Three points of view on Grand Theft Auto 5

Los Santos, a sub-urbane simulacrum of the auto-dependent Los Angeles, is the foundation for Rockstar North's next big heist, Grand Theft Auto 5. The studio's job is to create, not acquire: build the biggest playground yet, and fill it with more, more, more things to do.

The first thing we do is jump out of a helicopter. The mountains and snaking rivers below almost obscure the fact that there's a city just around the corner. Serenity is a rare quality in Grand Theft Auto, though I know the parachute is precursor to an inevitable descent into mayhem.

Later, protagonists Trevor, Michael and Franklin clear out an armored van in the dead of night, having blocked its route with a stolen truck. The police start arriving en masse, in waves, and Rockstar shows me the ease at which you can switch between your criminals. While Michael and wheelman Franklin are pinned down behind cover, you can leap into a manic Trevor and snipe from a distant tower.

The elaborate shootout demonstrates refinements in motion, combat and cover, Rockstar says. The driving is supposed to feel better too – another sign of the expected trajectory of improvement of the Grand Theft Auto series. Rockstar North aims to improve its monster of a game at every known level, from motion-captured walking animations and gunplay, ambiance, writing, and story-driven activities outside of the main plot. I haven't seen enough (or played any) to say how it all fits together, but there are three alterations that could put Grand Theft Auto 5 on your radar, even if, like many of Rockstar's subjects, you've been trying to elude a dour life.

The Heist
In the classic film "Thief," James Caan plays a safecracker who gets sucked back into a life of crime for one last, no-really-this-is-it job. Sound familiar? If Rockstar's affinity for Hollywood pastiche hasn't subsided with Grand Theft Auto 5, what better cinematic source to draw from than the heist genre?

More recent examples like "Heat," "Inception" and "The Town" boast narrative strands that can be just as effective in games. There's a compatible arc: planning, charging into the heist, improvising once things go wrong and the cathartic escape from the law. Equip your characters, position them, fulfill the objectives, swat the police, drive away. And then buy a car with your cash, pull it from the garage and drive it into the sea for laughs.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is smart to split itself between three characters. This allows you to stage a complex, multi-person operation without having to sacrifice control over a component that would otherwise go to artificial intelligence or scripted sequences. Heists are tense on screen because it's a game of numerous parts moving into position, outsmarting the rules and achieving a clear, shared goal. Throw in some internal conflict – of which Rockstar says there will be plenty – and you might start caring more about the execution than the outcome.

The Score
Grand Theft Auto 5 has an audible heartbeat. The original soundtrack creeps in when the situation calls for it, and I noticed it most during Franklin's lonely drive up to the heist location (described earlier). The building murmurs of the electronic score exacerbated the calm before gunfire, and created an illusion of uncertainty over how well the trio's plan would unfurl.

Rockstar still has its groove for licensed music, as attested by the last round of trailers, but an original score is a welcome and surprising accompaniment to crucial scenes. The developer's representatives wouldn't tell me who provided the music, but I'm told it's someone worth announcing at a later stage. Rockstar's most recent effort, Max Payne 3, was scored by American band Health.

Scuba diving
If I'm intrigued by the undercurrent of music in Grand Theft Auto 5, I can't help but latch on to the scuba diving. As a staunch proponent of swimming in games, I'll list the usual points of interest: weightlessness, unfettered three-dimensional movement, and exploration. It's what games were made for, and a shortcut to non-vehicular flight in a grounded reality.

Sometimes you just need a little sensory deprivation. Grand Theft Auto games are massive, bombastic, hectic, exhausting and, for some, impossible to put down. Rockstar isn't elevating the air tank and flippers to the same level as guns or a cars in Grand Theft Auto 5, but I think its presence – even as a distraction – will serve as a player-controlled method of pacing.

There will be in-game rewards for exploring the water around Los Santos, possibly as a means to ameliorate the following mind-bender: GTA5 is so crammed with things to do and see, it seems apt to take a break ... by going swimming in it.

The sprawl of Grand Theft Auto 5 isn't confined to an urban paradise – it's breaking out.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.