How much does a good narrative matter in Grand Theft Auto? That’s what I want to try and answer when we tackle the controversial topic that is GTA Online. Marketed as a separate game though you’re required to have GTA 5 to play it, GTA Online started as a very simple way to hang out with your friends, yet evolved into an addictive MMO that for all of its flaws (the horrific community included), has become a self-sufficient masterclass that lets you work your way from lowly grunt to a high-end crime kingpin. There’s been a large amount of criticism pointed at Rockstar since they’ve likely abandoned expanding the story mode in favor of constant updates to Online, with next month’s update including underground bunkers and mobile command centers, along with more new vehicles to acquire with your ill-gotten gains. Despite how much I’d love to see a story expansion, I want to play devil’s advocate and point out why GTA Online is arguably one of the best MMOs on the market right now, and examine just how far its come.
1. A Good Foundation Which Built a Better World
The first time Online launched it was something of a mixed bag. For a couple weeks people had been speculating what tricks they could pull with friends, if you could have a home base, what kind of criminal operations you could run, etc. But as soon as you walked into the game, it was worth noting how empty the open world really was. The only purpose it served was to A) give you a place to spend your cash on fast cars or nice apartments, or B) to act as a glorified waiting room while you figured out what job you would do next. And the jobs (better known as contact missions, since you’d have to call one of your contacts to access them) were/are fun, for the most part. Some would involve breaking into the airport to steal a military aircraft or torch an entire dealership to send a message. But 30+ times of those same missions can take their toll on players, especially when the only thing your cash is good for is acquiring said fast car or nice apartment. Simply put, there just wasn’t an incentive to return to the game unless you, for whatever reason, really enjoyed playing tennis or Team Deathmatch that much. It’s only in hindsight that you can see just how much the game has changed. Here’s an example for you:
I drop into a new lobby while waiting for a friend to join me so we can set up a new Heist. I think about what I could do to kill time while I’m waiting and figure now is as good a time as any to acquire more cargo for my criminal enterprise. On my way to the office, a freemode event pops up, a (relatively) friendly competition that allows players to compete for cash prizes by performing tricks like driving in reverse the longest, stealing the most cars, or opening your parachute closest to the ground. I skip out this time since I already have a task at hand, but its nice to know players are occupied trying to hold a piece of territory somewhere further up the map and not trying to rob or kill me instead. Speaking of, I drive by a convenience store and notice a fellow player holding up the poor attendant. This has been a fun feature in place since the beginning of Online: walk into any convenience store, buy or shoplift snacks, and then if you’re so inclined rob the owner blind. Yelling into your microphone or shooting up the store encourages him to deposit your payload faster, just be sure not to shoot him or you’ll have to gather the cash yourself. I could shoot the robber and take the money for myself, but again, decide against it since I still want to get to my office for a much more rewarding task.
When I finally reach my building, I get to my office and begin running my criminal enterprise for the day. This is one of Online’s finest features. If you own an office in the downtown Los Santos area, you can buy a warehouse where you can hold commercial goods, or a specialized warehouse for stolen vehicles. The more goods you stockpile, the more money you can make when selling them. The catch? Acquiring the goods isn’t so easy. You can buy up to one vehicle or three crates at once, however there’s always going to be a snag. Maybe somebody steals the car before you can, or maybe the mysterious figure you’re buying the three crates from is in debt to the wrong people, and needs you to assassinate any unwanted nuisances. Even if you end up acquiring the goods, you still have to deliver them back to your warehouse and keep away from other players who get their own reward for destroying your cargo. To counteract this (and ensure you can garner more materials for your black market) you can hire other players as associates or bodyguards to help deliver and protect your product. From biker clubs to criminal enterprises, there are real businesses you can manage, and this is a feature that appeared in that same open world with convenience store robbery or player vs. player events that, as I mentioned earlier used to be nothing more than a glorified waiting room.
2. Grand Theft Inception-Games within games
One of Grand Theft Auto’s trademarks, and a testament as to why it remains a figurehead in pop culture, is Rockstar’s passion for taking ideas such as racing or golfing that would usually have whole games dedicated to that one idea, and instead making those activities part of the larger world. This is noticeable in single player- you can take part in street racing at a certain time of night, play the stock market, or sky dive to name a few, but all these small events have evolved into something large enough to be considered their own games. Take for example the one of the recent Adversary modes, Angels vs. Demons. By day, the Angels have near-unlimited firepower to dispatch the rival Demons team with, who in stark contrast, only have a battle axe. The demons sole advantage is that so long as they keep moving, they won’t appear on enemy radar, and are thus required to use stealth to sneak up on enemies. But once night hits, the tables turn and the angels have to hold out till daybreak. Another great example can be seen within the racing community. Players can choose from a handful of pre-designed cars or choose one of their own custom vehicles if they think it’s up to the task. It’s no longer simple street racing either-thanks to the cunning stunts update, players can now participate and create their own races that allow vehicles to zoom past the 20th floor of a skyscraper and within seconds rocket up a loop de loop that will take them back to the streets before performing yet another death (and logic) defying escapade. However, my favorite example has to involve the Heists.
