It's hard to make it as a gangster without firing a gun, and you'll slowly build up your arsenal as you progress through the story missions. Aiming is assisted by locking on to targets, so you don't have to be an expert shot to take out a dozen gangbangers, but it does take some skill to get those headshots. Trevor is the most offensive protagonist, and his special ability increases his damage and lessens damage taken to make him a rampaging whirligig of death, complete with snarled expletives and foaming at the mouth.
If you can stomach his tirades, Trevor can be really useful in hairy situations, but you can also level up any character in shooting skills by heading to targeting ranges within some Ammunation stores and earning medals. Michael is the stealthiest of the bunch, and can pack quite a punch if he sneaks up behind a guy. Leveling up stamina comes through exercise, and the minigames of tennis and golf are wonderful little diversions worthy of their own titles. Don't worry, though, the skill advancement doesn't feel forced or inorganic, and it helps to differentiate which of the three protagonists you want to use in a given situation.
Of course, there are far too many moments when you don't get to make that choice, and it makes you wonder why there are three main characters at all. The game establishes pretty early that Franklin is good at driving, but there's action sequences in which Michael is the driver because that's just how it's scripted. There are also certain establishments only particular characters can purchase and derive income from, which forces a specific linear progression, as well as moments when you can't switch characters at all. A more open sandbox would have been appreciated.
All this gameplay comes together with the heist missions. All the characters want money, and the easiest way for them to get it given their skills is to rob a few joints. The major heist missions serve well as the backbone of the game. Assembling the team and choosing a plan, then executing on it, makes you feel like a criminal mastermind. You level up crew members the more you use them, so it really feels like you are hand-picking your crack team each time you plan a caper.
Technologically, Grand Theft Auto V deserves the mantle as the pinnacle of this generation. You are forced to install the game code on your Xbox 360's storage - a USB drive will suffice if you don't have the space - but doing so reduces the load times immensely. The static mission loading screens are gone; you start watching a cutscene briefing seamlessly whenever you walk up to a character. The area you can explore is ginormous, and it encompasses so many different terrain types and landmarks that it's almost silly. Nothing hammers home the scope of GTAV more than when you play in your first aerial mission. Flying a plane across the state of San Andreas, seeing the sun set behind the mountains and knowing there's missions to complete, characters to meet and cars to steal across each inch of the landscape beneath you, is breathtaking.
If only the morally reprehensible script written by Dan Houser lived up to the achievements in game-making that Grand Theft Auto V otherwise embodies, it would be not just the game of the year but of the decade. Unfortunately, you can only hear a character say "&^%@ you, Mother&*^%er" so many times before it starts to grate on you. You can only embody a vicious psychopath a short time before it becomes boring, at best, and soul-crushing, at worst. Forcing players to murder people, not in a gamey "I killed you to complete a goal" way that defines this medium, but in a terrorizing and demeaning way, is not what will make videogames great. Rockstar had a chance to elevate, and they wasted it on portraying characters you don't want to spend five minutes with, let alone the hours it would take to play through the game's story.
Bottom Line: A technical achievement, GTAV's driving and shooting gameplay in an excellently crafted open world is marred by a script that presents despicable characters as the protagonists.
Recommendation: It's certainly fun to be the bad guy sometimes, but only buy Grand Theft Auto V if you're prepared to play as characters with no justifiable motivation for doing awful things to people.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.