[FOR MORE INFORMATION REGARDING MY THOUGHTS ON GRAND THEFT AUTO V, SEE MY REVIEW. THIS IS A REVIEW OF GTA: ONLINE]
Disaster. That's the word millions of players would use to describe the humble beginnings of Rockstar's hugely ambitious GTA: Online. The much-coveted launch proved very divisive for many, with constant loading, server issues, freezes, in-game bugs, character deletions and rank/cash losses. These were the widely-reported problems that people, including myself, experienced during the first very painful week of GTA's multiplayer offering. However, during the final days of its launch week, it was nearing playability. Rockstar ironed out the major issues with regards to inability to join a server. Many began to play online, others were still out in the cold. They told us to remain patient, for our perseverance would surely be rewarded. I mean, look at it this way: a multi-million dollar studio, owned by a mega-successful publishing house, having finished development on a project five years in the making, and using £137million in the process, have implemented a vast, open online world for up to 16 players, with many players joining in at one time. Of course there were going to be issues. With millions of fans worldwide (many of them as old-school as their beginnings with GTA in 1996), Rockstar knew that they would remain so and have finally delivered a fully playable, mostly solid version of their original vision. However, while it is more of GTA and packs dozens of races, missions and activities for you and your friends, the long wait is not to the game's merit.
Firstly, I'll head back to what I mentioned before, about the fact that issues were to be expected. I don't want it sound like I am defending Rockstar because I'm not. In the hands of any other developer, this component would surely be lambasted to the moon. A developer normally reliable with delivering on their promises, what they have implemented here is woefully short of my expectations, leading to the possibility of "name precedes game" in this regard. I cannot continue with the review without mentioning the past issues that plagued the game for over a week. The game had severe cloud server issues, where the character creation was temporary and would subsequently be deleted upon exiting a session. This meant having to create a character over five times, losing a level 7 rank twice, and constantly having to create a character is annoying. This is due to the tutorial section, which I loathe. It starts off with an unskippable introduction, a bland race against Lamar and a few small missions before being allowed to roam free. The tutorial only gets more dull if you keep doing it because of the deletion of your character.
The presentation isn't as polished as single player, as there are more glitches, such as framerate drops, pop-in and other bugs. Cars disappear before you can get in them, invisible people shoot at you, characters fall through the ground (exclusive to the first week) and traffic inexplicably vanishes from trace. These issues can become more and more noticeable the more you play, and it can be distracting at times. There are too many text pop-ups, people call you way too often, and the waypoint can be unintuitive (though not always). Having said that, the visuals are just as solid as they are in single player, and character models are good.
Character creation fuels the bulk of the online experience. It's an ambitious system, one involving the genetics of grandparents' codes that rewrite your facial structure depending on the choices. These are relative to different hairstyles, colours and faces, and your granddad can range from collector's edition exclusives Claude/Misty from Grand Theft Auto III and, for the majority of us, John Marston. It's a feature that doesn't make much of an impact in the long run, and the customization is pretty basic and lacks any notable qualities. You choose different sections of a "lifestyle", which ranges from working out, hanging out with friends, partying and undergoing illegal work. You place a set amount of points between each category, and presumably build them up from there. However, these lifestyle sections are never seen again in the online game. You can't edit faces, change body structure and there are only around 8 or so hairstyles and beards (way less than something like Saints Row).
GTA: Online focuses on building yourself up from a poor "nobody" to a rich "somebody", by way of small missions and robberies to, ultimately, penthouse suites and heists. This definitely sells the appeal of a somewhat realistic crime life, but it can be excruciatingly slow in its tendency to reward players. Cash is normally scarce outside of missions, with only $1-2k per store (of which there are 20 - these can be replayed at any time once completed, though), and a couple of hundred per every player killed. If you make cash, you have to visit an ATM machine or use the internet and deposit your cash before somebody kills you and steals it. While this sounds like a cool and tense feature, its more annoying. Every time I finished a store or mission, I had to bring up the phone and bank it, which can get tiring after a while.
