She came from far away, flying in to Los Santos International late one night. It wasn't what she was running away from that mattered anymore. The past was past. It was the opportunities in her future she cared about. As her plane flew over, she looked out at the city, thinking of the possibilities that awaited her there.
Grand Theft Auto Online is full of possibilities. My character has engaged in some run-of-the-mill criminal activities, holding up stores and getting into shootouts. But this isn't what excites her about Los Santos. No, what she loves are the opportunities to race helicopters over the mansions in the Vinewood Hills, to get into tank battles near the forests of Great Chaparral, to dogfight in fighter planes over Fort Zancudo. For a while, she fell in with a mysterious criminal wearing a pig mask, and they committed crimes together and played golf and tennis together like a modern-day, fitness-oriented Bonnie and Clyde.
The sheer variety of things to do with and against other players in Grand Theft Auto Online's open world is its greatest asset. No individual element measures up to more focused games. As a multiplayer racing game, it's no Forza or Burnout. As an online shooter, it's not as exciting as the multiplayer in The Last of Us. Its sports offerings aren't going to compete with Tiger Woods or Top Spin. But none of those games let you do more than a fraction of the things GTA Online lets you do, and GTA Online does the things it does well enough for them to be really enjoyable. When you're hopping along from one exciting activity to the next, GTA Online is exhilarating.
I've found myself more invested in the stylish, enigmatic character I created than I ever was in Michael or Franklin or Trevor.
Unfortunately, sometimes the world behaves in ways that put a stop to your fun. GTA Online's stability has improved considerably since it first launched, but in that time, many players have lost characters and properties they've purchased, which is no minor setback. Low-level characters don't have access to most of GTA Online's best content. Early on, your mission options are dominated by bland last team standing deathmatches. GTA Online doesn't put its best foot forward right away, which is unfortunate even for new players, but it's doubly unfortunate to have to rise through the ranks a second time. Losing property is also a tremendous setback, given that it takes a lot of time to earn enough cash for the nicer homes in the game.
Then there are a host of smaller but still significant issues. Matches sometimes fail to start, leaving you stranded in lobbies. Races sometimes hitch up, and competitors sometimes warp around the environment. You might be cruising along minding your own business only to get a message informing you that you've been kicked from the game by other players, and when you return, even though you didn't do anything wrong, you're warned that if you keep behaving like this, you'll be designated a bad sport and be forced to play with all the other jerks.
Rockstar is giving everyone who has played GTA Online up to this point half a million in online cash, a nice gesture, but there's no replacing lost characters you might have grown attached to. GTA Online doesn't attempt to create a tightly woven narrative around your character's exploits. Instead, it provides a very loose-fitting structure in which your silent character occasionally comes into contact with the likes of Lester, Trevor and other characters from the single-player game. As my imagination has filled in the gaps, I've found myself more invested in the stylish, enigmatic character I created than I ever was in Michael or Franklin or Trevor.
As other players approach you, you might feel a knot of anticipation in your stomach as you wonder if they'll ignore you and go about their business, or risk their lives in an attempt to kill you and take some of the cash you're carrying.
The world is identical to that of the single-player game, but with all the outlandish activities you constantly get up to, it feels pleasantly disconnected from the Los Santos of GTAV. This is a Grand Theft Auto fever dream in which no narrative justification is needed before you're parachuting off of a skyscraper or hopping into a jet to pursue opposing players speeding down the freeway in sports cars. GTA Online largely does away with story to make room for gleeful chaos.
At least, the chaos is usually gleeful. Sometimes other players in the open world can go out of their way to be jerks and keep attacking you, but you can enable passive mode for a paltry $100 which makes it so that you can't shoot or be shot, and the fact that activities are instanced means that you won't find your golf game interrupted by joyriders mowing you down in a sports car. When you're not doing an activity, there's typically an exciting element of danger as you traverse the open world. As other players approach you, you might feel a knot of anticipation in your stomach as you wonder if they'll ignore you and go about their business, or risk their lives in an attempt to kill you and take some of the cash you're carrying. Smart players bank their cash frequently to avoid significant losses, and although the game advises you to go to the nearest ATM, you can actually do this quickly from anywhere just by using the internet on your phone, which almost makes the entire distinction between cash and money in the bank pointless.
You can interact with other players indirectly, too, calling Lester and kicking in cash to put bounties on other players, which marks them as red blips on the map. (It's exciting and scary to be on the other end of that situation, too, getting the message that another player has put a few grand on your head and knowing you're about to be hunted by every lowlife in town.) Events occur periodically in the world, too, that foster competition between players. Sometimes a particular vehicle that car dealer and legitimate businessman Simeon wants becomes marked on the map for all players, and whoever gets it back to the dealership first reaps the rewards. And often, the mayhem that other players are generating on their own contributes a surreal sense of life to Los Santos. You might see a huge police chase go speeding past you, or happen upon someone just cruising down the street in an propeller plane for no apparent reason.
For me, though, it's the structured activities that will keep me coming back to Grand Theft Auto Online. It's missions like Roadgame, in which you race other players up the beautiful coastal highway to collect some coke, then go on a winding car chase through the hills to deliver it first. It's the opportunity to race planes through the skyscrapers of downtown as the sunset paints the sky gorgeous shades of orange and purple. Even though homes in the game are essentially just places to take in picturesque views of the city and spectate other players in "news broadcasts" on TV, I've got my eye on a particular highrise luxury apartment. I actually want my character to succeed, to make something of herself here and rise above the brutal streets of Los Santos.
Los Santos doesn't look as sharp or lively online as off. Texture pop-in is much more noticeable, and there's less traffic on the roads. But it's still a diverse and gorgeous setting, and in GTA Online, it gives you more fun stuff to do with other players than any other open world action game. The unpredictable human element is both an asset and a liability, and the technical problems that have plagued it are far too significant to be ignored. But when it clicks, as it often does, there's nothing quite like GTA Online.
Grand Theft Auto Online is featured on our list of the best Xbox co-op games.