Soon after meeting Ron and Trevor of Trevor Philips Industries, I get a text. Seems Trevor wants us to steal a van from The Lost.
Our mission objective is over three miles away so I quickly initiate an improptu race, automatically sending invites to my fellow crew members nearby. We place bets and speed off toward Blaine County and the Alamo Sea, weaving in and out of traffic and smashing into each other. I run a friend off the road into the guardrail, spinning him up into the air as he screams into my headset. My karma is repaid swiftly, however, as I lose control and slam into an 18-wheeler, watching hopelessly as the rest of my friends speed past.
By the time I pull up to The Lost trailer camp, the battle has already begun. My crew takes cover and begins a brutal firefight. I attempt to be the super action hero I always envision myself as, and hammer onto the accelerator to slam into a group of bikers. I take out several gang members but the few I missed cut me down and we lose one of our previous team lives to complete the mission. Contrite, I take cover after respawning and help clear the area. Another crew member jumps into the van, causing more bikers to attack us on motorcycles, and here I find using my personal car as a weapon proves useful to knock them off as we escort the van to the drop off point.
With no more bikers in sight we take the van and finish the mission, earning job points, reputation points, and hard earned cash. Afterwards, with our group still together we can choose from a number of more instanced missions, races, death matches, and more or return to free roaming around the city and its outskirts robbing convenience stores, starting gang wars, collecting bounties on other players, and just wrecking general havoc and mayhem.
Welcome to Grand Theft Auto Online.
GTA Online was officially “released” on October 1st, but many gamers, myself included, had numerous difficulties logging in. Rockstar warned everyone of typical launch day woes for major online titles, and are treating GTA Online as its own gaming experience rather than a multiplayer component to GTA V (despite still requiring GTA V to play). GTA V sold millions of copies and may be the fastest selling entertainment product in history, so a frustrating launch for multiplayer was realistically expected but no less frustrating.
Your first task upon switching over to GTA Online, either through the Online section of the Start menu or by selecting the fourth slot on your character switcher, is to make your own character. For the first time GTA fans can create their own criminally inclined psychopath (and also play a female character for the first time in the series). The character creator is a very mixed bag, however. Rockstar mentioned that they disliked most modern character creators that allow you to shape individual parts of a face, and instead allow you to choose your grandparents, which in turn create your parents, which in turn creates you. You can decide via a slider which parent you and your parents resemble more in an attempt to create someone you’re satisfied with. Ultimately it’s a bizarre system, and upon reaching rank 6 you get the chance to edit your character using the same tools if you find yourself disappointed with your look.
Although you spend a lot of time in vehicles cruising around Los Santos and Blaine County, your character shows up predominately during instanced missions and death matches in full body view, so pick something you’re proud of. Clothes and accessories are acquired just like the single player game with the exception that any one clothing store will have every option available to you; no need to visit that high end department store to look at suits.
Clothing and weapons cost money to purchase, but more importantly are locked until reaching various ranks, or levels. In the beginning you can only wield the basic pistol but as you rank up you gain access to more weapons, armor, and clothing options. The first sniper rifle, for example, requires a rank of 21 to be able to purchase.
Rockstar insisted on putting gamers through a tutorial of sorts after creating your character, funneling everyone into an initial race before putting you through a free mode mission, holding up a convenience store, and finally joining an instanced team death match. Trying to shove everyone into a matchmaking race proved fatal for most folks as they were stuck on endless loading screens searching for other players. While I appreciate that Rockstar wanted to try some kind of tutorial rather than just plopping everyone into free mode, I fear it was this race that was many hopeful gamers’ undoing at launch and led to endless server problems. For myself, I quit to dashboard and restarted numerous times until finally the game seemed to give up on matchmaking and I simply raced 1 on 1 with Lamar.
Once past the initial race and the rest of the tutorial missions, the game world finally opens up properly (you’ll know it when you gain new blue markers on your map denoting instanced missions). Now your friends and crew members can easily invite you to missions and you can attempt to invite them to your free mode server or join theirs. Free mode works just like Free Roam in Red Dead Redemption – up to 16 players inhabit the game world, but just as in RDR, the world is generally less full than the single player. Less cars and less people walk around to help offset the server load, although the world has seemingly gained a dose of adrenaline as regular NPC civilians appear much more aggressive.
In free mode your main goal is to shop for clothes and weapons, purchase property, rack up the wanted level, and perform various tasks such as robbing convenience stores and participating in a gang war. Various gas stations and stores show up as markers on your map and all offer a decent payout of up to a couple thousand dollars. Yes you can shout into your headset to make the clerk empty the register faster, but you can also simply fire a few rounds into their merchandise so you don’t feel like a dork when chatting with your friends. Just be sure not to accidentally execute the manager as you’ll earn a third star on your wanted level. Make good your escape and you’ve got an easy payout to show for it. Teaming up is fun but unnecessary, and it’s up to the person that grabs the loot to share with their helpers.