There are a lot of annoyances with the economical side of GTA: Online. Like I said, money takes forever, which is unfair because the most expensive apartments and garages run at $300-400,000 and $30-100,000 respectively, which will take ages to acquire. It's annoying that, if you are killed, you lose a segment of that cash to pay towards medical bills. It's a really harsh inclusion because it discourages common mayhem. Driving around without risking killing anybody and just robbing stores is dull, and that's what makes up the online game for the most part. The absolute biggest offender, though, is the appearance of microtransactions. We all know what they are, and they are a money-making machine, which is a major irritation. While Rockstar have claimed that it isn't a "win" feature, the fact that the apartments, weapons and cars will be easily gained due to real cash, it definitely feels like it. Some players, like myself, will want to progress naturally and fairly, but there will be many people who may compromise that fun with their expensive weapons and vehicles. Even weapons and attachments cost too much ($12,500 for a silencer? Yeah, right).
In terms of vehicles, you have the option to choose one for free at the start. After that, you must purchase a tracker from Los Santos Customs, as well as insurance. This means you will have that car in your name forever, unless you insure a new one (it will overwrite your previous vehicle, unless you own a 2+ car garage). This is actually a pretty inventive feature, because it forces you to choose the best vehicles and subsequently phone up the insurance company if the car is destroyed (it is also impounded upon being killed or busted). You can also set who can access your vehicle. Crew means only members of your group can access, Friends refers to anybody on your friends list, and Everyone is, well, everybody in the session. You can also lock it to yourself, meaning nobody can get in the car, which is pretty cool. There are races strewn throughout the world, and some of them can be decent fun (dirt bike races and sea races are highlights) but the rest are standard races that won't entertain you beyond a couple of times.
The "meat and potatoes" of GTA: Online is with regards to missions. These are "jobs" that range from interrupting drug deals, stealing cars, killing gang members for supplies and repossessing different vehicles around the city. These are decent to begin with, but you'll soon realize that the "500 missions" claim was overblown in terms of content and variety. What you see is what you get with those four mission types. I've played prolonged sessions of GTA: Online and, though some people may gain access to more missions later on in their ranking ladder, at the moment there isn't a whole lot of content that will have you returning for more.
The ranking system ties your unlocks together with your points tally. Earning rep points for missions, races, stores and cop evasions leads to levelling up, which provides the availability of new weapons, store outfits and hairstyles. However, just to be clear: you still have to pay for them when they have unlocked. Considering that attachments cost between $3,000 and $15,000, its annoying having to buy the weapon AND attachments. The encouragement of obtaining apartments and garages is compromised when dealing with weapon purchases.
Yes, apartments and garages. How potentially exciting. We heard lots of reports before release ranging from hanging around with friends watching TV, showering, meeting up to arrange missions and more. While these are somewhat true, their execution is pretty uninteresting. Yes, you can sit down in someone's apartment and spectate a friend who is in a cop chase, you can shower (with a "singing" meter... don't ask) as well as access your own showroom of vehicles, but it isn't exciting in any meaningful way. You can't access weapons when in the apartment, you can't attack anybody and you can't do any activities (poker, video games etc). It's disappointing too, because those possibilities would have made the experience far more interesting and fun, but it's just tacked-on and bland features.
The activities themselves aren't all that interesting, mimicking single player. Parachuting is probably the only activity worth undertaking, and even then that cannot hold together the content singlehandedly. You can do "impromptu races" with friends, which are on-the-spot races. There are lots of pretentious blue icons on the map, but these are just mission/race indicators. Once you complete a mission, you can then decide to vote on a new mission or race, but they are quite repetitive and surprisingly limited. Also, if you are in a crew session and finish a mission or race, you are taken to a public session and having to be invited back in, in order to do another mission. That is bad design.
Rockstar is rewarding gamers with $500,000 in GTAO cash as compensation for the laundry list of issues throughout the month (even with characters continuing to be deleted). It will be split into two $250k segments, with players (who have to play in October to qualify) given the opportunity to buy an apartments or vehicles for their troubles. Some might appreciate this, but I think it's a pretty mediocre effort on Rockstar's part. The cash sum will completely void any interest in doing missions and stores, and then once an expensive apartment has been purchased (with a 10-car garage), what is there to do? There are STILL no heists (which is extremely disappointing) and the mission reward sum has been halved for every restart (which makes them less exciting). Medical bills have also seen the same change, which is the one good thing about the online mode.
