Grand Theft Auto Online: the state of play

It's been over a month since GTA Online launched, and after a rocky start, we revisit the criminal MMO and see how it's faring...

It’s not often that we feel the need to revisit a game we’ve already covered, but GTA is a bit of a special case, especially in its online form. GTA Online is one of the most intriguing releases of the year, not simply because it’s an online GTA, which is a big enough reason to get all worked up on its own, but because on release, well… It just wasn’t very good, which was a bit of a shock for most.

Sure, we all knew Rockstar was still relatively new to the online MMO world as GTA IV merely dipped its toe in and other online forays have been mainly deathmatch and simple combat affairs, such as Max Payne 3Red Dead Redemption was good, but you’d hardly call Rockstar an online veteran at this style, certainly not something this grandiose. GTA Online is far bigger than previous attempts at the genre, and is an undeniably ambitious project.

Taking the complex and sprawling world of GTA V, complete with deathmatches, races, missions, banking system, car modding, the superb mobile phone menu system, and the lifelike open world and turning into a cohesive online experience was no doubt a terrifically hard job. Unlike sprawling worlds like Skyrim or even WoW, there are game elements at work here that make things far more difficult to achieve. This is no clicky, clicky RPG, it’s a real-time, graphically intensive online world where you’re always in full control, and it has to be smooth, and play just as well as the solo campaign.

Car physics, real-time shoot-outs, player reputation, communications, dynamic mission assignments and so on all require a rock solid, very physical game engine and game mechanics, which is something the game simply lacked on launch. And above all, the game needs both balance and stability, another thing it stumbled with.

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Now that we’ve had a few patches, and we’ve had over a month to play, has GTA Online improved? Has the game taken the full-on status of awesomeness fans were expecting? Let’s have a second look, shall we?

Band-Aid

As much as we hate to admit it, and we’re loathed to accept it, gone are the days when a game is released in final, fully polished form. Patches and title updates are now commonplace, and some games are released into the wild in a form that would, a few years ago, never make it out of QA testing. GTA Online is a perfect example, and now we’re patched up to version 1.06 with the arrival of the ‘Beach Bum’ update.

This added some new content to the game, along with a collection of fixes and tweaks, and previous patches have attempted to iron out the numerous problems with the game, and in some ways this, has managed to improve the overall GTAO experience.

Initial problems with the tutorial are, it seems, pretty much banished, as are some of the more unstable and troublesome elements, such as freezes, loss of character progress and lock-ups (although I had one myself just last night, ah well). However, despite best efforts, there are still some quirky issues with garages and owned cars.

I’ve personally seen my expensive, fully modded cars turn invisible and be replaced with their vanilla forms, cars parked in front of garages vanish, leaving behind a phantom vehicle that prevents access to said garage, and even when set to allow it, your friends often can’t get into your car to ride shotgun.

Other problematic issues that have plagued the game since launch are also still very much present, perhaps no more so than the game’s flaky servers and friend-finding functions. Random disconnects remain an issue, and I still encounter errors when I try to connect to a friend’s game. Even when you’re in a game with friends or crew mates, after a mission, instead of making sure you remain in the same instance, you’re often split up.

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These are basic functions that any online games needs to nail, and it’s a shame that Rockstar is yet to conquer the problems here. But that’s not the end of the story.

Trolling, trolling, trolling…

One of the main issues I highlighted with GTAO in my initial review was the player community. Although Rockstar obviously can’t be held accountable for this, it can take measures to help players enjoy the game without suffering fools.

Some tweaks and features are in place, such as the ‘Bad Sport’ system, but so far I’ve failed to see any signs that this is helping. Games are still infested with trolls and rage quitters, and it’s common for you to lose your personal vehicles due to spite, as there’s simply not enough protection. At the very least, the protection provided isn’t uniform, or balanced. Even an instant punishment for killing players in the pause menu would be good.

Take, for instance, a time when I attacked a player attempting to kill myself and a friend (they attacked and killed us first). In the battle, I killed him and destroyed his vehicle, not on purpose, just as a side effect of the battle. I ended up paying $12,500 to replace his car. He then purposely destroyed my car (which was more expensive) when I was some way away, and I had to pay for all of it. Apparently, my insurance, which is exactly the same as anyone else’s, doesn’t cover this kind of attack. I’m not alone either, and I’ve heard many others have the same issue. There’s just no balance, and in the latest update, Rockstar even ‘drastically reduced’ the punishment for destroying a personal vehicle. The end result is trepidation in taking your favorite vehicles out into freeplay.

Granted, there is the ‘Passive Mode’, which can be turned on for $100. This is supposed to prevent players from damaging you, effectively making you immortal, but it doesn’t work. You can still be killed by vehicles, and your own personal vehicles are just as vulnerable, so there’s little point.

It’s also still possible to be kicked from a game for no reason whatsoever. Many players have reported being kicked by other players (although, it could be a technical glitch), even when they’ve not encountered or attacked anyone, which means that you can forfeit rewards and freeplay missions like Simeon’s rare import car deliveries or gang attacks just because someone doesn’t like your name, or want to cheaply get rid of you so they can reap the rewards. All that’s needed is enough votes, and if there are enough crew members around, that’s not a problem. This is a tricky one to solve, sure, but it needs looking at.

