Video Game Review: ‘Grand Theft Auto: Online’ is an Iffy Connection

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

CHICAGO – Sometimes you get a freebie. While seemingly millions of other players were cursing the house that Houser built, stuck waiting for “Grand Theft Auto: Online” to load the first tutorial mission, I was already in and playing a day after launch. Aware that these sorts of gifts are rare and to be cherished, I yet again harangued my buddy Mary (who you may remember from my “Fuse” and “Sacred Citadel” reviews) and we plunged well over 25 hours into this sucker. Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0

Character creation is…interesting, you pick your grandparents and their traits, and through a kind of convoluted series of variables arrive at a swarmy looking jamoche with several stats and nebulously defined attributes, in addition to the skills you know from “Grand Theft Auto V” like stamina, strength, driving, and so on.

From there you’re dropped into Los Santos, and you meet Lamar, of “GTA V” fame, and you’re off to the races, literally. And then you wait for the races, and wait, and wait, and reset your Xbox, and try again, and wait and wait. Thankfully I got in on my third reboot, won my first race against 0 opponents, bought some clothes, and was finally into the game proper.

Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto Online
Photo credit: Rockstar Games

First impressions are…Hollow? Probably due to the server issues and the fact my Xbox360 is older than most of my friends’ children, there was a lot of pop-in and a noticeable decrease in the number of NPC citizens, turning Los Santos into a ghost town or an NPC edition of “A Day Without a Mexican” respectively. Unfortunately, “GTA: Online” also does a pretty mediocre job of pointing you in the right direction. Missions are scattered all over town, sure, but unless you (and your fellow players) know what they’re doing, you’ll be waiting in a lobby with no one to play with for awhile.

But once you get into a game, you’ll find yourself having a good time. Races are hit and miss, as selecting the wrong car, or going up against better players will end up wasting your time as you struggle to keep up with more experienced drivers. Though, variables like including motorcycles and “Mario Kart” style power ups give them a lot of variety if that’s you’re here for. However it took me four races and all manner of silly experiments to find out that pushing the left stick in activates said power ups.

Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto Online
Photo credit: Rockstar Games

Deathmatch fairs a lot better, and is tactical in nature. The ability to pull off quality headshots and stalk your enemies from cover is the name of the game, and for gamers who like shooting things, but hate the chaotic nature of “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield”, this could be your go-to game for a thinking man’s edition of cat and mouse. The options here are also many, including team death matches, last man standing matches, and the ability to adjust the sort of power ups available on a given map.

Completing missions earns you RP, and cash-money. RP levels your character up and use cash to buy weapons, vehicles, and property, and is just difficult enough to get, so every dollar earned is rewarding. The balance is pretty solid too. Customizing a cool car you find costs a couple of grand, but you can insure so you’ll have it even if it explodes or is stolen. Weapons unlock as you level, and once you buy a combat pistol, smg, or micro-smg, you’ll have them forever, so you won’t be needlessly buying weapons over and over again.

Beyond that there really aren’t a ton of ways to spend money, which is a bummer. While you can bet on races and deathmatches, darts, and arm wrestling, and place bounties on the heads of enemies, you can’t bet 10k on a game of golf, for example, nor can you purchase businesses like towing or taxi companies to open up new revenue and mission streams, though you can hold up stores and sell cars to the chop shop to generate revenue.

Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto Online
Photo credit: Rockstar Games

But It turns out the best way to progress and make money is through character missions that pop up on your phone, that you are then invited to by other players. These missions start off relatively simplistic, go here, nab this, come back, but eventually evolve into more dynamic experiences. One mission required the stealing of two separate cars, so my online cohort and I decided the best way to approach the mission would be to nab a helicopter, fly in, drop me off, then have him fly to the other vehicle, and it worked splendidly. Another mission required charging into a veritable killbox of enemies, so instead we flanked them by perching ourselves atop a nearby overpass and picked them off one-by-one.

There’s also joys to had in randomly dorking around within the world. You can take selfies of your character with NPCs you’ve wasted, customize any number of cars in a multitude of ways, and engage in impromptu drag races if you can find a player who doesn’t want to kill you right away.

But they will want to kill you right away. “Grand Theft Auto: Online” is a savage place, and most players are jerks. You’ll grow to fear your fellow players during the open world portions of the game, with every white radar blip likely a player hell bent on ruining whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. It’s actually kind of harrowing in the fun way, especially if you’re all chasing after a player with a large bounty on his head, as police careen after the entire shebang, “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”-style.

Grand Theft Auto Online
Grand Theft Auto Online
Photo credit: Rockstar Games

So far, a week after launch, “Grand Theft Auto Online” feels like a typical MMO where the RPG mechanics have been switched out in favor of “GTA” style gameplay. It is what you make of it. My cohort found much joy in simply driving around, nabbing cars for passive delivery missions, and escaping the police in the craziest ways possible, she found it expansive and immersive.

I found myself feeling a mite disconnected and yearning for purpose, possibly due to finding the single player version so wonderful. Don’t get me wrong the gameplay is great and compelling and a lot of fun, it just seems there’s a lack of cohesiveness and diversity to the activities presented. “GTAV”’s bright and colorful world seemed…empty. The sandbox had no shovel or pail and was filled with bullies.

Still, the gameplay is solid, and the promise for more content and heist missions make “Grand Theft Auto: Online” well worth the price of admission, which last time I checked, is free.

“Grand Theft Auto V” is now available for the Xbox 360 and PS3. The version reviewed was played on the former. It is rated M (Mature). video game critic Paul Meekin

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