Review: Grand Theft Auto V Online

There's a lot of fun to be had in Grand Theft Auto V Online, but it's fun that gets greatly diminished by the fuss of getting there.  This is a game whose loading times are desperately in need of an in-flight movie, and the matchmaking is very poor, so you can often be put in situations where you wait minutes to get into the game just to get kicked out again because you lost connection.  The heists - its much touted feature - are a disappointing wash that gets completely crippled by that matchmaking, but the other modes, and much of the overworld stuff, is fun, if utterly unstructured.  Your tolerance for the loading times and the matchmaking will largely determine how much fun you have with GTA V Online.
Review: Grand Theft Auto V Online
Date published: May 30, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: Since this game is fundamentally different in its single-player and online multi-player components we are reviewing the two separately; this is the multi-player review.  Maiyannah's copy of this game was gifted to her free of charge as a gift by a friend.

Grand Theft Auto V Online is a the multi-player version of the sprawling sandbox of Grand Theft Auto V, developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games.  The problem with Grand Theft Auto games has always been a lack of connective tissue to properly structure the missions, and GTA 5 both online and offline is no exception to that rule.  It's a fun series of mini-games more than anything else, but for every really fun moment I had in GTA 5 Online there was at least five minutes waiting to load.   There's much more to GTA 5 Online than loading times though, so let's dig into this, shall we?

Aside: I read over this after the fact, to edit it, and I realise that I came off sounding very down on GTA V in a way that may make you wonder: why isn't this a "Not Recommended" review?  At the heart of it, GTA V Online is pretty fun, which you get past the problems - in particular getting a good team for a heist can be fun, but even just the faffing around, with a good friend, can be a right ball.  The problem is that the road to getting there can be so arduous sometimes that I can't in good faith recommend it, as I know a lot of people would be pissed off by the long load times and poor match-making, amidst other, much more forgiveable flaws.

GTA V Online has a lot of character customisation,
but its system for doing so is clunky to say the very least

Here's the thing with the character customisation, right: it has your usual selection of sliders and colour selections, makes a character that looks pretty realistic (compared to many games), and has a decent amount of outfits to put them in, even if that selection is but a subset of what's available in the game since clothing is one of the primary things behind arbitrary level barriers.  In any case, while that's all right and good, those sliders are but the fine details.  Whereas more sane games would simply have you select a sex, age, and nationality, GTA 5 Online has this strange alchemy thing where you choose your "parents" as male and female pairings out of your favourite GTA slash fics.  It comes off as the series being masturbatory to me, and complicates character customisation more than it has to be.  So now to try to find the right base look you're stuck playing with various pairings, and I ended up just saying, "right, that's close enough to what I want" rather than being truly happy about it.  It's a strange thing, since the system is otherwise pretty detailed, and as I said, seems to come mostly for self-congratulatory, fan-service reasons rather than being in service of the actual game-play.  It's not the hugest thing in the world, but it was an irritation, especially since character customisation is such a draw to me of these kind of games - anyone who knows me well can tell you I enjoy creating my own characters and attached stories.  It's almost as if I enjoy role-playing in it's truest form.

The level-banding barricades off a lot of the fun content,
holding it hostage for the ransom of bunch of faffing around

I'm rapidly coming to the opinion that while Saint Row's respect mechanic was a bit iffy, it's much better than the level banding present here and in many other MMOs.  It seems like lazy game design in most of its actual applications, unfortunately.  In theory, a level band is a highly-crafted experience which is used to control the difficulty curve of a game to keep it within a reasonable level and prevent players from getting overly frustrated.  In GTA V Online's case, as with many MMOs, it's mostly used to wall off content until you complete an arbitrary amount of bullshit grinding to get there.  It's padding, is what it is, artificially lengthening the game-time like my spam mail folder thinks my non-existent penis should be.

