Grand Theft Auto Online review

GTA Online has been available for a couple of weeks now, but is it everything we hoped it would be?

By now you all know just how good GTA V is. The latest entry on the Grand Theft Auto series is arguably the best yet, and this isn’t counting one of the game’s biggest features, the online component.

Released pseudo-separately from the retail purchase, GTA Online became available on October 1, and promptly began to melt Rockstar’s servers due to high demand. This was odd, as Rockstar was well aware of how its game was doing, and not making arrangements for such demand was simply short-sighted, bad planning, or a bit of both. Still, the game’s online component was here, as we couldn’t wait to jump on in and experience what could well be one of the greatest online games ever made. Well, that’s what we hoped, but sadly, what we got was far from an epoch-making release it should and could be.

Beta blocker

As most of you are very much aware, and before I get to the actual review, I have to say that GTAO is not a finished product. Rockstar’s communication prior to release stating that the game may have some rough edges was an understatement. On launch, GTAO was a buggy, nigh-on unplayable mess. If it didn’t crash your console before you even got into the game, broken missions would kick you where it hurts, or server issues would boot you at random intervals. It was a ridiculously fragile start, and I can safely say Rockstar should have delayed the launch for a couple more weeks, instead of releasing a game that was barely past its beta stage.

In all fairness, though, Rockstar was quick to act, and patches and updates followed, fixing connectivity issues, character and progression loss, and other niggling issues. At the time of writing, GTAO has received three patches, and it’s certainly far more stable than it was at launch. So, now that’s it’s more playable, the questions remains, is it any good?

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Sandbox war zone

The essence of GTAO is just as you’d image. It gives up to 16 people at a time the chance to roam around Los Santos and Blaine County, causing havoc and making money. Deathmatches, team deathmatches, races and more are all available to participate in, and there are various missions you can also attempt, either alone of with others. It’s all contained in the open world, and separate instances are loaded up when you enter a mission or multiplayer match.

GTAO is accessed from the single player game, either by selecting it as the game loads, or switching to your online persona from the story mode. To begin your time in an online Los Santos, you first need to create a character. You have various slots to utilise, and creating your character is decidedly unique. Instead of the usual character creation tools that allow you to choose facial features, hair and so on, GTAO instead uses some usual options, along with a weird ‘hereditary’ system. You choose your character’s grandparents and parents, and their appearance determines what your character will look like. It’s interesting, but a little too random for my liking, and it’s really hard to get any form of decent looking avatar. Most are pretty dodgy-looking, but they get the job done.

Character stats are handled in an equally odd way. Instead of distributing points on stats directly, you choose how long your character spends doing certain activities, such as sleeping, spending time with friends, illegal work or simply sitting on the sofa. The more time you put into these, the better certain skills such as driving, shooting, stamina and so on are. Your selection also changes your character’s starting apparel. Allocate time to what the game considers a gang-banger’s schedule would be and you’ll be decked out in baggy jeans and a baseball cap. Spend more time in a legal job and with your family, and you may get a nice suit. It works fairly well, but I’d prefer a manual points distribution system.

Once you’ve created your would-be criminal superstar, you fly into Los Santos to be met by Franklin’s buddy, Lamar, who serves as your mentor, getting you used to the online ropes. He’ll give you a gun, a car, challenge you to a race and introduce you to some of the game’s mission-giving characters (the game takes place before the single-player story, so some familiar faces from early on in the campaign make a return). Once you’ve completed some of the training missions, you’re eventually let lose on your own in the sprawling game world. From this point, you do what you want, always earning money and reputation, which are very important.

Money is important for obvious reasons. You’ll need plenty of cash to buy weapons, ammo, armour, vehicles and property, including garages to store your cars and a place to live (and can invite friends to). You earn money in all sorts of ways. Completing missions and winning deathmatches and races are the best ways to become rich (until heists are implemented anyway), but there are plenty of other ways to augment your income.

You can find an kill other players, stealing any money they’re carrying, or you can rob one of the many shops and gas stations dotted around (but you’ll need to deal with the police and vigilante citizens). You can even sell cars to Los Santos Customs if you like.

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Money is more important here than in the main game as it’s harder to come by, and various purchases are more expensive than in the solo campaign. Vehicle and weapons customisations, for example, are many times more costly, and you’ll have to save up for that cool-looking bumper or bulletproof tyres.

Money is also easier to lose, and other players often delight in stalking you in the world, gunning you down to steal your hard earned cash. You can protect your green, though. A clever feature in GTAO is the banking system. Via your phone’s Internet banking or an ATM you can actually deposit your money into your bank account. As you’re no longer carrying it, your money is safe, even if someone kills you. It’s a neat feature, and I highly advise new players to use that Internet banking every time they complete a mission, just in case.

Adding to money’s importance is the reputation and levelling system. Rep is earned as you do things in the world, be it completing missions, killing opponents, robbing stores, losing police or simply stealing cars. As you earn more rep you’ll eventually level up. This levelling unlocks items, such as car upgrades and new weapons, as well as character customisation items like clothes and hairstyles. So, even if you have tons of cash (including using purchased funds via microtransactions), you’ll still have to put the hours in to be able to buy powerful guns and better vehicles and property.

This rep system is one of the best features of GTAO for me, as it levels out the playing field, stopping people from simply grinding to earn cash and buying the best gear in a short time. It should also help with matchmaking, letting new players compete against similarly equipped foes. Sadly, I often found my early time being pitted against people with much higher levels. Oh well.