Sadly robbing the various stores seems to be the only thing you can really do in free mode for the first few ranks, the other being missions or instanced PVP scenarios. Eventually as you continue to gain Reputation Points and rank up you gain access to additional features and modes such as Parachute Drops, Gang Wars, and the hopefully soon to be implemented heist missions. Littered across the map are blue markers that will enter you into a lobby for one of GTA Online’s many multiplayer modes such as death match (including options for teams or Last Team Standing), races (Normal, GTA Race, and Rally), and scenarios simply titled Missions, which are usually team-based objectives ranging from escorting an NPC from one place to another (with one team being the bodyguards and the other the hunters) to playing a form of capture the flag.
Garden variety races seem to be the most popular in my experience, with lobbies filling up almost instantly and ranging from 8 person to ridiculous 16 person races. Normal mode is just as you expect, while GTA mode adds weapon usage and power-ups (think Mario Kart) and Rally actually puts another person in your car to help direct you, as only your partner can see the checkpoints. Races can be modified by car class (coupe, sports, muscle, motorcycles, etc) which adds a huge amount of replayability to the already staggering number of pre-made races. Custom cars can be turned off or on, allowing players to use their heavily modified personal cars or keep everyone on a level playing field.
Your personal car is an important multiplayer concept and not unlike having your own instantly summonable horse in Red Dead Redemption. During the tutorial missions you will be directed to find a car and take it to Los Santos Customs. Fitting your car with the new tracker from the Loss/ Theft Prevention section will officially mark the car giving you several benefits: a map marker always shows where your car is in the world, you can lock your car so that only you (or your friends and crew) can enter the car, and it will remain persistent through server changes and logging out. Insurance can (and should) be purchased in case your car is destroyed as you can replace it for a nominal fee.
Dying with a wanted level (or being arrested) results in your car going to the impound lot, where you have a chance to steal it back before it’s destroyed. Just remember not to roll up in a different car or you’ll automatically garner a wanted level – yes cops will instantly recognize if you’re in a stolen car and respond accordingly. This is very different from the single player game and unfortunately discourages you from driving anything other than your personal car, despite the title of, well, Grand Theft Auto! A stolen car can be sold at Los Santos Customs for a decent payout, about once per in-game day; just watch out for cops and don’t bash the car around too much.
To properly acquire new vehicles in GTA Online, steal them (or purchase online) and make ‘em your own with a garage. Purchasing garages aren’t gated by rank but they get quite costly – the cheapest 2-car garage costs $25,000, but the burgeoning Los Santos criminal may wish to own some real property that they call their own (and also come with garages). Homes and high rise apartments can cost up to $400,000 but the big ones are definitely a statement of luxury, and come with a very nice 10-car garage. Garages can come in 2, 6, or 10 car storage spaces, and all properties come equipped with a garage. The garages automatically fit any car stored in them with a tracker, allowing you to pick and choose your personal vehicle as you see fit. Just like the single player game, high end cars can be ordered from websites via your phone, and in multiplayer this seems to be the main way of acquiring these much desired super sports cars – go to Los Santos Customs with that red hot Infernus you just saw and they will turn you down for a tracker, claiming the car is too hot.
Provided you can get past the overloaded initial tutorial race, online stability was never much of an issue. I was never dropped or kicked out of a server, and my friends and I (who are all part of a crew) had zero issues quickly inviting each other to missions and having a blast in free mode. The biggest issue we ran into was occasionally it wouldn’t put as all into the same server after doing a mission. A few niggling bugs pop up to sour the experience – taking off a mask caused two of my friends’ hair styles to disappear, leaving them a bald mess and an annoying cost to repurchase the hair style and a barber, and I had my first initial personal vehicle, the one I used all my free upgrades for, disappear when the game tried to put me through the last stages of the tutorial again. Thankfully that only happened once and it’s been smooth sailing so far. My biggest worry is the overall difficulty of combat seems a bit too harsh – a few stray bullets and you’re wasted even with full body armor, which seems counter-intuitive to the crazy fun mayhem that GTA games can create. Rockstar promises to be consistently patching and updating the whole experience (and indeed already removed the cash penalty for dying during missions, thank goodness) as well as providing free updates and community events through the Rockstar Social Club. Given the commercial and critical success of Grand Theft Auto V and Rockstar’s commitment to Grand Theft Auto Online, I have no fears that it will be anything less than an incredible experience and one that I hope to be playing with friends for many months to come.