The bright orange San Andreas sun is blinding, but the tinted mask on my motocross helmet helps dull the effect. I'm sitting on a dusty hill, miles outside of the busy core of Los Santos, and I'm waiting. All is quiet as I scan the horizon. Then I hear it: the telltale whistle of a train. I hit the gas and charge ahead, trying my best to land on the moving vehicle. But I'm moving so fast that I hit the side of a train car and take a nauseating tumble through the brush, watching helplessly as my arms and legs flail through the air. When I come to rest, I get up quickly and look around for my bike. I want to try again.
This is Grand Theft Auto V in first person. And it's absolutely insane.
The new game, which launches tomorrow on Xbox One and PS4 (a PC version is slated for early next year), is essentially the same crime-fueled epic from last year. It has the same character-spanning narrative, takes place in the same gigantic open world of Los Santos, and features the same streamlined gameplay that made GTA V the best game in the series to date. The changes are almost purely aesthetic: the visuals have been overhauled with significantly more detail, and, for the first time, you can play the game from a first-person perspective. And somehow, playing in first person makes GTA even crazier.
GTA V in first person is all about speed. Even walking down the street feels quicker when you’re closer to the action, but things get really crazy when you push the game to its limits. Parachuting from a plane over the mountains or speeding down a highway in a stolen supercar is absolutely thrilling. It feels like you’re doing something crazy instead of just watching one of the characters do it. You can also switch between camera angles at almost any point in the game. If you like driving in first person but prefer the standard combat, you can play like that. All it takes is one button press to change your perspective.
All it takes is one button press to change your perspective
Of course, not everything works so great with the new mode, and I found combat to be needlessly difficult in first person. I had a hard time seeing what was going on around me, and the aiming felt just a touch off. Shooting was never GTA's strong suit, and switching to first person makes it worse. Driving was likewise more challenging, but also a whole lot more fun because it was so fast. It doesn’t really feel like the gameplay was actually tweaked all that much for first-person play — although there are a few preset control schemes that make the switch easier — which is probably why certain aspects feel off.
Outside of raw thrill-seeking, the camera angle is also ideal for just soaking up the beauty of Los Santos, Rockstar's vibrant take on Los Angeles. GTA V was a beautiful game even on older hardware, and the added detail here makes it look as good as any modern release — the new viewpoint lets you see the tiniest details clearly. I could peer over someone's shoulder and look at their tablet's screen or look into a newspaper box and scan the front-page headlines. When I'd bump into someone on the street they'd look me right in the eyes. Many of these features were already in the game, you just couldn’t really see them; if you zoom out to third-person mode the newspapers are just a blur.
Being able to read a newspaper doesn't make GTA V play any better, but it does go a long way towards creating a more believable world. The new version is filled with tiny details like that — every car has a different interior, for example, and when you get in a big semi truck you can turn around and check out the sleeper in the back. Even just pulling out your smartphone to check a message looks cool. On PS4, those details even extend beyond the game and make great use of the DualShock controller. When you're having a phone conversation, the dialogue will pipe through the speaker on the controller, and if the cops are after you, the controller's light bar will flash blue and red.
If you've already played GTA V, this might not be enough to justify going through the lengthy campaign again. But it might be worth picking up just to skip the story all together and experience the new, more beautiful Los Santos. If you haven’t played GTA V yet, the next-gen version is easily the best: it looks better, runs better, and while first person doesn't work well for everything, it's flexible enough that you can use it however much or little as you like. After years of playing GTA a certain way, the shift can be a bit jarring, and it can take some time to get used to the new perspective.
But just wait until you jump out of a plane.