Digital sandboxes have become pretty common in the last ten years or so. Most developers feel that right now open worlds are where the money is, providing us with a steady flow of gigantic productions that successfully bury their main storyline under dozens of side activities and secrets scattered across the vast maps.
Among the subsequent installments of Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs, experiments like Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst or titles that fuel the console arms race, such as Horizon Zero Dawn, one series remains the gamers’ all-time sandbox favorite – Grand Theft Auto. The saga that popularized open-world settings with its third installment has made good use of the years to fortify its top position, achieving enviable global recognition and sales that no other series can even begin to compete with.
But what exactly did the guys at Rockstar North do to leave the competition so far behind? There are nearly as many answers to that question as there are Rockstar fans around the globe. Some will point at the engaging storyline, with well-defined main characters and memorable supports, or even extras. Others will mention well-designed and well-directed missions, or the vast selection of diversified side activities. You can also hear gamers talking about the stunning, atmospheric designs of digital cities and their surroundings.
In my opinion, though, no single element can be pointed out, as it is the perfect combination of all of the above that makes this series unique. And one more thing – the breathtaking attention to detail, which can hardly be found in competing titles. And I’m not talking about things like texture detail levels or size of the cities, but about blood being washed away by raindrops, or light reflections visible only in TPP. Those are the details on which I would like to focus, using the latest, fifth installment of the series as an example to show the enormous effort Rockstar North made to implement things that may have gone unnoticed by the majority of players.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve overlooked many of those tidbits myself – but there are fans who spent months on in-depth studies of each and every possible detail and eventually shared their discoveries with the entire Internet. One thing I found particularly helpful when writing this article turned out to be the Imgur album created by reddit user known as Stix147.
Cell phone is the basic tool of GTAV protagonists – it allows them to accept jobs and contact their peers, but also check their bank account, trade stocks, or use social media, which often feature information that reflects the current situation in the game world. That’s why the programmers at Rockstar North really took their time to make this gadget shine.
When using the smartphone, in the lower right corner of the screen we can see the display of our device. When we look directly at the very device held by our character, we’ll see that it shows exactly the same picture as the screen in the corner, where our gaze ought to be. The same phone will also emit a subtle light in the darkness, illuminating the protagonist’s face.
In some unusual situations, we may also receive surprising messages or incoming calls from other characters. We can, for example, provoke calls from some of the currently inactive characters by making the protagonist shamelessly shoot rockets at their house. A somewhat milder reaction can be provoked when we steal their car or play with explosives in their backyard – this will earn us nothing more than a message with threats.
Sometimes an event, such as a traffic accident or an assault will interrupt an important phone call, right in the middle of receiving mission details. No worries, though – a moment later and our interlocutor will send a text message containing all the details and objectives, along with an expression of surprise or irritation at the sudden interruption. People will also get mad if you call them repeatedly after they’ve just finished speaking to you.
We can even steal cars when using our smartphone. In such a case, Franklin, Michael, or Trevor will first shove the gadget in their pocket, then do what they came to do, and when they’re finally sitting in the cozy seat of their new set of wheels, they will simply take out their “toy” and continue.
Is this the police?
You can be the smartest crook in the whole San Andreas, but sometimes you simply can’t get away without alerting the cops. Not that the cops are particularly sharp, and any experienced player will have no problems shaking them. Some closer observation of their behavior, however, reveals very interesting details about their job.
For example, the police react not only to the most serious cases of breaking the law – they also notice things like driving under influence. Speaking of which… depending on what substance we’ve taken, the blur effect on the screen is shown differently. What’s more, as we can easily notice, at night the boys in blue use flashlights. But did you ever notice that they also use them at night when looking around the area from the safety of their patrol car?
In fact, the cops react to other offenders, not just us – any other armed character, and sometimes, even civilians, can face the consequences of breaking the law. A particularly striking example would be a situation when an impatient driver overlooks a body lying on the road, and runs it over – in such case we will probably witness a police chase. In fact, any time a police officer notices a body on the road they will never ignore it – they will secure the body and reroute traffic with hand gestures.
The firemen, who are generally a bit more difficult to encounter, mostly when a fire breaks out, have their own set of unique behavior patterns. The brave men will do everything they can to battle the flames with their fire engine, but there are some cases when the vehicle cannot be brought near the fire. In such a case, the firemen will leave the car and confront the flames head-on. If we try to steal the fire engine with a passenger inside, they will plea for their life, pointing to the importance of their job.