The most disappointing thing about the online component? The reveal. It was a contradictive reveal, back in August, showcasing features and content that haven't been implemented into the game yet. I have no idea why Rockstar would delay such content, as they had years (and two weeks) to design them. We saw content creator - a mode where people could create their own deathmatches and races (of which I'm sceptical), heists (a big initial draw to GTA) and more, which simply hasn't been delivered. This is a big shame.
In summary, GTA: Online is full of promising ideas that Rockstar's has failed to capitalize on. For every "that's interesting" moment, it is dug into the ground by mediocre execution and bland mission design. The content presented here is pretty boring, by way of a massive world that, with 16 players, feels lifeless, and missions that cannot sustain interest beyond a single completion. That said, I'm sure lots of players will continue playing this mode, and they will be able to (eventually) perform heists with friends but, for the rest of us, play something else instead. GTA: Online disappoints in nearly every way.
Overall - 4/10
Rockstar's ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto series is the staple of the open-world game. No sandbox game has managed to equal the crime-littered epic ever since it's inception in 1996. It peaked in 2001, shaping the future of 3D open-world game design from then, and has seen many more improved instalments over time. Rockstar North, the Scottish developer of the entire series, gave us Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 to universal acclaim. It did so many things different (and better) than its predecessors. Now, though, we have the latest game in the super-popular franchise. Five years in the making, Grand Theft Auto V is here and, for the most part, is a solid experience all-around. It encompasses its predecessor in scope, and forms a narrative based on a three-character arc, all of whom are playable in some way during missions, and who become involved in the story over the course of its 22-25 hour running time. However, GTA V also makes many mistakes that prevent it from being a fantastic game, instead settling for being a good one.
Set in modern-day San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto V benefits from an astounding attention to detail. Glimmering skyscrapers, dusty desert plains, rocky hillsides and dark mountain underpasses are greatly designed. The clouds and sun that shine over the city are brought to life through great lighting effects. When the weather changes, hard rain batters down on the streets below, where several echoes of thunder occur. It's certainly a well-designed world; one that many people are going to love exploring.
Rockstar achieved something of a visual milestone with Grand Theft Auto IV. That game featured a superbly-crafted Liberty City that ran well and was filled with great detail and effects. Here, they have delivered another great world. Grand Theft Auto V runs brilliantly, its varied environments – from the greens of Vinewood to the glitzy nightlife of downtown Los Santos and the muddy dunes of Blaine County – all look fantastic. This time, the game rids the grey art style of GTA IV in favour of a brighter, more colourful and appealing look, which definitely gives benefit to the game. Some issues like dated textures, pop-in and occasional glitches threaten to mar the visuals at times, but overall it looks great.
The audio design is top-notch, too. The talented voice cast in the game, especially the three main leads, give excellent voice work, which is heightened by heavy gun sounds and police sirens, which pull you into the experience. A GTA staple feature, the soundtrack, is again another assorted selection, but it isn't as memorable a set as other GTA selections of the past. Despite that, a dynamic score is the first for the series. Similar to the understated music of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire (a Rockstar-published title), the score is unique and sounds great.
I'll now talk about GTA V's story. It follows three main characters whose motivations and personalities intertwine in one narrative. There is Michael De Santa, a 40-something retired bank robber, living in a big house with his dysfunctional family in Vinewood Hills. He's having something of a midlife crisis, which he mistakenly drags his family into. There is Franklin, a former street gang member working as a repo man, attempting to leave his past behind to start anew, while his loyalties are questioned. There is also Trevor, owner of his self-titled amphetamine establishment, living in the Sandy Shores
region of Blaine County, who travels to Los Santos in search of a lost friend. There are many plot devices in the story that I cannot mention for fear of spoilers, but it takes some interesting directions and builds to a muddled and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. There are three separate endings, but it just kind of ends abruptly. I would have liked to have seen a tighter focus on a finale, something Rockstar nailed with GTA IV.