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Rough with the smooth

All of that said, with a lot longer stalking the alleyways of Los Santos and dusty roads of Blaine County, one thing eventually becomes more and more apparent. Fighting, or avoiding players you know are going to take delight in killing you repeatedly as you spawn, and protecting your vehicle actually adds to the overall experience. The feeling of uncertainty makes the world feel much more absorbing, and the satisfaction you get when you return the favor for a particularly obnoxious foe is palpable. Delivering that rare vehicle to Simeon isn’t so much about the money, but the thrill of accomplishing the task, despite the best efforts of others, cheap tactics or otherwise.

The need to be ever vigilant breeds a new kind of approach. Even the little things, such as going to a spray store, become tactical. You just know the Los Santos Customs in the middle of the city is always a prime spot for camping player-killers, so you plan to go elsewhere, or at least check the map first. Ready to go for the special crate drop? Who else is nearby, and is anyone flying a plane? Why is that guy standing outside of my apartment? Okay, garage exit it is then.

It’s a constant exercise in planning and observation, and it’s the rough that actually makes the freeplay mode the stand out for me after all of this time. Whilst the missions are good, the open world, with all of its balancing issues and grief is where the most fun is to be had for many, although given my highlighted issues here, it’s certainly not a friendly place for new players. And that’s the rub.

Noob death

Unless you’re a highly experienced gamer or GTA player, GTAO is not a friendly place for newcomers, and freeplay is often best avoided, and more time has shown that this isn’t going to improve as there’s little in the way of easy balancing for newcomers, especially in freeplay. As higher level players have better weapons, armour, vehicles and skills, new players are often left disgruntled, unable to fight back effectively, and as the passive mode is so flaky, it’s little use to those who really need it.

With time, though, and as you level up, the city becomes more manageable, and you feel more able to defend yourself and your property, and actually have fun doing it. When you hit this point, griefers or not, freeplay becomes far more enjoyable. My advice? Give it time, do missions, level up, find some good friends and the whole thing evolves, it’s just hard work. Just be aware that there’s very little honor amongst thieves here, and the motto of ‘trust no one’ often applies.

Where did I park?

So, despite some remaining bugs and issues, freeplay is far more enjoyable given time, but there are some smaller niggles that still mar the overall experience in my opinion.

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Spawning in the game is an area that’s always been hit and miss, and there’s no sign of it improving, despite the patches. I’ve lost count of how many times the game has spawned me in a ridiculous position, far away from my vehicle, or in an awkward spot. Often this occurs after a missions or when there’s a troll or two waiting to kill you after a cut-scene (Simeon’s garage is prime real estate here). There’s obviously a bit of code that tries to position you close to your car, but it’s rough as guts, and often messes up.

Spawning in combat is also iffy at times. The game does try to spawn you close to your death spot, so you can try to even the score with your assailants, but there’s little to no spawn protection, and as you can easily be seen on the map, it’s simple for skilled players to cheap-kill others over and over again. Perhaps an option to spawn elsewhere would be a good idea for those particularly troublesome moments?

Grinding gears

Certainly one of the biggest issues for me at this point is the mission variety and repetition, which I flagged up in my initial review. Little has changed with time, and the longer you play, the more the game’s missions start to feel like WoW grinding, seeing you repeat the same tasks over and over again to earn RP and money. It’s still fun, yes, but the game really could do with more random variety. Getting offered Simeon’s easy missions when you’re level 15 or so rewards you very little, but until you level up much more, missions hardly change, and the game tends to bully you into competing in deathmatches and races to level up quicker. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, and it’s arguably what online is most about, but many do play the game for the missions and co-op, and it’s still lacking in this regard. Random challenges such as crate drops and security vans are great, be a few and far between.

There’s also very limited marine-based content, even with the Beach Bum update, and features such as diving are missing (you can still finds subs dotted around). Other potentially interesting online activities, such as hunting, hitman assassinations and triathlons are missing, either due to gameplay limits or taste (it may be okay to stab unwary pedestrians in the back of the head, but killing deer? Ohhh, no). In fact, random hitman missions, à la Far Cry 3 where you have to kill a random target with a specific weapon, would fit in nicely.

Of course, heists will improve things, giving players who steer away from competitive modes more to do outside of freeroam and missions, but the other major addition, the content creator, will only bolster the modes that already dominate. User created content options are always welcome though, so I look forward to seeing people’s creations.

More than ad-hoc PvP?

So, it’s still early days, and Rockstar has promised more and more content in future, but is GTAO better after the initial wave of patches? Yes, it is. It’s more stable, the major glitches have mostly been fixed, and simply having longer with the title all makes for a much improved experience.

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It’s still rife with grief and balancing issues, and it needs a good shot of variety in places, but the game GTAO wants to be is starting to show, and with luck, things can only get better. That $500,000 certainly helped too, although with players still losing vehicles and suffering problems, I’d say more compensation may be required by some, especially those who missed the October inclusion.

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