Photo Courtesy of Rockstar Games

It has been 12 years since Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III took the entire gaming industry by storm and pushed the series to mainstream media. It was the first game ever to present players with a virtual recreation of a metropolitan city and allow them to do whatever they please in the given playground—even firing guns on streets and driving on the wrong side of the road. Later, to many critics’ surprise, Rockstar successfully refined its highest-grossing franchise with GTA San Andreas. After over a decade, history repeated itself. Leaving GTA IV’s return to Liberty City behind, GTA once again takes place on the West Coast, only this time the playground is bigger and better than ever.

GTA V takes players to Los Santos, a city inspired by Los Angeles, and its surrounding suburbs, desert, mountains and underwater Pacific coast. According to Rockstar, Los Santos is bigger than San Andreas, Red Dead Redemption’s western frontier and GTA IV’s Liberty City combined, making it perhaps the biggest map in video game history.

Geographic scope is not the only larger thing in GTA. The game offers three protagonists for players to control: a retired bank robber Michael, a street thug Franklin and a psychopathic pilot Trevor. They are all criminals for different reasons and motives, but their stories come together and interconnect as the game progresses. Each character is different from the others, and this distinction applies to their amount of money, item inventory and abilities as well. Each man also has particular strengths, such as duration of running, gun accuracy and driving skills; customizing these stats are completely up to the player. There are also character-specific special abilities, such as how Franklin can slow down time while driving whereas Trevor can enter the “rage mode.”

The first part of the game primarily introduces the players to these new mechanics—a striking reminder of how much the series has evolved. Once the trio is established, the players can freely switch between characters and proceed with the game.

It’s a system that respects the players’ choices and makes each experience so personal.

There are 69 single-player missions, and players can expect to log around 30 to 40 hours completing them. Rockstar has never forgotten what makes the series so great: the game does not necessarily focus on completing the main missions. Nothing in the game tells the players what needs to be done next, and the game offers so much for players to do outside of the main quest to enjoy Los Santos.

Players can choose to indulge in various mini-games, such as tennis, golf and skydiving or mindlessly drive around the city surrounded by beautiful scenery and well-crafted radio programs, which include more than 240 licensed songs. The players completely determine how to play the game. Of course, like all the predecessors, the game still lets the players to go berserk and rampage through the city with no rewards at the end. With all the side quests and activities, players can easily spend hundreds of hours in Los Santos.

As for the story of GTA V, although gamers can choose which protagonist to spend the most time with, the main narrative seems to center around Michael. Having retired from the life of crime, he meets Franklin and winds up getting his hands dirty once again. Next thing he knows, Michael finds himself indebted to dangerous people who may become a threat to his family. This debt leads him to reunite with his old friend Trevor, and the gang of three embarks on a series of unconventional crimes in order to regain peace and get out of their respective ruts. Compared to GTA IV, players may find the narrative of GTA V weak. There is no underground, powerful mafia boss to go up against or unforeseen twists of events that involve the protagonist’s hidden past. The trio’s predicaments are harder to identify with compared to IV protagonist Niko Bellic’s spectacular pursuit of the American Dream. However, the three different perspectives of GTA V make up for the narrative’s lack of punch. Since players can only do each mission with one character at a time, the game leaves them curious about other characters’ perspectives. It is a feature that compels players to revisit certain missions because each character tells the same story very differently from others. That is what makes GTA V so thrilling.

Outside the missions, the trio is always present on the map. Sometimes players bump into the characters they are not playing as, and these encounters reflect the player’s previous choices. If Frank gets a tattoo, the player can see Frank with the same tattoo when playing as Michael. Similarly, if one character injures another, the player will find him at the hospital, and the perpetrator will be billed the hospital fees. This system respects the players’ choices and personalizes the experience.

GTA V is more than just a game disc. Via Rockstar’s Social Club, players can track and compare the progress of the game with their friends. GTA Online is a similar networking service, and will be available on Oct. 1. It is an ambitious attempt to bring the multiplayer component to Los Santos, launching unique, customizable characters and thousand of cooperative missions. And while it is definitely a promising feature, GTA V is already the best in the series without it.