Any minute now I’m going to log out of Grand Theft Auto Online so I can finish this not-a-review. Seriously, I’ve played this game for, oh, 65 hours since it launched on the PC last week? At least that’s what Steam says. I’m not sure I believe it, though, because it feels like five minutes, and the few times that I’ve managed to log off and go outside have been sweet, sweet sorrow.
Say what you will about Rockstar’s fondness for smutty protagonists and its penchant for dialogue that would make Joe Pesci blush, but no company does action sandbox gameplay better than these guys. And hey, most of the really objectionable content lurks in GTA V’s story-driven single-player campaign, which leaves GTAO as a sort of virtual playground for adults, the likes of which most modern-day MMOs can only dream of providing.
OK, maybe the “for adults” bit is subjective, but my experience over 15-plus multiplayer hours has thus far been completely removed from the stereotypical slurfest found on Xbox Live shooter matches and the like. This is probably because one of the first things I did upon logging into GTAO was disable voice chat. The second thing I did was add a handful of real-life bros to my friends list, and now we’re happily rolling around Los Santos owning wannabe gangstas and their mercifully muted pre-pubescent puppeteers.
We’re also having an absolute blast racing across GTAO’s megahuge landmass in sports cars, ATVs, bikes (of both the pedal and the motor variety), and aircraft ranging from Stearman-esque crop dusters to Learjets to helicopters of every shape and size. Oh, and we’re knocking over convenience stores, smuggling dope, repoing cars, and running bank heists courtesy of Rockstar’s addictive mission system. Did I mention that we’ve created a couple of custom race circuits, too?
Yeah, you can do all of that, and at this point I’m legitimately wondering when (or whether) I’ll see the inside of a proper MMORPG again.
If that sounds like heresy coming from an MMO writer, well, sorry? I’m long over level grinds, gear grinds, and all the other infuriatingly frequent fun barriers that modern MMO devs put in their skinner boxes. That said, GTAO does have its own version of a level grind (I grouped just this morning with some dude who was level 193!), but it’s something that happens almost by accident while you’re out there having fun.
Instead of, you know, out there studying your spreadsheets and calculating how many rat tails you need to grind to get your next ding.
There’s a bit of vehicle progression, too, in that many of the performance and cosmetic changes you’ll want to make to your car collection will involve winning a certain number of races or reaching a certain character level. Normally I’d protest about this in an action sandbox, but there is so much available customization throughout the level range that it’s hard to argue. I’m talking everything from paint schemes to horn sounds to wheel and tire bling to armor, engine, and transmission upgrades.
GTA Online, while a free-aiming shooter at heart, also borrows the RPG-lite mechanics of the franchise’s offline single-player mode by giving your alter ego a small selection of stats that increase with usage. Feel like winning a triathlon or biking around Los Santos’ picturesque beach areas? You’ll up your stamina stat as you do so, which in turns allows you to sprint faster, for longer, and this comes in handy when you find yourself in an open world game of cat-and-mouse with a JoeBlow6969 whose mission in life is to headshot you into submission.
… Or at least into a friends-only or solo-only version of GTAO’s sprawling recreation of Los Angeles/Los Santos.
As much as I’m enjoying my newfound life of virtual crime, the PC version of GTAO does have its share of flaws. The matchmaking system can be wonky, particularly when you’re trying to meet up with friends. On several occasions I’ve been thrown into a public world despite specifically selecting a friends-only meetup, and the fact that I have to leave GTAO and return to GTA V to start my own solo GTAO free roam takes precious time.
The tutorial is pretty worthless, too, as it assumes that you’re a franchise veteran and neglects to tell you incredibly important information like how to flip the birdie at friends, enemies, and basically anyone else you encounter. Protip: Hit M, select your preferred emote, and then activate it with CapsLock.
Oh, and dat interface! Well, duh, it was made for consoles, and even though this is one of the better console-to-PC ports ever published, sometimes you just want to click something with your mouse, and dammit, you can’t.
There’s a cash shop of sorts, too, because of course there is: It’s 2015 and all the kids demand it! Thankfully it’s limited to in-game cash and is incredibly easy to ignore. There are no exclusive outfits or cars or guns that you can obtain only by reaching for your real-world wallet. Everything in the game is obtainable in the game, which is a revolutionary concept nowadays and one that I hope Rockstar doesn’t dispense with moving forward.
Finally, loading into the game is occasionally hit and miss, and since all of the competitive races, deathmatches, and arm wrastlin’ hoedowns take place in instanced slices of the gigantic open world map, you’ll probably be spending some time waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more as either you or your mates disconnect, reconnect, and so on and so forth.
In the meantime, though, you can roam around and carjack to your heart’s content, and you can even sell the lovelier machines at the nearest Los Santos Customs for around $9,000 each. Such side activities, when paired with some mission-running, will build your bankroll at a reasonable rate, which is great considering all of the prime real estate around Los Santos that you’ll be wanting to acquire. You can start with a dingy little dump in the desert of Blaine County that features a two-car garage and a serious need for some TLC. Then you can work your way up to a posh inner city penthouse with a 10-car garage and some incredible views of the Los Santos skyline.
While GTAO’s version of player housing is fun, it may leave experienced MMO fans cold since many of the interiors look similar and the customization is lacking when compared to the systems in RIFT, EverQuest II, and Star Wars Galaxies. Still, you can’t play tennis, golf, or darts in your RIFT, EverQuest II, or Star Wars Galaxies home, nor can you fly a helicopter to the top of your penthouse and jump off the side before pulling your ripcord and putting your precision parachuting skills to the test by landing on the nearest moving vehicle, which you can then borrow and take back to your personal garage because, holy smokes, this Banshee looks and sounds exactly like a Viper and who doesn’t want one of those?
There’s been some question as to whether we should cover GTAO here on Massively OP since it kinda sorta skips the “massive” in “massively multiplayer online roleplaying game.” The PC version can host up to 30 players and two spectators in a single “world,” which basically doubles the capacity of the game’s console counterparts.
But 30 players still amounts to a lobby game in my book, the gigantic open-world, free-roam capabilities notwithstanding. But hey, maybe lobby games like this are the future of MMOs. In any case, GTAO is more fun than a barrel of foul-mouthed monkeys no matter how you label it. If we’re going to be saddled with combat lobbies masquerading as MMOs now and in the future, at least this one is packed full of non-combat options to the point that it feels like a virtual world, even if it isn’t one.
Ultimately, GTAO is by far the most enjoyable experience I’ve had in an online game in several years. In fact, I may have to go all the way back to the multiplayer component of 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, which makes sense given that the adventures of John Marston and company was also a Rockstar production focused on shooting, exploring, and showing off its stellar in-house engine. If you’re tired of the same silly MMORPG grind but you still crave a game with open world feels that encourages you to stray off the beaten path, look no further.