Steal, race, shoot, grind and buy with friends
Putting out the most anticipated game of the year can’t be easy, splitting the single-player and multiplayer releases seemed like a masterstroke.Rather than have players engorge themselves on the single-player and ignore the online offering whilst doing so, only turning to it in passing weeks later, by which point the hype for multiplayer crime capers might have dulled, the plan to stagger the two releases and create a clear demarcation worked to build anticipation.
From a marketing point of view it’s smart, but even Rockstar will admit things could have gone smoother, as the inevitable tidal wave of those hitting their servers as soon as the update went live was like a perfect storm of unplayableness.My own personal woes involved black screens, hanging, waiting in a car park and watching a looped cut-scene before finally being dropped out of the air and falling 50ft to the ground, face first, somewhere in the hills. But at least I was in. The session however was broken, with no tutorial loaded I was in limbo, to misquote The Godfather Part II, just when I thought I was in, they pull me back out again!
Once things finally load you’ll be greeted by Lamar and given a whistle stop tour of the basic features by way of a race, a stick-up and pimping your ride.
Choose your parentsPay close attention to the text boxes popping up frequently during your first few hours, as there’s more subtlety to some of the features than might first appear, such as robbing stores whilst wearing a mask will allow you to go back without hassle. If anything the onslaught of information in the initial phase of play is excessive, pushing the differences and extra features of the multiplayer in your face when driving along at 90mph isn’t very helpful.
What is incredibly helpful is your personal vehicle (the first one you boost, so choose a good-'un) always being there whenever you load a game or exit a mission as in the single-player. Fitting it with a tracker means it's always visible on the map too, and insuring it allows you to get it back after it's totalled.
to misquote The Godfather Part II, just when I thought I was in, they pull me back out again!
There's an inventive character creation set-up that involves selecting the appearance of your four grandparents and how much you’ll resemble them. Novel, but destined to result in the phrase “who cares, that’ll do” unless someone’s so anal as to want an exact personal representation. Similar inventiveness is afoot with the stats you choose; far from standard RPG fare, the apportioning of hours spent during each day to various activities has a knock on effect for skills such as driving and stamina in a tinkerable manner.
GrindNo matter your base stats, the main way to boost your skillset is to partake in the activities on offer. Racing, doing “Jobs” (crimes, obviously, not paper-rounds) and getting into pitched gun-battles. The primary form of the latter is the standard deathmatch modes. It’s here that the first snag comes to light, you see, GTA Online is...well... just GTA, online. The shooting mechanics that work for the single player, with liberal auto-aim and the focus on mid-to-close range combat don’t make the jump to accommodate human opponents quite so easily.
The auto-aim pushes proceedings into a quick draw CoD-esque who can look down their sights first scenario, and in that moment the close range battles are decided by who has the best kit. Got body armour and a weapon with a better rate of fire? Then you’ll probably walk away from that duel. The cover mechanic is handy, but the placement and lack of switching shoulder views makes it clear that competitive PvP gunplay isn’t Rockstar’s forte.
Luckily, the verticality of the locales adds an interesting element to tactics; pick a good vantage point and you’re almost guaranteed a few easy kills. As the scene gets more mature and teams of regular players emerge, no doubt these modes will yield more depth, but initially it’s easy to dismiss them as a fun game of headless chickens, light in tone and not necessarily nurturing teamwork.
There are only sixteen players - represented by white dots in map view - on any recreation of the single-player environment. You can seek them out face-to-face if you so wish, but it’s asking for a bullet, a far better idea is to interact via the phone. As in the solo game, your phone is the portal to everything. You can drive around the map to get to the blue portals that open up the various activities, but unless you display a preference for any one in particular it’s a lot easier to choose the quick job option. You get the choice of type of job (or random) and it avoids a wasted journey; travelling half way across the map to get to a specified race, for example, only to find no one wants to join the game is a pain. The auto invite system works well, but there are occasions where you’ll be the lonely guy in the lobby, and in a game that seeks your grinding ability and wants you to get spending, time waiting is time wasted.
You’ll earn Rockstar Points for any activity completed, even just losing the cops, and this is your XP by another name. As you increase levels, new missions, abilities, car mods, clobber and firearms become available. The maps seems a mismatch of levels, going into a deathmatch and seeing someone 60 levels higher than you is a daunting prospect - sniper rifles and the best body armour is hard to beat - but these more dedicated figures plugged into the GTA-matrix 24hrs a day do come in handy. By their presence, you can be invited to play missions and activities that only unlock for people of a higher required level, so it gives you a glimpse into what delights the game still has to offer.
Show me the money!Even if levelling wasn’t a big enough obstacle, it quickly becomes apparent that the online mode was designed around cash. Apartments, garages, kit - it all costs, and there’s even a punitive measure of lost moolah for every time you’re killed in free mode.
