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Playing Nice With Others

Online is where the rest of GTA 5’s world becomes a Skyrim-like urban sandbox crammed with level-based unlocks, gold in the form of cash, and plenty of opportunities to advance into both. A huge number of activities ranging from playing golf to racing everywhere and in anything players choose to bet on suddenly fill in the empty void that had once been the single-player world. It takes place after the events of the single-player story with a silent protagonist.

Attacking this half as an RPG, missions undertaken from NPCs in the game are equivalent to short, random quests found as third-string activities in any other role-player. Reputation points act as XP, money rewards as gold. It’s a simple system with quick turnarounds – at least before Rockstar nerfed the San Andreas Gold Rush cash amounts with the 1.04 patch in October – that anyone can pick up and finish in minutes than hours. If you’re worried about getting repeatedly drilled for simply stepping out into the street, you can always start a game and restrict things a number of ways from making it invite only or confining it to only your friend’s list – though I’ve found that starting some activities seems to bleed in players from the outside at times.

Not every job goes this badly, unless there are other players after the same thing.

Above: This is a lot more fun than playing tennis or golf. Unless it happens to be Virtua Tennis or Hot Shots Golf.

Activities found in the single-player game – parachuting, racing, etc. — multiplied to fill the world alongside multiplayer missions often requiring two or more players. And wrapped into all of this is the online setup which turns the world into a giant, interactive lobby where players can gun down unsuspecting visitors trying to bank their hard-earned cash into an ATM before they lose it all to a random bullet or runaway bumper.

I’ve spent RPG-levels of hours Online, mostly in invite-only sessions with my crew or doing solo missions and activities to grind up levels to unlock more goodies. I’m not a fan of the character creation system which takes the novel approach in packing parental picks into lineages instead of actually letting the player shape their own looks using a host of tools. Mine ended up with Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston as a grandfather, for example.

It’s an idea that would have made a lot of sense in an actual RPG, such as Dragon Age: Origins, where lineage actually mattered. Here, it doesn’t add much to the gameplay other than in determining how your ‘toon looks, The idea was neat, the execution left something to be desired with that same 1.04 patch improving the odds of getting more “attractive” toons.

One thing that has hung over my experience has been one question – did so much of this actually have to be online? As huge as GTA V’s world is, much of it is there if only to provide play spaces for that half of the game. Whenever I drive by the Casino, I can’t help but wonder if there’s going to be a DLC for it and whether it will be free or not.

The stories of Trevor, Michael, and Franklin couldn’t allow for that kind of freedom – that’s the short explanation for it, along with their special abilities. At the same time, the massive number of racing events, armored car heists, and even a few of the random missions doled out by Lester left me wondering why the same care couldn’t have been given to the single-player half of the game, either, to earn additional dough especially if players had missed out on in-game stock market opportunities. Given the obnoxiously high property prices and low returns of the single-player stuff, it only seemed natural that there could have been more to offer to players who weren’t interested in doing anything online. Instead, so much has been segregated into an online-only mode that has had one of the worst launches in recent memory, one that continually pushed back a cash stimulus apology of $500k for weeks as well as delay the rollout of player tools with which to craft new activities with. It has gotten a lot better now thanks to a series of patches that were rolled out in the previous weeks, yet at the same time, a few issues and glitches still remain. Car duping, anyone?


Above: The early days of GTA Online’s launch were a lot like this for many players. For some, it still is.

A lot of the issues that plagued players (including myself) were the kind of problems that no MMO worth its launch date would ever tolerate outside of a beta especially if they don’t have the kind of single-player sandbox that GTA 5 does to fall back on. Though people point out to GTA IV’s online mode as having been less-than-stellar, the ambitious scale of GTA V’s version begged the question of whether or not 2K or Rockstar were even ready to jump into the kind of technical challenges that MMOs have had to deal with for years.

Basic staples, like ensuring that your player character’s data was saved, informing the player whether they were hooked into Rockstar’s cloud or not, or telling you simply that if you start a new character your old one could be overwritten, seem routine but were regular issues at launch.

Other things, like the reckless across-the-board nerfing of cash rewards and the rampant glitching allowing for players to bank millions of bucks in one hour plaguing the game (and delaying the purchase of in-game cash via Marketplace/PSN Store) only underline the shortcomings of Online’s debut even after it was done two weeks following the official release of the game in September. Even after so many patches, issues still remain. It would be nice if after everyone chose to vote for “free mode”, which dumps them back into the world after doing an activity like a race or deathmatch, that everyone from that session end up in the same lobby instead of ending up scattered across the ‘net. Things that other games take for granted seem to be afterthoughts here.

Yet it’s also something of a tribute to the veterans at Rockstar for making the single-player durable enough to weather this kind of lopsided attention, easily extending out to tens of hours of fun especially for completionists intent on achieving a gold medal in every story-based mission. As shallow as the satire is, the characters still come away with enough personality to make the journey worth taking and GTA 5’s urban sandbox easily demonstrates that Rockstar’s artists and designers are among the masters of their craft. Despite the lost potential to make the most out of its titanic world, and tethering so much content to an online mode, it’s still Grand Theft Auto.