I have a few issues with the story, firstly the characters. GTA IV had an empathetic, likeable protagonist in Niko Bellic, who always had motivations for his actions. However, here, we are presented with three somewhat stereotypical characters who have no valuable redeeming factors whatsoever. They are developed in some sense, but their motivations – and personalities – are highly questionable and they ultimately do nothing to make you want to like or root for them. Take Michael, the former “bank robber”. This detail immediately questions his morals, as he is in the business for the sake of finance. Niko travelled to Liberty City as a man finding his feet in a foreign place, starting from the bottom. But with Michael, we have a guy whose primary traits are anger and misery. He uses his family as his crutch while expecting everybody to sympathize with him.
Trevor is a violent, aggressive sociopath with little expression for the human being. This, along with his introductory cut-scene (which is ridiculous in its senselessness) gives you the ultimate impression of his own persona. He's a really unlikeable, progressively annoying asshole whose only actions are killing, swearing and constantly implementing sexual innuendo into his conversations with nearly everybody he meets and talks to. Franklin, however, is probably the straightest of the three leads, though he himself mars his persona thanks to a frustrating capacity for spitting out the forbidden “N” word in nigh every sentence he speaks. The writing is ultimately Grand Theft Auto V's biggest presentational problem. It is juvenile and tiresome, as I lost count how many times I rolled my eyes and sighed every time the dialogue persisted into “f—k”, “s—t”, “n---a” and so on. It makes the story hard to take seriously, as it (just like its character at the centre), continues to suffer from its tonal crisis.
The story itself is ultimately forgettable. It starts off well enough, introducing us to the characters, but it shifts in tone during the middle, and falls prey to its tonal inconsistencies by the end, with no payoff emotionally or thematically. Contrary to writer Dan Houser's otherwise sparkling track record, GTA V's story is a disappointment. In pale comparison to Grand Theft Auto IV, which had a rich and interesting plot throughout, Rockstar fail to deliver on the premise, resulting in an unsatisfactory narrative that doesn't live up to previous entries in the franchise.
Grand Theft Auto V is an immediate step up from its predecessor in a number of ways. The controls are a lot smoother than what has come before, as climbing ladders, vaulting, jumping and accessing rooftops feel so much better now. GTA V makes use of Rockstar's own in-house assets by implementing new features to great success. There's the weapon wheel, where multiple weapons can be selected. Used as a crossover feature from Max Payne 3 (the look) and Red Dead Redemption (the categorization), GTA V makes it easy to choose guns on the fly. It's a better way to go than constantly pressing left and right on the d-pad.
The gunplay has seen much refinement. Auto-aim and cover aren't as touchy as before, and they work really well. Aiming and shooting feels as fun as Rockstar Vancouver's Max Payne 3, though not as rewarding or responsive as that game. Nevertheless, shooting is something you'll want to perform frequently this time around. Also, melee is hugely superior to GTA IV. Now, the animations and controls are a lot more fluid, and dodging, kicking and punching feels fun. I mean, grabbing a knife and stabbing someone feels (and looks) near-realistic at times. The AI puts up a big challenge, too. It's very easy to die in GTA V (more so than IV), so use of cover is vital. It can be a bit annoying when having to pump a round of bullets into one gang member to kill him, but for the most part, the AI works well in this game.
One of the biggest changes to the gameplay in Grand Theft Auto V is undoubtedly the driving mechanics. A somewhat controversial but realistic feature in GTA IV, Rockstar have streamlined the driving, making it tighter and more accessible. This results in a fast-paced, fluid driving system that could prove as divisive as it did last time around. However, that shouldn't matter, because whatt's presented here is great. It is more exaggerated and arcadey than before, and undergoing car chases and drive-by sequences are more enjoyable – and less frustrating – as a result. The variety of vehicles is commendable, as there are cars, trucks, ATVs, bikes, motorcycles, helicopters, jet skis, planes and fighter jets. The vehicle controls, especially planes, can take some time to adjust, but its great fun to use them eventually.
