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GTA Online (1.05) Review: a missed opportunity? (Xbox 360, PS3. 2013)

Friday, 8 November 2013

When highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto V was released for Xbox360 and Playstation 3, having insanely high development budget close to $270 million, it was a huge sales success. Behind commercial success, it was mainly fun-to-play single player campaign with entertaining story and great voice acting, flowing violent language and memorable scenes with interesting characters, including good, solid, game play mechanics. With GTA V, it felt like Rockstar managed to combine a pure game containing deep enough game play mechanics, with movie-like presentation. Little bit of racing, little bit of third person shooter, and much of a story.

Calling GTA V a pure open world game (in sense of role-playing games, which are usually first to use this setting extensively) would be bit over-exaggerating, as the game does not offer that much in terms of rewarding exploration, in addition to straight-forward-but-fun main stories of the three separate lead characters (Michael, Franklin, Trevor). Sure, the city is free to explore and looks great, but with bit too small amount of actual things to do and discover (besides the mini-games, which feel separate from the actual game content, main campaign, and the core gameplay). Rockstar, in my opinion, should had focused to make the actual core world - Los Santos and it's streets - bit more interactive and in-depth with random events, side quests etc., connected to perhaps gang stuff and criminal activity - things that would be truly connected to the core of the game play, instead of focusing their energy on mini-games such as Tennis, Parachute jumping and so on. The bigger the emphasize on mini-games is, the more shattered overall experience is. That being said, the single-player campaign is very entertaining, and quite lengthy, thus making GTA V one of the best console games this year, though, the open game world of Los Santos leaves some unfilled potential hanging around.

GTA Online: an extension of GTA V or MMO?

While single player mode (GTA V) took full advantage of story line with pre-defined, voice-acted characters, and main quest - I was hoping Rockstar to take full advantage of Los Santos and it's enormous open world by free roam mode with GTA Online. Rockstar created a big hype around the online mode before it's release, which would take the game beyond single player campaign limits: create your own unique character, do heists and explore open world with friends!

In my opinion, Rockstar marketed GTA V's multiplayer-mode as it's own game (based on GTA V), MMO branded product, instead of just being multiplayer extension of GTA V. This statement is backed with a fact, that Rockstar actually named the multiplayer mode as "GTA Online", instead just leaving it unnamed, being option inside GTA V. Another fact would be, that the company also provided possibility for players to buy multiplayer cash with real money in-game, which is not usually done, unless the game (or it's mode) is considered to be largely unique and separate experience from the actual single-player game. Thus, GTA Online should be reviewed as such, separate MMO game, not just a multiplayer option in GTA V.

GTA Online: what's there to do?

Now, those "problems", or rather unfulfilled potential of single player (GTA V) free-roam mode - the open world, so to say, are highlighted in GTA Online. GTA V single player mode shines because of the great, acted story, memorable characters, memorable single-player-tailored pre-defined events and quests. GTA Online, however, drops off the great character driven story, leaving Los Santos rather empty and dull, stripped down event, because multiplayer mode fails add anything unique to replace the trademark of single player mode. GTA Online has good game engine, mechanics, and finely crafted detailed city of Los Santos, but without real interactivity and competition between your online character, game world, and rest of the players. Why so? Read on and find out!

GTA Online, drops player in the game world by creating your character with slightly frustrating "face editor", along with selecting your emphasis on your starting skills (which feel quite useless and fail to make your character feel unique in an RPG way), and then moving on to a cut scene of your arrival to online world of Los Santos. Franklin (seen in single player campaign) welcomes you at the airport, and introduces you to the city, along with cast credits rolling. The beginning sort of gives you impression about story driven experience, just like in single player mode, but after this, cut-scenes are scarce and there is no story in Online mode really. And you cannot really create your own story with your unique online character either, since the game doesn't allow your character to have unique status, reputation, or definition of a style. It's obvious from the beginning that GTA Online does not provide any sort of a RPG experience (not even loaning slight elements from the genre). You got your characters looks, and then you level up. There's a few skills like driving, flying, shooting, strenght... but they don't seem to do that much and are quite broad kind of skills, anyway. That's pretty much as deep as the whole system considering who you are - and what you represent - goes (along with crews, but they are purely unfinished at this stage, we'll talk a bit about them later).