Getting blasted a few too many times by griefers and seeing your stash dwindle is one of the early lessons - you’ll either remove the disc or be resolved to get vengeance. Rockstar, with their sale of GTA$ for real money to those struggling are clearly banking (quite literally) on the latter. News of a stimulus package designed to help the economy moving, rather than people stockpiling for fear of a string of deaths in their early levels, is smart; in the next few days/weeks Rockstar will deposit $500k into your in-game bank account.
seeing your stash dwindle is one of the early lessons
They need people to spend, not only to help the momentum of their business model, but also to see the best parts of the game. You’ve got to pay for an apartment with a TV through which you can spectate other players. Races take on greater significance if you’ve bet on them. Your car being made of crepe paper when up against bullets is something that can only be alleviated by armour mods, the best rides can’t be stored until you’ve bought the rights, ammo drops and air support are on offer, and the list goes on. The icing on the cake is the bounty you can put on other players’ heads; a quick call will lead to someone being highlighted as a red dot on the map, and whoever kills them gets the reward. But to gain even the ability to buy these things, you need to be at the right level.
Getting people spending is also a sound way to alleviate the boredom of grinding with the same kit for a few hours. The flow of Rockstar Points can be quick with friends, but finding yourself on an underpopulated map, or in sessions with those who just want to muck about leads to that flow drying up. The low number of players often needed for the missions seems like a good idea, considering the world only holds sixteen at a time, but it also means one noob dying quickly (it’s all of us at one point) and an early quitter can make a four man job - particularly on Hard which yields extra Points - a futile endeavour.
Better with friendsThis is a game designed to be infinitely more fun with a pre-arranged group of cohorts at your side; if you can get a Crew together of sufficient size to populate a map, you’re likely onto a winner.
That can be easier said than done though. The blurb claims that you should automatically be put into sessions with friends, however this is anything but guaranteed. Virtually every game I’ve played dropped me into a separate session to someone from my list I saw playing; either an error in connection or the central problem of a map that can only fit a low number of players within it.
As mentioned though, if you can arrange it then the friendly competition of races or teaming up for deathmatches, survival waves or tackling missions is fantastic. Being able to rely on people not to quit half way through, camp incessantly or race spoil is where the game sells itself.
There’s supposed to be a Good Sport/Bad Sport system in place, whereby those playing by the rules will get bonuses (thus far it seems to be cash) and those partaking in activities deemed poor form will be marked down in some algorithm known only to Rockstar.
The end-game scenario is that the worst players will be booted to sessions only containing Bad Sports, thus effectively sectioning them from the greater community. It’s laudable, but ineffective in its present guise; partly because the cash sums offered for Good Sports seems - thus far - fairly trivial, but mainly because the majority of bad play is arguably mischievous rather than habitual.
There’s a trend towards otherwise good players, finishing a long game of several hours, letting off steam by doing numerous stupid, game-spoiling things just before quitting. Due to the sheer amount of days many of them are spending in game (at levels I cannot fathom) their misdeeds will be a drop in the ocean in comparison to their overall play time, but that doesn’t stop it being annoying.
It would be easy to say Mr Rockstar needs a stronger cane, but in fairness to some of the activities seen as griefing, it can be tough to know what is considered suitably bad in a game predicated on the ideals of shooting at will and driving like you stole it (which you did). Are random drive-bys annoying or an invitation to gang warfare that both crews may enjoy? Either way, if you’re in Free Roam, you can always pay the $100 and enter Passive Mode whereby you can neither kill nor be killed, and go and enjoy some non-violent darts or arm wrestling.
The world is designed to be a fun sandbox to explore with friends, the kicks coming from the company as much as the environment; frivolous, somewhat repetitive activities tied into a questionable economic model that becomes infinitely more appealing when the experience is shared with those you know.
somewhat repetitive activities tied into a questionable economic model
The promise of user created content and DLC holds the possibility to alleviate the slightly monotonous grind, but it hinges on Rockstar assembling the right tools to empower their community’s creativity. Currently, the map relies on deathmatches and races to populate it with content; the majority of which are negligible in difference and this begs the question, do you rate the shooting and driving enough in GTA to play a lot of either without an interesting story premise to propel you?
- GTA, but experienced with friends
- World seems stable now, no obvious lag
- A range of activities
- Lots to aim to unlock/buy
- Not always placed with friends
- Samey early missions
- Shallow gunplay/driving
- No real story
Grand Theft Auto Online Xbox 360 ReviewIf you were to break the appeal of the single-player game down, you'd come up with multiple things you could criticise, but the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The rudimentary shooting system, the simplistic driving vagaries between vehicles and the “drive here” filler are all capably held together by a great story and the empowerment to do anything at will in a world open to you. Online forces you to somewhat evaluate that appeal, be the small guy once again, witnessing activities and actions you can’t access so, like any MMO, you need to invest time to get on that treadmill and be bitten by the levelling bug enough to unlock greater goodies.
It’ll definitely work in the short term, but looking to the future, 16 players in an environment is too few to correctly populate missions, however more would have made the map seem over-populated considering how fast a group of griefers in ‘copters can travel and the preference of most players to remain within Los Santos’ urban density.
If the stimulus package works, Rockstar roll out more PvE attractions, and most importantly the tools for user-created content are solid, then the prospect of GTA Online still being played once the big next gen FPSs hit will be greatly increased. If not, this may be another online mode hyped, good fun in the short term, but destined to be a playful distraction for most with a smaller dedicated core community lasting the course to the greater spoils.
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