The marquee mechanic of GTA V is the character-switching. Here, you can select between the three characters at any time during free roam, and you will be taken to them via a skyline shot of the city. They can be selected while doing many different things, which makes them appear more human than most characters. One time, I went from Michael (driving downtown) to Franklin (who was walking Chop, the game's primary dog) then to Trevor (who was lay on the beach in a white dress). I did the same thing again 10 minutes later, and those instances were drastically different, which is cool. It adds variety to the game, and makes missions interesting. If you are firing from the ground, switching to Trevor, for example, will yield a better position, allowing you to sniper other enemies. However, the game often forces you to choose a pre-determined character during a mission, which removes choice completely. The character-switching “choose him” icon will not disappear until you do so, which is annoying. It happens multiple times throughout the game, which can break the game's flexibility at times.
There are also multiple, structured heist missions throughout the campaign, which become some of the game's most enjoyable moments. Michael, Trevor or Franklin will be given different small tasks to complete, such as circling a heist target building and planning an enter/exit strategy, or obtaining a helicopter for air transport, or finding and storing a getaway car for a quick escape. These snippets then form the main heist, which is planned in a specific location beforehand. You can choose heist members (better or more experienced members will demand a bigger cut) and choose A or B executions: basically quiet or loud, though others have more insight options. Executing the heist proves enjoyable, which plenty of shootout sequences, followed by tense money-gathering and subsequent chases before getting away. They are surprisingly well-structured and varied, though I wish they weren't as linear as they are. You can't perform your own heists off-mission, and you can't plan your own objectives, either. Despite the entertainment found throughout these heists, they are disappointingly few and far between, and there isn't much option in planning and executing them. You are always told where to go to get something, there are only and always two options to choose from, and you only have a select number of heist members. This proves frustrating when considering the amoutn of buildings and establishments in Los Santos, all of which are inexplicably locked and disabled from open play.
There are some mightily impressive missions throughout the 20-25 hour campaign, though. Whether it is infiltrating a Vinewood home to reclaim a vehicle, killing 15 enemies and blowing up their hideout, driving aboard a train on a BMX or scaring an actor into accepting a director's contract, GTA V has incredible variety. Unlike GTA IV, I never found myself sighing at any of the missions. Not one mission is repetitive, and they are all (mostly) well designed.
Grand Theft Auto V presents more content that what was available in GTA IV, much to the game's advantage. Pay n' Spray is now Los Santos Customs, and here there is a lot of customization to perform. Spoilers, rims, armored tires, bulletproof windows, spikestrips, turbo boost – these are possible, and they are good additions for those wanting to fine-tune their vehicles. AmmuNation makes a welcome return. Here, you can select multiple types of explosives (jerry cans – of which shooting the gas trail will ignite, grenades, sticky bombs and more), assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and special weapons like RPGs, grenade launchers and a minigun. It's a long time coming for these additions, and its great that we can finally use these types of weapons once more. You can also customize these weapons too, with things like suppressors, torches, grips, scopes and colour tints, which is awesome. You can also purchase a parachute, instrumental for bailing out of a chopper or plane.
The Wanted system has also seen changes. The level has been scaled from six to five, but the police are more rigorous this time around. A one-star wanted level will turn to two if you do not stop your vehicle, and a three-star will have helicopters persistently circling your position. However, a new line-of-sight feature allows you hide down alleyways and on rooftops to lose your pursuers. This works to a mixed degree. While the line-of-sight choice is realistic, sometimes policemen can still chase you even if you are a few streets in front of them. If you fire a silenced weapon in a deserted area at night, you will get a wanted star. If you walk into a policeman, he will shoot at you. Also, the AI of both police and gang members is near-superhuman, as they always kill you within two hits. Thankfully, to counter this, there are now mission checkpoints, a first for the series. It avoids the aggravating process of driving to a mission provider eight times per mission.
