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Why driving safely in GTA 5 can be just as fun as wreckless road-rage

(Image credit: Rockstar)

18 months ago, I passed my driving test at the grand old age of 32. While that may not sound like a Herculean achievement, it made me appreciate how hard it is to learn a new skill in your 30's. Compared to my adolescent sponge of a brain, my current sludgy grey matter is a big ol’ sink – something that made learning to drive tough. It’s also had the bonus effect of making me take an entirely different approach to speeding around Grand Theft Auto 5’s criminal city. 

Actually, there’s absolutely zero speeding involved. I recently took the plunge back into GTA Online after its recent Diamond Casino update, yet it’s not the virtual slots that have me hooked. Instead, I’m revisiting Los Santos as an all-new kind of up-and-coming criminal – one who respects the stickling restrictions of the modern day Highway Code. 

After a year of ponderous three-point turns, roughly 138 failed attempts to parallel park, and being constantly shouted at for edging into the wrong lane on spiral roundabouts, I have a newfound appreciation for the exacting mechanics of real-world driving. Like mastering a punishing slice-and-dice action affair – see 2019's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – driving an actual car demands acute awareness and sharp instincts. 

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

In real life, your average family hatchback is a complex mesh of deftly balanced machinery and sophisticated engineering; a delicate marriage involving all manner of finely tuned springs, coils, oil levels, and sometimes the occasional furry dice. 

In games, though? Pfft, all you have to worry about is bashing the right trigger to go and jamming the left one to stop. When it comes to most sandbox titles, cars handle with all the complexity of a souped-up dodgem. 

Still, that doesn’t mean my new orderly inner driver can’t be accommodated on GTA 5’s labyrinthine network of roads. Indeed, Los Santos and its surrounding highways actually adhere to strict traffic guidelines that ensure most NPC motorists drive like exceedingly careful pensioners. 

Oh sure, your average fellow driver still toots the ever-loving crap out of their horn should Trevor and co or your online avatar cut them off or switch lanes at the last second. Yet for most of their time endlessly looping around the roads of Blaine County, NPCs respect the rules of the road.  

Lighten the road

(Image credit: Rockstar)

After losing countless chips playing roulette in GTA Online’s lavishly produced latest edition, I decided it was high time I returned to what I still consider to be perhaps the greatest game ever made. The single-player portion of GTA 5 is not only a near-peerless sandbox masterpiece, it also allows you to drive around its streets and highways in realistic, safety-first fashion. 

Whether you’re travelling from Rockford Hills to Vespucci Beach while working on Michael’s tan in a pricey convertible, or turning on Spanish Avenue to hit Mad Wayne Thunder Drive, traffic lights are everywhere. Every junction in Los Santos is covered by these blinking timers, and, other than Rockstar’s criminal trio, almost every single other person in the world stops when said lights switch from amber to red. A wild concept, I know.

Honouring the slow developing motorist in me, for the past few weeks I’ve started to obey the same traffic rules as every NPC in GTA 5. Alright, sometimes I’ll put pedal to the felonious metal during the more hectic, murder-y parts of the campaign (there’s no time for proper indication etiquette when those drive-bys go down), but in between missions, I’m all too content - and weirdly relaxed by - stopping when the lights turn red.

(Image credit: Rockstar)

"In most sandbox titles, cars handle with all the complexity of a souped-up dodgem."

Driving under ‘must past my test’ conditions extends beyond mere halting for colours. It also involves making sure you’re in the right lane for that next corner; you can’t switch between lanes in the game without getting a thorough honking – you can’t control your indicators, after all. Ensuring you’re in the right lane before that next turn often takes half a block of planning in partnership with the game’s GPS, so early awareness is required. Dear lord, I’m sad.

While stopping for lights and driving in real-world fashion has slowed most of my criminal A to B journeys to a crawl, it’s also made me appreciate GTA 5’s still superb handling model. It may not be glamorous, but adhering to real-life road rules has impressed the road-legal adult in me more than I could have ever imagined. Just make sure the rest of you all dampen that need for speed, you hear?

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Paid maker of words, goes by many names: Meiksy… Macklespammer… Big Hungry Joe. Obsessive fan of Metal Gear Solid, Nathan Drake's digital pecks and Dino Crisis 2. Loves Jurassic Park so much, may burst at any moment.