State of Play – GTA Online

GTA-Crew

[State of Play is a new series of semi-regular articles where we catch up with games that are in ongoing development – perhaps an MMO or other popular multiplayer game (or mode), or a title in a prolonged Alpha or Beta status. To kick things off, here’s Richard’s take on the current state of Grand Theft Auto Online – we previously reviewed the singleplayer component of GTA V last year]

“My fellow San Andreans, I am here today to tell you that there is hope for the people of this state and especially for the people of the city of Los Santos. We may be experiencing the single biggest crime wave in the history of these United States as criminals flock here from all over the world, but we are not yet broken. We still continue to run our convenience stores, even if they get robbed twelve times a day. We still continue to drive on these roads despite dangerous and illegal street racers stealing our cars in broad daylight and smashing them through our traffic lights. Our hookers – the pride of San Andreas – still continue to walk the streets at night even though they may be gunned down at a moment’s notice for the money in their purses. But most of all, we still continue to police our good state with force and with extreme prejudice despite losing officers at a rate of hundreds per day. We will conquer this crime wave, we will restore sanity and safety to Los Santos and we will survive!”

GTA-PlanesIt’s easy to imagine these words coming from the mayor of Los Santos or some other high ranking figure as they address the insane crime wave that hit their fictional city in October of 2013 when GTA Online launched. A crime wave that gets worse every day as more would-be criminals enter the city having flown in to Los Santos International Airport. But what is the current state of Los Santos and the wider San Andreas area?

The popularity of Grand Theft Auto as a franchise is undeniable. To say that GTA V was one of 2013’s biggest games is an understatement. It was a juggernaut. Firstly one of promotional material, then one of sales. Copies of GTA V flew off shelves and into consoles at an incredible rate. To date, GTA V has shipped 32.5M copies including more than 3.6M copies in the UK alone, roughly one for every 17 people in the UK. The game had an excellent story mode focusing on three very different protagonists instead of the usual one. Most gamers who bought GTA V early will have finished the story mode long ago and yet they still play GTA regularly today. Why is that? It’s because of GTA Online.

GTA Online is one of the most varied and outright fun online experiences available. Races, deathmatches, survival and capture missions are all great forms of the structured fun that GTA Online offers but where it breaks away from the pack is with Online Freemode. The same chaos and destruction that you might get involved with between missions during story mode is available online for you and up to 15 others at a time. This is where the true essence of GTA Online lies. It’s where you make temporary friends by jumping in their vans and taking on the world. Where you make enemies by setting or collecting bounties placed on them. Where people make an enemy of you by killing you for seemingly no reason as you leave the barbershop. Where you steal a Cargobob helicopter and go cruising over San Andreas before parachuting into the army base with some friends and stealing a tank by hooking it clean out of the base with the chopper. If it all gets too much, you can can even play tennis, golf and darts against your friends. Truly, there is no more varied multiplayer experience than GTA Online.

GTA-BeachBumWhen GTA Online was announced, Rockstar made it clear that it was a project they were invested in for the long term. They announced that the game – which they view as an entirely separate title from the single-player component of GTA V – would receive a number of DLC packs during its lifetime to keep the game fresh and fun. The first of those DLC packs arrived last November. The “Beach Bum” pack, as it is known, contained some new vehicles, weapons, clothes, haircuts and missions. For as long as Rockstar continue to add to the game in this way, it’s sure to keep being a great experience as people use all the variety to make more and more unique characters and play the game in increasingly different ways.

The second DLC pack was a real game changer though. Rockstar added a content creator, handing the reins for creating races and deathmatches over to the millions of players.

