"Guys ... I'm home."
I was in a Skype call with some old gamer friends of mine, playing the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V when I said that. And I seriously meant it.
I wasn't driving around, I wasn't robbing or killing anyone, wasn't even grooving to any of the cool tracks on the in-game radio. No, I was just walking around the game's stand-in for California's real-world Salton Sea, and I'd realized: I've been here before.
Not just a matter of gamer vu, caused by going over the same terrain time and time again, either. See, I was born and raised in SoCal. I can attest to the authenticity of the patched-up freeways, with their little scars showing where the reflectors have been replaced. The way roads carve through hills, leaving erosion and encroaching crabgrass to fight over the artificial cliffside left behind. Out-of-the-way places, where the weirdest things can lie hidden and forgotten, even in one of the most populated regions on Earth, until they're stumbled upon all over again.
It wasn't even all that special of a place. Just scrubland with some tract housing. Nearby, resting haphazardly alongside a lonely set of railroad tracks, lay a few burned-out hulks of abandoned cars. But it still hit me like a flashback.
How did Rockstar North manage to so perfectly replicate the region I grew up in?!
Plenty of other reviews have covered GTA V's somewhat clunky combat system, its hyperviolent single-player story and its free-for-all multiplayer. There's "minigames" like golf and tennis, built up well enough that "minigame" seems almost insulting as a descriptive term. Players can team up online to pull off heists in a fashion similar—and inferior, in my not-so-humble-opinion—to Payday 2.
But not many touch on what underlies all of this: it's CALIFORNIA, from the beaches and barrios down to the run-down rural motels with signs missing letters. It's neon, asphalt, clouds of dust, and clueless suburbanites dropping their cell-phone conversations only because they'd otherwise be run over. The environment hits that ever-elusive "immersion factor" head-on, especially when playing in first-person mode, and yet keeps the atmosphere light and quick enough that you're able to enjoy the wonder of being a complete tourist without feeling dragged down by it. It makes me wish there was a peripheral to let me smell the ocean spray, tinged by the fumes of a distant oil refinery.
This is why I picked up an old Thrustmaster steering kit, complete with black-on-yellow Ferrari logo stamped into the wheel hub, and dusted off my Oculus SDK2. Just to drive around SoCal, to revisit wonderfully-bastardized versions of all the places I'd been to as a kid, to roar around the desert and over the craggy hills like a maniac (and maybe recreate a few scenes from The Dukes of Hazzard while I was at it).
It's not like you couldn't do any of that in other iterations of the GTA franchise, of course, but Five gives us the Ultra-Deluxe edition, good enough that I've gotten that visceral gut-punch ... that feeling which tells me I'm finally home.
Besides, with the GTA modding community now in full swing thanks to the new Script Hook program—which shuts itself off if you go into Online mode, so as not to break Rockstar's no-mod rules there—it's only a matter of time before playable ponies show up. What? You know it's going to happen...
[caption id="attachment_60" align="aligncenter" width="806"] Anger-inciting Artwork by Supermare, on DeviantArt (http://supermare.deviantart.com/art/Gta5-Lyra-and-bon-bon-501114433)[/caption]
Special Easter Egg for Only the Most Patient of Souls: Wait through the entire credits after you complete Story Mode. I mean all of them. Go watch your favorite TV show, they'll prolly still be running when you get back. Done? Good. You've just been personally psychoanalyzed by Dr. Friedlander, on basis of not only your decisions but also your general play-style. This one on me? Frighteningly accurate.
GTA V was released on 17 September 2013 for the PS3 and XBox 360, 18 November 2014 for the PS4 and XBox One, and 14 April 2015 for Windows on PC.