Pamela Drake’s star has faded.

Once, she announces to no one in particular, she was courted by Vinewood’s top movie producers. Now, the aging starlet stands on the Vinewood strip in a worn cocktail dress, reminiscing wistfully as passers by look away uncomfortably.

Drake personifies the descendant tinsel-town around her. Grand Theft Auto’s stand-in for Hollywood depicts a place and an industry out of ideas, beset by economic hardship, and usurped by this week’s hottest reality TV star.

Rockstar has often cleverly satirised American culture in the Grand Theft Auto series, but in Grand Theft Auto V it sometimes feels a little more poignant, more urgent, as if between the wry punchlines, there’s a sincere missive asking America to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror.

Grand Theft Auto V preview

Like everyone else on the strip tonight, Michael has no time for Pamela Drake. By any quick measure of Western success he should be happy, a successful seeker of the new American Dream. He has wealth and health, a wife, two kids – and federal witness protection. But Michael is depressed. He drinks, he sees a therapist. He doesn’t understand his two spoilt children, and his wife, Amanda, is probably cheating on him. Caught in an existential rut, the retired armed robber is about to slip back into a line of work he’d once left behind.

Grand Theft Auto V preview

As a successful criminal who bowed out at the top of his game, Michael is an unusual archetype for Rockstar to explore. Typically the developer tracks the rise of a motivated criminal from the bottom rung of an illegal enterprise. In that regard at least, Franklin is cut from familiar cloth. He’s smart and ambitious, but he’s held back, committing petty crimes for small scores, and getting caught up in the trivial politics of Los Santos street gang life. He wants to rise above it, and a chance encounter with Michael will provide him with that opportunity.

Trevor is a former accomplice of Michael’s, a charming, white trash sociopath living amongst bikers and meth dealers in Blaine County. He has the deliberate mannerisms and feigned ignorance of Justified’s Boyd Crowder, and the dangerous, unpredictable ticks of Breaking Bad’s Tuco Salamanca.

The comparisons to Boyd and Tuco are deliberate: rather than building up to a single, dramatic climax the way a movie must, Grand Theft Auto V is designed to more closely resemble an ongoing TV drama like those name checked here. By having three protagonists, Rockstar is also able to create dramatic irony, and players will be able to experience the many narrative beats from three vastly different perspectives.

These random events and pastimes can take on a different shape: picking up a hitchhiker, taking in the back nine at the local golf course, or pointing the barrel of an assault rifle in the face of a liquor store clerk for some walking-around money.

To achieve this, players can switch between the three protagonists whenever they please, only there’s no way to know what circumstances we’ll find each one in. We jump to Trevor, for example, and find him passed out on a beach wearing only a pair of boots and tighty-whitey underwear. Limp bodies, all of them bearing the patch of The Lost, Los Santos chapter, surround him. Trevor has been vying with the bikers for control of the Blaine County drug trade, and the caked blood on his chest would suggest that things came to a head last night.

Franklin, meanwhile, is in a helicopter maybe a kilometre above Blaine County. From here, the huge scale of Grand Theft Auto V’s land mass is easier to grasp. It’s three-and-a-half times the size of Red Dead Redemption – five times the size if we’re to include underwater areas that can also be explored. And it ought to be: Rather than empty expanses of sand, the coast off Los Santos is pocked with sunken liners and underwater caves, more fish-tank than reality. Above water, the developer has taken lessons from Red Dead Redemption to heart: the game includes its own ecosystem of wildlife, quite apart from the lives hikers that can be met on the trail, or two weekenders casting spinning lines into a river. As in Red Dead Redemption, these random chance encounters breathe life into the world.

Grand Theft Auto V preview

Back in Los Santos, these random events and pastimes can take on a different shape: getting a star away from persistent paparazzi, picking up a hitchhiker, taking in the back nine at the local golf course, or perhaps pointing the barrel of an assault rifle in the face of a liquor store clerk for some walking-around money.

Grand Theft Auto V preview
Grand Theft Auto V preview
Grand Theft Auto V preview
Grand Theft Auto V preview
Grand Theft Auto V preview

To earn any significant cash, Michael, Trevor and Franklin must plan and execute heists. These are smaller narrative crescendos that form the basis of much of the on-mission play, and each requires extensive in-game planning. The crew must define the target, and then plan every detail of the heist itself. They’ll need to find costumes, weapons, a getaway vehicle, figure out whether to take the target by force or stealth, and who – if anyone – to bring in as outside contractors. More experienced criminals will take a larger portion of the payout, but they’re also more likely to get the job done.

The more wealth Michael, Trevor and Franklin accumulate, the more they're able to buy. Grand Theft Auto V has more meaningful things for players to purchase. All the protagonists are able to buy clothing and get tattoos and haircuts. There are more vehicles than ever before and they can be heavily customised, both aesthetically, and for speed and handling. Most importantly, the trio are able to buy housing, marinas, legitimate businesses, and garages from which they can stage the expansion of their criminal ventures.

Today, the crew is holding up an armoured security van. It’s a mission that shares several similarities with the game’s heist missions. The strategy is inspired by Michael’s love of classic action movies, and in a sequence like something out of Heat, Michael creates a distraction while Franklin rams the van onto its side with a garbage truck.

Things don’t quite go as planned, and within seconds the area is swarming with police. As Michael and Franklin get pinned down, Trevor opens up from a high vantage point with an RPG.

Here, Rockstar touts several improvements to combat, including smoother animations and transitions in and out of cover, wider camera angles to provide better fields of vision, free- soft- and hard-lock aim, and better visual feedback. A handful of lessons learned from some of Rockstar’s more recent titles have clearly been taken to heart up in Edinburgh.

A helicopter with a tactical squad swoops in to a nearby rooftop, and Trevor must pin them down with a sniper rifle. Switching to the ground again, Franklin climbs back into the garbage truck. He must drive it to the getaway vehicle, stashed under a secluded overpass, destroy the truck and make good his escape.

The experience is not quite like anything the developer has attempted before. L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3, Rockstar’s two most recent releases, were both critical successes, but probably performed below the company’s own lofty expectations over the counter.

Rockstar is coming out swinging with its flagship intellectual property. Grand Theft Auto V represents the culmination of developmental lessons learned over seven years of hardware, and it clearly has the potential to be not only Rockstar’s definitive work, but a worthy bookend to an entire console generation.