GTA 5 is out now on PS4 and Xbox One (also available on Xbox 360/PS3)
I have now played GTA 5 for a clinically problematic time.
I played it on Xbox 360, and now I've played it on PS4. I have considered its brilliance and its ungallant core from every angle I can. I have played every mission, many twice over, and taken beautiful selfies on every corner of Los Santos.
And finally, now, I think I have 'solved' Grand Theft Auto.
So here's the theory.
GTA 5 is literally set in hell.
The ever-present destruction, mayhem, cruelty and dishonour in GTA 5 make that a somewhat obvious surface conclusion, in some ways. (I have a feeling a few of the characters may literally say it at one point.)
But it remains true that if Los Santos has a soul, and every reasoned response to this game I have seen confirms that it does, then it is the soul of Hades. Greed, power, ambition and ruin are what define this world. Whether you choose to invest your way to its heights or linger in its slums, there is no escape from the yearning and the punishment.
That this world is also so exaggeratedly beautiful, from the crumbling dust tracks of the Tataviam Mountains to the spilled cranberry juice sunsets that ripen the boards of the Del Perro pier, is just a front. A tease that lures you towards a world of honesty and justice, and then hands you a flamethrower to burn it all to the ground. Yes, it is possible to treat this place like a fantasy land where anything is possible - from riding bikes with your friends, to skydiving from the tallest mountains for the sheer exhilaration of it.
But really, only one thing is possible. Crime.
Try obeying the law in Los Santos. Just try it. Try driving from Michael's house to a clothing store downtown, buying a coat and driving back. You will last 10 seconds before being forced by the game's mechanics to run over a dog walker, crash your car into a lamppost, blow up an ambulance and rob a convenience store just for the cash to buy that jacket. You may well feel disgusted by your actions. You might laugh. You may well weep in despair. But GTA has no pity and it won't laugh with you. You will commit the acts of a monster. You will be on the receiving end too. This is hell, my friend. You earned this.
GTA 5 is an incredibly entertaining experience even 12 months on, but it is also a sterile one. Driving is snappy and intense, but passionless. Shooting is simple, but imprecise. Even in the new first-person mode (which is mechanically decent and graphically impressive) the game is less emphatic and kinetic than you expect. It bobs and weaves, but does not maintain its momentum. Every chaotic street battle ends with a sigh, a long run into the shadows and a limp escape into the void. Where Call of Duty is an execution simulator, GTA is like a drunk with an assault rifle stumbling around a shopping mall. There is no sense here. Just death.
Or is there? For really, there is no death in Los Santos. Yes, violence is ever-present. But per the rules of the game, there is no real loss of life. Every time we experience death in this world, we are respawned moments later outside a hospital. Not at a checkpoint, not back in time, not from a save. Just back, gun in hand. Why? Because we are already dead. This is literally hell, remember. You can only die once. There is no impact. No one runs away more than a few blocks. The island absorbs your poison and drinks it greedily.
And consider again that island. For it is a circular mass, in an endless sea. There is no way home, no otherwhere to run to. There are no planes leaving or arriving. They just circle, around and around, landing and taking off forever. We hear no news from outside, no context or impression from the world beyond the sea. This is the Truman Show meets Full Metal Jacket.
In Los Santos, it is as if all the people with any decency left, years ago. A year on, I can only assume that they did. They are in heaven, and we are here.
Admittedly, now it's on next-gen consoles, if this is hell then it's a prettier hell. The graphical improvements are seriously impressive, from the verdant shrubbery to the beautifully re-rendered weather effects, cars and buildings. It makes a huge difference to the game, and if you're going to play this thing for a long time - particularly online - and you have the means, we recommend upgrading.
But know this: you are only upgrading the resolution of your prison. You are not escaping it. You will find no exit from the doom at the heart of Los Santos on PS4 or Xbox One. Your sex will be loveless, your murders cold and soft. There is nothing to spend your money on, besides more money. And your misery will go on for ever and ever and ever. You'll love it. But it will never love you.