Secondary to this problem and exacerbating it quite a bit is the fact that a lot of the early content is pretty bloody boring.  You can play death-matches - which with GTA V's fairly mediocre gun-play mechanics combined with the fact you'll usually get match-made with players of much higher level with weapons and armour far superior to yours is just not fun, races which are kind of fun when you don't get similarly match-made provided you get a good course - the selection there is pretty vague though, or car-jacking missions, which were my bread and butter because it's the quintessentially Grand Theft Auto experience (it's in the name) but those could run on a really long time if you didn't get them quickly, especially at the lower levels where these are super-cars pitted against your normal car you got in the tutorial missions.

he GTA V Online engine looks decent but it’s hardly next-gen, and very buggy - The graphics engine of GTA V Online has been much-lauded as the first true next-gen engine, and just as WATCH_DOGS and Unity, the claim falls flat  GTA isn't a bad-looking game - at least not on decent settings, the low settings make it start resembling Vice City -  but it’s full of bad and blocky textures, and plenty of bugs, such as the one pictured, where the “broken glass” decal for the windscreen bugged out and turned into one big hot mess of reflection.  And that’s only one such bug.  Texture pop-in is particularly bad in some places, some of which one can understand - little-seen places are hardly any big loss when it comes to that - but when you’re playing a GTA game, the road isn't one of them, and the worse pop in is in the road lines decals, which is one of those things that might not bother you if you don’t notice it, but one you see it, it cannot be unseen.  It’s not a bad engine, by any means, beyond the bugs, but it also is hardly the next-gen hyper-realism it was promised to be either.  Not with those jaggies.

Los Santos is a huge sandbox, and a realistic-seeming one,
but that banding does it a disservice by making it seem empty

Since many of the fun mission types are a good few hours in, the other effect here is that when you first play Grand Theft Auto V Online, the game world seems really empty.  No doubt this is why the game by default has some random knob call your cellphone every 10-15 minutes if you aren't on a mission to give you one, because there's little to find out in that over-world at first.  (Incidentally, you can't turn off that phone as you could in GTA 4, so get used to being pestered relentlessly if you are just faffing about with your friends as I often was.)  There are, at start, probably about 15 missions you can play.  This is by no means little, but it seems like it, when they're stretched across a sandbox the size of a United States county, some good few miles across, and honestly, it makes the sandbox seem oversized.  The fact that when I played in public games the players all gravitated towards one section also was a bit of a testament to that.  In this way GTA V Online seems to be wanting to have it's cake and eat it too - or rather, it wants to have the kind of large sprawling sandbox of something like Just Cause 2 (this is nowhere as big as JC2 though), while not really filling it with much to do.

The problem is that there is a lot to do - it's just locked behind that level-banding, and part of why I say that is such a fundamental design flaw in the game.  The sandbox is only as fun as the stuff you have to do in it, and while (in inevitable comparison) Saints Row allows you to do pretty much everything out of the gate after you're done the tutorial missions and encourages you to randomly faff around not by constantly pestering you but instead by making the random faffing around fun.  You can just drive up to random groups of enemy gang members and mow them down (be it the mob activities or just in general) and just driving in skilful ways gets you some small measure of respect.  GTA V Online on the other hand holds them for ransom, requiring incremental amounts of play time.  Whereas the level-banding of old was essentially a drip-feed of difficulty, somewhere along the line that was inverted to create a drip-feed of fun, in the pursuit of a higher "game play-time" metric, and I can't say the game is better off for it.  In fact, it's probably one of GTA V Online's chief design flaws.  In such a large world, you need content to fill it, and the act of walling it off in such a way, is to the detriment of the game experience.

When the game finally opens up and lets you have more,
those missions are actually for the most part pretty fun

That's probably both a somewhat redeeming factor and the cherry on top of the shit sundae that is the level-banding's aggressiveness - a lot of the content in both missions and unlocked clothing is pretty brilliant, as well as the better vehicles you can pick up with the money, and houses and the like.  When it finally does give a resigned sigh and hand over the keys to the fun train it's all aboard, first stop fun central.  While the aircraft controls are shaky at best, there's a lot of fun to be had in parachuting about, driving a tank around town, and other utterly-ridiculous things.  The costumes become better, the armour and weapons handle better, you can take on more of the game, and the missions become downright fun in more than a few instances.

