Is Grand Theft Auto Online worth it? I, for one, do not believe so. To me, it seems like the normally glorious, jam-packed single-player mode Rockstar provides once every three or so years has had, to mangle a phrase, a little too much cosmetic surgery done. It's therefore akin to any ageing Los Santos star: recognisable but somehow subtly and forever tainted.
In an attempt to prove credentials and prevent all out attacks on my position, I should preface all of this with the usual: I'm an avid GTA fan, having only missed the London expansions, #2, Vice City Stories and Chinatown Wars. This is why it frustrates me so to have played the latest game to completion only to be left with an overwhelming sense of "Is that it?"
There are many that would decry this position and point me, hastily towards GTA Online. But IV didn't do enough to make me return time and again to its online world, and whilst I applaud the immediacy of choosing missions from the map in the style of single-player GTA, it still has not revealed itself as truly rich, distinct or captivating. Moreover, there are still those of us who cling to single-player modes out of habit, or because certain gaming franchises have delivered strong single-player experiences without the need for multiplayer. Grand Theft Auto used to be one of them.
Undoubtedly, the three-character structure was a difficult balancing act, and I have no idea the technical nuances required. But it seems like this, coupled with the heists are the only two new tricks Rockstar have to offer after some five years between IV and V. What’s gone wrong?
One could easily point to poor management of my own expectations when it comes to dealing with my disappointment with GTA V, but once a game series sets its own standards, defines its own genre, where Rockstar create and others emulate, it only ever ramps up expectations. I was sorely disappointed upon the announcement of GTA IV being set in Liberty City. “Great!” I blithely assumed. This will be my fourth venture into those same streets! My assumptions were blown apart once I actually started playing IV. It had a fully functioning taxi system I could be a passenger of. Working toll bridges. Police that took issue with others committing crime, not just myself. Internet cafes! Well-developed, if sometimes annoying friendship systems. (Who doesn’t have friends that stop by, irritatingly unannounced?)
So then, once I saw V, I was incredibly excited. GTA: San Andreas had already taken the very solid mechanics and ideas of its two 3D predecessors to a bloated maximum. I hoped, based on trailers, that I would be breaking into military bases, stealing jets to bomb bridges. But this was, sadly, nowhere to be seen in the main story missions.
And it’s the little things, too. (It’s always the little things!) Why is every Cluckin’ Bell shut so I can’t replenish my health easily without a return to safehouses? Speaking of safehouses, why isn’t a bed and garage provided once I start buying properties? Why is the weekly income so meagre? Why are certain properties restricted to individual characters? Why, for the sake of having contacts in a seedy city such as Los Santos, can’t Franklin persuade, nay, force, Los Santos Customs to give Michael and Trevor discounts on their excellent services? How do I bunny hop again? Why are there only four bounty missions from Maude when the previous game had nine assassinations? Why is it that one AmmuNation has a vending machine to replenish my health but the others don’t? What is the point in buying body armour that only gives me a fraction of protection? More to the point, why don’t AmmuNation sell first aid kits?!
Trevor’s “campaign” begins with a bang, quite literally. Soon enough you are blasting apart members of IV’s Lost and Damned motorcycle gang and doing things unpleasant enough to land you in jail for hundreds of years. But then aside from a few happy accidents where I accosted members of the gang on roadsides, little else was mentioned of them. I assumed I had crushed them into dust after the first few missions. Fast-forward to beyond the final mission. I buy the Downtown Taxi Company, exclusive only to Frankin, it would seem. I get a telephone call asking to drive a man to the docks. His niece has been allegedly kidnapped by the Lost and he wants protection. I drive there, watch a short exchange of harsh words between my fare and the gang members, and I am invited to send bullets flying. I do so. I win. But this is all entirely disconnected from the first reveal of the gang in the game world. For the sake of narrative continuity, why not have Franklin telephone Trevor for some more psychotic revenge madness? This is a submission that’s important enough to earn an achievement for on Xbox 360 yet apparently not important enough to actually feature anywhere in connection to the story.
Elsewhere, in the game there are other moments playing as Trevor that should have been climactic and exciting, but are left very much deflated. During one mission, the player takes part in stealing military weapons, with the promise of making an absolute boatload of money in the process, only to be forced to give it back at the end of the mission. This is all done without being paid, and without choice, despite Trevor lining up a Chinese buyer for said weapons. Sorry, Rockstar, but I am feeling like I am being robbed of that trademark GTA anarchism here! Another sore point: no prison breakout mission. Trevor talks animatedly and excitedly about busting out his friend Brad from prison during the game. “Lordy!” I think to myself, “Won’t that be fun?” And yet, here I am at the end of all things, with that potentially explosive mission reduced to an apologetic text message by an FIB agent. I am not a boyfriend or girlfriend you can simply dump by text message, GTA V! This is not good game play, nor good storytelling. Why is it, then, that Rockstar are satisfied with making Trevor an out-and-out psychotic thug as part of his characterisation only to deny him his own starring role in the three-way story?
Time and again it seems as though, in favour of creating a living, breathing world, Rockstar have somehow forgotten the importance of player access and enjoyment. I hope that their inevitable downloadable content and GTA VI stuffs itself to the rafters with content for players to enjoy, story-wise, instead of leaving us wanting.