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Grand Theft Auto V

Hands On With Rockstar's Ambitious Take On Online Play
by Matt Bertz on Sep 12, 2013 at 08:00 AM
Platform PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher Rockstar Games
Developer Rockstar North
Rating Mature

When Rockstar announced that Grand Theft Auto V featured three main protagonists in our December 2012 cover reveal, it took mere nanoseconds for readers to connect the dots and ask if this meant the game would feature co-op. When we explained the switch technology that allows a lone player to move between the perspectives of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin at will, fans understood why cooperative play wouldn't work in this context, but that did little to dampen their enthusiasm for sharing a Grand Theft Auto experience with friends. Rockstar shared the same vision all along; it just wasn't ready to take the veil off its ambitious concept for making this fantasy a reality.

Since it first debuted an open-world online experience with Grand Theft Auto IV back in 2008, Rockstar Games has had a reasonable degree of success with its multiplayer endeavors. GTA IV is still one of the most-played games on Xbox Live five years after its launch, and Red Dead Redemption also has a dedicated fan base. Despite these achievements, Rockstar has never felt it delivered an online experience on par with its single-player games.

For Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar North decided to go for broke with a kitchen sink-approach to online. Instead of building a world that shares only some characteristics of the single-player experience, this persistent world would operate independently of the single-player campaign but have the same degree of ambiance, mission variety, and activities as the base game. Once the lofty goals were set, the team started the onerous task of building technology to bring its bold vision to life.

Most persistent worlds sacrifice ambiance and fidelity for the sake of hosting larger player populations. Rockstar decided to take the opposite approach. Only after the world was up and running did the studio determine how many players could inhabit this living, breathing world at once without crippling the experience. The result is Grand Theft Auto Online, a dynamic world that can entertain up to 16 players concurrently.

"Grand Theft Auto Online has been in our minds for a long time – since we started on Grand Theft Auto III," says Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies. "We've always wanted to create a world with the complexity of a single-player Grand Theft Auto game with the addition of real players. We wanted a world where people could spend years without getting bored of playing the same content over and over. I think we've managed to achieve something very close to our dream."


GTA V and GTA Online share the same geography, mission types, and mechanics, but Rockstar is treating them as separate entities. By purchasing Grand Theft Auto V, you gain access to this new product, which ships a couple weeks after the launch of the single-player game. After that, they take divergent paths.

Once GTA Online goes live, players are given access to a fourth player on their in-game character wheel. You can access this character at any time while playing the game, and receive invites from your friends for multiplayer events whether you are exploring the open online world yourself or engaging in criminal hijinks with one of the single-player characters.

Your character growth has a flow, but don't expect an overarching narrative that culminates in a definitive conclusion. Like any hyper-capitalist, your goal is to grow your bank account by any available means, which allows you to expand your personal brand by purchasing better vehicles, weapons, clothes, and real estate. Your character appears in cutscenes just like a regular protagonist when interacting with the various characters around the world, but like Grand Theft Auto III's Claude, he or she doesn't speak. (Yes, I said she – you can create a female character if you prefer.)

Nearly anything you can do in GTA V is available in GTA Online, including heists, missions, robberies, assaulting gang hideouts, hijacking armored vehicles, races, and the litany of extracurricular activities like tennis, golf, and base jumping. In all, Benzies says the game features more than 500 missions. You can perform many of these on your own, team up with friends for more complicated missions, or challenge all comers to a friendly race or deathmatch.

GTA Online takes place shortly before the events of Grand Theft Auto V, so expect to run into many familiar faces. As you do favors and build a rapport with a character, in traditional Grand Theft Auto fashion he or she may eventually introduce you to another shady associate who has several missions waiting to be completed. For instance, Franklin's friend Lamar may introduce you to car dealer Simeon Yetarian, who is always looking for new vehicles for his showroom. Get in tight with a biker gang, and they may tag along if you need backup for a job. If you have enough pull with a tech-savvy character, he can hide your blip on the radar during a multiplayer match. Develop strong ties with private security company Merryweather, and you can even phone in an airstrike to remove that pesky car in the front of the pack during a heated race.

So how do you find your friends in this world? Rockstar uses a dynamic system that populates the world around you, first with your friends and fellow crew members, and then matches you with similarly skilled players in the same part of the world.