(You can also buy apartment. The most expensive ones feature great view. The apartment itself is rather meaningless, but...)

(...the garage included with it isn't, since it's the only way to own more than one car insured bound to you! PS. Notice that custom crew logos look ok for yourself in-game (but not if other players view yours))

So what can you do in GTA Online? Pretty much everything that's included in GTA V, except the story. But it all feels stripped down. I feel it awkward that Rockstar hasn't build up real competitive system for multiplayer with good rewards, rankings, interactivity, and crew relations. Anyway, most of your time you'll be either shopping items (guns, masks, tattoos, wear, cars, car parts - many of which are unlocked by leveling your character up), or getting reputation points (for leveling up) by participating co-op jobs (real heists aren't included, at least for now), races, deathmatches, committing crimes, or trying to kill other players in free-roam mode. You can jump between jobs and your free-roam instance rather seamlessly by using your mobile phone, which is a nice feature, but  at the same time perhaps breaks the immersion of connection between free roam mode and other mini-games. Sadly, there are no many kind of crimes to commit in free roam (and the few are very repetitive shortly after), co-op jobs with other players are fun at first but aren't quite varying (and in my opinion do not reward well enough), and there's no real competitive ranking system to keep player versus player combat interesting. Races are decently good, although GTA V's driving mechanics aren't really shining in competitive racing part (this is far from Forza Motorsport, and not quite good as more arcade'y Need For Speed series), and playing dirty is way too easy and not penalized. Some weird errors on driving mechanics for example send your car on ten meter high air-flight time to time from a small bump on a road that shouldn't generally do that, or just spin you around randomly, which is annoying, though (as you sometimes lose the lead just because of bad luck). Not to mention, that when NPC traffic is turned on for races, AI drivers are the biggest jerks I've ever seen in a console game: they may turn in front of you at straight road just when you're about to pass them, when there's no intersection around at all! This happens very often and it's annoying, because it makes no absolute sense! I don't think I've ever cursed as frequently in any game, starting from NES era, than in GTA Online's land race with traffic on. In addition, NPC traffic tends to cause lag-spikes in races. Some tracks are rather confusing, as tracks do not always clearly show which road to take on intersection, thus making you lose several races just because you took the wrong turn (memorizing the tracks is the key, but it's still not fun). Deathmatches are chaotic, and again, solid, but auto-aim should definitely be turned off, as now players can just tap LT (Xbox360) to automatically aim and zoom on the closest target, even if they haven't actually spotted the target yet. It's way too much assist in my opinion, and spoils much of the fun, too. The most rewarding part is getting your character leveled up to unlock new guns and car modifications, thus making your character more powerful - but even with that, the free roam mode lacks the final, the point, and focus. There's no real goal (except for leveling up, which is much faster doing jobs and playing mini-games). Also, lobbies for jobs and races do not function properly. For example, people have problems to host and join events meant for friends- or crews-only. Quick-join option (for jobs) does not give specific enough choices for player to select and define what kind of a job he/she they are looking for. You want to join a land race with muscle cars? Welcome to the lottery-night! You only have an option to "join a race", which could mean anything from supercar land-race to motorbikes and helicopter race. This shows pure sloppiness from Rockstar side.