However, there are still many annoyances that plague the game world. There are a ridiculous number of buildings and interiors that are inaccessible in the game, designed only with a front door texture (which is frustrating). Buying property isn't explained at all, leading me (and probably many) to confusion, and skipping it altogether. Civilians can be killed in a single punch (which is a bit daft), yet shooting them once will see them get back up. Contacts you acquaint never do anything again if you phone them up. Police can spot you if you are hidden in a bush, out of plain sight. These things don't effectively ruin the experience, but they can make an otherwise stellar presentation feel a bit disjointed.
You can hold up a couple of stores in the game, though this feels rather limited and sketchy. Aiming the reticule at the shopkeeper will force him to place his money in a bag (resulting in a usual amount of $500-750) though they will sometimes fire at you. There are activities including tennis, golf (with a purchasable golf course), cinema, triathlon and sea races. These make GTA V more interesting than Rockstar's previous instalment, but it still feels limited. Those activites are admirable, but they feel like filler, and merely a servant to intentional content design. Some may find enjoyment in these optional mini-games, but they still won't keep the interest of many gamers.
There are some side missions, though. These are called Strangers and Freaks tasks, and are usually varied and amusing. One person may task you with finding various UFO ship parts, while another may have you destroy “for sale” signs across Vinewood, and two elderly people want celebrity valuables. It mirrors some modern aspects of popular culture, often basking in its satire, and makes the game more enjoyable because of that. These Stranger tasks are good fun, as well as the many random events, which range from reclaiming a stolen handbag from a mugger, getting a guy to his wedding on time after being tied to a lamppost, and driving a hitch-hiker to a mysterious cult in the mountains. They sound ridiculous, and they are, and that's a good thing.
Despite the absence of such a feature in GTA IV, missions can now be replayed. You are awarded a particular medal at the end of each mission (bronze, silver, gold) and presented with objectives that must be met in order to attain gold level. This results in significant replay value for the campaign, in an attempt to gain 100% across the game. Notifications even pop up for friends, informing them of your high score, in order for them to compete. It is reminiscent of Need for Speed's “Autolog” feature, which I admire.
And then there's GTA Online, which is best forgotten about, essentially. It's widely-reported launch was disastrous, with horrendous server issues ranging from endless loading, broken gameplay, glitches, crashes, character deletions and corrupted single player save files. While the notion of millions of players attempting to access servers is understandable, because of the sheer capacity, Rockstar can't be forgiven for the sloppiness following subsequent patch releases. Though connections to the server are much better, my character was deleted over five times, including one that I recently created at level 8, with over $15,000. While nothing astounding, the fact that I have to sit through constant long loads and the tedious tutorial missions, it makes me wonder if GTA Online is worth the hype at all. The missions are basically just races in different environments, the missions repeat themselves (interrupt a deal, steal 'x' and bring it back, last man standing team modes and vice versa), money takes forever to obtain (which will ultimately force people into considering the tyrannical microtransactions) and other problems – ridiculous medical fees for dying, no character saving via cloud servers, no heists etc – it's easy to see why many people have already lost patience with Rockstar's inexcusable issues. Continuing on from my last session, the 20 stores in the game are the only interesting bouts of content in the online game. Even then they become very dull, especially going alone or even with a friend, considering the annoying frequency of which cops overwhelm you. Playing the activities from single player – tennis, golf, races and the multiplayer-exclusive arm wrestling – isn't as exciting as one would think, leading GTA Online to be somewhat pretentious in its design. It's certainly realistic - paying vehicle insurance, cars being impounded, paying your employees (like mechanics) and purchasing stock, but it risks compromising what makes Grand Theft Auto so enjoyable - fun. There is nothing "fun" about paying bills when you die, gaining wanted levels for driving "stolen" vehicles and endless, repetitive grinding for a $200,000 apartment.
Grand Theft Auto V meets the demands of the franchise in a number of ways, refining almost all of the game mechanics and making them more fluid, accessible and responsive. The story suffers from some its juvenile writing and characters, which threaten to derail the game's tone at times. Also, some of the content still needs improving, and the multiplayer is pretentious and unfulfilling. It still manages to entertain thanks to its varied campaign, but I'll struggle to remember its lacking story a month from now.
Overall – 8/10