means he wouldn't think twice about stamping somebody head into a bloody pulp just to prove a point. He's the embodiment of everything the mainstream American media fear and loathe, made all the more poignant by the fact he's Canadian.

In these three new characters, Rockstar have abandoned the morose and moralistic "gangster with a heart" routine that made Nico Bellic one of the least interesting anti-heroes in gaming (and a pariah in the gaming community). Nico's ethics were in direct contrast to some of the missions he had to carry out, and didn't sit well with his frequent vocal enjoyment during the many massacres carried out throughout the game. In GTA V it's clear that you're not supposed to like these people. There are moments of sympathy for Franklin and Michael, but it's always firmly established that all three characters are despicable human beings who do what they do out of sheer enjoyment, and the opportunity to make lots of money very quickly.

The world that Rockstar have created in Los Santos and the neighbouring towns littering the San Andreas map are fully realised, with an interesting and dynamic collection of non-player characters. You could abandon the game's story quests for hours and just stroll through the myriad streets picking up snippets of fascinating conversations peppered with the dark humour that's earned the Rockstar writing team the deserved reputation as a satirical tour de force. The same can be said of the radio stations, talk radio in particular throwing up some familiar voices from past games. Needless to say, it's interesting finding out how some of their lives have turned out after all these years, and which of them has been forced to sign "the register".

 photo gta-v-view_zps487f18bf.jpgUnlike previous GTA instalments, the entire map is open as soon as you start playing the game. On paper, this is a great idea as one of my favourite pastimes used to be stealing a fast car or touring bike and hitting the road for a couple of hours. Bike is still the best way to see the surrounding countryside, but the immediate access to the entire sandbox didn't sit well with me. Exploring the map used to be, for me at least, a reward for finally completing enough story missions. It was a freedom earned through hard work, and the buzz of realising that another part of the map was about to become available as I drove my car mid-mission to the next checkpoint isn't really captured here. What's strange is that this could have been tied in quite easily with the introduction of Franklin: his base of operations is in the desert in the northern part of the map. There's no real need to venture there until the character's introduced, so it would have been nice having that part of the map as off limits until then. It's no major criticism, but it's worth mentioning.

Rockstar have learnt a lot from GTA IV, particularly with vehicles and character movements. Driving around Liberty City was, for want of a better phrase, an absolute ballache, especially with the ugly controls making steering any type of vehicle akin to trying to get a fridge up a spiral staircase. Sure, players eventually got the knack, but they didn't buy a GTA game to learn Gran Turismo levels of skill just to evade the police. The same can be said of the shooting and basic character controls. Switching between targets felt like it required surgeon like dexterity, and even running down the road on foot felt sluggish. This has all been fixed. Most of the cars feel like they run on rails, but give you enough freedom to pull off some amazing stunts, not to mention catastrophic mistakes as you peel it away from the pursuing LSPD. It never feels like the vehicles or characters are trying to fight you movement wise, and there have even been some clever additions to the manner in which flying vehicles respond. Turbulence is very much a real thing in GTA V, and learning how to adapt your flying technique to ensure you don't smack into the side of a building is a lot of fun. Shooting has also been vastly improved, with controls feeling more in line with Max Payne 3, not least of which because of the special abilities the characters possess (and when I say special abilities I mean time slow down, not something ridiculous like flight or shooting fire: this isn't Saints Row, after all). Running from the police has also become somewhat of an ordeal, but not in a negative way. The LSPD will hunt you down and take you out soon as look at you, and it's no walk in the park trying to get those wanted stars to disappear. Once you're relatively safe, the star will start flashing and your mini map will display vision cones depicting where the police are searching. Trying to stay out of their line of sight is one hell of a challenge, and adds an interesting dynamic to some of the missions.

 photo gta-v-explosion_zps1eff293c.jpgSpiritually, this game has a lot more in common with GTA San Andreas than it does its predecessor. While there are a few characters from GTA IV that pop up like bad pennies (remember Packie McReary, the Irish Coke fiend?), the element of customisation and the impetus on fun is very much in line with CJ's exploits. You can change your hair, get in shape, cover yourself in tattoos, build an empire of local businesses, or fly your plane to the highest point in the map, jump out and decide whether to deploy your parachute, or just hit the ground full pelt. Each character can level up different skills, and there's no real need to grind as just playing through the game naturally will soon see your skill points racking up until you're completely maxed out.