Free-to-explore online mode runs with maximum 16 players per server. In this mode you should have a chance to affect the game world in some way, and create some friendly competition and interaction between the players, but this doesn't really ever happen. The game mechanics are just rather primitive in part of the online functionality and interaction. In online mode's free roam, the streets seem to never change and AI events are the few, scarce, and repetitive, thus exploration doesn't keep interesting for long. I can see people enjoying GTA Online at it's current state for few weeks, then losing the interest for few weeks more, and quitting after a full month. Random events happening quite frequently, causing some interaction between players and game world, would keep the things interesting. Unfortunately there are just a few of those - so few, that it almost feels like online mode was released incomplete. Those events should have major priority, since they have a major impact on the fun-factor! The random events do not provide varying challenge and reward each time - in fact, they are very repetitive (would it be so hard to add for example some foreign AI gangs, or highly dangerous AI criminals, who could attack to specific crews, players, the whole city, or even police, time to time, catching player in middle of it all - with some reward up for grabs of course). Slight repetitiveness would not really even matter with random events THAT much, if there were at least something like twenty of different small random events in free roam available (and perhaps a few major, more complex ones). Rockstar room for a lot of improvement here...

The few events that appear randomly in free roam mode include: an armored truck, a gang war (separate event for player versus AI gangsters), Simeon wants a high priority import export vehicle (steal a car) or lists specific cars that are currently "hot", which you should steal and deliver to him. You can tell, that that's not many! An armored truck may randomly appear. By robbing it, you decent amount of cash (around $5 000 to $15 000, in comparison to an apartment, of which low level ones cost around bit less than $100 000). Worst of it all, however, is that it's the same event every time without variation (the same applies to other free roam events, too). Chase the truck down, park in front of it so it stops, get behind, shoot the back doors with shotgun, take the money and bail. In a gang war, a marked red area may appear in your minimap, and by entering it you start "a gang war", which means short combat against several gang-members (this can't be done on co-op, and you can't be physically harmed by other players while on it). A reward is small amount of money and random weaponry. They, too, are repetitive, but rather solid on their own right. Hijacking cars and delivering them to Los Santos Customs for cash is something you can do for the money. However, since the best and most rare cars are "too hot to modify", thus unable to enter LS Customs at all, you can't sell them either, so hunting them becomes rather pointless. This way, mid-tier cars do give the best possible amount of money for you when you deliver them to LS Customs. However, you can only deliver one car per something like half hour (?). I understand that if you find a rare car, Rockstar doesn't want to allow you to own it infinitely straight away (with insurance added, so it's bound to you ever after), but not even being able to enter LS Customs to sell the car is a bit of a letdown, as hunting rare cars for money is not possible. I don't quite understand why Rockstar didn't just make it so, that high-end supercars could be sold at LS Customs, but not insured. The most expensive cars you can sell grant you around $8000-$9000, of which one is Ubermacht Oracle. As for a random event considering cars, Simeon might ask you to retrieve specific high priority vehicle, randomly appearing around the map. Get it, re-spray it, return it, and get some money (amount doesn't vary much, around $6500-$12 000). Sometimes, when player hijacks an NPC vehicle, the NPC sets a bounty on the player, after which you can claim it by killing him/her. Amount of reward varies around $1000 to $9000.  That's pretty much sadly all the game-generated events in free roam shortly explained, that there is.

Think about playing the GTA Online for months - could you honestly say that the free-roam events mentioned above would be enough to keep the game entertaining? Free roam, in my opinion, should be the main focus of GTA Online, providing highly interactive and rewarding exploration with changing game-world (by random things, and by players currently playing in the session) - which by now feels very static.

(One of the most expensive cars that aren't "too hot to modify" and can be sold in LS Customs: Ubermach Oracle)

Where's the catch, where's the focus, where are the rewards?

