Having spent most of my life living in Los Angeles, I'm now of the opinion that it can be an interesting place to visit if you know where to go and what to look for, but that I wouldn't want to live there. After visiting it again, I feel the same way about the Los Santos of GTA Online. There are some great moments to be had, but, like getting anywhere in the gridlock traffic of LA, those moments can be difficult or impossible to access. They also lack any kind of coherent structure, and they're prone to all kinds of hang-ups and mishaps. If you want to enjoy GTA Online, you have to be willing to let go of any sort of desire for control, and just go with the flow. Whether it will take you someplace wonderful or someplace infuriating is anyone's guess.
Using money from the stimulus package that Rockstar gave players who accessed the game in October of last year, I bought myself a swanky penthouse apartment, with pretty art on the walls and a gorgeous view of the city below. But what's the point of such material wealth in a world as bleak as that of Grand Theft Auto Online? You're still as vulnerable as any other soul unfortunate enough to be living on these violent streets.
At least in single-player GTA, there's a story structure if you want it, offering a larger goal to work toward. In GTA Online, there's no greater purpose to fight for, and you share the world with other people who also have nothing meaningful to strive for, so the result is a nihilistic world in which life is dirt cheap, with players constantly gunning each other down for no reason whatsoever. (There are warnings that bad behavior will result in players being pegged as bad sports who are relegated to playing with all the other miscreants, but in a game designed to encourage murder and mayhem, it's hard to discern where the line is between fair play and being a jerk.) If there's a meaning to be found in Grand Theft Auto Online, it's in the way that, through depicting a society with no opportunities to do anything constructive or meaningful, it underscores the things in our world that actually are meaningful.
Sometimes you might be going about your business, trying to steal a car for Simeon or maybe just going to buy some new clothes, but instead you get stuck in a loop of getting murdered, respawning, and getting murdered again. You can turn on passive mode so that other players can't gun you down, though you can still be a victim of vehicular manslaughter. Violence breeds violence; you end up seeing any nearby players as threats and pull out your weapon, ready to gun them down before they gun you down. It becomes an unending cycle of pointless slaughter that pulls you away from what you'd rather be doing.
Even if some material goods are the only source of meaning you need to motivate you in Grand Theft Auto Online, you're in for some frustration, because earning money is an arduous process, and everything in the game is so expensive. You can easily blow a hefty chunk of change just outfitting yourself with a reasonable assortment of weapons and ammo at Ammu-Nation. Saving up for a modest house or a luxury sports car means many, many hours spent stealing cars and doing jobs. They say crime doesn't pay, and the shockingly small payouts for so many jobs in GTA Online only enhance the feeling that sinking time into a life of crime here is pointless. The meager payouts are likely designed to nudge you toward buying in-game cash with real cash. At the low end, three bucks nets you $100,000, which doesn't go very far in GTA Online. At the other extreme, you can shell out a hundred bucks for a cool $8,000,000 in online dollars.
Jobs may not pay much, but they do offer an opportunity to escape the insanity of the unstructured life you find on the streets. But you might try to launch a race, mission, or other activity, only to find that no other players will join you, preventing you from having the GTA Online experience you want to have. You can also wait for invites to activities from other players, or use the Quick Job option to hop right into an activity with other players, but you don't know if the activity you'll be tossed into will be a well-designed race created by Rockstar or a sloppy event tossed together by another player. There are some good user-generated events in GTA Online too, like a novelty race I competed in that had us speeding down the highway, using huge ramps to leap over train cars that had been placed in the middle of the road, and Rockstar is highlighting the better user-created jobs with a "Rockstar verified" designation, but the Quick Job option doesn't seem to discriminate between the cream of the crop and the garbage.
Grand Theft Auto Online is never a boring game. I never know quite what the next five minutes will bring, and in any given moment, I might be thrilled or frustrated, or both, but I'm always engaged.
Still, there's enough of a chance that you'll have a great experience in GTA Online that playing it is worth the gamble. Time and time again, the gameplay, the setting, and the music of Grand Theft Auto Online combine to lend your car chases and shootouts and other in-game actions the look and feel of something out of a cinematic crime classic. I love speeding away from another player in a car Simeon wants while the sax solo from Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" plays, or clicking with a team of criminals to efficiently steal a shipment of drugs from some non-player characters and then making a clean getaway.
There are moments of tranquility too, like when you just take a leisurely drive up the coast as the sun sets over the ocean, or parachute over the Alamo Sea. Grand Theft Auto Online's greatest assets are still its incredible setting and soundtrack. Los Santos is a city that's ugly and beautiful in the way that real, lived-in cities are ugly and beautiful. But Grand Theft Auto Online's performance sometimes interferes with your appreciation of the game's best qualities. You might be caught up in the heat of the moment, racing against other players as a great song plays on the radio, only to have the game hitch up for several seconds.
And even on missions, other players are as likely to spoil your fun as to contribute to it. On one mission, a player screeched and swore at me over his headset to get in the car with him, even though it was a sporty two-seater he was driving, and both seats were already occupied. On another job, my teammates and I needed to hijack a boat from the shipyard. I hung back to cover them and pick off some enemies from a distance, and they thanked me for my help by speeding off in the boat and leaving me stranded. I didn't mind this--it's the sort of betrayal you see happen in any number of crime movies, after all--but when, in a bit of karmic retribution, they got killed out at sea, my only options were to try swimming my way out to the boat, or to just quit the mission and be scolded by the game for my bad behavior.
Grand Theft Auto Online is never a boring game. I never know quite what the next five minutes will bring, and in any given moment, I might be thrilled or frustrated, or both, but I'm always engaged. But because everything is so chaotic and disjointed, I can only spend a little time in its world before I need to leave Los Santos behind and return to a place where I feel like my actions might actually mean something.