Modesty isn't GTA's strong suit. The latest game doesn't have the emphasis of its prequel's opening line "daddy's back, bitches"; the slower-burn story takes its time getting up to speed, but when it does you're treated to radio adverts and player conversations taking pops at thinly-disguised Call of Duty clone Righteous Slaughter. "They're all the same!" proclaims bank-robber-failing-to-make-good Michael, the most erudite of the three protagonists, as he professes he's "more of a movie guy".
Similarly, recent pretender Saints Row is addressed in an early example of the game's many, many side-missions, in which drug-fuelled hallucinations see you gunning down aliens and clowns. One suspects that Rockstar has included this to show that it could do nonsensical slapstick if it wanted - but it prefers to deliver a stylised version of the real world. And Grand Theft Auto V delivers an open world in excess of anything else on Xbox 360, to the point where it's astonishing that it's even possible on Xbox 360.
The technical achievement is the most obvious. It's not the great leap forward that GTA IV was over the original Xbox - it's still recognisably the same technology underpinning everything - but it's a marked improvement. The draw distance stretches out to the horizon, the streets - particularly the freeways - are more crowded with cars, and the cars themselves are more detailed. The lighting perfectly captures the slightly-too-bright sunlight of LA, the ambient audio captures the sounds of the city at night. World-building has always been Rockstar's strongest suit, and with this it's raised the bar once again.
And the scale of it is remarkable. The opening missions play out in the sketchier areas of downtown, which feels like a low-rise version of the previous game's Liberty City, but go north and you head through maze-like motorway interchanges, open country dotted with ranches and farms, redneck-infested desert and machinery-filled quarries. It's all teeming with life, and packed with things to do.
The game opens up slowly, taking several hours to grant the ability to switch between each of the three characters, and it's still adding side-quests long after that. This is for good reason: there's such an incredible volume of things to do that even after three days of play you're overwhelmed by the options on offer. The huge map is splattered with icons for everything from yoga to flight school to shooting ranges, most of which should be used at some point to buff each character's abilities.
The working life
Buy new property and it extends even further: pick up a desert airstrip and you can run guns into Mexico; buy a trucking business and earn cash dragging away double-parked cars. Strangers and Freaks missions go further, giving a small set of side-missions for each character (for street hood Franklin it's standing in for a drug-addicted tow-truck driver, for deranged meth dealer Trevor it's helping the delusional DIY militia hunt down "illegal immigrants").
They aren't complicated, but they aren't essential either: at their worst, they're the sort of delivery-driving busy-work that most open-world games use to pad the main narrative. Here, they're the distractions you pick because you want to spend a bit of time earning money and listening to the radio (the soundtrack is, as ever, excellent, and improved by the addition of a selection wheel for the stations which shows the current track each one is playing).
More interesting are the side missions, which also echo Skyrim and Rockstar stablemate Red Dead Redemption by appearing unexpectedly as you travel the world. They're simple - this being GTA, catching a mugger can be done without even getting out of the car, although you might want to wash it afterwards - but they're usually quick, satisfying distractions amid the heftier challenges of the main storyline.