So, if the game does not provide randomly generated events in free-roam mode for you, then how about creating some events by yourself, by starting your own reign of terror? Sure, you can do that, but it's not as rewarding experience as one would hope for. You can go rob a store (repetitive event, small reward) and get cops on your tail. Evading cops gives you reputation points for leveling up (a little), but nothing else. Getting caught, however, will annoyingly get your car impounded by cops every time (which sometimes gets bugged so that the car can't be found on the police parking lot), and you will have to steal it back. Again, reward for doing this is just getting the car back, and it's fun the first few times, but in the end it's the same mission over and over again, and gets boring quite fast. It's also annoying, that police interrupts your war against other player, when if you get killed by the enemy player, police impounds your car. Causing mayhem against the police force and having a longest run ever before getting caught is just for the kicks of it, too. The game does not reward this in any decent way (although it's rather hilarious at times, when several players similarly chased by police wander into the same area, thus creating chaos). Your reputation points do not increase much whether you run from the law for ten minutes or half hour, and there's no fame among GTA Online community for your efforts against the law, either.

As for one thing, you can kill other players and rob part of their money on every kill, but the amount is ridiculously low, often varying from $30 (the most often) to $200 (very rarely). It's next to nothing in GTA Online's economy. Killing other players do not affect your status in game world, either (unless you blow up their personal vehicles, which dumps your character into "Bad Sport Lobby" for days with others who have behaved badly - forced to wear a stupid looking hat). The only way your "unique" online character is defined and judged by other players is your character's level - the game world does not make anything out of your character in any way (other than your level affecting to unlocked weapons, clothing, and car parts). Considering PvP ranking and stats, all that you see, when you get killed by someone (or you kill him), is how many times your rival has killed you in this specific run, and how many times you have killed him. There is no real rewarding ranking system behind PvP, which would show the best player-killers globally (or per session), along with interesting rewards (not just money, but fame, too!). If you happen to die during combat, you will lose around $500 (not sure if this was tuned down a bit lately) for hospital bills and quite large amount of ammo (which is not that cheap either). So, generally, you can make other player suffer decent amount of money (or yourself, if you bite the bullet first), but you do not gain fair amount of money or gain player status out of it (unless, of course the player has a small bounty on him, but I find that it's not enough to keep things interesting). Now, perhaps random killing of other players would not be fun for everyone, but it can already be avoided by activating passive mode for price of $100, which gives you 15 minutes of protection from attacks of other players, so that's not the problem to begin with.

If random killing is not something that Rockstar wants to reward players for, then, at least, they should create goals (/means) around player versus player combat, and build much deeper "Crew"-system (in other words Guilds), adding competitive components, such as ranking, and reward system, behind crews to keep the things interesting! Crews are human player formed gangs that any player can create. Players can then invite their friends or unknown players to join them. Crews are the thing that should let players represent something in GTA Online, and add competitive edge through ranking system of some sort, but at the moment crews feel only very superficial with no real purpose what so ever. Rockstar Social Club website keeps track of existing crews and lists them, with some very basic information and stats of each players, but it feels generally incomplete and non-rewarding component (at the moment), and being very separate and distant from the actual game play. You can wear a tag, but there are no crew events or relations, no wars, no interaction whatsoever in GTA Online game world, and thus, Rockstar have only scratched the surface of what could be deep and meaningful crew-system. Creating a crew allows you to, at least, represent yourself by adding crew colors and, the best of it all, use crew logo on t-shirts and cars. This, too, however, is a mess currently. Using a crew logo on t-shirt, for example, will shows as ridiculously low quality pixelated mess for other players. They can't really make anything out of the logo when they see it (same goes for tattoos). You can also put crew logo on cars, but you can't choose logo location or size, which is rather unimpressive. Logo appears on pre-defined sizes on the hood of the car depending of the car model, ranging from postage stamp to "fair" size. I doubt small thing like this would be even hard to fix. Ridiculously limited and faulty crew options do reflect well the current flawed status of GTA Online.

What I'd wish for, would be more in-depth interaction, stats, and competition with  in-game rewards (not just at the separate and incomplete Social Club website) - be it player versus player, or crew versus crew situation. Now you can see some very simple PvP stats in-game, and compare stats of your crew members (but not globally) at Social Club website. There's no rewards in either situation, and the whole system feels too shattered, lacking focus.

