Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
It’s been two months since Rockstar’s ambitious launch of Grand Theft Auto Online, and now that most of the big technical issues have been fixed, it’s time that it gets the ranting/raving it deserves from little ol’ me.
Let me start off by saying GTAO has all the potential of being a glorious multiplayer masterpiece of chaotic fun. It maintains all the grade A polish of the story mode and allows players the same freedoms of exploring the beautiful and gigantic world of San Andreas and then some. Just about every single vehicle can be found or ordered online, every building can be scaled, and every mountain can be traversed. Character customization items can be bought in all clothing stores with generous catalogs. The city of Los Santos has a wide selection of apartments and garages which can be purchased to store cars and bikes and act as safehouses. All the weapons you used to carry out crimes and cause mayhem in the single player are available.
To give players a sort of goal for continued play and to keep a level playing field, most of these tools aren’t immediately available. There is a leveling system that locks content to particular ranks, and plenty of items don’t come cheap. Ranking up requires players to take part in activities of various levels of legality. You can race on land, sea, or air, play golf or tennis or darts, boost cars, compete in shooting galleries, rob convenience stores, fight other players in deathmatches, fend off increasingly tougher waves of enemy AI in survivals, and take missions from specific in-world characters both familiar and new.
I’ve certainly had my fair share of fun doing most of these activities, but the systems in place are for the most part never so deep enough to keep me coming back to them after a couple of playthroughs. GTA as a series never really focuses in on a particular gameplay mechanic, opting instead to give players a lot of nifty little things to do which all add up to its epic scope. The only element it really cares to put some emphasis into is how the vehicles handle (as it should considering its name).
But I can only zip through the same city streets in a supercar, get drifted from behind, and then pitted by insane drivers to spin out and lose control. Racing has never been my thing, so I was quick to get over that offering. Unfortunately, it’s the only mission offering where you can expect a sense of competency, ambition, and the variety that comes with strangers playing together.
As for the rest of the activities, you will rarely find any people who care to play them, and I don’t blame them for the most part. Shooting has always been merely functional for the series, so deathmatches are perfunctory messes decided by who can hit the auto-aim button first (i can count on one hand the times i’ve actually played in a free aim session, ladies and gents).
Survivals can be fun and definitely feel rewarding when you finish them. Unfortunately, the mode is structured in a way that has you hunkering down in one spot once you reach the third or fourth wave when enemies can kill you in a second and they spawn right behind you. Get in cover, pop out, pop heads, get back in cover. Repeat ad nauseam.
Golf is surprisingly engaging, but get more than four people in and it slows down to a crawl. Nobody else wants to play it either besides a couple of my PSN buddies. As for the rest, their novelty wears off after the third time you do them.
I was expecting more from the actual missions story characters give you, but aside from a couple of exceptional ones, they all follow the same tired formula of go to this place and kill these guys and/or retrieve the drugs/vehicles, none of which coming even close to the awesome set pieces you go through in the single player.
The cash and the reputation points (XP, basically) you get from finishing these missions have all been progressively lowered since GTAO’s initial release, with all money rewards currently slashed by half after playing through them once. When these missions have you traveling halfway across the entire game’s map, killing dozens of enemies that can wipe your entire team out in seconds and taking as long as 15 minutes to finish, there’s really not much incentive to do them again.
To gain access to all the weapons, vehicles and customization options much faster, many players have resorted to farming a handful of missions. Updates that nerfed payouts and RP rewards have made things even worse, as glitches to sell certain cars repeatedly were unearthed and abused. I can’t be too angry at them when Rockstar has made it such a gigantic slog to earn money and RP legitimately. There’s also the ironic twist of having players of a crime simulator exploiting all sorts of loopholes to gain the upper hand and flip off the developers pushing for microtransactions.
So now it’s not at all unusual to see players either roaming around in free mode with tanks and attack helicopters blowing low level players away, or camping out in Los Santos Customs flipping expensive cars over and over again for hours to get the millions to afford tanks and attack helicopters. Sure, having all these vehicles of mass destruction around can be fun to watch, but not when their cannons are pointed at you. It’s also very easy to get caught in a death loop when you get killed because you don’t respawn very far from where you died. Griefers working in teams can be rather merciless.
