Following an expectedly shaky launch, wherein it seemed few players weren’t able to get into a session at all, Grand Theft Auto Online is now fully operational. All of the complicated online stuff is made simple for multiplayer rookies like me, much of it happening in the background. As a result, jumping into a session is as easy as pressing a button. Once you do jump in, however, the kind of experience you’ll have is anyone’s guess.
The game doesn’t waste time in throwing you into the action, as unsurprisingly, GTA Online is light on plot. You’re new in town and you’re a criminal. That’s all you seem to get, but about all you need. I find it to be rather reminiscent of the first Saints Row; you play a silent protagonist who engages in a wide variety of activities and frequently resorts to brutal violence with little context. This comes as a stark contrast to GTAV’s almost self-indulgent wealth of cutscenes and characterisation, however, and without them the world feels a little less alive. But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for blowing things up with friends.
The world and things you can do within it are as huge and varied as in GTAV, if not more so. Multiplayer activities are wonderfully diverse and largely customisable. Many also have enough peppering of narrative to give the carnage some context, such as racing your competitors to a drug stash, or fighting off an ambush of corrupt cops. Survival quickly became one of my favourite modes, as you really need to work with your teammates to make it through, and there is never quite enough cover for you to get comfortable. Team Deathmatch is about what you’d expect, but the one life limit really forces you to play smart, and not just run-and-gun into a killzone. And of course, for pacifists there is competitive tennis, golf and parachuting, all of which work very well.
As with any multiplayer game, GTA Online lives and dies on the nature of its community. If you can set up a session with friends who play like you do, then you can be in for a great time. If, however, you’re like me and don’t have many online gaming friends, it can be extremely hit-and-miss. I had to adjust to the constant threat of being hunted down and killed for no reason at all. I was also kicked from a session by other players when I hadn’t done anything unpleasant to any of them.
Thankfully, Rockstar have made it a little more difficult to be a jerk via the use of a Good Sport/Bad Sport system. Sticking to the rules makes you a Good Sport, which supposedly nets you occasional rewards. A player will be labelled a Bad Sport if they turn against their allies on jobs, or frequently quit instead of seeing an activity through. Bad Sports are limited to playing against other Bad Sports until they learn to play nice, which is the closest thing to gaming purgatory I can imagine. Also, whether by design or happy accident, the lack of a crouch button makes tea bagging impossible.
GTA Online also features a Passive mode for free roaming, where you can’t attack anything, but other players can’t attack you, either. It’s not brilliant, as activating it precludes you from holding up stores or defending yourself against NPCs such as cops. It’s good to know the option is there, though, especially if someone’s trying to rob you before you can deposit your cash into an ATM.
Though unencumbered by lengthy character exposition, GTA Online is not without a certain amount of tedium. For example, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary waiting around in lobbies for other players to respond to invites. The option to play alongside or against bots in lieu of other players would have helped this tremendously. Failing that, I would have liked an option where you set up the type of activity you want to do, send out the invites, and then continue on roaming Los Santos until you’ve got enough players joined to begin. Maybe this is too technically demanding, given the scope of the world, but some kind of distraction or minigame would have been nice. We really shouldn’t have to bring a book to a video game.
Microtransactions are something of a dirty word in gaming, but GTA Online implements them well. While players have the option to buy GTA money with real money, this doesn’t unbalance the game like one might think, as the gear you can access is limited much more by your rank than your bank balance. And even with the best weapons and vehicles at your disposal, it’s still possible for a Rank 1 newbie with a pistol to pop you in the head if you’re not careful.
For everything GTA Online has that it shouldn’t, or doesn’t have that it should, it also features some really great concepts that I want patched into GTAV as soon as possible. These include the Quick GPS, which lets you set a route to the nearest objective, gun store, car mod shop, etc, without having to pause the game and manually set a marker on the map. Even better are the insurance and trackers on garage vehicles that keep you from accidentally losing your million-dollar car. For too long in GTA games I have left my best cars just sitting at the safehouse because I didn’t want to risk not being allowed to use them on missions, so this is a must-have for sandbox games everywhere.
I remain somewhat on the fence about GTA Online. On the one hand, my worst experiences were to do with fellow players and not the game itself. Any faults in the game’s design are fairly superficial and easily patched if Rockstar sees fit to do so. On the other hand, this is a multiplayer game, and if you don’t enjoy playing with multiple people, you might as well stick to GTAV. That said, I haven’t given up on it yet.