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Grand Theft Auto 5 time-lapse: world in motion

Digital Foundry's video showcase on the culmination of Rockstar's current-gen world simulation.

When it comes to world-building, few can compete with Rockstar and the results of its phenomenal RAGE engine. For their time, both Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption offered best-in-class world simulation and the arrival of GTA5 allows us to see the technology at its peak on the current-gen consoles. Time-lapse video accelerates the pace of the game world, offering up a unique view on the both the level of detail in the simulation - and the compromises made.

Perhaps not surprisingly, bearing in mind its US West Coast locale, GTA5 offers up an interesting mixture of both of Rockstar's prior sandbox games - the urban sprawl of GTA4 combined with the vast open spaces and spectacular vistas of Red Dead Redemption. Much has been improved - the overall level of detail in the world is breathtaking, pushing the streaming systems on the current-gen consoles to breaking point, while the lighting reaches another level. Appropriately for a simulation of California, the rendering of sunlight is often spectacular, particularly when looking out west over the ocean during sunset.

And yet, as beautiful as it is, we are not seeing a complete, linear progression of technology here. While the scale and scope of Rockstar's vision has expanded, the capabilities - and of course, the storage and memory - of the current-gen consoles have not, so there are some compromises. The NPC behaviours of GTA4 don't appear to be quite so detailed this time around, which hampered our efforts in getting decent city shots. Similarly, some of the cool "furniture" we found in GTA4 has no equivalents in the sequel. Time-lapse friendly props like fully working clocks, for example, were found in Liberty City, but appear to have been replaced with flat textures in GTA5.

It speaks to a different set of priorities in the new game. Open-world games have always introduced compromise to some degree - whether it's down to NPC behaviour, weather simulation or 'faking' time-of-day transitions. At time-lapse speeds, the shortcomings are brought into brutal focus, but during gameplay it's rarely noticeable at all. Key systems that could have been pared back, but remain mercifully untouched - for example, the atmospheric rendering could have been replaced with an Assassin's Creed-style roster of rotating skyboxes. Rockstar seems to have struck just the right balance here, as our video hopefully demonstrates:

A tour of the Los Santos cityscape and surrounding areas in this Digital Foundry time-lapse video, showcasing Rockstar's phenomenal world simulation technologies.Watch on YouTube

Producing videos like this isn't easy, especially in terms of the amount of time required to get the right shots. The typical approach begins with finding a steady first-person viewpoint in-game. This was fairly easy with the camera-phone in GTA4, but not so easy in its successor, which adds unwanted HUD furniture. The only solution is to use the first-person view available inside vehicles, which limits our angles somewhat and impacts the night-time view, where headlights automatically turn on.

Not much can be done about the former, but the latter is more easily resolved by smashing up the front of the car before the beginning of each capture. GTA5's cheat codes can be used to conjure up our vehicles of choice, allowing us to helicopter up to high points on the map, where we spawn cars to give us that locked viewpoint.

For this video, we captured from PlayStation 3 at 1fps, before accelerating the clips up to 60fps. Still not quite fast enough for the most part, so various levels of speed-up are added to the captures again in Adobe Premiere Pro, where the edit takes shape. More than 60 captures - most of them over an hour long - were generated, with 49 making their way into the final video.

Many thanks to Dmitry Tyulpakov for putting in the time and effort required to generate the time-lapse shots.

Other games in the Digital Foundry time-lapse collection:

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