In this feature, Otto dives back into GTA: Online with a brand new character to reevaluate both the state of Rockstar's massive online criminal sandbox and the possible future of online Rockstar games.
Released in 2013, GTA:V and its online component, GTA: Online are alive and still kicking. Now, half a decade later, I’m returning to play GTA:V again on PC to see how the experience has changed. What I found was a shift in direction for Rockstar, down what some might call a left hand path.
In the previous entry in the series, GTA:IV, focus was spent on expanding the universe of the series. Rockstar had already laid out a brilliant story in the base game, but found that there was more that could be told. To that end, Rockstar developed “The Lost and The Damned” and “The Ballad of Gay Tony,” two enormous pieces of single player downloadable content that gave Liberty City, the main venue of GTA:IV, new life. All the while, GTA:IV’s online was left as a barebones sandbox mode for players to rampage in.
|Episodes From Liberty City set a new par of quality for single player DLC.|
Fast forward to today, and it’s clear that Rockstar has reversed their former policy. The lifecycle of GTA:V is centered on its online multiplayer component exclusively this time this time around, much to the dismay of those who appreciate the worldbuilding that Grand Theft Auto has previously encompassed. In its early stages, GTA: Online was a buggy mess, the wait times to get into public lobbies could last upwards of five minutes, and there just wasn’t much in terms of content.
GTA: Online now is indistinguishable from its former self. The mess of its early days are a far gone memory, though there are still some bugs that persist. The content cup now does overfloweth, as Rockstar constantly updates the game with new jobs, gametypes and even heists, which are on their own hours upon hours of gameplay. All the while, even more vehicles, weapons and properties have been added for players to spend their vast fortunes on.
|Every update adds more unique vehicles for players to spend hard earned cash on.|
That’s how it would work in a perfect world.
GTA: Online now feels like less of a open world and more of a constant grind until you get to have fun. When I first got back into GTA: Online, I couldn’t bring over my previous character that had followed me from the days of playing on my Xbox 360 and PS4. So I said goodbye to my over level 100 character and started from scratch. “No big deal.” I thought, not being aware that it was, in fact, an enormous deal.
At level 1 there isn’t much fun to be had in the overworld of GTA: Online. Which, in all honesty, is kind of expected. In GTA: Online, you start as a petty criminal and slowly build yourself up by doing jobs, robbing gas stations and liquor stores, basically just making money any way that you can. The only issue is how long it takes to build up a substantial amount of money.
Jobs in GTA: Online don’t dole out enormous amounts of cash. For example, if you’re a fan of racing games, you might want to just race to get money. To make any money racing, you have to come first or second, and in a lobby with up to 16 players, that’s a challenge in itself. This challenge is made nearly impossible when every racing lobby allows players to use their custom vehicles, leaving newer players stuck in default vehicles at a severe disadvantage.
|Coming second in this stunt race left me with a 10k payout, pocket change in GTA: Online.|
So the question remains, how can new players get the edge on others and progress through GTA: Online? Rockstar’s answer is the criminal starter pack, what they call “The fastest way for new Grand Theft Auto Online players to jumpstart their criminal empires.” For a whopping $40, you receive 10 million dollars in GTA: Online along with a cacophony of other unlocks, from properties to vehicles and even tattoos.
Making this pack available is a tell from Rockstar. It says “the mountain you have to climb to have all these fun things is far too high, why not just buy your way to it?” It’s cheapening. As if that weren’t enough, the game constantly reminds you of the existence of shark cards as well, so you can simply pay real money for GTA: Online money.
|To be sure you don’t forget about them, shark cards and the criminal enterprise starter pack are even on the pause menu.|
But once you get past all of that, GTA: Online still has its moments. Cruising with friends around Los Santos and listening to the radio is as fun as ever. That is, until Lester, Ron, Agent 14, hell just about every side character in the game calls you incessantly, reminding you of all the things to spend your money on. And while these calls may, in game, just be reminders of all the things you can do in GTA: Online, I see them more as advertisements. More things for me to spend my real money on, because I haven’t grinded enough to get the 2 or 4 million dollars necessary to buy an underground bunker or hangar.
|The amount these characters call left me wishing I could throw away my online phone.|
The fact of the matter is that Rockstar has cheapened the experience of GTA: Online. With no adequate rewards that make grinding immediately worthwhile, jobs feel less like games and more like work. Then, by introducing the criminal enterprise pack and giving shark cards an ever looming presence, I can’t help but shake the feeling that I should just give up on working towards my next facility, or next car and should just buy my way to it.
Rockstar’s direction with GTA: V and GTA: Online have left me concerned for the fate of Red Dead Redemption 2, its next big title slated for October 2018. Red Dead Redemption had fantastic single player downloadable content, "Undead Nightmare" was one of the most fantastically made pieces of additional content I’ve ever played, but now I’m worried that the single player in RDR2 won’t receive the same attention. Instead, my friends and I joke about how the online component of RDR2 might have a shark card equivalent called “cowboy bucks.” Here’s to tipping my hat in the hopes they look beyond, to everything such a Wild West online could really be.