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game review

There has never been such a massive and meticulously crafted virtual environment before. Set in Los Santos and its surrounding desert, a loving recreation of Los Angeles and Southern California, GTA V is astonishing in its physical beauty. Mountains go on forever into the horizon, vivid lightning crashes through the sky, wildlife scurries about wherever you look, crowds of people go about their business.

Okay, let's get the formalities out of the way. Is Grand Theft Auto V the best game of the year? Easily. Is it the best game of this current generation of consoles? Definitely – and it's quite possibly the best video game yet. I say this after playing it for "only" 20 hours.

"Only" 20 hours is only about half-way done. In judging the game, however, I feel it's appropriate to draw on the wisdom of Trevor Phillips, the redneck sociopath who's one of the three main playable characters. When one of his henchman offers to get him anything he wants, Trevor replies in vulgarly funny fashion: "The problem is that I don't know what I want," he says. "It's like pornography or the perfect turd – I'll know it when I see it."

That GTA V is, er, perfect is a conclusion that can easily be made after only a few hours. I came to my own realization after taking part in a thrilling jet-ski race, where the sun was glistening off immaculately rendered ocean waves that sent me rollicking and bouncing. It was sublime.

With apologies to Trevor, there is nothing turd-like about GTA V. I can't wait to spend another 20 hours getting lost in its giant, beautiful and hilarious world.

Indeed, there has never been such a massive and meticulously crafted virtual environment before. Set in Los Santos and its surrounding desert, a loving recreation of Los Angeles and Southern California, GTA V is astonishing in its physical beauty. Mountains go on forever into the horizon, vivid lightning crashes through the sky, wildlife scurries about wherever you look, crowds of people go about their business.

And there's so much for you, the player, to do. Drive cars, boats, planes, helicopters, submarines, play tennis, compete in a triathlon, get a tattoo, ride roller coasters and Ferris wheels, learn yoga, test guns at a firing range, buy and manage businesses, collect clothes, get a haircut, surf the web, snap and share photos, go for a walk with your dog… it's a virtual world that presents almost as many possibilities as its real counterpart.

But it's not just a technical masterpiece, because almost all of those activities – from the action-oriented to the mundane – are fun, or at least funny.

Take the simple act of watching television. Reformed gang-banger Franklin, one of the other two main characters, plops down on his aunt's couch and turns on the tube to see what's on. The cartoon airing is "Kung Fu Rainbow Laser Force," about a conservative group of super heroes who advocate intolerance of minorities and abstinence from sex.

Franklin lights up a joint and the screen gets hazy while the show's theme song blares: "Sex is bad, violence is good, gonna save the neighbourhood… from sex!" He doesn't much notice, though, since he's too busy getting fried: "Yeah man, this makes me feel clean and relaxed as a [expletive]. Yeah… happy!"

Bored with that, he hops into a car and drives a few blocks before a neon sign reading "Vanilla Unicorn" catches his attention. He realizes it's a strip joint, so he heads in. A stripper named "Cheetah" wastes no time in propositioning him for a lap dance. "Sure," he says.

Cheetah starts grinding away on him to Rihanna's Only Girl in the World while a bouncer stands guard nearby. Suddenly, the bouncer walks off so Franklin begins caressing the dancer's naked body, which slowly activates her "like" meter. The bouncer pops back into view and Franklin quickly pulls his hands away.

The back-and-forth is repeated a few times until the meter is filled, at which point he asks Cheetah if she wants to come home with him. Alas, she tells him she doesn't sleep around, but she does invite a friend in for a double dance. Now it's harder for Franklin to see the bouncer and he inevitably gets caught, then unceremoniously thrown out the front door. He stands up, brushes himself up and wonders what no-good he can get up to next.

It's a parent's worst nightmare, but it's also classic Grand Theft Auto. Like the graphics and the size of the open world, the vulgarity reaches new heights in GTA V – and it's what makes it perhaps the funniest game in the series. It's a constant assault on Americanism and all that it entails; the recent financial crisis, cultural trends, techno-utopianism and political issues all get skewered.

