That said, there have certainly been moments when the spell breaks. When you sink into the game, it becomes increasingly apparent that the things you're actually doing are very simple. Drive to a place. Press a button to trigger some beautiful, bespoke, never-to-be-repeated animation. Drive to another place. Shoot a man. Watch a cutscene. Despite the extraordinary world, there's no escaping the fact that the critical path presents a rudimentary play experience, one lumbered with tricky controls (both on pad and on keyboard/mouse) that betray the difficulty of packing all of that rich worlds' many activities into a system that a human can actually interact with. I was making progress, I was saying 'wow' a lot, but I realised ten hours in that I wasn't actually having much fun or making many decisions for myself.
I switched to multiplayer, at that point and holy shit. My understanding is that it didn't really work on the consoles for a long time—it can't have done, otherwise I'd have expected to hear people rave about it sooner. My time with Grand Theft Auto Online so far has blown my experience with the singleplayer game out of the water. I absolutely cannot wait to get back to it.
The structure is very simple. You're introduced to Los Santos as a silent character of your own making and you can then participate in races, missions and other activities both in instances (with players joining from your friends list or via matchmaking) or out in the open world. You can own vehicles and property and level up your guy by doing the things you want to get better at. It's the most fun I've had with an MMO in years.
Every so often, you have an experience with a game that feels like a magic trick. I've had a run of them so far. When I started, I was dropped into a street race that I assumed was a tutorial, race-the-AI deal. I won, but the guy who came second was a real person. After that, we were dropped into a mission and he wordlessly hopped into the passenger seat of my car for the ride. We didn't speak, but I was playing in first person—looking over, and seeing somebody's avatar looking back at me in a game rendered with the fidelity of a AAA singleplayer experience felt like gaming in the future.
Fairly quickly, I was asked by a friend to join his heist team. I'm not high enough level to initiate heists by myself yet, but I can join others—and I strongly recommend it. Heists are a run of set-up mission that culminate in a finale, each using a team of four in different ways. I adore co-op games that introduce asymmetry, and GTA Online does it brilliantly. Even though there are only five heists total, the one I played took a whole evening and I can't wait to play it again because my experience felt so specific to the people I was playing with and the roles I was placed in. I've driven a sportscar off a container ship while my friend covers me from the passenger seat. I've evaded cops by hiding a bus behind a moving train. I've waited in the pilot's seat of a light aircraft, nervously idling on a desert runway, praying that the other half of the team make it on time.
Heist missions can be punishing. The team shares a stock of lives, and when you lose them you're back to a distant checkpoint. But the coordination it requires elevates the game's otherwise-simple basic mechanics, and it taps deep into the magic of watching your friends do something awesome. There's a cutscene, at the end of the first one, where your squad clink champagne glasses and cheer. That's how I felt: the take represented more money than I'd ever seen in the game, and I actually felt like I'd somehow cheated at life. I bought a house, and we all went and got identical commemorative tattoos.
Folded into that experience were connection issues, occasional bugs, and lag. Ultimately, they didn't thwart my enjoyment—and I expected far worse from the game's launch day. But it's a factor to be considered, and I'd hope to see steady improvement in performance after this point.
Regardless, it takes active effort for me to load back into the singleplayer game and continue the story. GTA 5 is now, for me, a game about my silent multiplayer character and his dumb heist tattoo. It's heartening to know that when the cinematic stuff is pulled back and GTA is allowed to be a game, it's a really, really good game. There's so much more I'd like to share: the way actual player cop-chases are shown on TV for everybody else to spectate. The time my friend got drunk in the desert and I gave him a lift home. The ceaselessly entertaining selfie function.
This is the stuff that sticks in my head when I quit the game, and—I hope—the stuff that will form the basis of my final verdict. There is heart to be found underneath that pile of money, and based on my experience so far I would recommend anyone put off—as I was—by Rockstar's unrepentant desire to make a movie to ditch singleplayer and treat GTA as a game you play with friends.