We've touched upon it before, but GTA 4's marked tone shift from previous entries had huge ramifications for the gameworld, its systems, and, as such, player's reaction to the title. A shot at narrative respectability, as well as mechanical? Or just straight-up hubris?
Maybe a little of both. But then again, Rockstar is entitled to make whichever game it likes, and GTA 4 was a departure it obviously thought it needed to make. Still, Niko and his story led to problems in the mid and late game, as the narrative clashed with player's actions. The same justifications that were needed to make Niko work - such as reducing the capacity for outrageous behaviour from the player and police response capability (GTA hallmarks) - worked against it in some sense. Since its release in April 2008, a frequent accusation against the game is that it is 'boring', or that by removing a lot of the much-feted nonsense that reached its zenith in San Andreas - jetpacks, Area 51, fighter jets, etc - Rockstar had nixed the ability to go on a serious rampage.
It's a pitfall that Rockstar has looked to avoid with GTA 5's three characters, a game which represents a sort of Rockstar greatest hits. Early speculation suggested that Michael was an older version of Tommy Vercetti, star of Vice City and one of the series' best-loved protagonists. Physical similarities kicked most of this off, but the original trailer's single voiceover of Michael expressing his desire to get back into the crime game also seemed to hint at a return of Rockstar's Scarface wannabe.
This didn't transpire, but the characters represent a reflection of Rockstar's previous protagonists, if not necessarily directly: instead they represent the three stages of GTA play. Franklin mirrors the usual Rockstar 'hero', fighting his way up the ladder. Michael has seen and done it all. It's Trevor that's the wildcard. Although he seems to exhibit the psychopathy of Vercetti, Tommy had a clear mission. There's a feeling that Trevor's the get out of jail card for the dissonance some felt before: Rockstar still wants to tell a story that will resonate and reflect the times we live in, but this time it has found a more elegant way to do it.
The question now is how the Edinburgh-based developer manages to maintain interest across its trifecta, and how it handles mission divides and other considerations. GTA 4 and its two episodes can be seen as a precursor to this: a dry run, with three distinct characters and storylines intersecting.
Here, there's the obvious difference in that all of them are in the same world, not in self-contained games. Naturally, favourites will emerge for certain players. Personally, I'm looking forward to playing as Michael and in this sense, mission quality is going to be paramount: in the jobs where you only play as one character, scenarios will have to be of the highest order so you're not just getting them done while waiting to be back playing as someone else.
This may very well be mitigated later on when you're presumably given the choice to enter the mission with the other two in tow, wherein you'll probably just play as the persona you want, or flit between them for the tactical bonuses. The question, then, is what happens at the end of game?
GTA 4 toyed around with multiple divergent branches, which in fairness boiled down to little more than kill/don't kill certain people. That worked because Niko was a guy conflicted by his past: wanting to get away from his actions, but not above using his 'talents' should he need or want to.
Trevor, on the other hand, seems crazier than Phil Jones' facial expressions and the end of The Matrix: Path of Neo combined, and should have no qualms when it comes to killing, stealing, or maiming.
So what are the choices? Multiple endings have been confirmed, but there's surely no way they can be as black and white as before. Will one of the characters die, and if so is it by the player's hand? Will there be subtler branches than before? And what of the tension between our leads, the various stages in life they find themselves in, and how they interact.
Early footage had Michael pegged as a bored thrill-seeker looking to get back into the fold, but the most recent, official trailer highlighted tension within the group, with Michael telling Franklin he's retired, before angrily complaining that Trevor is torturing him "over mistakes I made a decade ago". Hints of possible conflict, or just good old fashioned promotional dialogue?
There's also the autonomy of the characters themselves. Being able to switch between them at any point is a brilliant touch, as is the fact that they'll get on with their own business. But what occurs if you want to play as, say, Trevor, and he's off rampaging somewhere in the sticks when you want to be in downtown. Fast travel has to feature.
GTA 5 is already fascinating game, and we barely know anything about it. But with this sort of ambition comes a lot of risk. Thankfully, we won't have to wait too long to see if it delivers.