Plenty has been said about GTA 5's world. The figures alone are terrifying: it's bigger than Red Dead Redemption, GTA 4 and San Andreas combined. While that's enough to make most people salivate, it really is impossible to fathom just how gargantuan this thing is until you sit down and start to explore it.
Big enough to put nearly all of its competitors to shame - if size is your thing - it's a mystery as to how the Xbox 360 and PS3 are even capable of possessing not only an environment this big, but the amount there is to do in it. Some may make ridiculous accusations such as 'why aren't there more pedestrians or cars?' but there's little weight to an argument like that. Even when you're 30 hours in, GTA 5 will still be pulling back layers of unseen content to jump into.
It's not just size for the sake of it either. Rockstar has found ways to ensure that every aspect not only ties into the narrative, but makes you feel like you're experiencing something new. This is no more obvious than when you plunge into San Andreas' dark waters. It's one thing to introduce scuba diving, but to craft an entire underwater locale is unlike anything else GTA has tried to pull off before.
For those who are intrigued as to what lies beneath, there's an incredible amount to see, find and do, probably to an even greater degree than you're currently imagining. From seeking wrecked ship parts to manning a submarine with the sole aim of recovering a secret government weapon, this section could've been released as its own game and, probably, found acceptance and praise the industry over. It obviously lacks the sheer magnitude of what happens above the surface, but it's the doorway, and evidence, into what else has been achieved.
At its most basic level, GTA 5 is San Andreas but in high-definition and with a hell of a lot more detail. It expands to lengths surely unthought of on current generation technology, however, and as it reveals itself you slowly start to see that it's operating on a much grander stage.
While there may be other games out there that are more instantly stunning from a visual point of view, GTA 5's overall nature is a different beast entirely. Along with the draw distance that often makes you double-take your TV screen, heading downtown or, better still, to Blaine County, can be so picturesque that just driving around is enough to put a smile on your face. The Red Dead Redemption comparisons are there to see, an idea that carries over where dynamic events and a living ecosystem are concerned.
Many of the more bizarre moments of John Marston's adventure came from stumbling across random encounters or going to one of the many 'question marks' located on the map. That same sense of adventure has been replicated for GTA 5. While a lot of what you stumble across without warning goes as expected - a carjacking, some sort of robbery and so on - Rockstar always has a curveball in the mix for those who simply cannot walk away from a small blue dot flashing on the radar. You'd be wise to engage in most of them too, as when the template is turned on its head the results range from out and out entertainment to genuinely quite shocking. Most importantly, it makes Los Santos and beyond feel being populated: individuals aren't just operating on the same plane as you, they're existing independently and living their lives regardless what you may, or may not, be doing.
It's the people you'll meet in such scenarios that appeal the most. Few developers can cast such an array of characters and ensure they all remain unique, but from a near insane fitness-obsessed female, to a certain member of the paparazzi, they never fail to delight in some fashion, even if they are a little less eerie than those present in Red Dead. Given the location and era, however, that should come as little surprise.
The ecosystem also has similarities. Much has been made of Chop - Franklin's dog - and the amount that can be done with your pet will be enough to win people over from the off. Outside of this different areas will be populated by animals in all the right places. Go wandering in the outback and a wolf attack may be on the cards, whereas taking a walk into the forest opens up the opportunity to partake in a spot of hunting. Deer can even catch scent of you downwind; you have to approach it with some element of intelligence. There's even a shark or two waiting submerged beneath the sea.
They certainly don't dominate proceedings, coming across as a nice extra to the main event and on-hand to ensure the world has a 'real-life' identity, but it's a far cry from what has been done previously. If you've ever thought GTA's setting didn't seem lifelike, it's unlikely a thought that'll carry across here.
Ambience and atmosphere are the key words when exploring San Andreas, with every facet having a startling amount of detail and love crafted into it. There's numerous businesses and houses to buy - that themselves come with extra missions or elements around them - and the host of mini-games, from tennis to darts, you can partake in do the job they were always meant to do.
'Hanging out' also returns, although it's far less intrusive than on the streets of Liberty City. Anyone of note that you meet will be added to your contact list, and it's completely in your hands how you then treat your relationship. It has no real bearing in the wider scheme of things, serving more to offer a break from proceedings than an avenue that is absolutely necessary. It's at least worth your time touching on such social elements, though: the way they can end is nothing short of ludicrous.
Ultimately, it's the way the environment changes so severely and yet naturally that's the real success story here. You can start out in downtown, surrounded by the flashy lights of the modern day, before effortlessly driving north to the forest-heavy, mountainous juggernaut region where Mount Chiliad awaits. Throw in some impressive weather effects - that I'm sure on occasion are scripted to enhance what's happening - and the outcome is simple: this is one of, if not the, finest open world in gaming.
That's not too shabby...