I’d like to report shooting and assault
In the heat of battle there is little time to notice details – a shame, because that’s yet another aspect where Grand Theft Auto V shines. For example, when we aim a weapon equipped with a scope, the protagonist will actually narrow their eyes. What’s interesting about this little detail is the fact that it was never intended to be seen by the player controlling the character – after all the default camera look changes to FPP when aiming through a scope.
Furthermore, the character will even hold a gun in a different way, depending on whether it has a scope mounted or not. Now, this may sound like acting against your instinct of self-preservation, but try to use up all of your ammo for a specific gun – you’ll be able to see the dire frustration on the protagonist’s face as they try to continue firing from a now useless weapon. Be careful with fuel canisters though – if you let the fire reach the canister you’re holding, it will explode and vanish from your inventory (oh, and it might kill you in the process).
After we’re done, we can take some time to appreciate the results of our actions and notice several more interesting details. For example, the amount of sand scattered around bullet impact points will be different depending on the gun we’ve used – less from a small caliber arm, like a pistol, more from a shotgun. Some very interesting results can be achieved by killing a driver behind a wheel – sometimes they will die with their foot still on the accelerator, making the car go into an uncontrollable run until it stops on the first solid object. Oh, and watch out for loaded weapons dropped by the enemies you kill – they can sometimes accidentally fire after they hit the ground.
There’s also something interesting for fans of cold steel. Hitting a solid object with a blade or a blunt weapon at a wrong angle will cause vibrations that will hurt the character. A well-aimed strike (also with a fist) will cause the target to lose their hat or glasses. You have to be careful when choosing your opponents, though – buff characters will be much tougher, and dangerous, while dog owners certainly can count on their beloved pet joining the battle.
It happened on a street full of people
Lots of fun in GTA V can come from simply observing the pedestrians. Assuming they are left undisturbed, they will display a number of predefined behaviors. What’s interesting, though, the behaviors are different, depending on the city region in which we’ve encountered the character. And so, the resident of rural areas can be found wiping sweat from their forehead while walking, which the city-dwellers usually don’t do (wipe the sweat, that is…).
The NPCs can often be found doing such things as talking through the phone, smoking cigarettes, playing on their tablet, eating, or drinking. Not always during a walk – they can be sitting on benches and chairs, or in cars, and in different positions, depending on their gender. When it comes to phone calls, we should try eavesdropping on them sometimes – if they notice us, they may tell whoever they’re talking to about it.
The attention to detail with which the virtual setting was recreated is perfectly displayed on pedestrian crossings. The red light not only makes the NPCs stop in their tracks but also look around carefully to avoid possible danger once they eventually begin to move. If the lights turn red when they’re on the middle of the road, they will significantly increase their pace. Same thing happens if a car drives in front of them when on the crossing.
For many gamers, especially guys, this will come as no surprise but the game physics affect female breasts, which can be observed for example when the ladies go for a walk. A bit more difficult, but still possible to notice, is the same effect when women drive cars. Actually, there’s one more interesting thing about NPCs taking the wheel. You see, when we shoot the driver, sometimes the passenger will shove the dead body away to take control of the vehicle and try to escape. Not that they are always successful – sometimes the body can drag them with it, increasing the total number of bodies on the road by two.
Speaking of unfortunate accidents... the NPCs can sometimes trip. Assuming it happens near a railing or some other solid object, the character will try to grab it to retain their balance. If the accident takes place somewhere in the mountains, for example, and the character rolls down the slope and hits their head, they will grab that body part once they regain balance and curl up.
Some peculiar details can also be noticed in the way the dead bodies look and act (strange as it sounds). If the character burned to death, there will be smoke rising from the corpse. The phenomenon can be noticed even for some time after the fire is extinguished. Bodies that were thrown into the water do not sink instantly – they will float lifeless on the surface for some time.
Many people were injured
Along with a vast array of behaviors which can be observed when watching relaxed NPCs, a good amount of interesting actions can be provoked. In general, the pedestrians will display several reactions to our behavior. Some of them are obvious – for example, when we kill somebody, some pedestrians will run in panic, while some others will come closer to have a better look.
The NPCs can also boast some less spectacular behavior, being able to, e.g. comment on the look of our car, or even take a picture of it if the car is visibly high-end stuff. Don’t go fishing for compliments if your car is dirty or visibly damaged though. The one thing that is sure to catch the attention of pedestrians and make them want to take a picture regardless of the technical condition of your vehicle, though, is an airplane attempting to take off from a road.
When passing by NPCs on the sidewalk, we can observe as they take a quick glance at the protagonist, who mirrors the action. If we follow a single NPC for a longer period of time, they will first mention stalking, and eventually resort to violence. Unless we’re armed, of course, in which case the person will decide to quickly leave our nearest vicinity and / or call the cops.
