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Grand Theft Auto Online: The Kotaku Review

Rockstar never meant to support GTA Online for nearly a decade and counting. That was never the plan. Yet GTA Online continues to be updated, and oddly, now in 2020, it’s bigger than ever.

Grand Theft Auto Online launched as part of something else. It was the multiplayer mode attached to Grand Theft Auto V, a huge sequel that would go on to have one of the most successful entertainment launches in human history. Meanwhile, GTA Online would launch a few weeks later in a terrible state. Only a few months after its release players were calling it dead. Rockstar itself has since admitted that the launch was a disaster and it lost a lot of players forever due to bugs, server outages, and a lack of exciting updates.

But now, seven years removed from that awful launch, GTA Online is one of the most popular games in the world. It’s totally eclipsed the game it was originally a part of and will now do something few online games ever have: exist across seven platforms actively and simultaneously. Since release it has grown, changed, and evolved beyond the simple online sandbox it was back in 2013. That’s why, all these years later, I felt it was time to review GTA Online properly.

GTA Online starts with your created character flying into Los Santos. You peer out the window during a cutscene and look down on people racing streetcars and playing tennis. And while you can still do these things in today’s game, they’ve become dated relics of a different era, an era when GTA Online was more grounded, and focused on being serious and gritty. Real-life. Today, a more accurate intro would reflect these changes in content, perhaps having your plane glide over jet bikes, explosive RC cars, roving biker gangs, and huge floating ramps.

In fact, the entire intro and tutorial that starts GTA Online feels old and in need of updating.

You shoot some random gang members, steal back some drugs, race a few streetcars, and change your clothes. Again, these are all things you can still do in GTA Online, but it’s moved far beyond that, and soon your phone will blow up with text messages and phone calls from seven years’ worth of characters and factions.

Jumping into GTA Online today is extremely overwhelming. There are numerous people vying for your attention, different businesses to buy, things to upgrade, events to join, and heists to undertake. Some of these missions and events involve global corporations, the FBI, and powerful criminal kingpins. It is strange that when starting your new game as a nobody, low-level criminal, so many powerful people are falling over themselves to reach out to you. But in a way, it fits. GTA Online’s become a strange game, where you’ll end up owning multiple businesses, several military bases, and dozens of weaponized cars, yet will still be asked to help a random gang member sell a bit of weed. It’s a game where police officers still send cars and helicopters to stop players driving hover tanks and shooting lasers.

This mix of mundane and wild, of over the top and grounded and boring and crazy, is part of GTA Online’s charm. It’s become a giant buffet. And like any large buffet, parts of it feel like it’s only there because, well, it has to be. Nobody really wants those gross, hard little rolls, but if they weren’t there at least a few people would complain. GTA Online has a lot of this content. Nobody plays the parachuting missions in 2020. Nobody cares about boring deathmatches in 2020. Yet it is all part of the big, enormous GTA Online buffet. If Rockstar were ever to remove these older, less-wanted bits it would almost instantly receive complaints from angry gamers who hadn’t’ even touched those modes in years.

Over the years the GTA Online community’s acquired a bad reputation, and a lot of it is deserved. I’ve overheard an incredible number of racists, sexists, and dirtbags while playing this game over the years. So many of them are young boys who seem dedicated to being the shittiest people they can be. But I’ve also met cool folks. I’ve pulled off heists with people from all around the world. And the community is always finding new ways to impress and make me laugh. Some of the stunts people pull off are incredible, and the recent alien war is a great example of how the community can come together in positive ways.

Still, Rockstar isn’t doing enough to help keep this community healthy and positive. It is way too easy to harass other players, even without mods or cheats. And while Rockstar does ban players, many have complained to me about being harassed and targeted with no support or punishment from Rockstar. On Xbox 360 and PS3, GTA V and GTA Online have stopped receiving official updates, becoming lawless wastelands filled with powerful hackers and game-breaking mods. At this point, it makes sense to just shut it down on those older platforms and maybe, with the upcoming launch of new versions on PS5 and Xbox Series X, it will do just that.

Fan and community sentiment toward Rockstar has shifted a lot since GTA Online launched. At first, folks were excited about the future of an online Grand Theft Auto game. But while some are still happy, a growing number of fans feel Rockstar is squeezing them for every penny they have. Looking at the rise of in-game prices it isn’t hard to agree. Some recently-added clothing costs more than sports cars released during the first year. But payouts on missions and events haven’t really scaled upward as content’s become more expensive.

