Grand Theft Auto 5: A New Perspective
How first-person rewrites the whole experience.
I’ve just incinerated a wild rabbit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
It’s one of the new animals you’ll find around the great state of San Andreas, and I’ve killed it. And as its blackened corpse slowly rolls down the foothills of Vinewood, I feel a tinge of sadness. He deserved better than this, but I’ve got much bigger problems than my own latent psychotic tendencies. Police cars are stacking up in the cul-de-sac below and a helicopter is hovering somewhere overhead. I can’t really see where it is, but I feel its presence, and the cops open fire. So I make a run for it, vaulting over a fence into a parking lot, where I jack a car, climb in, and as I look down to hot-wire it, I see there’s a bullet hole in my in my forearm and blood is running out.
I’ve never had a GTA experience like this before, and that’s because it’s all playing out in the first-person.
“It’s a very intense, in-your-face experience… literally,” says Rob Nelson, the Animation Director on GTA 5. “Obviously, we felt like one of the most compelling things you could do to make an experience people have had before feel different was the new first-person mode.”
There’s so much new about this version Grand Theft Auto V, but it’s obvious Rockstar was keen to deliver something above and beyond a technical upgrade – it’s given players an entirely new way of playing the game.
From shooters to action games, we’re all used to adopting the first-person, but the way in which this new perspective transforms the GTA 5 experience can’t be understated; it fundamentally alters how you inhabit and interact with this world. It rewrites the experience, both in single-player and online.
Nelson tells me the idea has been kicking around for a while, but it’s only been possible to do it justice since the arrival of next-gen consoles and the power they bring. It also required another precious commodity: time.
“We’ve always been in interested in it, but it’s never really been an option for us,” Nelson says. “I don’t think we could’ve put it in the [last-gen version] because we were too busy making the game. We were too busy working on our third-person controls and the missions.”
“We were out of memory on the old consoles for animations. We were constantly fighting about what we could have and what we could still push in, and what other areas you could steal memory back from – audio, art, maps – for animation. So we could’ve added all the atoms to make a first-person mode to the level we wanted. We weren’t sure the world would have held up the way we would’ve wanted it to.”
And that’s the rub. For the world of San Andreas to hold up to the unforgiving scrutiny of a first-person view, it had to be rebuilt from the ground-up.
Remember to put on your helmet.
Rockstar’s trailer does a good job of highlighting the differences in this new incarnation of GTA 5 – the forests are denser, the streets busier, and there are more cars, pedestrians, and animals – but no trailer can effectively convey how impressive it is when all these elements combine and you start exploring it afresh.
It’s an uncanny feeling. I’ve played GTA 5 for 60 hours or so. I’ve completed the story and many of the side missions, as well as spending a good chunk of time doing whatever I felt like. As I take control for the first time, all I want to do is jump on a dirt bike, ride across the desert, hit the highway, and head for the city. Driving into Los Santos, seeing the skyline shrouded in smog loom into view while the radio played was always one of my favourite journeys to make. But seen from first-person, over the handlebars of a bike, it feels instantly fresh; it’s like being a stranger in a familiar land.
It’s an obvious, almost childlike observation but the world feels much, much bigger. You’re enveloped by it – no longer looking down on its citizens, since you’re now one of them.
“I just think it’s a different way of experiencing the world. It’s a different perspective,” Nelson says, as he tries to put his finger on what makes it feel so distinct. “You’re eye-level, down with the people on the street, and as you walk past them, you see them sort of look at you out of the corner of their eye. All of this stuff existed in the game before – lots of little details.”
And now it’s possible to appreciate those details like never before. It’s not just the textures but the posters and in-game TV shows and movies have all been rendered in high-definition, so it’s now possible to press your face up to the glass of GTA 5 and not be disappointed.
Coming in to land.
Putting players into the first-person, and to do it right, requires much more than simply repositioning the camera. Rockstar North has adapted GTA 5 extensively in order to create an independently satisfying and authentic first-person experience.
“You have to change pretty much everything,” reveals Nelson. “I mean, if you want to do it right. We have a very solid third-person animation system, but you don’t just put the camera down there and expect to see the guns, aim, and shoot. All those animations are new when you switch to first-person, because it all has to be animated to the camera, to make it feel like a proper first-person experience that I think people would expect. All the timings have to be re-evaluated.”
