Release Date: September 17 (Worldwide)
Platforms available on: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Open-world action-adventure
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with Grand Theft Auto 5.
It might have been switching between bikes and trucks during an epic two-way police chase after the first jewellery store heist.
It could also have been the first time I went on a shooting rampage with Trevor in the sunny surroundings of Blaine County.
If truth be told, however, it was most likely up in Vinewood Hills when the sun was going down, away from all of the mayhem and chaos associated with the life of a career criminal.
As night approached, I parked my car and simply gazed down on the city of Los Santos, knowing that this beautiful area below us represented only a fraction of Rockstar's open-world playground. From this moment on, I was hooked.
Rivalling the likes of Rapture, Columbia and Skyrim, the city of Los Santos and its surrounding countryside is among the most diverse, interesting and visually striking virtual environments that I've ever had the pleasure of exploring.
Yes, there's some pop up here and there and dodgy textures from time to time - particularly when you first load the game - but more so than any other title, you're constantly tempted to stop what you're doing and soak up the sights.
Make no mistake about it, for all of GTA 5's colourful cast of characters, it's the city of Los Santos and Blaine County that are the real stars of the show.
- The city of Los Santos and its surrounding countryside is among the most diverse, interesting and visually striking virtual environments that I've ever had the pleasure of exploring
In typical GTA fashion, the supporting characters tend to be much more outrageous, providing plenty of laughs and ensuring the game never takes itself too seriously.
We grew particularly fond of Michael's family, especially his lazy, selfish son Jimmy, who spends most of his time smoking weed and insulting players on GTA 5's very own Call of Duty clone.
And then there's Trevor. Mean, cruel and something of a bully, it's hard to like Trevor at times, but there's no denying that he and his lackeys are a constant source of entertainment.
Switching between characters is particularly amusing, especially when you find Trevor being refused entry to a swanky country club, or staggering around an apartment complex, shirtless and drugged out of his eyeballs.
In fact, the character switching mechanic is one of GTA 5's best additions, giving players the opportunity to perform different acts during missions when the three lead characters are all present.
It doesn't offer quite the level of freedom expected, mind you, occasionally limiting players to one character at a time in order to further the story, or forcing players to control a specific character during missions before auto-switching to another.
The jewellery heist, for example, begins with Franklin climbing onto the roof of the building and throwing a canister of sleeping gas through a ventilation shaft, before switching to Michael who actually commits the robbery.
Once outside, Franklin rides off with the jewels on his motorbike, before a final switch that sees Michael ramming police cars off the road in an armoured truck.
Even though it removes player choice somewhat, forced switching gives the missions greater focus and makes them feel more cinematic.
Other missions, particularly those with a heavy emphasis on shooting and driving, give the player much more freedom to change perspectives at will. Fortunately, this is easily done simply by pressing down on the D-pad.
One of the best examples of switching comes during an assassination attempt. As Michael makes his way to the hit, Trevor is back in a garage torturing information out of an unwilling informant.
Gradually, by switching back and forth between characters, Michael gets the right address as well as a visual description of the target he's been hired to kill. It really does add a new dynamic to the way you tackle missions.
The missions themselves are a little more complex this time around, in particular the heists, which often involve scouting, retrieving vehicles, weapons and items before you're able to carry out the job.
Players can also pick crews and alter the way they perform robberies, or what they target. A less skilled crew receives a smaller portion of the cut, but things are more likely to go wrong.
Pick an unskilled tech guy, for example, and your window to steal before alarms are sounded is greatly reduced.
This combined with the ability to sometimes switch between characters gives the missions more replay value - which is ideal, because GTA 5 is a game you'll want to play more than once.
We also like the way some of the missions affect the wider world. Assassinate the CEO of one pharmaceutical company and stocks will plummet, which is great news if you've invested heavily in a rival.
Much like past GTA games, you'll also hear about your activities on the radio and on TV, which is always amusing.
It's touches like these, not to mention the mammoth selection of radio stations, songs, TV shows and movies, that makes Los Santos such an engaging environment.
The role-playing-style skill system also makes a return, giving players the chance to improve stamina, driving and shooting skills the more they use these abilities.
- The missions themselves are a little more complex this time around, in particular the heists, which often involve scouting, retrieving vehicles, weapons and items before you're able to carry out the job
The same is true of shooting. The more enemies you kill and headshots you make feeds into your shooting skill, giving players greater accuracy when snapping onto targets using the auto-aim feature.
And while we would have liked the ability to better switch between cover, and maybe even give teammates commands, the much maligned shooting system is the best it's ever been in a GTA game.
Outside of the main missions there's a wealth of activities to participate in, characters to meet and jobs to perform, extending the length of the campaign by a considerable amount of time.
Trevor can earn money as a bounty hunter, using information found in emails to track targets and bring them to justice dead or alive.
Franklin, meanwhile, becomes a skilled assassin. Given just enough time to plan the perfect hit, Franklin must pick out a vantage point that gives him the best chance of eliminating his target and making a clean getaway.
With a tennis court in his garden, a country club over the road and a wife obsessed with yoga, Michael is encouraged to participate in the game's multiple sporting activities.
Though not quite on par with dedicated tennis and golf games, these two activities, in particular, are the most playable, although we also enjoyed triathlons, especially given how good the water effects are.
You can also compete in-car and jet ski races, do some base jumping, play darts, go to the cinema and buy businesses.
Then there's the random people you encounter while exploring - similar to Red Dead Redemption - be it a runaway bride in Blaine County, or woman whose car has been stolen outside of a coastal diner.
When you factor in all of the contemporary cultural references and easter eggs, it's clear that we're only really scratching the surface of what this magnificent world has to offer.
Needless to say, this truly is a living, breathing environment that's bursting at the seams with major jobs and minor distractions.
Only time will tell whether it's enough to win over the GTA naysayers, but Rockstar North has clearly listened to criticisms of past games and delivered what's as close to the perfect sandbox as technologically possible.
The hallmarks of the GTA series are all present, from the way the story is structured, to the explosive set pieces, use of stereotypes and humorous observations.
And while we would be hesitant to say that this is a more mature Grand Theft Auto, it's certainly a new high for a series that has grown in confidence with each new instalment.
With a great cast, a huge list of missions and activities, some novel new gameplay additions and one of the most stunning environments we've ever explored, Grand Theft Auto 5 is a masterpiece and a hugely impressive technological achievement.