By Paolo Succi on October 13, 2013 at 10:08pm
Just as in our "Prison Architect" review, much thought was given to when exactly it was fair to review "GTA Online." While "GTAO" isn’t technically in beta testing, Rockstar gave fair warning to players to expect some issues immediately following launch last week. Recent major online launches like "Diablo III" and "Sim City" have proven that while first-day log in frustrations may be valid, they’re not representative of the game’s quality as a whole. "GTAO" is no exception to this rule; it relies on interaction across thousands of players to adequately demonstrate the game’s mechanics and execution. With that in mind, I thought a few days following launch should suffice. Of course, Rockstar’s network infrastructure had other plans.
After I managed to get through the bottle necked tutorial server, I was prone to frequent disconnects - sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious because of visual glitches - and even a lost character after 12 hours progress. For the purpose of this review, I am looking past my frustrations with the network under the assumption that these will be ironed out in time. Unfortunately, even ignoring the mess of a network uncovers a game beneath the rubble that although it has its moments of brilliance, it also requires a lot of reworking if it hopes to maintain an engaging and competitive experience.
Before you can embark on your online journey through Los Santos, the first step is creating your avatar. Never one to conform, Rockstar has eschewed the traditional and intuitive menu-based design for a complete train wreck of a character creator. Instead of sampling from preset facial features and adjusting sliders to your favor, you are presented with 12 tiny pixelated mugshots of possible grandparents to determine your ancestry. After choosing your grandparents and adjusting sliders to establish parental likeness, the creator spits out a grotesque approximation of what this descendent may look like. Producing a satisfactory model that also resembles something closely related to the human species is a fine art considering the parameters given.
Now that your character is created, packed, and ready to explore San Andreas, a surprisingly well-produced cut-scene introduces you to the "GTA Online" universe. A plane with your avatar lands at LS airport as the intro credits roll and you realize this multiplayer experience is anything but tacked on. Lamar, a beloved character from the singleplayer campaign greets you, and the narrative quickly notes that the online events take place a few months prior to the singeplayer experience. Regrettably about 10 hours in, the multiplayer missions have yet to take advantage of this opportunity. Interactions with the cast of characters are limited to short cinematic videos and rarely ever play any notable role in missions.
More positively, Los Santos is still a marvelous world to explore alone or with friends. On release, "GTA V" received praise for its beautiful cityscapes and sprawling natural vistas. Even with 16 players on a server, these aesthetics are still very present but with noticeable concessions made to accommodate extra players on aging hardware. Los Santos feels more like a ghost town than a living, breathing replication of Los Angeles with significantly fewer cars on the road and sparsely-generated pedestrians lining sidewalks. An added annoyance is the “repeating cars” technical glitch, where everyone across the city suddenly seems to have the same two or three vehicles zipping around. That being said, the bar was set so high with the singleplayer presentation that these are relatively minor gripes; you will still regularly find yourself pulling up the iFruit to snap pictures of setting suns and spectacular crashes.
As with any open-world game, online multiplayer poses valid concerns with regards to griefing. Rockstar had addressed these issues prior to launch by implementing a “bad sport” system in conjunction with a passive mode mechanic. In theory, these are great ideas, but both will require some tweaking if they’re going to work as intended. Players who destroy someone else’s personal vehicle, exit games early or kill others that are paused are forever sequestered to playing with other bad sports. This works in a world where people are not regularly tossing explosives or driving tanks, a world "GTA" thankfully does not take place in. I received bad sport warnings several times for accidentally blowing up cars mid-mission or having other players drive their car kamikaze-style into my tank.
Passive mode supposedly makes you invulnerable to other players, which at this point is just a complete lie. Players can’t shoot you from the standing position, but they are able to run you down with their cars or shoot you from their inside their vehicle. Yes, for some reason, passive mode only makes you invulnerable to bullets shot from outside cars. Compounding matters is that you often spawn within shooting range of the person who originally killed you, almost encouraging camping by repeatedly making you fodder. This is especially frustrating considering hospital bills add up quickly, so you will find yourself out of hard-earned cash very fast.
