More open than GTA V
Although Rockstar has quite a bit of basic multiplayer experience with Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, it has never tackled something quite as ambitious as Grand Theft Auto Online. As a result, millions of players have experienced hangups time and time again, as they wrestle connection issues in attempting to play Rockstar's first grand online experiment.
Possibly due to a sheer stroke of luck, I was able to get into Rockstar's latest venture for hours on end, and found that once you make your way past some incredibly questionable presentation design, there's a ton of fun to be had in a multiplayer-centric version of Los Santos.
Grand Theft Auto Online (PS3, Xbox 360 [tested])
First things first -- there have been a lot of connection issues plaguing GTA Online. Not only are some people saying that they can't get into the thing, but others also have been reporting that random pieces of their story save have been deleted -- or in some cases, the file is corrupted entirely. So if you really want to try to log into GTA Online anytime soon, be sure to back up your save file. There's also a massive design flaw that prevents players from completing the first mission, which I'll get to momentarily.
Now, I've been around the block and have seen many online game launches throughout my lifetime, dating back as early as Ultima Online in 1997. GTA Online isn't the best launch ever, but it's far from the worst, considering some 15 million copies are out in the wild. Be patient, because Rockstar will sort out the issues sooner than later, not to mention the fact that the initial rush of millions of users attempting to login at once will naturally plateau.
But the poor presentation doesn't stop at connection issues, as your first experience with GTA Online will most likely will be a confusing one. There's just no way around it -- the character creation tool is utterly terrible. With such an ambitious game like GTA Online, you'd expect a decent amount of customization options to be available, to create your perfect online avatar that you can enjoy for weeks on end.
Instead of offering up a wealth of tools like Saints Row IV or other open-world games, Rockstar thought it would be a good idea to choose your maternal and paternal grandparents, then slightly tweak that result into the character you want. There's another major hangup -- instead of choosing your stats that will govern the way you want to play, you manage oddball time slots like "How much time do you spend asleep?" or "How much time to do you spend doing legal work?"
All of these questions somehow mix together into a mystery equation that changes your clothes and appearance, even if you've fine tuned it the way you wanted to in the cosmetic menus. Your character will also be mute, which may bother some of you. Personally? I think it's a nice throwback to Grand Theft Auto III, even if it was actually due to technical limitations.
To be blunt, it's a complete mess. I know for a fact that many people won't choose to proceed past this point given how important a good avatar creation system is. In my case I was only marginally okay with my creation, so I basically used this opportunity to get a face covering as soon as possible. Now my character looks like Batman's Black Mask, and everything is totally cool.
Once all of that is said and done, you'll get a mini narrative that involves you getting picked up from the airport by Lamar -- Franklin's friend, from the main story of GTA V. Considering GTA Online takes place two months before the events of the core game the connections aren't anything mind-blowing, but I really appreciated that even minor characters were a part of the mode, and Los Santos is as vibrant as ever. But first you have to get past the "blue ring of death."
In order to star the very first mission in the game, you are forced to walk into a mission objective ring and race Lamar. But rather than start a solo instanced version of the race to acclimate you to the game, Rockstar decided to have you search for other players and connect you to the core servers, leaving many people locked out entirely as they endlessly attempt to connect.
First off, starting the game with a race is one of the worst ideas I've seen from Rockstar -- not to mention the fact that you can't dive into it without connecting to a fully fledged online session. It's a crazy choice, and like the character editor, it will most likely push some people away -- but I urge you to keep going, because it's completely worth it.
Despite all of that nonsense that takes up the first 30 minutes or so of your experience, Grand Theft Auto Online ramps up very quickly into one of my favorite online experiences in recent memory. After doing a few more (fun) missions, I started to create my own stories. How many stories, you might ask? Well, within the confines of a two-hour session, I can probably think of at least five or six.
Like the time I interrupted a random player's crime spree only to get caught up in it, chase him down for five minutes straight in a high-speed chase with helicopters in tow, kill him, and take his spoils for my own. Or the time I played a multiplayer free-for-all mission that tasks you with obtaining an objective and driving it to a garage, only to be ran over at the last possible second before I was able to deliver the goods, prolonging the match for another 15 minutes.
Or the time I was involved in a particularly tense shootout, where myself and one other partner beat a full team of six in Last Man Standing (one life team deathmatch). I'll also never forget one robbery gone wrong, where I got into a three way shootout with the cashier and my online partner who tried to leave me for dead.
In GTA Online, you're free to play the way you want to, and you earn experience to rank up to the next level for practically everything. If you aren't keen on interacting with other players and essentially just want to play a separate solo story, turn on "passive mode" (which makes you impervious to other players), and cruise around looking for missions alone.
Is racing your favorite part of the game? Feel free to just choose race sessions, or start impromptu races in Los Santos. If you want to play just team deathmatch maps and other competitive modes like an online shooter similar to what you did in Max Payne 3, you can do that. Alternatively, you can opt to simply do co-op missions with friends, join a Crew (Guild), and just go around looking for trouble while you're all riding in the same car.
Despite the wealth of content that's available in theory, not everything is live in GTA Online. For instance, the content creator, arguably the biggest part of the experience, isn't live. Bank Cards (microtransactions) haven't really been working in the past 24 hours. Heists, one of the other big draws of GTA Online aren't live yet, and are reportedly coming in the next few weeks, as are other free content packs.
Once more of this content goes live, I have a feeling Grand Theft Auto Online will really hit its stride, because as of right now, I'm already heartily enjoying it. Stay tuned for our full review soon once I've tackled even more of what the game has to offer -- because even without all of the planned updates, it's still more robust than the vast majority of online games out right now.