Grand Theft Auto. There are few more iconic game series in existence. Even if you've never played it, chances are you've heard of it, maybe even seen footage on the evening news. Or it's possible that you might have heard that the latest release, Grand Theft Auto V, earned a staggering 800 million dollars in its first day. That puts it on a trajectory to not only be the most successful video game ever, but the most successful entertainment product in the history of the world. So when Rockstar follows up by releasing Grand Theft Auto Online just two short weeks later, we stand up and take notice. James Cameron can keep his planet of blue ponytails, we have cars to steal.
Grand Theft Auto Online is not an MMO. This begs the question of why we're covering it at all. Considering that I wrote the column on fake MMOs, it might come as a surprise that I asked to take this on. The answer is simple: MMO players are gamers. They care about more that just MMOs, even if that's their favorite type of game. So MMORPG.com covers that transection and finds the games with just enough crossover to earn the MMO player's heart. GTA:O is one of those titles. It is RPG inspired, multiplayer, and open world. It feels like an MMO, even if we know better. And PC players are likely to have their own client by early-2014.
If and when that happens, the core MMO audience is going to discover a few things. First is that the state of San Andreas, while not as big as an Azeroth, is just large enough to feel alive with other players. In the crowded city streets, the game can feel alive without anyone else nearby, but when you're zooming down the road and come across a massive police standoff, it's likely to click that this game is more dynamic than most MMOs out there. Sandbox fans are nodding their heads right now because GTA:O proves their point: other players really do make the experience.
They will also notice that their freedom has been tied directly into the game's progression system, which is both wonderfully addicting and eminently rewarding. Sound familiar? Ranking up is accomplished by completing jobs and missions with other players – jobs being lobby-based and missions from in-game story characters. Earning ranks unlocks new weapons, clothing and housing options, and allows you to steal and keep better cars. Unlike the single-player game, you can't just steal any car without consequence. The quality of your ride is tied directly to your rank, so if you jack the latest and greatest and then pass a cop, they'll notice you're driving a stolen vehicle. Garages won’t even touch it for a respray.
Weapons are equally important. If you want to grab a sniper rifle and head to a perch, you need to earn your chops by winning some matches. In the beginning, you're given a pistol but by rank 5 you can grab your first machine gun. There are lots of weapons and upgrades and the unlocks come frequently from there. Let's face it, a lot of the freedom of these games is deciding just how you want to raise hell. Opening up the options of mayhem is a powerful motivator not unlike working towards a new skill or ability.
And you want to look good doing it, right? In the beginning, you'll look a little disheveled and in need of some new threads. Getting some new duds is a satisfying way to spend money.
Which, in all honesty, you will probably be short on. If you want to experience all that Online has to offer, you're going to need bank. A lot of it. Clothes, weapons, cars, customizations, and apartments all cost money. When you die, you can lose up to 500 dollars, which is a tidy sum but much better than it was at launch. After completing a job, it's a good idea to race to the nearest ATM before your accomplices decide to cut you out of your share. If you come up short, you can also buy extra money from the in-game store. At this point, it's a little unclear whether this will be a problem or not, but it looks like the highest end properties will require some grinding to save up.
So let's talk about what you actually do in GTA: Online. To start, like most MMOs, you create a character. I won't sugar coat it. Rockstar tried to be clever and created something terrible. Instead of designing your own character, you instead choose what your grandparents look like. That decides your parents' look which then filters down to you. It's convoluted, frustrating, and seems like a way to mask a lack of meaningful choices. Each character also has some base stats determined by how he spends his time (sleeping, hanging out with friends, legal/illegal work). Base attributes such as strength, lung capacity, and driving skill all improve naturally as you play.
From there, you can take on missions and jobs or just run around in the open world, robbing convenience stores, and reveling in your inner madman. Jobs are scattered across the map but can also be accessed on your cellphone, which also allows you team up with other members in your crew (GTA's version of guilds). There are dozens of jobs ranging from death matches, races, and point captures. Character missions found in the open world are much more creative and have you stealing helicopters, shooting down planes, and sticky-bombing cars. Lobbies tend to be a bit slow if you're not running with a group but once you're in things move smoothly through a “next match” voting system.
Jobs and missions are all a lot of fun to play. Even though most options on the lobby playlists are familiar, they work well. GTA: Online players benefit from all of the improvements brought with GTA: V. That means better, tighter shooting, less tank-like movement and much better car handling. Races are finally an option but mastering car handling takes some time to build up your in-game driving stat and skill as a player.