Every created race/deathmatch is available to download by anyone in the game’s community; but once in a while, a select few receive the “Rockstar Verified” badge and are automatically included in the game so that you don’t have to go hunting to find something new to do. While a lot of these created missions are fairly basic, some creators have gone above and beyond what many might have expected and come up with some genuinely impressive experiences. People have recreated the essential premise of The Hunger Games in GTA: a walled off deathmatch with limited weapons in the center of the map and respawn locations set way out of sight to essentially give you one life to play with. Other players have created insane races across lakes using floating objects or races that require you to navigate 60ft tall ramps into the heavens. If you know where to look, there’s all sorts of fun to be had.

Most recently, Rockstar decided to put their online collection of murders, robbers and degenerates into the Christmas spirit by adding some temporary Christmas DLC. Suddenly it was snowing in Los Santos and nearly every player you saw was dressed as Santa, Rudolph, an elf or a snowman. This all went away in January but it was fun while it lasted. It will be interesting to see if Rockstar has any other event-driven temporary DLC in mind for the months ahead.

As fun as all that sounds, it hasn’t been without it’s fair share of problems. Launched in October 2013, a few weeks after the game hit the shelves, the initial period was fraught with issue upon issue. People couldn’t connect and people lost characters that they’d spent time leveling up.  Rockstar frantically sought to fix these issues and a number of patches were released early on but it took a while before the game was in a reliable and truly enjoyable state. To their credit, they did get the issues fixed quickly and continue to do so whenever bigger glitches arise. They also went to great lengths to get back into the good graces of those players they had irritated in that first month by automatically crediting anyone who had played GTA Online during October with $500k of in-game money in their virtual bank accounts, enough to buy a fancy apartment and a couple of good cars. The sort of money it might have taken a dozen or more hours of online play to accumulate.

Despite all the patches though, the game continued to have a number of problems. In fact  for some players, the patches caused new problems they didn’t have before. One patch removed certain models of car from people’s garages. Rockstar claimed these vehicles were not intended to be accessed in GTA Online and so they were correcting an error. Why they removed them instead of just letting people have their rare items is a bit of a mystery and it annoyed some people, especially those who had tracked down those rare vehicles over several hours. More frustratingly for those players affected though was that any money spent upgrading those removed vehicles was gone.

GTA-GarageIt was around this time that a number of people with modified consoles started visiting random lobbies and handing out millions of GTA dollars to players they found, thereby ruining the in-game economy. No longer did you have to strive and save to buy that supercar, instead you could buy ten of them, upgrade them to the gills and still have money left over to buy a tank and a helicopter. This put some players at a real disadvantage and almost created a class system within the game: those who have and those who have not.

On January the 16th 2014, Rockstar set out to rectify the issue. For 24 hours, GTA Online was taken down for maintenance. When people logged back on after it was completed, all of their ill-gotten goods were gone. Some players were suddenly at the opposite end of the cash spectrum from where they started and couldn’t pay their utilities bills on their apartments or the mechanic for looking after their cars. Extra steps were taken against those considered to be the worst offenders by putting people in the isolated “bad sport” pools. Others were banned altogether.

So, where is GTA Online today? The game continues to be incredibly popular, as evidenced by the number of videos that continue to pop up all over YouTube from prominent games players like KSIOlajideBT and KYR Speedy. More jobs are added to the game on a constant basis to keep people coming back for more. But one major piece of the puzzle still eludes players: heists. Heists were announced as being a part of GTA Online at its reveal. People will have encountered them in story mode, but the prospect of being able to plan your own heists with friends and then execute them for a big score is a tantalizing one. Rockstar have gone no further than to say heists will be coming in 2014. It’s certainly something that the GTA Online community is clamoring for, we just have to hope that they appear before the bubble bursts or people start playing some other incredible online game instead.

For now though, I’m happy to be a regular visitor to Los Santos and I always look forward to finding out just what kind of chaos I’ll get involved in on my trip.

Richard Moran
Raised on a steady diet of pop culture, lemonade and chocolate cake since the early 1980s. Richard Moran is a popular answer to the question: who the hell is that guy?
Richard Moran
@creakingshelf I think it might be ok because of the system which calculates the difficult level of the scenario? - 8 hours ago
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