Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. These three personalities are at the very core of Grand Theft Auto V – one of the most anticipated games of this console generation. Everything that happens within the title revolves around the trio, from the gripping get-rich-quick heists that punctuate the story to the side activities that help to define each character's life. Rockstar Games' latest is an impressively robust title that can keep you hooked for hours on end, and most importantly, it confidently improves upon everything that Grand Theft Auto IV did well.

San Andreas is your playground, a sprawling state that's made up of the bustling city of Los Santos, a sun-soaked beach, an unforgiving desert, and daunting mountains. As far as open worlds go, this one is particularly impressive not just because of how diverse it is, but because it's also incredibly dynamic and full of life. Its sheer size is daunting at first, but as you walk, run, and drive around its streets, you'll slowly become accustomed to the scale and the absorbing atmosphere.

The astoundingly detailed world is effectively the fourth member of the main cast, its inhabitants and lovingly crafted locations packed with character. It's also chock-full of things to do, and is constantly providing you with new opportunities and ways to waste away the hours, which are unlocked on your map as you progress through the main plot. For that reason, it can feel like the game starts off relatively slowly – even clothes shops aren't marked down on your GPS at first.

Once you reach a certain point in the plot, though, San Andreas' many attractions will be completely open to you. You can play a few sets of tennis at one of the multiple courts that dot the land, or test your swing on a golf course. If you're not up for something competitive, you can unwind by jogging or cycling, or you can always head to the nearest strip club to satisfy your more base needs. The best part about the side activities is that they're all brilliantly fleshed out – arguably more so than is necessary – and in some cases, they're actually good enough to form the basis of a game by themselves.

On top of the various optional experiences that await you, you'll also come across random events that happen as you're going about your business. As with Red Dead Redemption, markers will appear on your map suggesting that something of importance is happening nearby. Whether it's a punk kid stealing a woman's handbag, or a band of criminals that need a convenient getaway car, it's up to you to take control of any opportunities that present themselves. Switching from casually diving down a busy high street to being caught up in a crazy chase with psychotic gang members shows just how engaging the game world can be.

That said, you may be put off by actually participating in these occurrences simply because of how brutal they are at times. You might come across the remains of a gang shootout, for example, and decide to investigate the scene, only to get ambushed as you leave and gunned down almost instantly. The difficulty of these events can sometimes be jarring, especially after you've tackled main story missions with ease thanks to readily available cover.

Falling into traps forces you to be cautious when exploring new areas, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The fifth instalment in the Grand Theft Auto series rewards caution and preparation: running into a hostile situation with no real plan will often lead to some frustratingly quick deaths, especially if you're outnumbered. Regardless of your current character, your health bar can only take a few well-placed shots before it empties, and for an open world game that's all about freedom, it can seem a little harsh when you're torn apart by the police with little chance of survival.

Which brings us nicely to the release's gunplay: this is one of the title's weakest assets, even if it isn't bad by any means. Guns have a nice punch to them, and there are plenty of firearms on offer – but the controls are a little clunky, bringing the whole experience down a peg. It still marks a noticeable improvement over the jumpy and somewhat sloppy mechanics of the title's predecessor, but the overall quality of the rest of the game make the issues here more prominent. The problems are accentuated when shooting while driving, which still feels like a bit of a mess as you wrestle with the DualShock 3. Clearly this would be a challenging action in reality, but that doesn't account for it not being much fun.

And that leads us to Grand Theft Auto V's only real flaw: its slight reliance on realism. At its very best, gaming is pure escapism; it offers the ability to get lost in a world and do things that you wouldn't necessarily do in real life. This title has that in abundance, but there are moments where it hinges on a more realistic approach, and it can feel like it's limiting your fun as a result.

For example, you have to watch when crossing the road so that you don't get mowed down by traffic, you have to keep a constant eye on your tiny health bar during gunfights, and you have to brake and turn accordingly to avoid spinning your vehicle during illegal street races. It's not that the game is too unforgiving – you're always revived at a nearby hospital if you're killed, your only penalty being a small cash sum – but when playing you'll feel vulnerable, which is a stark contrast to other open world titles where you're often in the shoes of more capable characters. It's an acquired taste that augments the game with a unique flavour, but there'll be times where you'll feel like the title's keeping you on a leash. Fortunately, your underlying morality does mean that almost every criminal incident that you encounter will find you teetering on the edge of your seat.