"We've set up Grand Theft Auto Online to be as customizable as possible," Benzies says. "You can lock down your games to only let the players you want in there. There are options to let the game decide who to play with – tell it to auto-fill the game and it will search the world for friends, your crew, or suitably skilled players. Or you can hand pick every player in a game. We've pushed to make sure play keeps rolling so you waste as little time in lobbies as possible – maximizing the playing time has been key to us."

As you spend more time in the world the game will analyze your playing style to surface missions that appeal to your sensibilities. If you always do jobs with your crew, for instance, it will know this and tailor content in that direction – something Rockstar strongly encourages.

"We hope everyone will join a crew as it adds another layer of gameplay to the experience," Benzies says. "There is a crew ranking system as well as a personal rank which will give rewards that you can only get from crew membership. Matchmaking will keep crews together, and you'll be working towards making your crew the number one in the world. You can challenge crews to a head-to-head battle using a custom playlist that you have created or you can set challenges for other crews/players to beat."


In GTA Online, you don't play as GTA V protagonists Franklin, Michael, or Trevor. Instead, you create your own unique male or female. This noob steps off a plane into Los Santos, and from there you create a unique story with your own actions. But before you write your future, you need to sculpt your past in the character creator.

"I've always felt character creators in games to be a bit wacky - pulling the ears and noses to change the way they look seems wrong," says Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies. "That's not how humans are made in the real world. Normally it involves a man, a woman, and some sexy time.

"This is the basis of how we do it in Grand Theft Auto Online: Choose your mum, dad, and grandparents, then out pops your character. You then spend time choosing your lifestyle, making choices about the kinds of things your character spends time doing, whether they spend more time partying or sitting on the couch or doing criminal activities than sleeping and being athletic - and your character is complete."

The skills you start with are based on the lifestyle you have chosen for your character, but just like the three GTA V protagonists, you can upgrade your various skills, buy new property, and customize your look by spending money on haircuts, tattoos, and clothing.


To show me the breadth of the GTA Online experience, I'm handed a DualShock to assume control of a previously created character. My first indoctrination into the criminal underworld of Los Santos is a standard stick-up job.

My partner in crime rolls up in a sports car, and I hop into the passenger seat. While riding shotgun, I can control the radio station, set waypoints on the map, marvel at the scenery using the cinematic camera, or take potshots at unsuspecting pedestrians on the sidewalk with my SMG.

We arrive at the liquor store, and my partner volunteers to stay outside while I do the dirty work. Before heading into the shop, I hold the select button down to pull up the player interaction menu. Here, I can change my outfit, alter the gesture I can perform at will (I settle on flipping dual birds), access my inventory, and equip a mask for situations such as these that require anonymity. I throw on the devil mask, take a quick selfie with my phone to chronicle my exploits, and head into the store.

I barge in with my gun pointed at the cashier, who immediately starts emptying the register – he's clearly done this before. The transfer is taking too long, so I shout at him to hurry up through my headset, which he acknowledges. To drive my sense of urgency home I shoot a few of the booze bottles behind him.

With the $1,500 score in my hands, I head toward the door. Before I exit, I hear a gunshot – this clerk was packing heat! Rather than return fire, I hightail it to the getaway car considering we already have a two-star wanted level. The cops have already been alerted to my position, so I hop behind the wheel to begin the traditional song and dance between cops and robbers. To avoid getting busted I must keep the car out of the vision cones of the several cop cars circling the neighborhood. I focus on driving while my partner keeps an eye on their location on the radar and shouts out directions. We stay out of sight long enough to lose the wanted level, which means it's time to split up the dough.

After each successful mission in GTA Online, players receive the cash reward and Reputation Points (RP). The crew leader decides who gets to keep the loot. If they want to hog all the money, they can, but their partners may not take kindly to the act of selfishness and exact revenge by offing them and taking the dirty money. Our crew leader takes the sensible approach and doles out the cash fairly.

While we're lingering outside my character's apartment, another player invites us to participate in an impromptu race. I receive the message on my phone, and by accepting the invitation I seamlessly warp to the starting line – no waiting in a boring lobby. While we speed toward the finish line, a detour is in order. Another group of players is engaged in an intense firefight with police in the middle of the street.

I start the race on a high-end motorcycle, which can reach screaming high speeds but has very touchy handling. After a crash into a light post I abandon the bike for an equally speedy Cheetah. This expensive ride is also finicky, but players can customize car handling to their liking at the Los Santos Customs shops around the city. Putting a racing transmission into a sedan makes it switch gears more quickly, while buying high-end replacement brakes and tires on a luxury sports car gives it better handling more in line with the mid-tier cars I drove during missions. Having gotten behind the wheel of a race car, SUV, and sedan, each felt very distinct and much more in line with a traditional racing game than any previous GTA title.