You can’t even hit back relentlessly with explosives, as Rockstar had the misguided attempt to curb trollish behavior with it Bad Sport system. Blow up too many vehicles owned by a player, and you are forcibly put into sessions strictly for players who’ve committed the grave mistake of causing too much carnage in a GTA game. Your character also has to wear a dunce cap and is stuck in those sessions for three full real-time days. No joining friends or crew members. Never mind the glitch exploiters and the spawn campers who are breaking the system and ruining other people’s experiences!
Then again, it’s not like free mode itself is that much of a blast. That is, if you don’t have any friends with you to screw around with. It’s a shoot-first-and-keep-shooting-no-questions-asked kind of world. Try to roll up next to a stranger to hang out, and you’ll be riddled with bullets or be smeared against the pavement nine times out of ten. Rarely will you get that magic moment when randoms will actually not put you down the second you get within a hundred meters close.
So you call Lester to have your character’s icon disappear from the map for a minute to sneak up on unsuspecting players or to make clean getaways. There are plenty of other services you can avail of once you reach certain levels from some of the story characters and organizations, all of which add to the unpredictable fun of free mode. Set a bounty on a pesky troll and watch most of the players in the session hunt him/her throughout San Andreas. Call on a helicopter to pick you up if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere without a car in sight. Sic a team of Merryweather mercenaries on that guy who stole your car. Get the cops off your back after attacking an armored van and stealing its money bags.
But like with most things in GTAO, you gotta spend some cash to access any of these.
Did I mention that you also lose money every time you die? And if you want to fool around in free mode, you will probably die a lot getting into random firefights, crashing jets, chasing bounties, running from the police, backstabbing friends and getting stabbed in the back in return. Not an hour in and you’ll have lost tens of thousands of dollars to hospital bills and calls to Lester and Merryweather just trying to have fun.
Want to get away from all that violence and just cruise around San Andreas? You’ll have to pay in-game money to enter Passive Mode, making you invulnerable to bullets and bombs while also keeping you from using your weapons. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep you safe from players who want to run you over, and it doesn’t even work when you’re in a vehicle. You know, the thing you’ll be using 99% of the time to get around anywhere?
What makes things even worse that applies to all these activities is the way Rockstar handles the things in between. Just about every activity has you going through loading screens before and after you play through them. When the bare minimum of players needed to start an activity is reached, a timer will count down till it starts automatically. If you’re the host, you can extend time but only by 30 seconds. You will have to do the trick of changing the matchmaking option to reset the clock, and it’s not something many people will just figure out.
There are multiple voting sessions once you finish an activity to rate it, to continue to the next screen, and to select whether or not you go straight to another activity or back into free mode. Because of the wonky cloud server issues, there’s always the chance of people getting split up when you choose to go straight to another activity. If you and your friends didn’t come from the same session when you started the activity, you will get split up into different sessions when you do choose free mode.
What turns these minor hassles into a desk-banging headache is the loading screens take forever, and you’re always going to be crossing your fingers in the hopes that the loading actually goes through. I can’t count the times I’ve failed to join a job, been put in my own activity hosting lobby separate from my friends, and even get kicked out of GTA Online entirely and back into the single player.
Rockstar’s reliance on its cloud servers have already burned many players in the past, with character progressions and purchases not being saved on numerous occasions and even entire characters being lost. I’ve only experienced having a couple hours of my progress going to waste once, and it was enough to turn me off playing for a full week. I can only imagine the rage and frustration of those who’ve lost weeks worth of time put into the game.
I can’t say I didn’t have fun playing GTAO. Killing 10 whole waves of angry rednecks, stealing a cargo plane from an airport only to have it crash in the landing strip, knocking off liquor stores in a crime spree, and hosing down random people with a firetruck among other shenanigans with my crew were all memorable experiences. However, I felt like I had all that fun in spite of the game’s best efforts of curtailing it with mostly uninspired missions, lousy rewards and hefty penalties to nudge me towards paying real cash, unstable server issues, and a community satisfied with the cheapest thrills and obsessed with leveling up and making money fast.
If you’re not one of the millions who bought Grand Theft Auto V and haven’t taken the plunge online yet, I can tell you with much certainty that you haven’t really missed out on anything. If you still wanna try it out anyway and be another guinea pig for Rockstar’s online beta, you better bring a friend along or join a crew if you plan on staying long in San Andreas unless you’re up for an early retirement from being a career criminal.