This leaves players with two options: Grind for more money to buy all the new toys or buy Shark Cards using real-world money to quickly fill their digital bank. This is the main point of tension between Rockstar and longtime players. Many players feel like Rockstar is making GTA Online more of a grind to earn more money. And the company recently added a casino, too. That only added more fuel to this fire as players could, in theory, use real-world money to buy Shark Cards, and use those to purchase in-game chips to gamble with, a situation so legally iffy the company had to shut off some of these features in countries with stricter gambling laws

In GTA Online’s defense, while prices on items have gone up, a vast majority of the content can be played freely or with very little in-game investment. For example, that new casino is free to enter, provides players with free chips every day, and has a prize wheel they can spin once a day at no cost. On the flip side, if you want to do the new casino heists and don’t have a rich in-game friend, you’ll be shelling out a not-insignificant amount of real-world cash to earn your way to that content. It’s this clash between offering free content and hiding some content behind small or large paywalls that has created a rift between Rockstar and its fans. And as each year passes without a new mainline GTA, and GTA Online updates continue to feature more and more expensive items, it seems this rift will only grow.

Whether you are an angry old player or a newbie jumping in for the first time, you’ll quickly discover that GTA Online’s narrative is a total mess in 2020. When the game launched, Rockstar explained that it was set before the events of GTA V, a game that itself is set around 2012. This all made sense. It worked. But over the years timelines have shifted, and this no longer seems to be the case. Characters will reference 2018 and new songs released after 2012 are now on GTA Online’s radio. Yet meanwhile, characters who died in GTA V, set in 2012, can still interact with your character while you’re busy doing missions supposedly set in 2018 or later.

But none of that really matters anymore. GTA Online has long abandoned the grounded world and narrative it launched with in favor of becoming a giant content platform, where both Rockstar and players can create and share wild game modes and maps. Huge floating race tracks with transforming vehicles and power-ups are some of the most popular things in GTA Online these days, with players creating and uploading their own versions using the in-game creator tools. These tools launched a few months after GTA Online went live, but didn’t become truly popular until the PS4 and Xbox One versions launched.

Now players can create new content for seven game modes and upload them for others to play and enjoy. And they can do all this with little to no involvement from Rockstar Games. The developers sometimes highlight creations they find exciting or fun, but by and large, the community runs and operates this huge chunk of the game themselves. Even if one-day Rockstar stops supporting GTA Online, it will continue to get new content from dedicated creators for years. In a way, Rockstar’s created a giant monster that it couldn’t really kill, even if it wanted to.

While GTA Online continues to grow and grow, both thanks to fans and Rockstar’s official updates, the world and game are starting to strain at the seams. Spending nearly a decade in the same map has started to make things feel… boring. The world feels static, and there’s only so many times I can drive from the desert to the city during a mission before I start to find myself wanting a change of scenery. And even as its file size grows, it’s starting to show its age. This is still, at its core, a 2012 Xbox 360 and PS3 game. While textures have improved and draw distances have increased, based on what Rockstar’s added, it seems there’s only so much it can do.

A lot of the new content uses the same basic gameplay mechanics and systems. New missions often feature old areas repurposed, and many races rely on similar track pieces and map chunks. I get the sense that Rockstar is unable to really shake up the world or game in a big way, lest it break everything in the process. For example, the big and shiny new casino that was added last year is impressive, until you realize it is just an empty facade, with the new content hidden behind multiple, noticeably slow loading screens. It all feels creaky and old, like one-day Rockstar will add one too many cars to the game and the whole thing will collapse like a sandcastle.

In reality, It’s unlikely GTA Online will end in such an embarrassing and wild way, but that leads to the biggest question on my mind as I get ready to play this game on a whole new generation of consoles: How will GTA Online end? As much money as it makes, GTA Online might seem like it will go on forever, but that is just as unlikely as the whole thing collapsing under its own weight. So how and when will it end?

There is always the possibility that GTA Online will move forward with Grand Theft Auto VI. But that seems less likely today then it did back in 2015 or so. Today, GTA Online feels too old and rickety to be carried forward into a future GTA VI. When it does finally depart, I’ll miss GTA Online more than any other game, which is strange to think about. This is a game with a large and often shitty community, with tons of filler and boring content and server issues. But I love it. It’s this weird little world where I always have something to do and when it finally shuts down, I’ll miss it all.

Grand Theft Auto Online is a better game today than it was back in 2012, 2014, or even 2017. In 2020, Grand Theft Auto Online feels both like a dinosaur from a different era, but weirdly, also just as relevant as ever. It was one of the first “games-as-a-service” released all the way back in the last generation. Since its rocky launch, it has become one of the most successful games ever made, and yet no one’s really copied it. I think this is a testament to just how hard it is to make one of these always-online open-world games. The only true clone of GTA Online is Red Dead Online, another game being developed by Rockstar. It seems Rockstar might be the only studio willing, able, or crazy enough to try and make these things.

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