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Grand Theft Auto Online Impressions

by Matt Bertz on Oct 01, 2013 at 06:05 AM

For over a decade, players have indiscriminately wreaked havoc on the general populaces of Vice City, Liberty City, and San Andreas. In these crime-ridden territories, non-player characters are daily victims of car hijackings, stray bullets, hit-and-runs, sucker punches, and rampages. In Grand Theft Auto Online, it's your turn to be subject to that same wanton brutality.

During my weekend tour of the new 16-player multiplayer version of Grand Theft Auto, I found myself on the other end of the police blotter on several occasions. I stepped out of an Ammu-nation to find my car stolen. I was gunned down while my face was obliviously buried in my smartphone. I even engaged in a high-speed chase with a random player who decided it would be more fun trying to kill me than jumping into one of the 500 available missions. The longer you spend in the world, the more attune you are to watching those white dots on the map that represent other players.

If you find yourself on the other side of indiscriminate violence, you have options for restitution. You can challenge the aggressor to an immediate deathmatch. If they reject your duel request, you can turn the tables and seek revenge by chasing them down in the open world. If you'd rather turn the other cheek, you can enable a passive mode that takes you out of harm's way for a modest fee of $100 or set up a private session.

This interplay between players is a small-but-persistent element of Grand Theft Auto Online, and what you experience is largely dependent on the type of people in your instance. In some of my sessions, players kept to themselves. Other times, the open world essentially served as a formless deathmatch between all comers. Things get more interesting when players put bounties on their rivals; even if you're the type who ignores these hijinks in favor of going about your personal business, that $10,000 bounty may be too appealing to pass up.

You start Grand Theft Auto Online by creating a character, which consists of choosing your heritage (you can even select Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston as a father), deciding what kind of lifestyle your character leads, and tweaking his or her appearance. Once you've settled on a look from the limited options, you arrive in at Los Santos International Airport in a time period just before the story mode of GTA V. Franklin's friend Lamar is there to greet you, as you have apparently struck up a friendship on the Facebook spoof site LifeInvader. As you progress ranks, you cross paths with many familiar faces from GTA V, including the story mode protagonists. By rank 15 I was doing jobs for Trevor Philips Industries.

The inclusion of 16 players in the open world of Los Santos has the adverse effect of draining the world of its ambience - sidewalks are less populated, the transportation hubs lack activity, and you won't stumble across random encounters - but the world is still filled with activities. When you're not teaming up with friends and crew members to perform illegal jobs for the many GTA V characters, you can kill time in extracurricular activities like races, sports, base jumping, and the standard array of competitive multiplayer modes like team deathmatch. Everything you do in GTA Online, from holding up liquor stores and selling stolen cars to racing helicopters and playing a round of golf, earns you reputation points (RP).

Collecting RP increases your ranking, which opens up new items to buy, missions to perform, and characters to meet. You also earn cash for most activities in the game, which can be used to buy new weapon modifications, car customizations, clothing, tattoos, haircuts, and properties. The cash comes slowly at first, but you can make a lot of money fast by staying in playlists with other players. With 999 levels to achieve (the first 100 of which feature unlocks), it should be quite a while before people run out of new things to buy or do. In the near future, Rockstar will unlock the creation tools as well, which will allow players to create new races and deathmatches.

As you would expect with a pool of 500 missions, the quality varies wildly between jobs. Some missions are simple, requiring you to ambush a drug deal or steal a valuable car. Higher-level jobs are more involved, and eventually players can unlock heist missions similar to those that serve as the centerpiece to the story mode. I also found the side activities a mixed bag. Tennis lacks the polish necessary to make it a popular destination, but I had a fun time participating in the myriad racing variants.

Having so much content available off the bat should allow Rockstar to focus on improving the stability of the experience, which even the company admits is bound to go through growing pains. In my limited time with the beta, I experienced trouble logging on several times, had the game freeze between missions, and even lost all my money and possessions at one point early on. Some of the missions suffered from bugs as well. One job required my group to recover an oil tanker, which glitched wildly down the road as we pursued it.

Building a persistent online world is new territory for Rockstar, so it's probably going to take the company some time to iron out all the kinks. But if you can see past the growing pains there is no denying the potential of Grand Theft Auto Online. Much like the traditional story mode, GTA Online is filled with activities, and the allure of building up a persistent character in this open world is something we haven't had before.