Rockstar Games has kept silent about their upcoming return to the franchise that made them a household name, but at long last, Grand Theft Auto 5 has been detailed. Fans were promised a big reveal in November, and they won’t be disappointed. With a number of series firsts, and story lines that are at one time both perfectly suited to the GTA series and refreshing, now would be the time for fans to really get excited.

[Update: Check out the new screenshot gallery and character details now]

Plenty of rumors and apparent leaks proceeded this official unveiling, now more easily divided into facts and rumors. Three new protagonists from three different walks of life, a larger game world than any before, and improved customization will all help to convince skeptics that the franchise still has a few surprises in store.

The GameInformer exclusive may not have kept every bit of information under wraps, but none of that matters now. The first look at the magazine’s December issue first had fans scratching their heads when it sported not one, but three main characters beneath the Grand Theft Auto V name. Now that looks to be accurate, as the first details from the magazine have made their way online.

Three main protagonists are Trevor (‘the redneck’), Franklin (African-American/Hispanic man) and Michael, the middle-aged former businessman who was narrating the first GTA 5 announcement trailer. Besides proving that the most recent batch of rumors weren’t accurate, the reveal of a much larger playable cast shows Rockstar is ready to tell a different kind of story.

Grand Theft Auto 5 Michael

Each of the characters will be distinct from one another (as their brief descriptions would imply) in both appearance and personality, with the player apparently able to switch between any of the three at nearly any time. Rockstar’s Dan Houser points to the lessons learned with Red Dead Redemption and the Liberty City Episodes for an understanding of the studio’s thinking behind the new main characters. According to Houser, the benefits of telling three distinct stories in one city seemed like a logical evolution of their formula:

“It’s been very challenging, because before you were trying to keep one story alive and now you’re trying to keep three…It’s definitely had complexities and things that have challenged us, but I think the advantage at a very simplistic and blunt level is it lets you tell a more complex story in a more naturalistic way. It is the same with game design as it is with story design, so you aren’t forcing the lead character through every situation and every piece of information. At another level, it lets you play as both protagonist and antagonist. We hopefully have a strong and interesting cast of supporting characters, but maybe less wide-ranging than in previous games because a lot of the time, the people you’re not necessarily fighting with, but bickering with, are your other lead characters.”

That approach to video game storytelling is uncommon in triple-A development, and Rockstar is already discovering why that is. The challenge is larger than any they’ve faced before in terms of plot, but Houser believes it will pay off for players:

“We’re all starting to feel that it’s our strongest plotted game because the characters are so intertwined…When you’re advancing Michael’s story, you’re also advancing Trevor’s story in a different way, and the meeting points are very exciting. I think making that work has certainly been challenging given our inexperience and lack of skill, but we’ve done our best to come up with something we think is giving this much more densely plotted experience that we couldn’t have pulled off when you always need the lead character in every moment.”

When the playable characters are closely examined, it isn’t hard to see how they will come into conflict. Michael is certainly the best well-off (in a way) of the bunch, living the high life in Rockford (read: Beverly) Hills. The set-up is part of a sweetheart deal with the FIB’s witness protection program for the forty-something former bank robber. With so many criminals anchoring past GTA games, this chapter of that story seems a welcome change. Yet Michael’s wife Amanda can’t stand him, he doesn’t understand his kids (looks like we were right about him being a father), and soon hears the thrill and rewards of crime calling to him once again.

The details aren’t as plentiful for Trevor or Franklin just yet, but there are some hints provided. Players won’t have to worry about airplanes being restricted to near end-game portions of the campaign, thanks to Trevor’s time flying during the war. All he needs is a plane to get airborne, hinting at just one reason why players may spend a lot of time exploring the open world of Los Santos. And when we say ‘open,’ we mean it.

Grand Theft Auto 5 Release Date Spring

The emphasis on extreme sports and exploring the countryside goes far beyond missions or linear pathways. According to Art Director Aaron Garbut, the imitation-Los Angeles concocted for GTA V is larger than the environments of Red Dead Redemption, San Andreas, and GTA IV combined. We don’t know if that’s including the coastal shelf explorable via SCUBA, but either way, Garbut explains that the updated version of Los Santos is designed to bring every aspect of L.A. to life, not just the gang culture highlighted in San Andreas.

With the new game engine and increased technology, the sprawling city can be portrayed as even more bustling and logical than any in the past. Garbut provides one example of the routines driving the NPCs players are ready to encounter: landscapers and gardeners seen waiting at bus stops in the early morning, tending gardens in the upscale neighborhoods during the afternoon, and returning home in the evening. It’s a small slice, but shows how Rockstar is attempting to make a more rounded experience.

Of course, the real question is how the missions will be reshaped by the new triple-protagonist structure. Rockstar is using the idea of bank heists (as seen in GTA IV) as one of their main mission types, with increased focus on the planning and teamwork involved.

The mission described requires the player to bring Michael, Trevor and Franklin together for the job before beginning the heist itself. Sparks fly, since the three are simply partners, not friends. The cutscenes look to be some of the most entertaining yet, but the real innovation comes when the bullets start flying.

Next: Details on the new mission structure and customization…

« 1 2 »