Rockstar’s riotous sandbox comes alive: a first look at GTA Online

GTA Online

A plane flies over Los Santos and we see our avatar’s face gazing through a window at the city below. They are, essentially, the fourth protagonist of Grand Theft Auto V – the mystery silhouette at the bottom of the character switch menu – and Grand Theft Auto Online is where they’ll murder, rob, race, and parachute their way to an ill-gotten fortune with thousands of other players.

You’re greeted at the airport by Lamar, Franklin’s foul-mouthed friend from singleplayer, who hands you a pistol, gives you a brief tour of the city, then enters you into an illegal street race. What follows are a series of straightforward tutorial missions, teaching you the basics of driving, combat, finding jobs, robbing stores, customising your appearance, and making money – but on a live server. If you’re near another player, the game will encourage you to complete the tutorial together.

Then you’re set loose. The map is littered with an overwhelming array of missions, marked with radar blips that you can set a GPS path to. Launch one and you’re given the choice to host a game and invite friends, or join an existing match with random players. These range from familiar deathmatches and races, to more outlandish modes. Our favourite involves one team racing across the countryside on dirt bikes while the other pursues them in fighter jets.

When the round is over, the group is given six more randomly selected missions to choose from. The rich, diverse geography of the world makes for a varied selection of activities. Jet Ski races through wetlands, synchronised BASE jumps over mountain ranges, beach triathlons, and Out Run-style supercar sprints along coastal highways are just a few examples. There’s an astonishing amount of content, all created with tools that Rockstar plan to release in a future update.

In free roam, there are no objectives. Here, players amuse themselves by holding up liquor stores, customising cars, challenging people to drag races, and causing mischief. As enjoyable as the missions are, it’s this anarchic sandbox that defines GTA Online. In singleplayer the world is already impressively reactive and dynamic; with 16 people it’s hilariously chaotic. Explosions erupt around you as you’re dive-bombed by jets; cars screech past with dozens of squealing police cars behind them; players ditch helicopters and parachute to safety as they slam into the ground and explode.

Team up with friends and you can go on Bonnie and Clyde-style robbery sprees, knocking off stores across the city and countryside. One person threatens the clerk and grabs the loot, and the other waits outside in a car, engine revving, ready to peel away as the police arrive on the scene. Of course, with other players around, there’s always the chance that someone’s waiting around the corner to rob you. Handily, money can be banked at ATMs to protect it from would-be muggers.

While the panicked clerk is scooping money from the till into a bag, an ‘intimidation’ meter slowly fills that you can speed up by shouting through your headset. Occasionally they’ll pull out their gun and attack as you flee, or a vigilante NPC will try and stop you. If you’re feeling dramatic, you can use a helicopter as your getaway vehicle, if an opportunistic player doesn’t steal it.

Multiplayer is integrated neatly with singleplayer. If you’re playing the story, online friends can call you through the in-game phone, or send mission invites via text. Online, holding back/select brings up a menu where you can track players, set a GPS marker to the nearest ATM, or share money from jobs with your crew. Host a mission and you’re able to invite everyone in your current session, and most will oblige, meaning you’re rarely short of people to play with.

As well as money, missions earn you reputation points. As you level up, new weapons, clothes, and mission contacts are unlocked. Once you’ve banked a large amount of cash, you’re able to purchase garages to store custom cars and apartments that other players can be invited to. From here you’ll eventually be able to plan lucrative co-op heists, but these have yet to make it into the game. Your character also has stats – stamina, driving, shooting and so on – that gradually improve as you play. Almost everything you do grants RP, which adds a compelling feeling of progress.

With Rockstar planning regular updates, and user created missions on the horizon, GTA Online will continue to evolve and entertain long after the singleplayer game is finished. The only letdown at the moment is that none of the missions have the complexity of the story heists, and that, as we write this, the servers are predictably struggling to cope with demand. Otherwise, it’s a riotous playground which offers an incredible amount of variety.