GTA 5: Why the series' bold new online future guarantees a next-gen release

GTA 5 will appear on next-gen consoles within the next year. That’s my prediction and I’m sticking to it. Forget Rockstar’s ambiguous dancing around of the subject. Forget the fact Rockstar hasn’t even announced a PC version yet. Forget how long it took GTA IV and L.A Noire to get upgraded versions suitable for personalised computers. Sob into your pillow and try to drown the memories of Red Dead’s non-console non-appearance. Rockstar is working on a cranked-up PC version of Grand Theft Auto V, which will form the basis of the Xbox One and PS4 releases. And it will be announced within the next six months.

How do I know these things? Well I don’t know know. But I know. Given the current state of play it just wouldn’t make any sense for Rockstar to not be working on a next-gen version. If Grand Theft Auto V were a standalone release, we might have reason to doubt. After all, the company has long held a fairly inconsistent track-record in regards to releasing games on formats beyond their initial release platforms. GTA IV took six months to get to the PC. Ditto L.A. Noire. Max Payne 3 took only a few weeks, but let’s not mention Red Dead again. The non-application of additional horsepower to that game-world is one of Rockstar’s most egregious missed opportunities.

But the thing is, Grand Theft Auto V is not a standalone release. It’s the gateway to Grand Theft Auto Online. And GTA Online is not simply a multiplayer add-on for GTA V. Grand Theft Auto Online, I strongly reckon, is going to be Rockstar’s key business model for the indefinite future. In fact, if anything, Grand Theft Auto V could be seen as the Trojan Horse used to get Rockstar’s long-term business plan into our homes.

You see I’m damn sure that GTA Online is going to become the standard Grand Theft Auto platform in the years to come. It’s too ambitious, both in scope and as an investment, to remain simply ‘GTA V’s online bit’. And beyond that fact, the creation of seamless, connected, online virtual worlds appears to have been Rockstar’s long-term plan for this entire generation. Every game R* has released on current-gen hardware has, in retrospect, looked like a prototype for a different element of what it would eventually realise with GTA Online.

Grand Theft Auto IV’s multiplayer, while in many ways a traditional online offering, acted as a test-bed for large-scale, open-world, fully connected GTA anarchy. Red Dead Redemption’s free-roaming multiplayer hub was a step towards making things more organic, placing multiplayer events within the existing gameworld and allowing hours of emergent, shared play in between the formally organised skirmishes and missions. Even the resolutely linear Max Payne 3 added something to the grand plan, introducing the idea of persistent multiplayer ‘Crews’, as well as multiplayer matches that played out within an enclosed meta-narrative.

And Grand Theft Auto V looks to be the completed end-point of all that exploration. Because after all, where else would Rockstar unleash the results of its years-long online research, but in its most iconic flagship for virtual world-building?

Well I say Grand Theft Auto V is the completed end-point. It’s not. I’m actually referring to GTA Online. The lines between the two are admittedly blurred, now that Rockstar seems to have realised the next phase of its world-creating ambitions, but those blurred lines are exactly why I think GTAO is the future of the whole series. Rockstar has already talked about its desire to eventually build a connected GTA world, in which a player can jump on a plane at Los Santos airport and fly over to Vice City, or even some new, hitherto unexplored GTA city, for new adventures. And long-term I reckon it’ll happen, with GTA Online becoming the ‘container’ for the series.

Imagine if the equivalent of GTA VI turns up in a few years, with a full, cinematic campaign as usual, but releases inside GTA Online as a huge update. The campaign exists as its own, single-player entity, but the online version connects to the existing GTAO world map. Give it ten years, and we could have several continents’ worth of GTA adventures spanning a global parallel Earth.

It just makes too much sense. In light of Rockstar’s ambitions and the slow, steady experimentation it has done over the last decade, it surely has to happen. So don’t see Grand Theft Auto V as a single game release that may or not be ported to other formats. Because I don’t think the series, or Rockstar in general, works in that way any more. Rather, see Grand Theft Auto V as the start of the next phase of what Grand Theft Auto is. A really, generous installation disc, opening the door to the vast, shared, Grand Theft Auto World of the future.

And if I’m right about that, and I really think I’m going to be, what are the chances that Grand Theft Auto V will not go to the PC and next-gen consoles? Give Rockstar a bit of time to polish up the new game, and provide the kind of upgraded polish that so many cross-gen games currently don’t possess. The new Los Santos deserves to shine as brightly as it can. Give Rockstar a little more time to work out the kinks of the next-gen online infrastructure, and decide how best to use of those in-built social connectivity features the PS4 and Xbox One are bringing. GTA Online deserves to make incredible use of them.

And then give Rockstar a few years to really start building out the online Grand Theft Auto concept. At that point you’ll look back and see the current-gen Grand Theft Auto V as a trailer for the main event, and you’ll wonder how you ever worried about a next-gen release at all.

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David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.