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GTAO – Day 1

October 2, 2013

I hopped onto GTA V this morning and played GTAO (Grand Theft Auto Online) for a few hours. Overall the experience is entertaining, but hollow-seeming and very frustrating. I will break this down into segments to clarify my comments, since GTAO is structured into discrete segments.

Character Creation – You first start out by making a character, with fairly loose control over what your character looks like via selecting grandparents (which in turn determines how your avatar looks). I’m not sure what the hell the point of all that is – other than to prevent players from making really stupid looking characters by abusing the customization system. You also adjust your starting skills by fiddling with “lifestyle” sliders, which increase and decrease character stats. None of this matters a whole lot, as your starting stats will be shitty no matter what you choose, and the skills actually increase fairly quickly anyway.

After you finish up with your avatar, you begin an unskippable, unpausable intro movie staring one of the most unlikable characters in gaming – Lamar. After the cinema you are brought into a broken match maker, which will either time out or lock up. Then you will need to quit the game and restart, or it will kick you to single player after five minutes of not matching you to anyone. Either way – start up GTAO again, and then you’ll probably get stuck at the same point. Quit the game, then start again, and you’ll race against Lamar by yourself.

The Open World Map – After finishing your first, obligatory race mission, you are dumped out onto the Open World Map (OWM) without any immediate task to complete and no way to join any multiplayer activity, other than being griefed by, or griefing roaming, random players. After a while you will be phoned by Lamar and tasked with a few simple missions, such as stealing drugs from an NPC and holding up a store – during which other newbs will possibly join in, and take all the loot (since it isn’t divided automatically, you have to do some button combo to split the loot), or you can just kill them for the loot – preferably before they kill you.

After a few of these tutorial-ish missions, you’ll unlock most of the other game modes, all of which are INSTANCED. Being instanced, they are completely UNRELATED to the OWM that you were in. This relegates the OWM to a cheap chat lobby, since the OWM is otherwise meaningless. The OWM is NOT persistent, it is NOT unique (unlike what was described in previews), and there’s NOTHING to do there, except to hold up stores, go to mod shops, and carjack new cars – and of course open-world PvP. The open-world PvP is rarely much fun, since players are almost always quite far away and combat is usually pretty short, and often times one sided – with advanced players  grossly outclassing newbs, with armored-plated super cars, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and the like – versus a newb wearing a Corona Tank Top, wielding a BB-gun, and driving his mom’s 1995 VW Jetta. Make no mistake about it, gameplay on the OWM is absolutely ruthless and exists only for you to wander around and get griefed, or to practice your character’s skill. It IS possible to avoid the PvP in the world map by turning on Passive mode, which can be done on the Xbox by hitting Start, then going to the Online tab, scrolling down to Options, and turn on Passive mode. This will keep you from (mostly) being griefed in the Open World Map.

Instanced Jobs – You have three Instanced Job types: deathmatch (including team deathmatch), racing, and “missions”. There are several different ways to access these Jobs, either by receiving a random invite (which is the server’s way of populating multiplayer games automatically), by driving to a location on the OWM, by selecting them from your map menu, or by using your phone. The multiplayer modes are all fairly self-explanatory and only a few surprises. The controls are clunky, the camera is uncooperative, and the action is often imbalanced and frustrating.

The races are exactly what you’d expect – generally uninteresting, laggy affairs, with “catch up” being On by default, so it feels like a match of Mario Kart more than Gran Turismo, with the winner being which ever of the two forerunners bobs ahead of the other at the very last second.

Deathmatch is particularly disappointing, due largely to the poor controls and camera angles. The maps are small and uninteresting. While the action can be intense at times – I never once didn’t ask myself “Why am I not playing Black Ops instead?”, which says a lot about the entertainment quality of deathmatch in GTA V. There are several optional rule changes that the host can pick before the match, which make it more or less like other existing popular games, such as Counter Strike – none of which really add to the experience any.

The “Missions” that I’ve been offered so far have almost always been “capture these cars across the map” types, where players scramble to capture cars from NPCs across the map, then elude police, and return the cars to that shady car dealer downtown. These missions aren’t nearly as exciting as they sound, since they are best done solo, otherwise players end up ramming into each other and wasting a lot of time – when the optimal method is to split up, capture the cars individually, and finish the mission as quickly as possible. Otherwise, I’ve yet to see any other mission type but one: Capture the Flag.

“Capture the Flag” sets two opposing teams against each other to capture a token item (a “Flag”), with roughly equivalent cars and weapons, equidistant from the Flag. They must hop on their cars, drive to the location, fight over the Flag, get it into a car, and drive it to their base. This is an interesting game mode, but it’s hamstringed by how long the matches take and how difficult it is for a trailing team to catch up. Basically, you are taking the package across the OWM map, which takes a long time even without any resistance; and there’s absolutely no way to catch up to an opponent in a car once they have the package. So the best action happens in the first few moments, during the mad, chaotic scramble to get the package and to get into a car. After that, once the Flag is on the road, there is generally no way for the other team to recover it, since respawning always puts players far behind the flag carrier, often facing the wrong direction (!?!?!), with no kind of boosts to give the defending team any kind of chance. So, /after/ those first few exciting moments you’re mostly just driving behind other people, praying they disconnect and run off the road, or you just wait for the match to be over. So the Instanced Jobs just aren’t very entertaining. I have yet to see any of the promised mega missions of helicopters vs infantry, big bank robberies, air/land/sea races and combat missions.

What aggravates the situation are the load times – upwards of a minute and a half, but no less than twenty seconds – going into, and out of matches. At the risk of sounding like a bitchy, impatient, self-entitled Millennial: if the matches are short and unrewarding, I don’t feel that I should have to wait super long to get into them; especially when I have a shelf of unplayed games. In terms of play time versus wait time, It’s like waiting in line for two hours to see a bad movie.

If the loading time between OWM and Jobs wasn’t so asinine, the over-too-quick matches would be more worthwhile. As it is, probably 50% of my time in GTAO has been spent watching lobby menus and loading screens. Thankfully Rockstar has enabled a “vote for your next Job” menu after the completion of each Job, which definitely cuts down on the aforementioned soporific wait times – when it works. However the major problem with this feature is that in my experience the most players will drop out after the match is finished, so you’ll either be waiting for a while to fill the lobby again, or you’ll end up in a match of 3 players. It’s still quicker than going back to the OWM and back into a Job, but not by much.

In Conclusion – I really didn’t have very much fun with Grand Theft Auto Online. In fact, that’s basically a quick summary of IGN’s recent review. It just seems like a bad game, honestly. It’s poorly balanced, the load times are insane, the bugs are innumerable, the people I played with were (mostly) complete fucking assholes. In the end, it felt more punishing than entertaining, and I don’t play those kinds of games. I won’t be playing again, other than if a CLOSE, real life friend asks me to join him on a mission. Otherwise I’ll stick to CoD:BO and TF2 for multiplayer. Two thumbs down.

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