Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360
Developer: Rockstar North
Here on Dealspwn, there has been some interesting discussion on the topic of Grand Theft Auto V over the last few weeks. While it certainly has its flaws, the overwhelming opinion is that Rockstar's virtual sandbox rises above the problems to be one of the most fun games of this year. You only have to look at my diary entries from the launch week to see how much I was enjoying it all (punching human statues being something of a highlight.) That said, up until this week we only had the escapades of Michael, Franklin and Trevor to judge Rockstar's efforts on, but the wait is now over - Grand Theft Auto Online is finally here, and we here at Dealspwn were eager to jump in and cause some havoc.
Erm. Yeah, about that...
You would have thought, with all the news of making all of their money back from pre-orders, and then going on to bring in ridiculous amounts of money in its launch week, that Rockstar would have been prepared for the bombardment of players trying to log onto Grand Theft Auto Online on Tuesday… but if every MMO launch ever has taught us anything, it’s that nobody can stop any online server from having a virtual breakdown when the On switch is flicked. Many owners of GTA V found it impossible to get past the first mission – a race with supporting character Lamarr – and that was when the Rockstar Cloud was deciding to behave. In summary, it hasn’t been the smoothest launch for the multiplayer component of Grand Theft Auto V. That said, yours truly has managed to make his way onto the online streets of Los Santos, and while it certainly hasn’t been for as long as I would have liked to have played for, it has given me a good indication of what we can expect from the multiplayer modes on offer and, more importantly, what we can expect moving forward.
First things first, though – let’s talk about the character creation suite. Rockstar have gone for a rather interesting approach to this by letting players choose their heritage, altering the resemblance for each character’s grandparents and parents until a basic avatar is provided for the player. While it certainly is a unique way of doing it, I couldn’t help but feel it limited what I could actually do in terms of uniqueness. Of course, having Red Dead’s John Marston or GTA IV’s Nico Belic is a fun touch, but not one I was too enthused about having (I’d basically be killing my brother with every other player I encountered, which would be weird and feel like an episode of Eastenders… but with less “you schlag” and more muggings.)
Beyond this though, players are able to alter some attributes to give their character an in-game by changing their lifestyle. Allocating hours (ie. attribute points) to certain things such as ‘playing sports’ increases starting stats (in this case, stamina) although just like in the single player campaign players will be able to improve these stats by simply doing them in-game. Additionally, how you choose to allocate your hours also alters the look of your character – spend lots of time doing illegal work and you’ll start off looking like a thug, while allocating points to “sitting on the couch” will make your avatar fatter. Once this is done, players get the tweak their appearance by choosing hairstyles and facial hair. That said, I must state right now that the lack of majestic beards in the online mode is downright offensive. Where are the wondrous choices we saw for Michael and Trevor?
Shame on you, Rockstar. Shame on you.
Once players have managed to get past the first mission, the world opens up to them to do whatever they please, providing a very similar gameplay experience to the single player campaign in terms of content but with the added benefit (or problem, depending the temperament) of having other players with you. Stores can be visited to buy things from (or rob), races can be participated in, and cops can be fought, annoyed, or massacred depending on how you want to spend your time. However, dotted around the state of San Andreas are special mission that allow players to partake in team based deathmatch modes, ranging from simple “first team to get to XX poinst wins” matches, to CTF-based bouts across the city. It is within these matches that the GTAO really comes to life, providing high-octane action on a ridiculous scale that would normally be reserved for scripted sequences in the single player campaign. For example, what was a team-based match to capture and return some evidence between 16 players can suddenly become a warzone when the police get involved, with cars exploding, players fighting from street to street, and high-speed chases taking place at the same time. Of course, this can easily happen in the open world sessions as well, but the escalation in matches is nothing short of ridiculous fun.
Going back to the races for a moment, players can customise each track to their liking, selecting certain vehicles, the time of day, and even the weather to create the perfect (or hideously challenging) races. In the session I took part in, a friend of mine decided that we would navigate a hillside at night and with rain pouring down, ensuring we all kept skidding off the side of the hills and to our deaths regularly in what was one of the most fun multiplayer sessions I’ve had in a while.
Of course, there are story-based missions to take part in should players wish to do something a little more controlled, but even though they end up being the same song and dance we’ve seen in the single player mode, adding in other players to the mix really helps to keep things fresh, especially when things go horribly wrong. The same can be said for robbing stores, as those players that consistently steal money without changing their appearance will see an increased police response when the alarm is tripped, making it a more dangerous way to make money even with friends at your side.
In terms of progression, we’ve already mentioned how stats are increased with their use, but beyond this players earn reputation (ie. XP points) to increase their rank, which in turn unlocks access new missions, as well as better weapons, vehicles, and mods (avoiding the “pay to win” situation many felt microtransactions would cause.) On top of this, each session a player takes part in awards Job Points, which when high enough reward the player with special missions. These reset when the player leaves the game though, encouraging long play sessions or taking part in more challenging activities. Or, of course, you can just play it safe. It’s your call.
While gaining Ranks is all well and good, it’s really the money that is king in GTAO. Earning it certainly feels a lot faster than in single player, but it of course comes with greater risk of losing it unless anything earned is transferred into the players bank account. This creates a lot of tension after a robbery or, more to the point, killing another player for the cash, but it creates “risk verses reward” gameplay that some may find a little much, but personally I’m loving it. It might be a while until I have enough to buy an apartment, or even a better gun than the standard pistol, but seeing my grand total up after escaping the cops really creates a sense of accomplishment, and helps to build a feeling of persistence in proceedings.
Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way, and there is still a lot of room for improvement, but I feel a lot of the issues will be resolved once Rockstar sort out their servers. For instance, I’ve had my progression reset after a huge session more than once (although I’ve thankfully kept some of the money I earned), and joining up with friends has proven to be a long-winded and traumatic experience up until now. On top of this, the player-creation tools are not yet activated, and the much-publicised heists have yet to appear in GTAO, but while this will perhaps put some people off (Rockstar DID make a big deal about them, after all) it’s probably for the best at this stage considering the lack of weaponry most players will have… although it would make for an decent challenge, robbing a well-guarded bank with just basic pistols... Hmmm…
For now though, my first few days in GTAO have been marred with connection issues and frustrating waits, but once on the servers it has shown that Rockstar really do mean business with their virtual playground. Will it continue to remain as entertaining in the coming weeks? That remains to be seen, but once the server issues have been resolved it will be up to Rockstar to ensure that they fulfil their promise of consistent new content. In the meantime, I plan on continue to reign terror on the streets of Los Santos whilst planning the ultimate jacking – a fighter jet (damn you Anarchist for putting ideas in my head!)
Stay tuned to the site for some in-game videos, as well as more impressions on Grand Theft Auto Online.