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Grand Theft Auto Online Initial Impressions

Posted on October 11, 2013 AT 09:00am

Capital Punishment

Grand Theft Auto Online is messed up.

For the first week or so, that was true on a technical level. Like most everyone else, I was rarely able to maintain a stable enough connection to the servers to even properly play, and whenever I did, my character would spontaneously delete itself every time I logged out of the server. I spent so long fiddling with the awful, unintuitive character creator that I was eventually able to remake my avatar—a demure young woman with a ponytail and unavoidably terrifying eyes—in about 12 seconds.

Now that those infrastructure problems have been largely fixed, that sentiment—that GTA Online is messed up—is still true, but on a philosophical level. If GTAV’s single-player did its best to cater to all types of players with its three varied protagonists, its online component is a world full of Trevors: violent, misanthropic sociopaths. Anyone you encounter is more likely to kill you than not, which makes going for a leisurely drive a terrifying endeavor.

You might think dickish behavior is unavoidable in a popular online game built on openness, but I feel like anonymity and free rein aren’t the only things at play here. Intentional or not, the brutal atmosphere is a direct byproduct of the game’s design.

Allow me to explain. In GTA Online, cash is king. Want a fast car? You’re going to have to pay for it—up to a million dollars. Want the best apartment? That’ll cost you close to half a mil. Want a new weapon? You get the idea. Even the bullets you fire during deathmatch sessions have to come out of your bank account, lest you get caught mid-shootout with an empty gun. If you’re not making money quickly, you won’t keep your head above water. Unlike experience, which comes from just about everything you do, only a subset of activities will earn you money, and not that many do it quickly or reliably. That pursuit of the almighty dollar is the biggest factor conditioning player behavior.

Equally important is making sure that you don’t lose what you’ve already earned, and this is where things start to get a bit thorny. Dying in free-roam, no matter the cause, costs you $2,000—not a huge sum, but still a few minutes’ worth of work. Therefore, it’s in your best interests to stay alive at all costs, and as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.

While you don’t gain much by killing other players—just a small portion of the cash they had on them—you do prevent them from killing you and forcing you to lose some of your own money. If you come across someone in the world and trust them, you’re risking an awful lot. It’s better to assume they’re hostile and make sure you’re the one that comes out on top. If they weren’t planning on attacking you, they’re likely an easy kill. If they were, you’ve at least stopped them from catching you with your pants down and given yourself a fighting chance.

On the flip side, there’s not really any enforced downside to rampaging through other players, provided you’re successful at it. The only time a murder spree impacts you negatively is if you destroy someone’s personal vehicle, in which case you pay a few-hundred-dollar fine and gradually accrue a reputation as a bad sport, which eventually segregates you from the main playing population.

Then there are bounties, which label other players with a big red dot on the minimap, encouraging everyone in the session to hunt them down for an enormous payout. If the only way to initiate one were by shelling out the cash for it, that would be one thing, but there are also randomized bounties activated by the game itself, ensuring there’s always someone out there worth tracking down. If a bounty is set on you, the only way to clear it is to survive until it expires—the better part of an hour—and being on the run gets tedious rather quickly.

All these design choices made it exceedingly difficult for me to play the game the way I wanted—interacting peacefully with other players, making new friends, and going on jobs together for our mutual benefit.

GTA Online does offer some concessions to people who share my mindset, but they’re not terribly effective. You can make yourself immune to bullets by turning on Passive mode, but it costs money every time you activate it, stops you from pulling out your weapons—necessary to get in on the easy money of robbing liquor stores—and it doesn’t prevent other players from splattering you with their cars. You can simply play in an invite-only session, but that basically turns the game into a less-compelling version of single-player.

If you’re playing the game the way it was intended, the best solution is to spend as much time as possible in competitive playlists and missions, since these take place in isolated instances away from the main free-roam session. Even this proved difficult to swing for me, though. Early on in my character progression, it was fairly easy to find full lobbies, but as I continued to gain levels, it because increasingly difficult.

I suspect the reasons are twofold. For one, there simply aren’t that many high-level players out there yet. Second, those players who have managed to level up quickly likely realize that most missions and game modes are a slow, inconsistent way to earn money. After all, why spend upwards of 20 minutes to make a measly three grand when you could easily earn three or four times that much robbing liquor stores and bounty hunting? If you’re more interested in maximizing your income than experiencing every piece of content, you’ll quickly realize that mayhem is where the money’s at.

It’s a shame, because the missions, though much more cookie-cutter and repetitive than the single-player campaign, can be quite a bit of fun—so long as you’re playing with other people. As solo experiences, they’re downright frustrating, since they don’t scale enemy difficulty based on the number of players. Stealing a painfully slow tanker truck and making your getaway while being chased by bikers is miserable if you don’t have someone riding shotgun to help with defense.

The real disappointment is that, on those rare occasions I did manage to find a like-minded partner to conquer missions with, I had some of the most memorable online gaming experiences I’ve had in a while. Once instance in particular, I think, will stick with me for quite some time. When launching what I thought was a relatively simple car-repo mission, I accidentally hit the auto-invite button. Before I could correct my mistake, another player joined, and I decided to roll with the punches.

We hopped into my car and set out to collect the two desired vehicles from their deadbeat drivers. The first came quickly, but our inherent tendency to work closely together meant the second had crossed half the map by the time we headed after him. Once we tracked him down—a good 10 minutes later, at the very top of the map—we split up into two separate vehicles and gave chase, both firing wildly at high speeds in the hopes we might pull off the elusive headshot. We quickly hit another snag—all our one-handed weapons were out of ammo.

For far too long, we chased this single car across a huge swath of San Andreas, attempting to work together to sandwich it against a wall long enough for one of us to get out and hijack it. It would have undoubtedly been faster to drop the pursuit and go buy more ammo, but we were both too focused on the task at hand to realize it. When we eventually got him two or three in-game days later, there was an unspoken bond between us, we who had conquered this task with teamwork and dedication in the face of our own ineptitude.

After a hard-earned breather, we were popped back into free-roam, side by side. I thought maybe my new buddy and I would hang out for a bit. Maybe we’d steal a helicopter, fly it up to the top of Mount Chiliad, and pull of a showy base jump to the shore below. It was just a germ of an idea—I wasn’t even sure he’d be interested—but the future seemed bright.

That’s when I glanced down at my map and noticed the big red dot beside me. There was no conscious decision. There was no deliberate tallying of the moral calculus, no hand-wringing. It was reflex, like pulling my hand away from a hot stove. I pulled the trigger, collected the $7,000 bounty on my ex-friend’s head, and sped away. It was the easiest money I’d ever made, and there were no repercussions. I was richer. He was poorer. That’s the way the world works in Los Santos, and I was naïve for ignoring it. I was playing the game the way I wanted it to be, not the way it actually was.

Since that revelatory moment, my relationship with GTA Online has changed. My character, she’s changed too. I’ve painted her face like a zebra and traded her sensible ponytail for a jet-black mohawk—a mane, really. I’m going native, embracing the local culture with the farcical extremity only an outsider can muster. Now, I sit in the bushes with as many grenades as I can carry, waiting for someone to approach. At the first glimmer of menace—a gun being drawn, a sudden change of course, any tremor of intent—I explode into action. They explode into pieces. I am prey become predator.

I’m pretty sure I’ve completely lost it, but maybe that’s the point: In the end, freedom without consequence turns us all into animals.

Messed up, indeed, but I can’t say I disagree—I’m having more fun than ever.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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