Other complaints

Other complaints would include forced "auto aim" on the online servers (in all game modes from free exploration to deathmatch and jobs), which in my opinion takes some fun away from, at least, player versus player combat, as camping behind corner and peeking out with auto aim becomes way too powerful tactic - thus making combat often emphasized in corner-camping, or random auto-aim-locking without having to use ones own eyes to spot an enemy. Another problem is when you're trying to kill your rival player in front of you, in middle of cop chase, and auto aim picks one of the dozen cops (or civilian NPC) as a target - oh the frustration! The maximum range, where the gun will lock and use auto-aim isn't also that clear situation, as auto-aim will not work at the certain longer range. Auto-aim will not work with sniper rifle at all, but will work with any other gun. Thus, this makes it frustrating to use sniper rifle in PvP (player versus player) situations, because you never know, whether the opponent is at auto-aim range exactly, or not. If he is, by any luck (for him), he will nail you for sure, since aiming manually with sniper rifle is slow and much more inaccurate (naturally), compared to far quicker auto-aim with machine gun. When both players are just about at the maximum range of auto-aim functionality of each others, it's about pure luck who succeeds to locks the aim to the other player, at the point, when being within the auto-aim range. If another player locks into the other second earlier while still out of auto-aim range, and another locks to the other a second later, being just about in the range, the latter one wins nine times out of ten. That's not challenging gameplay, that is just plain awkward and stupid, relying on randomness rather than on skill. So, why not just disable auto aim fully? Free aim with Xbox360 controller's stick, in 3rd person shooter, isn't perhaps the most accurate combination. Free aim on player versus player is rather clumsy and inaccurate, giving nowhere near the same satisfaction to control, than aiming and shooting Call of Duty and Battlefield series. Maybe we can just draw a conclusion, that GTA Online's shooting/aiming mechanics (at player versus player combat) at their current stage are just not so fun and fluid to play, than on the most successful online shooters of today (the difference is rather large). The combination of free aim and auto-aim works rather well with co-operative missions, having players to form up against computer opponents. However, since PvP has rather large role on online game such as GTA Online, I see the problems in it's functionality as a major flaw. Perhaps combination of forcing auto-aim off, and decreasing health of the players, so that less hits would be required for a kill, would improve things, though.

Rockstar also tried to make GTA Online feel interactive in rather cheap way, by having some of the NPC characters, featured in single player campaign, to call you time to time randomly. Cheap thing about it is, that few of the characters keep calling in middle of the cop chase, repeating the same few meaningless only sentences that they have. I really don't feel like being interrupted by a call about most awesome parachute jump (which is just like any other, really, nothing unique), while getting shot to the butt by ten cops while trying to run (evidently ringing phone enables walk-mode automatically). Only 16 players in free roam mode is slight disappointment, as that is maximum, and isn't always reached. Hopefully Rockstar can crank out that amount from 16 to 32 players, or even 24, since Los Santos area is rather big. Also, I have to add, that whenever it's possible to buy in-game things (in this case credits) with real money, there's risk of creating unnecessary imbalances and disabling the joy of getting niceties with hard work (actual playing). Thus, I think Rockstar shouldn't had included real-money bargains for in-game cash (especially at this stage, when the game is truly not complete). Maybe one day when this can truly feel like a worthy MMO, I can accept real money bargains (though, even then they shouldn't be over-powered).

Rockstar servers and GTA Online had some stability and character progression lost issues on it's initial release (Rockstar released Stimulus Package granting $500 000 for everyone, who had played the game in October to make up for the problems), but the game's online mode is running rather stable now most of the time. There are still some freeze and lag issues, which are especially showing on 16 player races (even more, when NPC traffic is turned on). Once in a while you may get thrown out from the game (free roam) because cloud server is down or unable to be connected with. Fun fact is that game may state that you were "voted out by the other players", even though the problem at it's core is connection issue with cloud server, and there haven't been any voting against you.