The NPCs also have a pretty good memory, as you can quickly learn if you return to a shop you’ve just robbed – the cashier will remember you on the spot, believe me. There’s also a unique behavior pattern reserved for the pool cleaner in Michael’s property – if the gangster swims up to his employee, the latter will pause work so as not to disturb his boss. Also good old Chop has a unique reaction, one that you wouldn’t like to see in person, though – our loyal dog will gladly fetch a thrown… grenade.
Not every player knows that our protagonist can use the interaction button (by default right d-pad arrow or E key) to talk to the passer-by. Most civilians will limit themselves to a short greeting; some of them will be more talkative and proceed to tell us the story of their life. After several attempts to communicate our character will get bored with the interlocutor and less inclined to keep things polite. The interaction button will also work near a dead body – in this case, the protagonist will comment on the death. He may even apologize if he was the one responsible for it.
There’s a lot of blood
Blood is a rather common sight in action games – so common, if fact, that hardly anyone notices it, taking it for a token and indistinctive visual element. In Grand Theft Auto V, though, blood has some specific qualities that cannot be found in other games. For example, the bloody mark around a gunshot wound begins as a small dot and grows in time, gradually staining the character’s clothes. A similar thing will happen when we use a knife, but in this case there will be of course a lot more blood involved – not to mention the fact that it will also stain the blade.
If we move around with low health, our character will leave red marks in their trail. The appearance of the marks, however, differs based on the surface on which they fall – on concrete we will see regular puddles, and on sand the liquid will soak into the ground, staining it. In any case, rainfall will wash away the stains and clean the surface.
The suspect escaped wearing flip-flops
Franklin, Trevor, and Michael will be able to amass a sizable amount of clothing, and depending on the contents of their wardrobe, they will be wearing different things when we switch to them. Some pieces of garment will also offer specific properties. For example, the electronic devices strapped to the belts of policemen or paramedics will bounce when they move.
When the characters run on longer distances, you can see sweat stains forming on the clothes on their backs, but only on thin fabrics, such as t-shirts. You won’t see this effect on a heavy jacket. The stains will dry out after a period of inactivity, and the garment looks like new again. Speaking of humidity in general – after a character gets out of water, you can hear their shoes make that characteristic, squeaky sound.
The true stars of the show, however, are the flip-flops. Somebody at Rockstar North really took their time to push the realism of this particular footwear to the limits. That’s why, when our character moves while wearing them, we can see the back of the flip-flop separate from the foot for a short moment before it returns to its place. It lasts only a split second – you really have to take a good look to notice it, but it’s there.
He stole a car and drove away
Among the three main characters, Franklin is the best when it comes to stealing cars. You can notice the fact easily when breaking into parked cars – Trevor and Michael both use mostly brute strength, while the youngest member of the team relies on lock picks. Except when he’s in danger – when the situation calls for it, the boy wastes no time and smashes the door window with his elbow.
Danger also changes character behavior when they are stealing cars with drivers still inside – if the character has the police on their tail, three stars or more, they will become much more prone to verbal and physical aggression against the current owner of the vehicle. At night, you can also notice the lights inside the car turn on when you open the door.
Once we’re comfortably seated inside the car, we can take a moment to look at some details before we hit the road. For example, the fact that sometimes our characters will tilt their head to the rhythm of the music coming from the radio. Similar behavior can be observed in NPCs – and it should be noted that there are two separate animations, one each for male and female characters.
You should also take a moment to switch the camera to FPP and take a closer look at the dashboard – as it turns out all instruments are in fact fully functional. This includes the fuel gauge. You will see your gasoline vanishing if a stray bullet punctures your tank. Looking around the car interior, we can also check out the radio panel and learn the name of the station and music we are currently listening to. And when it rains, the sound of rainfall is partially muffled inside the car.
Wrong-way driving is rarely met with a warm reception from other drivers – but before a chicken run begins, some of the incoming cars will be trying to warn us by flashing their headlights. Oh, and while we’re at it, if you’re going to try this whole wrong-way driving thing, make sure you do it during a weekday – on weekends the traffic density increases dramatically.
Vehicle performance is influenced by many factors, such as car type or accumulated damage. Also the weather has its part – in the rain, the vehicles become much more difficult to handle. Bikes, in turn, become much slower when we’re carrying a passenger. What’s more, when a heavier object, such as an NPC or a lamppost, falls on the roof of our vehicle, the suspension will feel it and react accordingly. If we anticipate a dangerous ride, we should choose a car with a solid roof to protect ourselves from enemies armed in gas or pepper spray – in convertibles we are vulnerable to such weapons.
