So, where to?
Launched slightly after and quasi-separate to the main GTA V game, GTA Online opens the state of San Andreas up for friends to wreak havoc and progress through the criminal underworld together. GTA V's solo game showcased the amazingly intricate facsimile of Los Angeles that Rockstar have created, but after a few hours online you realise the city is much more vibrant and exciting when you know you’re sharing it with real people in real time. The entire map serves as a kind of lobby where missions, challenges and races can be triggered either by travelling to the map location or accepting invites via your in-game phone. After a brief tutorial where you arrive in Los Santos and are met by Franklin’s buddy Lamar, you’re free to start making your way in the city. Starting with a simple pistol, a plain jumpsuit and a smattering of missions available, more options and items become available as you level up your character and meet other characters from the main game.
For a game based around theft, you might wonder how Rockstar have managed to create a multiplayer experience with a sense of progression and personal achievement, even when microtransactions are available. The answer is while you can steal anything you like, if you want to keep it, you have to earn it. Each of your legally owned vehicles has to be fitted with a tracker at a Los Santos Customs branch, and while they look the other way for run-of-the-mill motors, they straight out refuse to touch any flash autos you half-inch; such luxuries must be purchased above-board with cold hard cash. In addition, if the cops see you cruisin’ in a vehicle that is not yours, they’ll be on you in a red ‘n’ blue flash. Likewise, certain weapons, clothes, hairstyles and other perks are only unlocked once you’ve levelled up, which can only be done by playing the game, not by forking out the readies.
Don't scratch the paintwork.
The character creation method is weird and off-putting; rather than simply allowing you to fashion your character from a blank slate until you have one you’re happy with, the game goes genealogical and has you select from a small list of grandparents, who then determine your parents’ and by proxy your appearance. Why they’ve chosen this method is anyone’s guess, and the ability to select Red Dead Redemption’s John Marsden as your gran-pappy doesn’t make up for the clunky interface.
Due to the nature of the game, most of the set missions are baked in the kill someone / steal something mould, but Rockstar have really gone to the trouble of making them feel distinct, including small narratives for each one and accompanying texts and calls from the support characters like Simeon and Lester. As you level up, the number of favours you can call in from these no-goodniks increases. You can deliver cars on Simeon’s wanted list to him for a bonus, call the goons at Merryweather Security to arrange a helicopter pickup, or ask Lester to post a bounty on another player’s head and watch as everyone instantly turns on them with the promise of a quick payday.
Water way to go.
Individual missions can be assembled en masse to form playlists of your faves to be tackled in a row. There are also plenty of non-violent activities to participate in, such as tennis, golf, parachute jumping and racing, but most people tend to pick the ones which are bookmarked by a hail of bullets. You’ve got many choices in how you earn your green even outside of the actual missions: you can steal and sell cars, rob liquor stores and mini-marts, or straight up kill other players and claim the bounty on their heads. Cautious ballas will want to get to the nearest ATM and deposit their ill-gotten gains safely in their account before they fall afoul of sticky fingers. Those even more timid may wish to avail themselves of the passive mode, where for a small fee you can render yourself invulnerable to harm when on the main map. While it’s engaged you won’t be able to hurt anyone either, but at least you’ll have peace of mind.
If you’re rollin' with a group of friends, GTAO makes it easy to meet up and have fun. Co-op missions really come into their own when you're with your mates, co-ordinating your moves with headsets and laughing uproariously when it all goes wrong. Once you’ve assembled a gang worthy of completing a job, players can vote on which one of six randomly presented missions to tackle next, so play progresses smoothly and democratically. Of course if you’ve had your fill of each other’s company, there’s always the option to return to free mode and find some other reprobates to run with.
Chillin' at my crib.
Crews can be formed with individual tags and emblems to promote your affiliation, and players of the same crew doing missions together get special bonuses. You can invite friends to missions, travel in the same vehicle, or even chill together at your residence. Many locations in the game have apartments or garages that can be purchased, and you’ll want one pronto to safely stash your belongings. Favoured rides can be insured so if a vehicular mishap befalls you and your car gets destroyed or impounded, an exact replica can be returned to you for a much lesser fee.
After a very rocky start laced with server issues, character losses and bad connections, things seem to have mostly stabilised three patches later. Some folk are still having problems though, and in a gesture of goodwill Rockstar will be giving each player five hundred grand of in-game cash to do with as they see fit. There is enough variety in the game types and such a richly detailed world that all manner of hilarity and exhilaration can unfold. Once the intermittent connection kinks have been ironed out, and with Rockstar promising regular additional content, this one could run and run. If you've finished the main game you might think you're done with Los Santos, but Los Santos isn't done with you.