Missions, both story based and side, are the usual fare, with a couple of new additions. Heists are particularly enjoyable as it sees the player using all three characters, and the poor saps they've recruited through various side missions, pull off jobs to bolster their bank balance. There are usually two ways the player can choose to carry out the heist: noisy and chaotic (go in guns blazing) or stealthy and smart (speaks for itself). Depending on the NPCs you choose to help you out, be they gunman, security hacker or getaway driver, will depend on how well the heist turns out. Pick a guy with an itchy trigger finger, and things can all too easily go a bit Reservoir Dogs. The good news is that with each heist, the NPC stats improve, but the cost in hiring them for the job remains the same, so if you want to hire a bunch of noobs for the first few heists, you'll soon have a well oiled bunch of hardened criminals at your beck and call.

It's hard to stress just how much there is to do in GTA V. Like previous games in the franchise, the capacity for doing nothing for hours on end is immense, and there are plenty of things to keep you occupied, such as triathlons, jet ski races, arms drops via plane or sand buggy - the list goes on. However, that also poses a problem. There's no real sense of urgency to the game and the story, while amusing in places, doesn't really drive the whole thing forward. I may just be getting old, but historically I would have devoured a game like this. This time, I found it starting to feel a lot like work.

 photo gta-v-vista_zps480cb1b8.jpgWith all the bells, whistles and stunning graphics (with the odd framerate and popup issue that's par for the course in open world games), I didn't feel the same sense of excitement as with the other GTA titles, pre-GTA IV. The dialogue no longer elicited a belly laugh, but a smile, and the locations were all places I'd been to before - albeit rendered differently and powered by a last-gen console. The pop culture references are all too immediate, with nods to Sons Of Anarchy, the Sopranos and even Breaking Bad, but instead of playing to the players sense of nostalgia, it's more a case of "hey, this is something that happened on television quite recently that you probably remember". This is probably the first time I've found myself actually offended by a video game as well. Without wanting to spoil too much, there are a couple of scenes that just didn't sit well with me at all. One in particular see's a characters daughter auditioning for Fame Or Shame, a blatant pisstake of the X-Factor, and as she pranced around slipping off her underwear to impress the judges it felt all too voyeuristic, despite the player character's protestations on the sidelines. It was all a bit teen-comedy. Visits to the strip club (which, are completely voluntary) also don't sit well, as a lap dance initiates a mini game in which the player has to grope the dancer without getting caught by the bouncer. If you do this enough times, the dancer starts to 'like' you, and you get the option of taking her home. However, while these are pretty bog standard occurrences for a GTA title, nothing really prepared me for the torture scene.

 photo gta-v-torture_zpsa41dc4b3.jpgIn full control of a character, during one of the story missions, you are required to use a range of torture instruments to extract some much needed information. This can involve tooth extraction by pliers, hooking up a car battery to nipples, a giant wrench to the crotch or waterboarding. It's not a comfortable experience. What made the event even more distasteful, is upon completing the torture mini-games, the character then goes on to condemn the use of torture as an effective means of interrogation, using the logic that the tortured will tell the torturer anything to make the interrogation stop. This speech pretty much hit the nail on the head on why I felt some of the content in GTA V didn't sit well. Rockstar are, for want of a better expression, trying to have their cake and eat it. They'll show scenes of blatant sexism and misogyny, but it's okay because they're holding up a mirror to society, and actually satirising it. They'll show scenes of brutal torture, but that's okay because they're demonstrating the futility of it, and using humour and satire to get their point across. I get what they're trying to do, but feel that the writing just isn't strong enough to pull it off effectively and, in clumsy hands, comes across as a celebration of that which they are trying to satirise, with a hastily added post script as an attempt to justify it.

As a game, Grand Theft Auto V is a lot of fun, in spite of its flaws. While I do think it deserves a spot in 2013's game of the year lists, I don't think enough has been done to secure it a top spot. With intelligent and emotionally driven stories like The Last Of Us and Bioshock Infinite in contention, Rockstar really needed to up their game. If anything, it risks becoming a relic of this current console generation as writers and developers start to explore morally ambiguous characters and stories that don't require misogyny and torture to hammer home just how screwed up society is. Or at least that when attempting to convey satire, sometimes a scalpel is better than a sledgehammer.