(Auto-aim in online-mode makes corner-camping way too powerful tool. And those pointless phonecalls are rather annoying, failing to create the feel of necessary interactivity)

Bottom line

Having read several high tier gaming magazines doing rather positive reviews GTA Online, or not daring to put the cat on the table, I decided to honestly focus on more negative side of if all, as I feel the experience is quite flawed, incomplete, and negative aspects are the ones raising on pedestal after first few weeks spent with GTA Online. GTA Online is still decently fun online game at the times, and fun to mess around with in the beginning, being best with your friends! However, highly limited possibilities for your character to represent anything in GTA Online game world: your achievements, PvP success, or your crew, comes with frustration that shatters motivation to keep on going and playing GTA Online for long. In addition, particularly aiming system is problematic, seeming to suit on co-operative jobs rather well, but being just faulty at it's design and functionality on player versus player situations. Rockstar have failed to make GTA Online interactive and competitive game model - there's no real catch in it's open world. Character leveling system and it's rewards (unlocks) aren't enough to keep things entertaining (although a necessary piece of good recipe). Jobs and the scarce free roam mode events at the moment are way too few and repetitive in their nature. The actual ranking and reward system, more in-depth crew system (and relations), and more than just seemingly living game world with (much) more random events taking place in free-roam (specifically designed for online experience) would be a MUST to keep things interesting for longer than a month, in addition with improvements on PvP combat. Rockstar Social Club keeps track of crews, but contains just few basic stats, and once again, is incomplete, and feels totally separate of the actual game play.

Problems of GTA V and it's game world come apparent in it's online counterpart, as you take away the component that made GTA V a great game (story driven, memorable main quest and it's unique events) - and thus this component should be replaced with something else (for example suggestions mentioned above), or GTA Online's community will die before it really even started to grow. GTA Online, in my opinion, was seemingly marketed as an MMO version of GTA V, but it's way too incomplete and unfinished, with several major issues, to stand up as complete MMO. There's enormous unused potential, though. It may sound like I hated GTA Online, but let me assure you, I don't. I'm just disappointed about the release of unfinished product and (so far) missed, huge opportunity. I enjoy the online mode to some extent. Yet, Rockstar have a lot of work to do, if they want to flesh this online experience out to something more memorable. The future will show whether Rockstar manages to improve GTA Online to stand up as worthy GTA universe MMO game, but judging by the efforts so far, I wouldn't count on so huge improvement. GTA Online is something to return for time to time - but not the grand online world of GTA universe we were looking for (at least not for me).

PS. Feel free to join my crew "Mushroom Kult" if you will. :-)

The Good

  • Contains huge potential for MMO
  • Fine game engine and mechanics on it's core
  • Pretty looking city
  • Fair amount of game modes (in addition fo free roam)
  • Seamless swapping between exploration and jobs
  • At it's best when things get chaotic
  • Fun to mess around, in the beginning...
  • Leveling system to unlock gear is nice (but not as extensive as Battlefield or Need For Speed games for example))
  • Carages and car collection in online mode is totally cool!

The Bad
  • Unfinished crew system (no relations/wars)
  • No enough interactivity between players
  • Poor reward & ranking system (free roam)
  • Too few random/pre-built events (free roam)
  • Lacks focus and the catch (free roam)
  • Repetitive co-op missions (jobs)
  • Only 16 players in free roam similarly
  • Auto-aim assist on at all times (problematic when NPCs and PCs on screen similarly, bad for deathmatch mode)
  • Faulty and unpolished lobby system (not enough options to define the mission of your liking) 
  • Feels generally stripped down, falls short, thus failing to keep players motivated after several weeks
  • Lag problems / freezes (especially 16 player races)
  • No credibility to offer real-money-to-in-game-cash bargains


1 comment:

  1. GTA Online's community will die before it really even started to grow. GTA Online, in my opinion, was seemingly marketed as an MMO version of GTA V, but it's way too incomplete and unfinished, with several major issues, to stand up as complete MMO.