When Grand Theft Auto IV released in 2008, developer Rockstar North had hopes of taking the world of Liberty City and using it as a platform to tell more stories. Rather than just leave the Grand Theft Auto franchise after telling Niko’s to rest why they worked on a sequel, Rockstar set off to use the incredible open world they had created to feature new characters and their chronicles. In what was described as an ‘experiment’, given the low number of Xbox owners who had enough bandwidth to download large amounts of content via Xbox Live at the time, Rockstar developed and released The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony which served as two expansions to the main game. Both expansions were critically lauded for telling bolder stories than what we expect from a GTA game that focused on interesting protagonists, however commercial success on the scale that would have justified further expansions were still out of reach.
With Grand Theft Auto V then, Rockstar is trying a different approach at using Grand Theft Auto as a platform to tell a variety of stories. Instead of crafting single player experiences, Rockstar is making an ambitious, stand-alone, and persistent online multiplayer game dubbed Grand Theft Auto Online. And it is a stand-alone experience per Rockstar, who have been messaging that GTAO as a separate game in-and-of-itself that just so happens to be free along with a purchase of GTA V. To that effect, the game was released last Tuesday, two weeks after the launch of GTA V proper.
It’s probably wise that Grand Theft Auto Online’s launch was staggered, as numerous issues have plagued the game’s release. Even a week after release, connectivity issues, characters being deleted, and a host of other issues have plagued the game. If GTAO had been released with GTA V proper, and reviewed as a piece of that game, Rockstar could have easily found themselves in a situation similar to that faced by EA Games upon the release of Sim City earlier this year, where constant issues with their servers caused problems for players to the point where review scores were significantly lowered.
GTAO is by no means an MMO, a maximum of 16 players are allowed in any instance at a given time, which is a comparable amount to many multiplayer games. However GTAO *is* encountering a host of issues that face many MMO’s upon launch, and then some. The truth is this is significantly damaging to both the Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto names, which have been upheld as representative of the highest quality. Even after releasing hotfixes and patches, players are losing dozens of hours of progress.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the next generation of consoles and games are just around the corner, and GTA V is to be obsoleted fast. Even if Rockstar is able to get the online functionality of the game restored, they have precious little time to maintain mind-share. Considering the sheer scale of their games’ appeal, not being able to maximize the time where they can stand in the spotlight is a huge mistake. One also has to consider those who are ignoring the game altogether or walking away after losing data, who are likely amongst the most hardcore fans and would be the most vocal advocates (or detractors) of the game.
Even once in the game and linked up with your friends (a process which can take hours in its current state), problems abound. Incessant tutorial prompts hover on the screen without the ability to pause or skip, bombarding the player with an overload of information. The free-roam mode, in which players can knock off stores, buy apartments, enter impromptu races, and so forth, apparently doesn’t allow for parties to enter into together. Upon finishing a mission with friends, we were largely unable to travel into free-roam mode together, and were split apart even if we were in the sane party.
When it works however, Grand Theft Auto Online is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve had. Being able to play in and romp around an open world that is crafted with a level of detail that only Rockstar can provide is a total blast, and there’s not much that compares. There are MMOs, but those are a different breed of games that have a high barrier to entry, and titles such as Borderlands and more similar to GTA, Saints Row, but none of these feel as fully realized at GTAO.
Exploring Los Santos and San Andreas with friends or just playing with strangers in a public instance is fun, but most of my enjoyment with the game has been jumping from job-to-job with a crew. Rockstar has created a variety of missions for players to engage in, 300 by their count. At first, they just seem like pretty simple variations on the races, deathmatches, and more structured missions. Once the game opened up however, I realized the true scope of variety that was offered.
I’ve always preferred the more directed missions in GTA, as opposed to the open world antics you can get into, and so my preference was to try out the cooperative or competitive missions that were offered. Having one team escort a cop to a specific location, while the other team tries to stop them, was enjoyable enough, but the more zanier jobs were where the potential of GTAO really shone. Going from a team deathmatch at a motel in the desert during a storm, to a free-for-all tank battle, to a game of cat and mouse with one team in fighter jets and the other on motorcycles, felt like Rockstar’s take on a party game (side note: why were there no tanks or fighter jets in the main game?). All of these modes felt mechanically sound, which was surprising given the variety of gameplay here. What’s also brimming with potential is the fact that there will eventually be the ability for players to create jobs of their own. Rockstar has shown how modular these modes can be, which is promising as it should be relatively easy for the community to craft interesting missions, which will give the game legs.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto Online brims with potential and is a ton of fun. San Andreas is one of my favorite digital playgrounds in years. However the enjoyment I’ve had with the game is so eclipsed by the myriads issues that have plagued it since release, that I can only offer the most qualified recommendation on it. Unless you have the patience to literally spend hours getting into a functional game, and can stomach losing all of your character data seemingly at random, it’s hard to say it will be a net positive experience. Clearly the incredible sales of the game have exacerbated any issues due to the huge amount of people trying to log into the game, but that’s why public betas are useful tests. They exist both to gauge interest and test server stability. I’m sure Rockstar is working their damndest to get GTAO running smoothly, but a poor player experience is a poor experience nonetheless. It’s disappointing to see such promise get squandered, but as of now, GTAO appears to be another failed experiment to make Grand Theft Auto a platform for something more.