‘ullo John, got a new motor?

A new feature in the single-player game is the personal vehicle, a unique and specific car for each of the main characters that can never be lost. In order to make GTAO and its large world work, and to eliminate the need to constantly find a new car, your avatar can also have a personal vehicle, but this also has a few more perks than those in single player.

Early on the game gets you to go out and steal a car to deliver to Los Santos Customs (make sure you get a good one if you can). This car is set as your personal vehicle after you purchase a tracker and insurance (initially free, but chargeable after). Once set up, the car is yours, and the tracker will locate its potion on the map. The insurance comes into play if your vehicle is stolen by other players or destroyed. Basically, you’ll be given a new car, so you’ll always have wheels. When you start a new GTAO session, or start/complete a mission, your car will also be teleported to you.

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This personal vehicle isn’t just there for convenience, though, and it’s very important. A big reason for this is the change GTAO makes to car ownership. In the main story the police will only bother you in a stolen car if they see you steal it, a civilian calls them after witnessing the theft, or during scripted missions. Online this isn’t the case, and any stolen car you’re driving will instantly give you wanted stars if you’re spotted by the law, prompting a chase. It’s a great change, and one that keeps you on your toes, and it can even make usually simple and easy missions a challenge. This is lucky, as one of GTAO‘s major issues for me is the weak and often dull missions.

Go get this, bring me that

Although I understand GTAO‘s main focus is with the multiplayer competitive modes like deathmatches, races and so on, I do find it a little disappointing that the missions it offers (complete with the usual, high quality cut scenes and acting) are a little bland.

Missions include many here and get that efforts. You may have to locate and steal a car so you can deliver it to a garage, or go and kill a gang of drug dealers so you can nab the narcotics for someone else. There are more examples, but on the whole, the variety on offer here is a little samey. This usually comes with the territory in online gameing, and playing them with friends does liven things up greatly, but don’t expect the variety of the solo game.

That’s not to say there’s no variety at all, far from it. Remember, you’ve got the whole of the game world to wander around and do things in, and impromptu races, base jumping competitions, hunting trips, and much more are there, all you have to do is think of what to do and play around. You can even team up, Bonnie and Clyde-style and rob places as a team, with gunmen and nominated getaway drivers. And, when the creation tools for races and deathmatches are made available, things will really kick off.

Of course, these deathmatches and races are every bit as good as you’d expect, making full use of GTA V‘s excellent vehicle physics and improved on-foot combat. Deathmatches are surprisingly tactical at times, with teams fanning out to find cover, stalk their opponents and working together to distract the other team. Then again, if you’re not quick, and you’re playing with people who simply rush in an shoot, you’ll find yourself with no kills as it’s all over very quickly. As with so many online games, your experience will change drastically depending on the company you keep. Indeed, GTAO‘s major failing is not technical glitches or lack of mission variety, it’s the people who play it.

You’re a (insert profanity here)

If you find yourself staying away from online games like Call of Duty due to excessive abuse and want to avoid the army of trolls that often populate multiplayer lobbies around the globe, then GTAO is most certainly going to be a cause for concern.

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In my time with GTAO I’ve witnessed some of the most foul examples of online gamers, from profanity-spewing fools and people who delight in tormenting newcomers to under-age players who not only think they’re experts on sexuality and your mother’s bedroom antics, but can barely play the game, and certainly don’t get the point.

Now, in games like CoD, which is all about combat in a fixed map, this is bad enough, but in a game like GTAO, with an open world, a focus on team play and the ability to lose currency and vehicles, this is a major issue. Put simply, if you don’t find friends to play with and risk going in with strangers, prepare for some grief.

There are some mechanics at work to help with this. Firstly, GTAO features a passive mode. This can be selected in the main menu and makes you invulnerable when you’re in the open world and not on a mission. You can’t kill others either, but you’ll not have to worry too much about losing money. Although, I’ve seen players using passive mode still be killed by being run over.

Second is the rep system. Players can be rated as good or bad guys, and with enough votes will always be grouped with other with a similar rep. In theory, this should make sure trolls only get to play with each other, and not those who actually want to play the game.

Players can also be booted from the server too, and can be reported, so there are tools you can use to make things better, but as we all know, this rarely improves matters. Just look at CoD. Many releases in and it’s still plagued by problems.

Land of promise

It may have its problems, some that can be easily fixed with patches, and others that are out of Rockstar’s control, but one thing is eminently clear, GTAO is a very promising title.

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At the moment the bugs and glitches are spoiling it, as are other players in some instances, and the fairly repetitive missions could use some work, but even in such early days, I have very high hopes. The core game works very well, and the simple fact that you can go on a crime spree in a world populated by 15 others is enough to warrant your interest. If you play with like-minded people or friends, GTAO is simply sublime, and the sheer number of things to do and ways in which you can work as a team boggle the mind. The game just works, pure and simple.

I’d happily give GTAO a higher score, as I do believe it’ll eventually be a stand out online title, but as I’m reviewing it in its current state, I have to judge it as such. Once Rockstar has fixed all of the problems, however, and works on adding content such as creation tools and heists, GTA Online will sky-rocket in enjoyability. For now, just bear with the problems, it should be worth it in the long run.

It’s also just been announced (October 11) that players who have played, or plan to play GTA Online any time in October will be given $500,000 in game cash as recompense for all of the issues. This will be made in two $250,000 deposits, beginning next week. That’s quite the wedge of cash to get you going on your career of crime. Nice.

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3 out of 5