This is no more apparent than during the game's fantastic heists, which essentially collate all of the franchise's strongest assets and fuse them into exhilarating missions. These objectives are the staples of the story – make or break situations that put the cast right into the heart of the matter.

First, you'll need to case whichever property or business you're planning to rob, making a note of things like security cameras, ventilation shafts, exits, alarms, and guards. Once your recon is complete, you'll need to come up with a strategy: do you go in loud, guns blazing, and try your luck at simply outrunning the cops with your loot, or do you carefully execute a more structured plan of action? Whatever your choice, you're then left to gather your crew – many of whom you can recruit from certain random events – who will assume crucial roles in the operation. Finally, when everything's all set up, it's time to go to the location and begin the mission. The whole step-by-step setup builds tension and really makes it feel like you're about to do something big, which makes the inevitable shootouts, high-speed getaways, and set pieces all the more exciting.

But the plot is fairly wild outside of these pivotal operations, too. For the first dozen hours, you'll transition freely from character to character as the game introduces you to their lifestyles, hobbies, and acquaintances. Michael is the anchor of the story, a retired bank robber who's now living a lazy, unfulfilled, but easy life with his incredibly dysfunctional family. Franklin has a good head on his shoulders, but much like our gun-slinging friend John Marston, he can't help but mix with the wrong crowd and take part in questionable practices that he knows he shouldn't. And the third and final playable character is Trevor, an old friend of Michael and an all-round unpredictable lunatic, who without doubt is the most divisive member of the trio – his actions and general mannerisms being some of the most extreme that we've witnessed in the series to date.

Alone, the team are largely based on stereotypes, but they're still very interesting personalities and are all well written. For the majority of the game, you'll be able to switch between them all at will, jumping into the boots of Trevor just as he's being chased across the desert by the police, or skipping to Michael as he's enjoying a leisurely run along the beach at sunset. It's an extremely clever but simple mechanic that helps to keep the gameplay feeling fresh; if you're tired of roaming around in Franklin's rough blue collar neighbourhood, you can shift to Michael in an instant and partake in a spot of sophisticated tennis on his own private court.

Together, the main characters form a deadly dynamic where their individual talents come into play. The narrative takes on a different tone as an emphasis is placed upon the interactions between the trio, and you're gradually shown new sides to the individuals that you've spent hours getting to know. While the three prominent criminals are definitely the best realised throughout, it wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto without a secondary cast of memorable crazies either. Thankfully, the fifth instalment delivers brilliantly in this department, with a roster full of exaggerated, diverse oddballs, some of whom will become series favourites.

Overall, it's a character driven narrative that may get a tad predictable as it progresses, and as with every open world game, it ends up feeling a little fractured because you're always doing so much in between main story events. That said, it fares much better than most others thanks to a coherent plot, good writing, and flawlessly acted dialogue, all of which manage to keep the proceedings feeling natural.

In addition, a lot of the story's success is owed to the title's wealth of missions. While the game boasts a slew of action-heavy sequences, there are also a plethora of more humorous, often hilarious assignments that play a part in making the release feel so unique. The fact that playing over sixty main missions never gets tiresome – even when replaying them to earn a better score – is a testament to the effort that's been invested into these impressive, individual scenarios.

Indeed, the obsessive attention to detail is clearly visible even when walking down a street, when customising characters, or while mindlessly watching in-game television shows that parody real life broadcasting effortlessly. We could go on to write several reviews based on the finer, completely optional points of the game alone, which just goes to show how absorbing it is – especially if you really let yourself get lost in its exaggerated, yet eerily authentic world.

To top it all off, Rockstar has somehow managed to create an extremely impressive title on a technical level, too – despite the aging hardware of the PlayStation 3. While the game doesn't look particularly amazing, sporting a large number of visibly jaggy models and some blurry textures, it's understandable given the scale of the world. The structure itself is seamless, allowing you to jump from cutscene to mission, to free roaming, to sampling and buying new suits without ever suffering a loading screen. The game does take a while to boot once you first pop in the disc, but it's staggering that the developer has managed to create such an enormous world with so little compromise.

Conclusion

A compelling culmination of exact care and attention, Grand Theft Auto V's obsessive attention to detail is matched only by its gripping mission design and clever caricature cast. Its over thought systems can get in the way on occasion, but the adventure's issues are never prominent enough to detract from its scathing commentary on modern life. Rockstar's latest tale of crime and punishment is easily one of the best open world games on the market – and it represents the pinnacle of the publisher's massively popular property, too.