I’m on my way to a clothing store, moments after retrieving my car from the impound lot. It’s only a few miles away, but the drive still makes me nervous. I’m not worried about the traffic – it’s nearing dusk, and the streets aren’t overly congested. Besides, Los Santos’ ordinary citizens are generally well-behaved. No, what concerns me are two tiny blips on my map. They’re not in my immediate vicinity, but they’re clearly speeding toward my direction. I gun the engine and weave in and out of traffic, knocking out a few utility poles in the process. Hopping out of my still-moving car, I roll onto the street and sprint into the store – just in time to see my “pursuers” whiz by, followed closely by a parade of cops. They weren’t interested in me, after all. You can never be too careful.

At its best, GTA Online adds a disturbing wrinkle to GTA V’s offline version of Los Santos. It’s kind of like inhabiting the world of The Purge, where people are allowed to commit whatever horrible crimes they want for a single day each year. I played it a fair amount when the game launched, but disconnects and glitches squashed my enthusiasm. While I kept busy playing other games, Rockstar fixed those initial glitches and continued to build on the game, adding mission-creation tools and more. I decided to revisit Los Santos and see how things have changed since I last walked its streets.

I spent the bulk of my return visit with a newly created character, which is why a shopping spree was an early priority. My first character was a completely unremarkable (but incredibly handsome) white dude, so I decided to go a different route with my second. I made a tall, athletic woman, and I was pretty happy with the results. Apparently I did a good job, because a few hours into playing I got the following message from a stranger: “hi u look very beutiful". Flattering, I guess, especially since my face was obscured by a stitch-marked hockey mask.

I’d forgotten how much tension there was in even the most seemingly mundane tasks. Like my trip to the clothing store indicated, you’re never sure if you’re truly safe when traveling from point to point in the game. I was repeatedly killed by two players who were doing homicidal laps around the downtown area, and I lost the money that I’d been carrying. Fortunately, the bulk of my cash was in the bank (leftovers from Rockstar’s Stimulus Package). I decided to spend it on a cheap apartment, so I wouldn’t have to keep retrieving my car from the impound lot.

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, even if you’re spending make-believe money in a make-believe city. The torn-up carpeting and ever-present smoky haze was a little too depressing, so I stayed in my grubby new haven just long enough to curl up on top of my bed and immediately rise again.

I got a vehicle-retrieval mission on my minimap, and I headed to the newly added waypoint to get the requested vehicle. No sooner had I hit the gas when I got a two-star police rating. I managed to get to the nearby Pay ‘n’ Spray, but the doors wouldn’t open as long as I had a police escort. Like an idiot, I left the car by the garage bay and tried to escape on foot. I did manage to lose them, but two players swooped in and retrieved the car – and the reward. I arrived just in time to get killed by one as they left. I went back to the scene of the “crime,” and realized one of them had left their personal car behind – a highly customized supercar. I stood next to it and emptied several magazines from my carbine into it. It exploded, and I was consumed in the flames. To add further indignity to the situation, I got a warning about not blowing up peoples’ cars. Thanks.

In addition to being the victim of random street crime, perpetrating a few acts of my own, and completing a handful of missions, I tested out the user-creation tools. These were completely new to me, since they weren’t added until December. Players can create their own races, deathmatches, and capture missions – complete with props and actors – and share them via the Rockstar Social Club.

The tools are easy to understand, and the interface is simple to use. You can start from scratch and have something up and running in a matter of minutes, though you’ll likely need to spend much more time refining your ideas. As long as it keeps the hardcore creators happy, I’m happy. I’m not the kind of player who will spend dozens of hours making a level in LittleBigPlanet, and I doubt that I’ll spend any significant time tinkering with GTA Online’s tools, either. I’ll continue to visit Rockstar’s site and download some of the crazier things that catch my eye.

If you haven’t played GTA Online in a while – or if you never fired it up in the first place – I’d recommend giving it a shot. I’d forgotten how much fun just wandering around the world can be, whether I was catching air in the mountains or eavesdropping on pedestrians’ phone calls. Even when I was getting splattered by an SUV or shot at by a stranger, I didn’t get too upset. Los Santos may be an entire coast away from Liberty City, ranked the worst place in America, but don’t let the palm trees fool you; it’s a long way from paradise.