When everyone is cooperating, the open world is still a blast to explore with both friends and strangers, but structured events are the crux of "GTA Online." Rockstar has gone to great lengths to ensure that there is always a variety of competitive and cooperative activities for your character to participate in. Many of the singleplayer diversions have carried over such as tennis, golf, missions, and armored car heists, with the addition of traditional multiplayer events (e.g., deathmatch, team deathmatch, races, survival) and nontraditional multiplayer events (e.g., arm wrestling, darts). While these are theoretically welcome inclusions to keep the experience fresh and exciting, the execution leaves much to be desired.
To meet technical requirements and ensure free-roaming players don’t interfere, multiplayer events are instanced. The interface to start these activities is a complete mess. To start an event, one could enter a random even through the iFruit, select it from the Pause menu, drive to the location on the map, accept game invites from other players, call an NPC, or open the map and select it. After about 20 total hours of play I still haven’t quite figured each of these out. Sometimes all events are available through the Start menu, but sometimes only a few or none of them are; the locations on the map hide entry fees that you would only know of if you are regularly checking your account history; NPCs will offer a mission at random; and some team deathmatches are listed under the guise of missions for no discernible reason.
While these problems are frustrating in their own right, they contribute to the greater issue of pacing in "GTA Online." There is a markedly choppy flow to starting and moving from event to event. Hosting an activity involves progressing through a series of lobbies: the game rules lobby, player-invite lobby, outfitting your character lobby, and betting lobby. Each of these pregame lobbies has a countdown timer, but it is far too long with total wait times often exceeding five minutes before actually playing a match. Worsening matters, the “Auto-invite and Play” function rarely works as intended and will often just hang at “inviting players” without accomplishing anything. This setup has proven particularly disastrous for deathmatches, where players are given too many opportunities to drop out before the match starts, resulting in unbalanced matchups. After the match (which may be as short as 60 seconds in the case of last team standing game types), you must endure two more lobbies for voting on the previous round and choosing the next game type, both with similarly long countdowns.
In addition to these issues, many minor annoyances play out. The progression needs some reworking if it wants to maintain the strong carrot-and-stick dynamic present in better RPGs. Activity rewards are frustratingly inconsistent. Some deathmatches actually put me in the red several thousand after expenses for ammo and armor. The cash-and-account system that Rockstar touted before launch isn’t quite as do-or-die as they may have suggested. Cash doesn’t need to be run to the bank and may be safely deposited through the in-game smartphone, something that no tutorial ever tells you. Further, the game indiscriminately decides that only some purchases may be made with your character’s debit card, while others must be made with cash, meaning you have to withdraw and deposit small amounts for actions like betting or activating passive mode.
The more astute among you may have noticed that I have a lot of problems with "GTA Online’s" gameplay experience. So what keeps me playing? Why have I sunk 20+ hours into it, and why will I pick it up again tomorrow?
It’s not the new weapons, new vehicle mods, or even sexy haircut unlocks that keep me going past each level earned. It’s the moments that are unique only to the "Grand Theft Auto" universe, stories that you tell your friends the day after: when - in the middle of a mission - you are running stolen drugs across the city and narrowly speed past a rushing train to look back and see your pursuers’ vehicle reduced to scrap metal or the time you and your friends hijacked fighter jets and parachuted into Vinewood pools. You get the idea; when "GTA Online" clicks, it provides an experience across Xbox Live or PSN that only this painstakingly constructed of an open-world game can deliver.
These glimmers of emergent gameplay have proven the brilliant and unique game that "GTAO" can be. They are also the reason why the current offering stings that much more. We have seen their true potential, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be able to consistently offer that level of gameplay. Rockstar has pledged to continuously developing "GTA Online," promising new mission types, downloadable content, and regularly monitoring player feedback. Many of the grievances mentioned in this review do not necessarily require significant alterations to address. Once the network issues are quelled, perhaps Rockstar will take them into consideration and make "GTAO" the game it deserves to be.