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Critics: Top-rated Grand Theft Auto V a “remarkable achievement”

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Click for more screenshots (Credit: Rockstar Games)

The most controversial video game franchise in the world is back – and it’s stealing the hearts of critics all over again.

It's been five years since Rockstar Games last released a Grand Theft Auto game, so the expectations for Grand Theft Auto V, which stormed retail stores last night to crowded lines of eager gamers, are sky high. The last GTA game set sales records upon its release, and many expect the new game to do the same. It will also earn countless headlines for its mature subject matter -- a new round of video game violence chatter will almost certainly erupt -- but the real reason why everyone should be excited about GTA V is that it’s an amazing video game.

With over 35 outlets ringing in thus far, GTA V currently boasts a Metacritic average of 98. That makes it the highest-rated game of the year so far, surpassing critical darlings Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. Over half of those outlets have given the game a perfect score, including Giant Bomb, IGN and Machinima.

[Related: Grand Theft Actors: Celebs in GTA over the years (gallery)]

Why all the love? Critics are calling it a perfect blending of GTA IV's gritty realism with the more absurd stylings of earlier GTA titles, tied together with a well-written narrative.

"No one makes worlds like Rockstar, but at last it has produced one without compromise," says Edge Online in a 10/10 review. "Everything works. It has mechanics good enough to anchor games of their own, and a story that is not only what GTA has always wanted to tell but also fits the way people have always played it. It’s a remarkable achievement, a peerless marriage of world design, storytelling and mechanics that pushes these aging consoles to the limit and makes it all look easy."

GTA V boasts a series first. Instead of one lead character, it has three: ex-con turned family man Michael, aspirational roughneck Franklin, and psychopathic criminal Trevor. Critics note this makes the story easier to sustain, and transitioning from one character to the other is seamless. What's more, the protagonists don't cease to exist when players aren't in control of them, giving the game a sense of persistence and depth.

"Each character has his own missions and switching between them moves you to wherever that character is as you join his life, which is already in progress," notes Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann. "This means you might catch Trevor waking up in the middle of the desert, wearing a dress. Or you might catch Michael waking up screaming. It's a good little trick that gives the illusion that these characters are off living their lives, even when you aren't directly controlling them." He doles out a 5/5 score.

While GTA IV was an enormous hit, it was also a bit glitchy. Critics say Rockstar has learned from those missteps and corrected the game's most notable flaws, including the cover system, auto-aiming, and the handling of vehicles.

And perhaps best of all, you're less likely to quit in frustration after having to repeat a failed mission time and time again.

"At long last, Rockstar has finally slain one of its most persistent demons, mission checkpointing, ensuring that you never have to do a long, tedious drive six times when you repeatedly fail a mission ever again," says IGN writer Keza MacDonald in another 10/10 review.

Like its predecessors, GTA V is a wide-open world where players can take a break from the storyline to explore and find new adventures on their own. Don't want to plan a robbery? Take a break by playing golf or tennis. Tired of breakneck races? Go to the movies (which feature actual mini 'films' you can watch). You can even learn to skydive.

[Related: Report: Grand Theft Auto V cost $266 million]

Of course, it wouldn't be a GTA game without controversy. The ESRB warns players they'll encounter torture, the ability to smoke a marijuana joint or do cocaine, and "a brief instance of necrophilia" in the game. And, of course, you'll kill a lot of virtual people. A lot.

It's that non-stop violence that bugged The Escapist, who gave the game its lowest mark by far.

"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," writes reviewer Greg Tito in a 7/10 review. "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."

Most critics weren't bothered enough by the game’s moral ambiguity to offset its technical merits, however, and across the board they tend to agree that as this generation of consoles comes to a close and gamers look to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, there's no higher note the industry could hit.

"Grand Theft Auto V is the closure of this generation, and the benchmark for the next," sums up Polygon's Chris Plante, who gives it a 9.5/10. "Here is a game caught occasionally for the worst, but overwhelmingly for the better, between the present and the future."

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