After we finish our drive and leave the vehicle, we can listen to the sounds of a resting car – we’ll hear the characteristic clank of an engine cooling down. Some cars will shoot flames from their exhaust. And the flames are real. Not just a visual effect, which means they can actually set things, such as gasoline trails, on fire. Some interesting qualities of a car can surface) when the vehicle is sinking. First, the air trapped inside will keep the vehicle afloat, but in time, when the interior is flooded by water, the car submerges and eventually sinks. The process takes longer depending on the internal air volume of a vehicle – for example, an ambulance will sink much slower than a typical sedan.
Oh no, he’s coming back!
When traveling around San Andreas, you will hear characteristic sounds and noise near some of the buildings – church bells near parishes, school bells near schools. All clocks found inside buildings or shops will always show the right time, same as the one on our cell phone. The game also features an abundance of objects that can be destroyed or damaged, Most of them are the usual objects such as signposts, railings, or poles – but some of them are fairly unique.
A good example will be provided courtesy of the barrel that is a part of the woodcutter statue near Paleto Bay – if you shoot at it, it will actually leak water. Other interesting discoveries can be made when experimenting with normal barrels – for example throwing them into the water. A barrel with its lid sealed will easily float, while the same object without a lid will sink like a brick.
You should also try shooting at some bubblegum vending machines scattered around Los Santos – this will make the gum scatter around the machine. The city also offers sprinklers that turn on each morning, working insecticide lamps (the death of a bug is represented by a short flash and characteristic sound), and lamps triggered by photocells.
When experimenting with helicopters we will quickly learn that their propellers are fairly dangerous, and can be used to kill an unlucky bird. Unless we damage our tail rotor, which may not bring us down instantly, but it will certainly prevent us from going up – we will be limited to flying horizontally. And if you want to learn why a jet engine is said to produce thrust, just have someone approach the nozzle of a working jet engine – the effect will be rather stunning.
If we ever feel the need to leave a vehicle in freefall, we can have a nasty surprise – if we enter freefall with our back down, we will be unable to open the parachute. Luckily, all we need to do is keep calm and turn the character around – this will enable us to use the life-saving equipment once again. Now we just have to watch out for enemy bullets – when they are hit, the parachutes tend to change the flight direction a bit.
The fall itself, though – and not just when jumping off a plane – can cause a variety of wounds and damage. Contrary to what you may think, the altitude from which we fall is not the only factor influencing it – also our position when touching the ground counts. If, for example, our protagonist lands on his knees, he will suffer much less than if he were to make a full-body contact with Mother Earth.
So, you guys have your favorite radio station? Well, there may be another nasty surprise waiting for you in rural areas – you may find yourself entirely outside of the broadcast range of your station or, if you’re lucky, the signal can lose strength or be distorted.
I don’t wanna die on such a lovely day!
Grand Theft Auto V has an interesting approach towards first- and third-person camera work. The latter is treated literally as a camera would, which brings about some interesting consequences. For instance, light reflexes can be seen only in third-person perspective. As for the first-person view, it can be influenced by the color of shades or helmet visor we’re wearing. This effect doesn’t last forever, though, because after a while the protagonist gets used to the change and colors go back to normal.
We can spot some interesting stuff while observing the weather conditions. For instance, during storms the waves at sea become more prominent than on a sunny day. And when there’s heavy rainfall, we can see torrents of water cascading from roofs of selected buildings. Raindrops falling from the sky are easier to spot at night, when observed against the light. Another interesting visual tidbit is the way muscles of protagonists and NPCs alike are more defined when they are on the move.
Whew, this article has gotten really big, even though I only skimmed the subject matter, without mentioning e.g. the details of specific quests or the painstaking approach to side activities. I had to skip many a fun tidbit, focusing only on the most interesting ones. Surely there are some I still don’t know about.
Which only comes to confirm the main theme of this article – Grand Theft Auto V is a really enormous game. Not only in the context of map size or content, but especially thanks to all those little things and details you usually miss. This is where you can really feel the unbelievable effort put in the production by hundreds of programmers, artists and other people at Rockstar North. And this is exactly what proves that this is a timeless classic, and the main reason behind the amazing sales several years after the game’s release. Sure, you can find games that you think are better or prettier, but none is as full of details as GTAV.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I am a big fan of the GTA series and I’ve completed almost every installment – including the less popular ones, like Chinatown Wars, Liberty City Stories or Vice City Stories. I tested GTAV quite intensely for several months after its release in the PlayStation 3 version. For the purpose of writing this feature I went back to the state of San Andreas for a couple of hours, this time on PlayStation 4.