Talk shows, for example, complain about LifeInvader, a social network spoof of Facebook where the average employee age is 14.4, while the "Fame or Shame" TV show challenges contestants to be "the most racist guy in America." Radio ads, meanwhile, entreat listeners to vote for legalizing medical cocaine. A paparazzo complains to Franklin about how smartphones have eviscerated his business. Another spot advertises a new drug called Toilet Cleaner – "It's time to smoke a real bowl."

The game – like its predecessors – casts a wicked mirror on pop culture, which is all the more ironic considering how much of a part of the zeitgeist Grand Theft Auto has become. It's almost a pop culture Ouroboros by this point.

Aside from all the little things introduced and added through the sheer size of the world, the game also takes some new strides in its core gameplay. The most obvious departure is the inclusion of three protagonists, which the player can generally switch between at will. Joining Trevor and Franklin is Michael, a retired bank robber who's living comfortably in Los Santos as part of the witness-protection program. Trevor and Michael used to run jobs together, while Franklin is an up-and-coming hustler who considers Michael as something of a mentor. Fate throws the trio together and they end up working together on a number of missions, often uneasily so.

The new gameplay is mechanically sound and also helps serve the narrative. Story-wise, it takes the series away from its old standby – the low-level criminal's violent rise to the top. Michael is already well established, with lots of money, a big house and fancy cars. While accumulating wealth and buying businesses around town is still a concern, that's not the main motivation in this game. Both Franklin and Trevor live in the lower social trenches, but they have access to finer things relatively early on.

Instead, the story focuses on a heist-gone-wrong from nearly a decade previous that both Michael and Trevor took part in. Trevor had thought Michael dead, but when his old partner resurfaces, he begins to wonder whether some sort of betrayal took place. The tension between the two characters is palpable as Michael worries about whether his unhinged friend is eventually going to turn on him. His own personal life, meanwhile, is a shambles. The way his wife and children rather colourfully express their hatred to him, it's no wonder he's in therapy.

Franklin, meanwhile, is trying to escape his old life by moving on up. He's an earnest and likeable guy who simply doesn't want to end up like so many gangstas. As the semi-innocent foil to both Michael and Trevor, he's the most likeable of the three main characters. The often dramatic and sometimes humorous interplay between the three is thoroughly engaging as a result.

That goes double for the action. The game's key missions require switching between characters on the fly, with each having their own specialties and special abilities. Trevor is particularly good with guns while Franklin is a great driver – he can, for example, drive in slow motion for short periods of time.

A typical big mission might require one character to drive a vehicle while another provides sniper cover fire, with the third snatching an objective. Switching between the characters at key points almost makes it feel like you're playing a multiplayer game with yourself.

Some of the multi-character jobs also introduce player choice in how to approach them. A stealthy strategy might require stealing a submarine beforehand, for example, while an all-guns-blazing plan might necessitate the acquisition of more firepower. Henchmen can also be hired to drive a getaway car or hack security systems, with the size of their cuts depending on their relative skills. It adds up to a fresh new way to play a GTA game that adds to the narrative and the action.

As if all of that wasn't enough, there's still more in store when Rockstar Games Social Club goes active upon the game's release (it's not testable before Sept. 17). Among the additional features will be Snapmatic, an Instagram-like app on the characters' phones that let them take pictures – including character selfies – in the massive game world and share them in the real world, online.

Another feature that wasn't available before launch was the iFruit smartphone and tablet app, which adds second-screen functionality to the game. The app will allow players to customize their vehicles and teach Franklin's dog Chop some new tricks.

GTA V's two stock exchanges, the LCN and BAWSAQ are also set to soon go live, allowing players to manage shares of 40 listed companies, whose fortunes will be governed by how the game is played by community members. If players around the world are spending a lot of money buying and customizing weapons, for example, shares of the in-game gun store Ammu-Nation will go up. On top of it all, Grand Theft Auto Online – the massive multiplayer mode – goes live on Oct. 1.

The online features are all bound to be extra frosting on what is already an incredibly sweet cake. Grand Theft Auto V represents both a technical and artistic pinnacle in the video game medium and is the perfect bookend to the current, outgoing generation of consoles.

As the respective launches of the Xbox one and PlayStation 4 get closer, the question isn't really whether GTA V is the ultimate game of this generation, but rather how long it will take developers to match it on the new consoles? Despite their heftier horsepower, it may be some time yet before anyone achieves this level of technical and artistic virtuosity.