Nelson and his team have worked tirelessly to make this new perspective not only work but feel totally immersive. The fastidious attention to detail that originally went into the creation of GTA 5 is once again evident in the way first-person mode has been executed. When you step inside a car for the first time and settle down into the driver’s seat, you’ll notice the vehicle has a thoughtfully-designed dashboard – the speedometer and gas dial all work and, in some of the more high-end cars, digital displays even show the name of the radio station and song you’re listening to. Your character will even bob his head to the music. And that level of detail extends to every car, boat, and plane; they all have unique cockpits, so you’re never just plonked behind the same wheel. (Oh yeah, you can even duck down behind the steering wheel if you're being shot at.)
Hop on a bike or jump into a helicopter, and your character puts on a helmet or a set of goggles that authentically restricts your view and muffles the ambient noise of the world. It’s these details, seemingly incidental, which cement the illusion and make GTA 5’s first-person mode feel like a substantial part of the experience, rather than a bullet-point on the back of a box.
Over 3000 new weapon animations.
I played one mission entirely in first-person – the one where Trevor has to drive a motorbike onto the back of a moving train, reroute it so it crashes head-on into another train while Michael waits in a boat down below. Again, the difference is immediate – everything feels renewed from this perspective: the bike feels faster and more dangerous, and the combat, which dominates the second-half of the mission, is much more furious. It’s hard to anatomise when it plays out at speed, but it’s down to flourishes which come when you’re staring down the sights of a gun.
“There’s stuff that just doesn’t exist in third-person: the weapon recoil, the reloads, the weapon switching. All of the weapons have been up-rezzed and animated properly, so the shells come out the right way and have the right muzzle flashes. I think we created 3,000 animations on weapons alone.”
It’s also an extremely flexible and adaptable first-person experience. Off the bat, it retains the standard GTA 5 control scheme, but you can select from a variety of preconfigured control schemes so it feels more like a standard shooter. In fact, you can customise the experience a lot – you can vary the degree of aim assist, turn off ragdolling and the combat roll (after all, it might make some a bit queasy), and decide whether the game switches to third-person when taking cover. It’s versatile, too: it can be a full-on first-person experience, the same third-person experience you know, or a hybrid of the two.
When rumours emerged there would be a first-person mode in the new version of GTA 5, I was slightly sceptical only because for me the original game, like those before it, was so interested in the lives and foibles of its protagonists – Michael, Franklin, and of course, Trevor. Switching between them, seeing the world from a slightly different perspective, was a core element of that experience. You could be playing as Michael, enjoying a scotch while watching a black-and-white classic, and then visit Trevor, who was waking up with a stinking hangover on top of Mount Chiliad, wearing a dress.
I was worried first-person would undermine this. How can you retain a such a strong sense of character when you’re losing so much of the character’s physicality? “This is new territory for us,” admits Nelson. “We wanted as much as possible to retain a sense of character, whatever character you’re playing. Whether that’s little fidget or hearing them speak.”
Should've bought that case.
It’s still very apparent that you’re playing as Michael, Franklin, or Trevor. Their personalities haven’t been extinguished – in fact, the animations which made them feel so distinct and well-rounded have been adapted to work in the first-person. An idle Franklin will crack his fingers or adjust the brim of his hat. Michael will light up a cigar when relaxing at home. When parachuting as Trevor, if you look down, his arms carry the unsightly marks and scars you probably always imagined.
You can pull up your phone, and it’s not an overlay – you’re now looking down at your phone. If you want to take a selfie, it now feels like you’re doing just that.
Suddenly, I could see how these characters I’ve known for over a year might come to life in new and surprising ways. This perspective creates intensity but it can also foster intimacy – for instance, when I was escaping in a speed boat as Michael in the mission above, Trevor was right beside me, speaking to me, looking me in the eye. I was right there with him, not looking down at the both of them.
But for me this new perspective transforms your relationship with GTA 5’s silent lead: the world itself, which over the last year has been rebuilt, becoming richer and even more fascinating.
“There are things you don’t see as well from a different perspective. When we started to play around, we started to see all this stuff we never saw before. It’s just a different way of looking at things."