This feature was originally supposed to be part of Online at launch, but was pushed back for a couple years. The wait was beyond worth it though; any player who’s level 12 and has a high-end apartment can start up one of the five available heists and with the help of three other players, make a boatload of cash to spend on fighter jets, yachts, or another fast car. Each one follows a basic formula, but all five are varied so much in both location and objectives, it doesn’t matter. For instance, here’s what happens on the most popular heist, The Prison Break, in which you and three other aspiring thieves have to break another criminal, Raskovsky, out of prison. There are four tasks you need to complete before the Heist can start though. First, your crew has to go to steal a plane from an airstrip controlled by the notorious Vagos gang. Three of the players shoot up the gang while the lone pilot has to run for the plane and take off without getting shot to pieces. Next, all four of you need to intercept and steal a prison bus, and then escape the police that are guarding said vehicle. The third task involves your crew splitting up: two of you will disguise yourself as police officers, break into the police station and steal the prison bus schedule, while the other duo has to steal the prisoner’s car located at the top of a cargo ship. Finally, the four of you split up once more to take out the last loose ends: lawyers. One team of two will perch on a skyscraper with sniper rifles and wait for two of the lawyers to show up in their crosshairs, and have to communicate with each other to decide how to kill both simultaneously. The other team must sneak onto a mansion in the Vinewood Hills and stealthily take out every security guard protecting the final lawyer. If everything proves successful, then you can finally take on the Heist itself and watch everything fall into place.
The pilot will take the stolen plane and pick up the prisoner at a nearby airstrip, two other players will play the role of prison officer and prisoner and use the stolen bus to infiltrate the prison unnoticed, while Demolitions is in charge of disposing of another bus on its way to the prison at the same time as your fellow rogues. However, once the prison officer and the prisoner or “extraction team” get inside, they’re given no choice but to open fire in order to extract Rashkovsky. While those two escort him out of the prison and fight their way through SWAT, the alarm sounds and the pilot must dodge heat-seeking missiles coming from an army of none-too-pleased fighter jets attempting to stop Rashkovsky’s escape. So Demolitions must acquire a nearby helicopter from the mercenary force Merryweather, and use the missile launcher and machine guns to take down any of the jets attacking the pilot. Once the extraction team is clear, the pilot lands on the airfield while Demolitons fights off the horde of police trying to shoot the plane. Escape successfully, and you’re rewarded with $500,000 to divide among your crew as you see fit. That’s one heist out of five, and since every player can take a different role each time, Heists can provide near-endless replay value and a great way to save up for a biker clubhouse or criminal enterprise of your own.
3. The Grind Rewards Grinding
The most important thing to keep in mind about Online is that despite the free-to-play model at work here, there’s a well thought out system implemented that ensures nothing’s ever too expensive if you’re willing to work for it. Every new player starts out homeless or living in their car, and can work their way up to a mansion in the hills and the proud owner of dozens of different firearms, vehicles or stolen black market goods. Plus, the amount of ways you can acquire money is insane. Golfing, fist fights, team deathmatch, adversary modes, heists, contact missions, running a business, robbing a convenience store, and the list goes on. If you think the grind is taking too long, you’re more than welcome to spend real money to shortcut it, but with everything listed above along with everything else I didn’t mention, why would you? The game rewards players who are willing to explore all the systems at work here, and with more content on the way for the time being, there’s never been a better time to try the game for yourself.
In conclusion, I want story DLC as much as anyone else. I think the only thing that would complete a game that’s otherwise a masterclass in design and detail is more narrative, but can you really complain about Online? While it may never focus on a story the same way a dedicated campaign will, Rockstar is putting its focus on what made Grand Theft Auto such an icon to begin with, and that’s the gameplay itself. While we may never get to see more of Micahel, Franklin or Trevor, there’s many more stories waiting to unfold online with a character you create. As far as tradeoffs go, I can think of worse deals.