The premise of Grand Theft Auto Online is a tantalising proposition for any fan of online multiplayer, let alone those already invested in open-world games.
Accessible for free by selecting the fourth slot of your character-switching wheel in GTA V, players first experience GTA Online by designing their own protagonist using the hereditary-based character creation system. Rather than customising every aspect of your online avatar, aside from being male or female, your overall genetic outcome is determined by adjusting your parental dominance and social characteristics (like how athletic you are). Do you more closely resemble your father, who for example may be GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic, than your mother? Although some players may dislike how random their protagonist turns out, the benefit is that no longer will a dozen identical characters run amuck through your world.
Once your character is ready for action, after touching down in Los Santos, what happens next is up to you. Although there is no real story for your character to follow, your journey up Southern San Andreas’ criminal ladder will have you cross paths with many familiar faces from GTA V‘s story mode. Everything you do in the game, from holding up liquor stores to robbing armoured trucks earns you ‘Reputation Points’, with the overall goal being to earn money, spend money and have fun.
Staged in the city of Los Santos and the surrounding countryside of Blaine County, you and fifteen friends, enemies or strangers coexist in a persistent online world, with almost every activity from GTA V being made available for you all to participate in. Whether you fancy playing a couple of games of tennis with a buddy, or simply compete in traditional online game modes, the heart of the GTA experience is translated wonderfully into a multiplayer environment. On top of that, over 500 missions are open from the start, with the option to complete them alone or to cooperate with others. Of course, as is typical of GTA, perhaps the game’s biggest draw is giving players the freedom to cause pileups, team up against the police, race down mountains, or fly together from one side of the world to the other. The world’s your oyster, with the only thing holding you back from having fun being your imagination. Yet this isn’t what makes GTA Online so brilliant, or at the same time so chaotic and unpredictable.
What really sets the experience apart, even with this large – and ever increasing – number of missions and activities to engage in, is the competing sense of greed, survival and paranoia that dictates your interactions with the other up-and-coming criminals that are earning money across the map. This social dynamic is at its best when completing jobs as part of a crew, or simply by coming across strangers on the road.
Do you test your luck and try to coerce an unsuspecting player into giving you their vehicle, or use your numbers to take it by force? When working together with friends, or even random players you’ve temporarily formed an allegiance with, it’s up to the crew leader to distribute cash amongst the team. Do you divvy up the dollars evenly, even though one member of the team didn’t pull their weight, or run the risk of facing a mutiny because you gave the slacker only a fraction of the cut? Until players are far enough to pull off bigger jobs and have more money on the table, these elements of GTA Online will remain theoretical. However, the more you play, and the more you have to lose, the more likely it is your attitude towards running with your pals will turn more sinister. It’s a truly exciting concept, something that is definitely uncharted territory for Rockstar and the genre in general, and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing would-be criminal masterminds pulling off bank jobs like in the opening of The Dark Knight before too long.
There will also opportunities for your creativity to flourish in the near future, whether you want to design races that stretch from the heart of Downtown Los Santos to the peak of Mount Chiliad, or deathmatches that are staged in and around the game’s most iconic locales. Players can then publish their efforts onto the Rockstar Social Club for others to download, play and rate.
Unfortunately, due to the inevitable strain placed on Rockstar’s servers – largely because of the sheer number of players using the service – GTA Online is currently suffering from technical issues that go beyond typical online launches. Problems vary from being unable to join an online session to having your online character’s progress erased – and even single-player save files corrupted. Glitches are also widespread, which most commonly affect your personal arsenal and vehicles. Though the scale of GTA Online does mean that such difficulties are expected, my advice would be to wait a few more days for Rockstar to fix some of the more damaging problems that plague the game.
Though it is the game’s biggest strength, sharing the world of GTA Online with others may also prove problematic. Unless you have a stable roster of friends, completing missions (that vary in quality) can easily become disastrous. This was particularly evident when my random partner decided to rob my car, run me over, and then chase me across the map rather than concentrate on the task at hand. On a broader scale, being lumped together with a bunch of spoilsports – whose idea of fun is to shoot rockets at pedestrians, police and players alike – will similarly result in a more isolating experience. You can open a private lobby for you and your friends, or enter a passive mode where you are made invulnerable (so long as you don’t attack others), but these measures lessen the experience. An interesting measure designed to restrict unwanted mayhem is to place bounties on other players’ heads, which will hopefully encourage players to play nice with one another – or else face attracting unwanted attention from those looking to earn an easy $20,000. It’s still early days, and the game’s labelling of good and bad sports has yet to be properly tested, but your enjoyment of the experience will largely be determined by the company you keep.
What is clear, teething problems aside, is that GTA Online is Rockstar’s ongoing experiment. Promising a constant stream of content for players to enjoy, including the ability to create your own missions, this is only the beginning. This may very well be GTA as you’ve always imagined playing it, never mind the best example of open-world multiplayer – but not quite yet.