After more than 1.5 years of wait, we PC games finally have the pleasure of being able to play GTA V in all its glory. I had already pumped some 20-something hours, maybe 30, in the XBox 360 version but now I aim for, if not a 100% completion, at least doing every mission and at least attempt every challenge. And oh boy, playing it for a second time feels just as great as if was new (I'm just more proficient with the controls, know a few tricks and remember how to complete most missions).
While I'm playing it, slowly, enjoying the story, trying to catch all the small details, the almost alive city, the animals, the pedestrians with their impressive artificial intelligence, the random chases, robberies, accidents or traffic jams... The world feels so alive that I can't but wonder if actually GTA can be played as an RPG, because it really feels like an RPG.
I'm the kind of videogame player that tries to maximize Final Fantasy character levels (except in those like FF VIII where enemies level along with you), the one that pumped dozens and dozens of hours on Fallout 3, finished all DLCs and got the explorer achievement (IIRC, exploring 100 different points of interest from the map). When I finished Elder Scrolls Oblivion, my character was so powerful I did all the main story arc almost in a speedrun. But the amount of things you can do in this GTA entry... is so amazing.
You can invest in stock options and alter the world to make them go up or down (e.g. invest in a car firm after destroying many cars to buy low, then destroy other firms so their price rises and sell your stocks), you can buy houses and fine-tune cars, buy clothes and each character has their own stats you can increase... you can even change the haircut or tatoos. World setting aside, it is quite similar to any Elder Scrolls game, and ages above the degree of customization you can do at most "action RPGs" like Diablo 3, which many times are quite linear and only the loot or the chosen skills actually "customizes" the character.
Here you can literally spend hours doing side-missions, travelling by cab or train, learning to fly planes, or even diving in search of UFO pieces. NPCs get scared if you follow them and might call the police or not. Steal a car and many things can happen, from them running to even taking out a gun and shooting you. So many variants in general that as I already said the world feels almost real. Hell, even the radio news reflect the latest events that have happened (of course all around you, but anyway adds a lot of inmersion).
So what makes an RPG so? Old school ones had lots of text, GTA has hours and hours of conversations, phone calls, sms and emails; RPGs have stats, GTA has them (even money and owned properties are separate for each character); Visual customization as said is present; Lore, NPCs and a credible world, more than present; Choices and side-missions, a lot of both. Free-roaming, more than any Final Fantasy title would dream about.
Yes, is not turn-based or pausable; No, you cannot fully customize the main characters but you can create online characters and there you have way more freedom... I am no expert in the subject, but I think many of the last years' so-called xxx-RPGs have way less right to use that acronym than other recent titles like Grand Theft Auto 5.
In the end, it's all about how you play, how you live the virtual setting created for your pleasure.
Note: Photos taken from Snapmatic uploaded trending photos, another clever idea from Rockstar: use the in-game phone to take photos (even selfies) and upload them so people mimic real-world Instagram.