With the race coming to a close (I lost), we then attempt a more structured mission. A shipment of Maibatsu bikes is due to arrive at a warehouse, and for a healthy price our contact wants us to divert that shipment to him.

Four of us agree to take on the mission, which opens up a lobby window on the screen. Here, each player gets to choose his or her role. I volunteer to be the sniper, while the other guys accept the roles of lookout and transporter. The crew leader can also tweak mission settings like the time of day, weather, degree of difficulty, and the number of lives we have to complete the mission.

With everything set, we ride together to the industrial area. The game issues everyone different mission priorities just like it would in a single-player mission. I am instructed to climb the ladder of a nearby building to gain a vantage point. Moving up, I stealthily take down a guy perched on the roof and slide into cover.

From this position I can see several armed men standing around the big-rig. Once everyone is in their places I open fire with the sniper rifle, clearing the way for the transporters to reach the truck. With gunfire hailing all around, I spend too much time out of cover and get clipped by a bullet. Every death uses one of the lives the team has to complete the mission. I respawn nearby, and by the time I reach the scene of the crime we already have control of the semi-truck. I hop in another car and provide escort for the vehicle.

Several cars give chase to the rig, and our job is to run them off the road before they can cause it to crash. After an intense battle on the interstate we exit, lose the pursuit by turning onto a dirt road, and safely reach the hideout.


If you don't want to be bothered by other players while going shopping or driving to see the sights, you can enable a passive mode that protects you from stray (or intended) bullets. This is deactivated the moment you start shooting your own gun, however.

When you aren't in passive mode, try not to move through the world carrying too much cash. At any given time another player could kill you and take all the money on your person, and there is no recourse for recouping the lost money outside of exacting your own revenge. The smarter play is depositing your cash at one of the many ATMs located around Los Santos. When you put the money in the bank, nobody else can touch it and it's still available for making purchases much like a debit card.

If you get robbed by another player and demand satisfaction, you can put a bounty on his or her head.


Not all of the missions in GTA Online are small-time jobs. Once you have enough money to purchase a high-end residency, you unlock the ability to set up involved heists like those that serve as the centerpiece to the single-player game. Not everyone needs to own luxury real estate to participate – as long as one of the participants has a planning room, he or she can invite anyone to round out the heist team.

Rockstar shows us an example of these types of missions with a job called Titan Steal. The private security corporation Merryweather is holding a valuable cargo plane in its heavily guarded hanger. This team's mission, if they choose to accept it, involves procuring said plane from the base.

To prep for the job, they split up. Two guys head to the Ammu-Nation to buy an arsenal fit for the job. The store stock is impressive, with everything from flak jackets, parachutes, dozens of gun varieties, and attachments for customizing each weapon. While these guys stock up on gear, the other two procure a helicopter.

Once everyone arrives at the chopper, the mission starts in earnest. The guy with the best piloting skills takes control of the chopper, guiding the team over the coastal airport to get the lay of the land. After circling the area twice, they determine the plane is housed in the middle hanger.

With the target identified, the chopper circles once more to allow the passengers to skydive into position. Each player heads a different direction. The sniper lands on the runway some ways away from the hanger and takes cover. The other two pinch from the sides. As the firefight ensues, the chopper pilot lands nearby.

Once the hanger is cleared of targets, one more obstacle stands between the crew and their payday. A truck is parked in the way of the cargo plane, which the crew obliterates with a rocket. One man jumps into the cockpit and guides the giant plane onto the runway while the others fend off another wave of attackers.

A truck loaded with armed guards tries to drive in front of the plane, and is wiped out by a well-placed rocket. Once the plane is in the air, the others rush to the chopper and rejoin it in the sky.

Throughout the demo, Grand Theft Auto Online never feels divorced from the traditional GTA experience. The diversity of missions, large open world with a wealth of areas to explore, and vast array of side activities feel like they are pulled straight out of the base game. The only difference is that we can now share this type of experience with our friends.


As a new arrival to Los Santos, you don't start with much. But as you knock off convenience stores and complete missions for the various characters you meet along the way, you can spend your ill-gotten gains on living the lifestyle of the rich and infamous.