This is the core GTA V Online experience, and while I'm all making people work for the best stuff, having to work just to unlock certain activities does it little good.  I don't want to just race around, GTA V Online, I have GRID 2 for that.  No, I want to chase someone downtown in a fire-truck while the entire police department tries and fails to catch me because their AI is just a little shit, and that's just the tip of the iceberg really.  Until it started getting unstable and crashing I was having a lot of fun with my partner doing the survival missions, which were basic sort of king of the hill thing, but a lot of fun in their ridiculousness, especially in some of the scenario.  I particularly liked the no doubt Trevor (from single-player) inspired mission where you were essentially holding off waves of gun-wielding hill-billies.  Though there is definitely very little correlation between the time it took to do some of these missions and the payout.  One chase mission to repo a car that took 20 minutes paid less than a couple rounds of survival in their about 3 minute duration.

Moments like that were definitely what people see in Grand Theft Auto, and make no mistake, I can really appreciate them myself, but there's two other bugbears to vanquish on the way.

The poor match-making service and long loading times
makes getting together with people online a real chore

These are the two terrible twins, the locus of most people's complaints with Grand Theft Auto V, and they're very valid ones: the match-making service is, at its best, sub-par, and the loading times are a right arse.

The biggest problem with the match-making service is its lack of granularity, especially in a heavily-level banded game.  You can invite publicly, friends-only, crew-only (guilds or clans basically), or on an individual basis - and that's it.  So what if, just by way of example, I'm a level 5 scrub-lord who would prefer to only play death-match with other scrub-lords?  Well tough shit princess, we're going to pair you with this group of level 40 players because you had the audacity to put the mission to public.  This even happened in one of the opening tutorial missions I was in, which would have been utterly hilarious if I wasn't pissed off because you had to complete the mission to progress.

That lack of level-band selection would be annoying enough, but the other problem is connectivity.  Often-times I would join a mission just to be kicked out to a public session (even if I was originally in a friends-only or crew-only one!) if the friend crashed or disconnected, both of which happened enough to have me saying the words "oh fuck this game" upon more than one occasion, to say nothing of the occasional times I'd be forced to try to complete a four-person mission because someone dropped out.  Once you're out, you're out, you can't even attempt to get back into the same mission you were in before - oh, you can get in, but you're forced to just spectate, and so more than once I or a companion were forced to try to do a group mission solo, because you get flagged as a "bad sport" if you quit a mission in progress.

"Bad sport" as a mechanic (as well as the "good sport" rewards) is in theory a decent thing - you want to disincentivise people from being dicks and just dumping out of a game to leave others holding the bag - so why in the Hells would the game punish you for not wanting to be left holding the bag?  That's the problem with it - it's indiscriminate.  You get called a "bad sport" for crashing.  That's right - crash out of a heist (and you will at least once, gauranteed) and you get to deal with a malus because of the game's instability.

All of those are bad, but combined together, and with the absolutely monumental loading times, there was a frustration level to the point where I couldn't recommend Grand Theft Auto V Online.  It's by no means a bad game, it's even a fun game when it gets going, but it takes so long to get there, what with some loading times literally measured in minutes (the worst was 10 bleeding minutes, no really, 10 minutes) it takes so much to get going it's a chore to get there.  For some people, it will be a chore worth going through, and for my part, I felt it was, but I don't understand the "10 - Masterpiece" rating IGN quite hilariously gave the game, along with many others.  It's a good game, but it is far from perfect

The Final Word: Neutral - I'm a bit of a dissenting opinion when it comes to GTA, and GTA 5 Online is no exception.  While the activities provided are fun, it's an ultimately unstructured sandbox with badly-banded level progression and a parade of insufferable twats you're forced to do jobs for. Many of the missions are a lot of fun if you can get into them but the loading times are long enough to need an in-flight movie and the match-making is abysmal.  One for the sale pile, if you're interested.