Each home comes with a garage for storing your vehicles. Modest apartments only have room for two vehicles, but if you splurge on a high-end luxury condominium, your garage can accomodate 10. You can treat this space like a showfloor, walking amongst your high-speed darlings to admire the customization you put into each one. Keeping these cars in mint condition isn't easy, so you can hire a mechanic to watch over them and buy insurance to avoid paying huge repair bills when you inevitably send a car careening off a bridge and into oncoming traffic.

After a rough job, head to your place and take a shower to clean off the blood and scars. You can also invite friends over. Many activities are available, including calling strippers, having a drink, looking through the telescope to enjoy the view, or watching one of the several Rockstar-created parody shows on TV. If other players in your world are in a high-speed chase with police, you can watch the action unfold on Weazel News. When the pursuit is happening in your neighborhood, you may even see the whirl of police lights out your window.


When Grand Theft Auto Online launches on October 1, this is just the start of a new journey for Rockstar. Though it's not being billed as a beta, since this is new territory for the studio, it wants to use the first few weeks as a stress test. Rockstar is keeping a dedicated team on the job, which will evaluate how players are engaging the content, adjust the experience as needed, and create new missions so the world constantly evolves.

Since most of the missions are controlled via the Social Club, Rockstar has a lot of power to tweak missions on the back end day by day. For instance, if they want to create Rocket Launcher Sunday, it can be done with a few slight adjustments.

How Grand Theft Auto Online will evolve in the future is still up in the air. Rockstar hasn't determined whether the majority of content will come via free title updates, paid expansions, or even smaller microtransactions. One thing is certain: Rockstar is confident enough in this product to treat it as a separate product launch, and we expect them to continue to service it years beyond its release date provided people are still playing it. Based on my experience, that sounds like a pretty safe bet.  


As GTA Online evolves, Rockstar will continue to issue new content to its community. In addition, it also plans to give players the keys to a creation system. Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies sheds some light on how this works.

Talk about the approach Rockstar North is taking with user-created content.
We want to give players the opportunity to create anything that we can create within the team and for it to be as easy as sending a text message. I think we've managed that with the editors. Now anyone can have their own races or deathmatches spread amongst the world of Grand Theft Auto Online players within minutes. The race and deathmatch creators are the simplest and will be available first. We'll then release more variations to allow any type of mission to be made.

Do you have to reach a certain rank before you are allowed to start creating your own content?
Yes. We want people to understand the game before they go off and create. You only have to be a few ranks to be able to start, so you should be there within an hour of play.

Can you give an example of the kind of ownership the user has over a race or deathmatch? How intricate can these designs get?
Races are fairly simple and allow the player to select the vehicle type, the race type – Normal race, GTA Race, or a new mode that is great fun called Rally. You choose the weather, the radio station, whether police can interfere, and then whether you want ambient cars. After that, you place the checkpoints, test the race, and publish it. A deathmatch has more options and allows you to set the type, default kills, as well as the time. You then place the spawn points, weapons, and any extra props and vehicles you'll want on the map. Players will want to test their missions over and over to perfect them, as others who download and play their missions will be ranking them.

How is user-created content being surfaced for other players? Will Rockstar curate its favorite fan-created material?
Yes. We'll be continually playing the content and stamping the quality missions with 'Rockstar Verified.' The people creating the missions will be ranked, and eventually you'll get to know who is creating the best content and you can start to follow them and grab their works.

How do you eventually see content creation evolving?
We eventually want players to be able to create missions as complex as the ones found in our single-player games. We want to give the player the power to make anything their brains can come up with. At some point in the future, we'd like people to be able to make their stories with all the tools we have available to make ours.

How does Rockstar plan to roll out new studio-created content in the future?
There will be a mix of everything. There will be a continuous flow of content and we'll be creating new missions faster than people can play them. We have over 500 missions in there at the moment, which will take a long time to get through. It's also worth taking into account that even a simple deathmatch can be completely changed by calling up one of your contacts and asking for some help  or even having a contact hide you from the radar. The possibilities are endless.

Is the geography for Grand Theft Auto Online locked, or could you eventually decide to expand with new regions?
Every part of Grand Theft Auto Online has been designed with expansion in mind. A dream of ours is to create an entire Grand Theft Auto world that consists of everything we've done or are going to do then let the player freely move between them. The launch of Grand Theft Auto Online is a beginning for us; it gets us a little closer to being able to make that happen.

Products In This Article

Grand Theft Auto Vcover

Grand Theft Auto V

PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date:
September 17, 2013 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360), 
November 18, 2014 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One), 
April 14, 2015 (PC), 
March 15, 2022 (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S)